Friend Visits Asia for $292, Flies $16,807 First Class Without Knowing It

Eric Flight Routes

Email subject line: Life Change

“No, I’m not gay. Or Christian. Or Republican. But I am unemployed….”

In a sober yet serene tone my childhood friend Eric explained that he had unexpectedly lost his job.

With his newfound free time he was open to “an international trip if I can keep expenses down.”
After adventures together in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Canada I knew he was serious.

Immediately, I invited him to Asia.

Ten days later, he was en route to Japan (his dream destination), the Micronesian countries of Palau and Yap (tiny islands we knew nothing about), and Hong Kong (because…dim sum).

Retail price of these flights: $20,816.95.

Such is the spontaneous power of frequent flyer miles….

Flights to 5 Countries for 127K Miles + $291.50

In chronologial order of Eric’s travel dates I’ll outline:

  • How much flights cost without miles/points
  • NOTE: I was in such a rush to book Eric’s award tickets that I forgot to take screenshots of the same flights’ paid equivalents. This is a shame because the last-minute paid prices must have been astronomical. For price comparison purposes, I’ve screenshotted the same flights on the same days but four months from now. Instead of Eric’s travel dates in Apr/May I’ve replicated them in Aug/Sept.

  • How much the same flights cost with miles/points
  • Commentary on why I choose each flight
  • Final breakdowns of miles/points versus retail costs
  • How many credit cards were required for this trip?

(An aside: I’ll refer to frequent flyer miles and hotel points as simply, miles/points. Prices are in US dollars).

April 25th, 2015

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

Flight: Boston, USA (BOS) to Tokyo, Japan (NRT) – Japan Airlines

PAID BOS to NAR

Flight Cost at Retail: $1,369

AWARD BOS-NAR

Flight Cost with Miles: Segment of 92K American Airlines AAdvantage + $169.60

Flight Summary: This flight’s cost with miles should be $94.60…but American Airlines charges a $75 ‘fee’ for booking award tickets within 21 days of departure. Annoying. Though Eric lives in Norfolk, Virginia, he departed from Boston because he had already booked a flight there to visit another friend. Initially I started searching for award availability out of New York, but then remembered that OneWorld partner Japan Airlines flies direct from Boston to Tokyo. That’s an incredible distance for only 25K AAdvantage miles in Economy. Half of a credit card sign-up (or a $1 purchase on Bank of America’s 25K Alaska Airlines credit card). On his departure date there were four business class seats available, for 50K each. An angled bed? What the wasabi, Japanese designers? It would have been nice to kickstart Eric’s trip with a Business Class bed, but I couldn’t justify double miles for a garbage product. These were my miles, not his, afterall.

Sushi breakfast in Tokyo

Non-miles-related aside: Eric blemished his college GPA with four semesters of below-average grades in his Japanese language classes. He’s a smart guy…but Japanese is harrrddddd. Like, alien squiggly lines hard. Why study Japanese then? Because one day he had planned to visit the country to flirt with adorable Japanese waitresses while eating mouth-melting sushi. I’m happy to have helped him experience the country for the first time, even if it was a grey-haired man who served him this bowl of fresh fish.

April 27th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 8.29.54 PM

Flight: Tokyo, Japan (NRT) to Koror, Palau (KOR) – United Airlines

PAID MICRONESIA Tokyo to Koror

Flight Cost at Retail: $2,079.40

AWARD Micronesia Tokyo to Koror

Flight Cost with Miles: Segment of 35,000 United MileagePlus miles + $121.90

Flight Summary: It was easy to book Eric on my exact same flights (here’s my Micronesia trip report). My guess is that few people redeem miles in this area of the world. Think about it: Americans, thanks to the overly generous credit card sign-up bonuses available to us, are at an advantage when booking award tickets that originate abroad. The Japanese/Palauans/Yapese cannot book these same award tickets because they don’t have the miles. They’d have to fly an absurd amount of miles on United to earn what I earn with a few clicks. They don’t have access to the United credit card (or transferable Ultimate Rewards points).

They must pay.

Americans can fly for almost free—a privilege that should not exist but does!

Huge frequent flyer mile and hotel point sign-up bonuses are unique to the United States.

Other nationalities wish this system existed in their countries. I’ve met non-Americans who saved for years to pay for a single international flight. When asked why more Americans don’t leverage miles, I never know how to respond. Most Americans don’t understand how lucrative credit card sign-up bonuses are.

Jelly Fish Lake, Palau

Non-mile-related aside: That’s millions, not billions of stingless jellies. Still, everywhere you pointed your mask, there they were, blobbing about in evolutionary splendor. It was other-worldly to swim amongst them. Diving in the France-sized shark santuary was also world-class. For the first time, I saw black- and white-tipped reef sharks, some from only feet away as they swarmed schools of large fish. On this trip I finally understood that sharks are a harmless (to humans) part of the ecosystem. Beautiful big animals.

May 3rd, 2015

Yap, Micronesia

Flight: Koror, Palau (ROR) to Colonia, Yap (YAP) – United Airlines

PAID MICRONESIA ROR to YAP

Flight Cost at Retail: $2,079.40

AWARD Micronesia KOR to YAP

Flight Cost with Miles: Segment of 35,000 United MileagePlus miles + $121.90

Flight Summary: Not much to say about this flight except that it’s inconvenient to depart at 1am and arrive at 3am (routes are scheduled this way for international connections). Of all my recent travels, I was most excited for Yap. Words like ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ were opium to my backpacker brain. And it’s true, within Micronesia, Yap has best blended its former tribal customs with the restlessness of the modern world. Older women enter offices topless—yes, it takes you by surprise—, teeth are proudly betelnut-stained, front lawns display ancient stone money, and slow is the official speed limit on roads throughout the country. Wifi barely works…and nobody cares. Come to think of it, nobody was concerned or worried about anything. Yap is the embodiment of every feel-good reggae song you’ve ever heard.

