I just got back from an exciting TravelCon II in Las Vegas where I met a lot of awesome people in the travel hacking hobby and learned some awesome tips for earning even more miles. During Scott’s (of Travel Codex) presentation on everything Alaska Airlines, someone asked about having difficulty finding Fiji Airways award space. As luck would have it, I had just finished booking the flights for our Fiji honeymoon in which I was able to find business class both ways and even work in a stopover! We started planning our wedding just under a year ago and I of course instantly started thinking about how to book an amazing honeymoon for a fraction of the cost. I’ll walk through my thought process on picking the destination, checking flight options, and finally booking the flights.
The Destination – Fiji + A Stopover
From the very beginning, I knew I wanted the honeymoon to be somewhere warm and exotic where we could spend a good majority of the trip relaxing on the beach. Unfortunately, that type of vacation can be booked an enormous number of places in a million different ways, so I needed to narrow it down. The second thought was picking somewhere that our out of pocket cost would be extremely low given the amount of money we’re likely to spend on the wedding itself. Luckily, miles and points earned from credit card bonuses will be able to reduce the cost of the trip significantly while still keeping the quality top notch. I started looking at some of the super exotic locations like the Maldives and Bora Bora, but ended up settling on Fiji because it’s a little easier to get to and award availability for the hotels is typically wide open.
At the time, my 2 largest airline point balances were American and Alaska. I had ~60k American Airline miles from the US Airways card signup bonus and the 1.5x spending bonus they had not long after it was converted to the Aviator card. The ~55k Alaska miles were from a few credit card signup bonuses. My aspiration was Business Class because I had some time to accumulate more miles, but didn’t want to go too far out of my way to bring the balances high enough for First (plus First availability is almost non-existent both to and from Fiji based on what I’ve read).
With that in mind, I check the award charts for both American and Alaska and determined I would need 125k American miles in addition to 110k Alaska miles to book business class for both of us. Using each program’s miles for one direction of the trip would make earning the total balances required much easier (as opposed to earning the total trip in just one currency).
One of the amazing benefits of Alaska miles is free stopovers on one-way trips. This means in addition to getting to or from Fiji, we could also add another stop in for no extra charge! Given the geographical location of Fiji, Australia and New Zealand became very interesting opportunities. We were thinking 2-3 weeks for the total trip and wanted to spend the majority of the time in Fiji, so we settled on trying to add a few days in New Zealand to the overall trip.
Topping Off The Miles Balances
For American Airlines, I signed up for the Citi Platinum Select card with a 50k signup bonus (+3k for spend), got the Dining Rewards 2k bonus, did the random promotion for a free 1k miles, and purchased through their shopping portal to finish off the 125k total we required. All of this took place in a single American Airlines account.
For Alaska, I signed up for an additional Alaska credit card for 25k, opened a BoA checking account for another 25k, and added a few additional shopping portal purchases in to finish it off. Once again, we stuck to earning in just one account.
In summary, 200k of the required 235k miles came from signup bonuses, while the other 35k came from spending requirements and other smaller promotions. If more miles were needed, additional signup bonuses were available for each of the two programs because Alaska cards are churnable within reason and American has numerous different credit card products to choose from.
Figuring Out The Flight Options
After earning all of the miles required for the flights, I started looking a lot closer at what the best way to book the flights would be. The trip was still over 11 months away, so nothing was bookable yet. I did look at some options earlier, but if the trip was closer, I would have looked at the booking availability in parallel to earning the miles.
At this point, we had a goal of spending about 2 weeks in Fiji and adding a few days in New Zealand on either side of that. I knew the stopover would be the trickiest to book simply because Business availability both to and from the South Pacific isn’t readily available and the Alaska stopover booking would have an extra destination.
Fiji Airways was the obvious choice for the Fiji legs and luckily they partner with both Alaska and American. There is a catch though, Fiji Airways availability will NOT show up on American’s website and you must call in to book. Fiji Airways availability IS available on Alaska’s website though, so you can check there and then proceed to book with either program.
More than 11 months out, I started checking Fiji Airways availability to see what it looked like via the Alaska Airlines website. We had a lot of different routing options because of the stopover, so I started looking at availability for a lot of different individual legs (NAN=Fiji, AKL=New Zealand):
I found that some of these legs had a small amount of scattered Business availability, while other legs had almost none at all.
Searching For The Flight Availability
Our goal was to travel in August because of our late-July wedding, so I was hopeful that we would be able to find availability that worked for us. I discovered the Fiji availability for all classes appeared to open up on a weekly basis for travel about 10 months away. I would periodically check availability in an attempt to figure out exactly when it opened up and what days would be available, and when June/July got to the point that availability should be opening up, there was simply nothing. There wasn’t even any availability in economy!
I was worried a little at that point, but continued to periodically check the website and hope August would open up anyway. Luckily around the 10-month mark, a few days opened up in August and I was able to start putting legs together. SEA->AKL->NAN, SEA->NAN->AKL, NAN->AKL->SEA, and AKL->NAN->SEA were all stopover possibilities that I was checking for with the only requirement being 2-5 days in AKL or 10-15 days in NAN.
