Yesterday, a friend asked me what it would entail for his wife and him to economically vacation at a luxury destination in the next 3-4 years. The ultimate goal is to use miles for the Business class flights and points for the luxury lodging. There are a lot of things to consider when planning a big vacation where you want to redeem awards for both large ticket items (flight & hotel). The only points/miles earning credit cards they have are the Chase OnePass Plus and Chase Sapphire Preferred. They are willing to open one more line of credit if the bonus offer and earning potential are lucrative enough.
I'll go through a few questions that I posed to help reveal a better idea of how to formulate the free flight part of the vacation.
What airlines fly to Bora Bora?
Air Tahiti Nui & Air France. Both airlines are partners with Delta so you can use your Delta SkyMiles for awards. A COACH ticket to Bora Bora from the East coast will run you about $2000. Business class? $4000+. Clearly, redeeming miles is the best option. The low-tier Delta awards from North America to the Southwest Pacific will cost 100k miles for Coach and 150k miles for Business ... total fees would be about $30! Talk about CHEAP. My friend decided that Business class for 2 is a great award to shoot for. After all, it travel discounts pro travel plus member benefits is about 16+ hours of travel time.
The routing is simple enough. JFK-LAX on Delta; LAX-PPT (Papeete, Tahiti, PF) on Air France or Air Tahiti Nui.
How do I get enough miles to fly there?
The big challenge is how to accrue 300k (150k x 2 people) Delta SkyMiles. The good news is there are plenty of options:
American Express Premier Rewards Gold Charge Card - Amex's Membership Rewards (MR) program transfers travel discounts pro travel plus member benefits points directly to Delta. The great thing about this is that the two programs have run a lot of bonus promotions this year. I personally transferred 50k MR points to Delta and, through a promo, I came away with 75k SkyMiles and 25k Medallion Qualification Miles (giving me instant Silver status).
Right now, the signup bonus is 15k MR points, but due to Amex's great customer service to build loyalty, there is usually no problem calling them to bump the bonus to 75k MR points. There are also promotions that circulate around the web (that I always post here) that you can call to enroll in (link). The best tip is to leave MR points in your Amex account until Delta runs a promo that you think is worth it; then transfer!
Partner Programs - Get miles for dining out! Rewards Network has a great network of restaurants that partner with several airlines, Delta being one of them. Currently, new members can earn 1,000 miles for spending $25 at a listed restaurant within 30 days of signing up. Just enroll your main dining credit card and find a place to eat. Rewards Network even has iPhone & Android apps for you on-the-go users. You earn 3 miles per dollar spent at participating eateries - not bad at all and every dollar/point/mile counts! You can even start earning 5 miles per dollar after dining at 11 places.
Every once in a while, crazy promotions will come around. Earlier this year, SpaFinder.com was giving you 40 SkyMiles per dollar spent. Great if you actually go to the spa. If you don't, that's fine too because I ended up just selling these on eBay for very close to face value. To save you the calculations, I ended up with over 40k SkyMiles and spent just over $240 - an earning rate of $0.006 per mile. That's a rate I'd take ALL DAY. If you were to earn 300k miles at that rate, 2 Business class tickets to Bora Bora would only cost you $1800. #VALUE. For ridiculous deals and earning opportunities like this, always check back or follow my Twitter for the latest!
Butt-In-Seat (BIS) Miles - Then there is always the option of actually flying Delta. For the infrequent flyers in my circle of friends, Delta does not have the best reputation. Hell, if their miles weren't so easy to earn, I'd boycott them too! I realize BIS miles are probably last on the list of earning methods but it is worth mentioning.
Now that the air strategy is taken care of, it's time to discuss the lodging options. This is where it gets more complicated (or interesting, if you're me). Hotels are a totally different game. There are more options and more ways to get a good deal.
My friend and his wife want to stay in a luxury hotel for 5 nights in Bora Bora. They've already gone there before and stayed at the best Overwater Bungalow (OWB) at the InterContinental Thalasso so doing that again may not be a priority. With this information, I was able to put together a list of potential hotels along with ways of getting cheap/free nights.
InterContinental Thalasso Spa Bora Bora (IHG/Priority Club)
This is, by far, the most pain-free way to ensure discounted luxury lodging in Bora Bora. By using the Priority Club "Points & Cash" trick (detailed here) to buy points at $0.006 per point, you can essentiallysecure a room at the Thalasso for $240 a night. The cheapest room in this place is $900+ a night for June 2012. Over 5 nights, you're saving $3,410!! Also, if you contact the hotel a month or two before your stay, you can arrange to pay a co-pay (usually about $250 more per night) to upgrade from that standard room into an OWB. You can also purchase IHG's Ambassador status for $200 and that will give you a free weekend night (that you can use at Thalasso) and an automatic one-room upgrade. Any way you slice it, you are looking at substantial savings.
If you are looking to earn PC points without buying them, there are also several options:
Chase Priority Club Visa - 60k points sign-up bonus + 10% points rebate on award nights
American Express - up to 75k sign-up bonus + transfers 1:1 to PC
Chase Sapphire Preferred - 50k sign-up bonus, 7% yearly dividends + transfers 1:1 to PC
Hilton Bora Bora Nui (Hilton Honors)
One reward night here costs 50k points and it gets you a King Lagoon View Suite. It is not an OWB but it is a large 2-story suite with a private balcony. The going rate for this room is $750 a night in June 2012. Again, you can always contact the General Manager of the hotel to request an upgrade to an OWB (paid or not).
There are no easy ways to earn Hilton points but there are always options. There are a few Hilton credit cards available - 1) Citi Hilton HHonors Visa with a 40k sign-up bonus and 2) American Express Hilton HHonors with incentives to earn 62.5k points. You can also transfer your Amex MR points to Hilton at the ratio of 1 MR to 1.5 HH. Not bad, but I can think of better ways to use an MR point.
Another lesser known option is transferring American Airlines miles to Hilton. The ratio is 1 AA mile = 1.67 HHonors points. Combine that with the 150k AA payday and that amount of miles could transform into 250k miles - just enough for 5 nights!
The St. Regis Bora Bora OR Le Meridien Bora Bora (Starwood Preferred Guest)
These are both Category 7 (top tier) hotels for Starwood and thus, they are probably the worst value for your Starwood points. I just called Starwood to check availability for June 2012. St. Regis has NOTHING in the way of award nights and Le Meridien costs 60k a night. With minimal ways to earn a lot of Starpoints, I would stray away from either of these for free nights. However, feel free to book an OWB for about $1200 a night!
Four Seasons Bora Bora
Since Four Seasons does not have a loyalty program, there is zero chance for a free night opportunity. Any Four Seasons is worth mentioning though, and if you want to stay at this resort, you can contact aFour Seasons Preferred Partner (FSPP) or a Virtuoso travel agent. While there may not be any discounts, booking through either of these is FREE and the stay comes with amenities like guaranteed late checkout, a room upgrade if available, and a monetary benefit (e.g. $100 food or spa credit). I used a great agent who is both FSPP and Virtuoso and he was very professional, always available, and handled everything I could think of with regard to a luxury booking. And again, their services are FREE.
If you made it to the end of this post, congrats! That took a while but it shows how there are several creative ways to score free or discounted hotel nights. Remember, this projected vacation is in 3-4 years so my friend has all the info he needs to pick a strategy and go full steam ahead.
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