Colonia, Yap

We so enjoyed doing nothing in particuar in Yap that we were only mildy irritated when Typhoon Noul pushed back our departure by three days. Oceania Hotel in Colonia was most responsible for our happiness. American Jen, the charming owner, and Filipino JR, the master chef, will treat you like old friends. We felt more like house guests than hotel patrons. Follow Jen on Instagram: @oceania_hotel and @13scouts

May 6th, 2015

Guam

Flight: Colonia, Yap (YAP) to Guam (GUM) – United Airlines

Flight Summary: Guam felt overly shiny after the organic-ness of Yap. Chain stores, brand names. It’s basically a little strip of Florida in the Pacific. This was my second visit as I had also rented a car during my first 16-hour layover en route to Palau. Two visits is enough.

In a coffeeshop I helped Eric apply for five new credit cards.

In less than 30 minutes, he had been approved for 160K miles in sign-up bonuses.

Once he completes the minimum spend requirements he’ll have more than repaid me the miles for this entire trip, with miles to spare. For years I had been telling him to take advantage of sign-up bonuses, but it wasn’t until he actually flew for almost free that he understood the value.

And this was before experiencing First Class Cathay Pacific….

April 26th, 2015

Hong Kong Island

Flight: Guam (GUM) to Hong Kong (HKG) – United Airlines

PAID MICRONESIA YAP to HKG

Flight Cost at Retail: $2,079.40

MILES-GUM-ROR

Flight Cost with Miles: Segment of 35,000 United MileagePlus miles + $121.90

Flight Summary: An average flight, another new country for Eric.

May 3rd, 2015

Eric in First Class Lounge

Flight: Hong Kong (HKG) to New York City, US (JFK) – Cathay Pacific

PAID HKG-JFK

Flight Cost at Retail: $16,807.55!

AWARD HKG-JFK

Flight Cost with Miles: Segment of 92K American Airlines AAdvantage + $169.60

Flight Summary: Cathay Pacific First Class for 67K miles is the best redemption to and from Asia.

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In fact, the value-to-miles ratio is so disproportionate that it will soon become more difficult to book.

Originally I booked Eric in Business for 55K AAdvantage from Hong Kong (HKG) to Norfolk (ORF) via New York (JFK)…even though the longhaul segment from Hong Kong to New York was in Economy. Huh? I was forced to pay the higher 55K Business award because the only seat available between JFK and ORF was in First. Huh?! With AA, paying international Business allows you to fly domestic First on the same award redemption. The seat class was irrelevant because I knew I could upgrade the longhaul later. It was more important to secure the final destination, Norfolk (ORF), in order to avoid a $150 destination change fee.

Cathay Pacific First Class

In the end, I upgraded Eric’s ticket twice. To Business Class three days before departure, then to First Class the night before his departure. Simply call AAdvantage once you find upgrade availability on ba.com

May 8th, 2015

Since Eric didn't send any AA 1st Class pics, here's another from Cathay Pacific

Since I have no AA 1st Class pics, here’s another Cathay Pacific

Flight: New York, US (JFK) to Norfolk, VA (ORF) – United Airlines

PAID JFK to ORF

Flight Cost at Retail: $561

AWARD JFK-ORF

Flight Cost with Miles: Segment of 92K American Airlines AAdvantage + $169.60

Flight Summary: Now I remember why I don’t have any AA First Class photos: Eric’s flight from New York to Virginia was cancelled then rebooked on Delta Economy. I don’t know the details, but Eric said 12K AAdvantage miles will be redeposited into my account for the trouble. Essentially, Eric flew Cathay Pacific First Class for 55K miles instead of the normal 67K redemption. Since this is not something that can be planned or hacked I’ll continue to use 67K miles for this trip report…which is already too long….

Final Breakdown of Miles/Points Vs. Retail

Final Flight Breakdown

Boston, US (BOS) to Tokyo, Japan (NRT): 25K AAdvantage miles + $169.60 vs. $1,369
Tokyo, Japan (NRT) to Koror-Yap-Guam-Hong Kong: 35K MileagePlus miles + $121.90 vs. $2,079.40
Hong Kong (HKG) to New York City, US (JFK): 67K AAdvantage miles + $169.60 vs. $16,807.55
New York City, US (JFK) to Norfolk, VA (ORF): 67K AAdvantage miles + $169.60 vs. $561

Flight Total Costs in Retail: $20,816.95
Flight Total Costs with Miles/Points: 127K + $291.50
Flight Total Savings: $20,525.45

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Brief Commentary on Accommodation

There are no hotel points in Palau and Yap.

Below are recommended accommodation in Tokyo, Palau, Yap, and Hong Kong:

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How many credit card sign-up bonuses for this trip?

3 sign-up bonuses…with 28,000 miles/points leftover.

Below are the credit card sign-up bonuses that funded this $20,816.95 worth of travel:

  • 50K Citibank AAdvantage Platinum Select: No fee
  • 50K Citibank Citibusiness World: No fee
  • 55K Chase United Explorer: No fee

Total Credit Card Fees Paid: $0

NOTE: There are other credit card sign-up bonuses that also could have funded this trip, but these are the current highest offers. In fact, there are many limited-time offers whose bonuses are higher than usual. Not all miles/points are created equal. My MileMethod service is customized to your travel plans to accumulate you the miles and hotel points needed to visit your desired destinations.

$291.50 (or $141.50 without the close-in fees) for $20,816.95 worth of flights and life-long memories with a childhood friend is an incredible deal. A steal, really.
All for only three credit card applications?! What are you waiting for?


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