The one that finally worked out was AKL->NAN(->LAX)->SEA, with the first two legs being on Fiji Airways and the final leg being on Alaska. The Business Class availability of AKL->NAN and NAN->SEA was 12 days apart and fit perfectly into our plans, so I jumped on booking it without even really looking at the SEA->AKL leg. Having previously checked it, I knew finding economy availability wouldn’t be too hard as a last resort, so I was confident in booking the way home first.
Booking a stopover on Alaska is fairly straightforward, you simply have to choose the “Multi-city” option in the search and type in the two separate legs with the desired dates. Using Multi-city to search availability is going to be extremely difficult, so I suggest searching the legs separately via the One-way search and then using Multi-city once you’re ready to book:
The availability I had found previously for each leg properly combined and priced out, so I was able to book the whole thing without calling anyone. The total cost was 110,000 Alaska miles and $320.60 for the taxes and fees. The breakdown includes Fiji, New Zealand, and US fees as well as a $25 partner booking fee charged by Alaska.
This may seem like a decent amount for a “free” award ticket, but there’s simply no way around these fees for these particular destinations. Even booking a normal ticket with cash would have these included (minus the $25 Alaska booking fee). Compared to the normal price of tickets though, $320 is nothing! The cheapest cash flight (in economy class, which is what we would have booked without miles) when I booked was $2,080! Business class was almost $4,000!
One interesting note, is that only Alaska Airlines economy class would show up in conjunction with the Fiji Airways business class when booking the award. This is probably due to the domestic leg only having two classes (no Business). I went ahead with booking the flight anyway and got confirmed into economy. A couple weeks later, with no intervention from myself, Alaska sent another email that had re-booked us into First for the domestic leg. I don’t know if this is the standard process or not, but it’s something to keep in mind when booking international trips with domestic legs.
The only thing left at this point was to find a flight to New Zealand.
Learnings on Fiji Airways Availability
Based on my experience trying to book award flights with Fiji Airways through their partners, it’s highly dependent on the time of year you look. You can pretty much forget about booking anything in June or July, and availability will be tight on either side of that as well. On the other hand, I can see a TON of availability both to and from Fiji on Fiji Airways for September of 2016. For your best results, I recommend being ready to book 10-11 months away from your planned dates and check daily because it does seem to open and close sporadically.
Closing Out The Flights – Seattle to New Zealand
Once I had the tougher stopover flight booked and confirmed in business class, the only thing left was to find some availability to New Zealand with American miles. We were still flexible on the New Zealand timing and would be happy with anywhere from 2 to 5 days there before catching the flight to Fiji we had already booked.
I checked the availability from SEA->AKL right away via American’s website, but there was no business class to be found. There was however lots of economy space for several different days that fit our schedule, so I chose to keep checking rather than book our fallback plan of economy class right away.
My routine for checking was to just plug in SEA->AKL with miles to the American search engine once a day during my lunch break at work.
Fiji Airways doesn’t fly to Auckland from the US, so the American search would work just fine. Most likely, the flight would be on Qantas and have a layover somewhere in Australia. Day after day, the search resulted in plenty of Economy availability with no Business availability to speak of. The economy availability kept me from worrying and I just plugged away with checking daily.
One day, approximately 3 weeks after I had booked the return flight with Alaska miles, the blue “Business/First MileSAAver” finally lit up during the search! The available day left us 4-days in New Zealand which fit perfectly with our schedule. Oddly enough, there happens to be 2 seats available on a different day at the time I’m writing this post:
This leg was much cheaper out of pocket, with the cost being only $36.20 for the pair of tickets in addition to 125,000 American miles. Comparable cash flights in economy were pricing out to $1,744 when I booked (business class was pricing out at over $6,000)! These types of bookings make the effort put towards earning all the miles way more than worth it.
This leg even booked us straight into First class on the domestic leg which happens to be Alaska Airlines again oddly enough.
Honeymoon Flights Complete
Overall, I’m extremely happy with the award flights I was able to find for our honeymoon. I knew getting business class to and from the South Pacific wouldn’t be easy, especially with the stopover, but at the end of the day, we were able to find dates that worked great for us.
Final Booking Results:
- SEA->LAX->BNE->AKL(4 days in New Zealand)->NAN(12 day stopover in Fiji)->LAX->SEA
- SEA->LAX and LAX->SEA are in domestic First, with the other legs booked in international Business
- Carriers are Alaska->Qantas->Qantas->Fiji->Fiji->Alaska
- Total cost was 110k Alaska miles, 125k American miles, and $356.80
This will be both of our first ever experience flying a premium cabin internationally (we got a semi-lucky upgrade once on a 4-hour domestic flight, otherwise this would be the first of any kind), and I can’t think of a better time to do it than our honeymoon.
The only thing left to do now is book the hotels, but I’ll save that for a different post.