Saturday, September 21, 2013

ANA Not Charging Fuel Surcharges on SAS Redemptions - The Cheap Way to Europe

ANA is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner (1000 Membership Rewards = 1000 ANA Miles), and a very lucrative one at that.  They have a great search engine and access to Star Alliance awards, so availability is typically fantastic.

In the past, I've written about ANA's excellent bargains for domestic and North American travel redemptions.  For example, you can travel up to 2,000 miles on a round trip domestic or North American flight for just 20,000 miles, and up to 4,000 miles for 22,000 miles.  These deals are a result of a generous distance-based award chart coupled with no fees or surcharges for United and US Airways domestic travel.

Generous Award Chart
The major downside to ANA is they typically charge fuel surcharges for their partners.  A "free" award ticket suddenly jumps up to $500+ when you're traveling to Europe on, say, Lufthansa.  The Points Guy wrote an excellent blog post a while back detailing some of these fees and surcharges.

It turns out that, at least for now, ANA is not charging fuel surcharges for SAS flights.  SAS flies a number of routes between the US (San Francisco, Chicago, Washington and Newark) and Scandanavia (Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen).  They have easy connections to a number of European destinations, including Iceland.

There are some incredible bargains to be had, including Newark to Oslo for only 43,000 miles round trip plus $40 in fees!

Plus, ANA allows up to two stopovers on a European itinerary, and doesn't charge for "surface travel", meaning you could take the train out to Bergen (to take a look at the Norwegian Fjords) and tag on a flight back to Oslo.  You'd only need to add the miles for the time you spend on the plane, and in this case there are no additional miles required for the redemption.

Perhaps of particular interest to travelers are SAS's Iceland itineraries.  SAS is one of the few "mainline" airlines that flies to Iceland, connecting through Oslo.  Their flights are a bargain at only 55,000 miles round trip from Chicago, Washington, and Newark.  Here's a sample itinerary from Grand Rapids:

With only $63 of fees and other charges, this is a bargain redemption.  Plus, you can stop over in both Oslo and Reykjavik.

Availability isn't fantastic, but there are still some flights left for peak summer season in 2014.

Here is the breakout of fees for the itinerary above:

Enjoy these bargain redemptions while they last, and remember that ANA often charges additional fuel surcharges when you call -- so this deal is probably only available for itineraries booked online.

Borneo Step By Step Part 1: Chicago to Hong Kong

My wife and I just got back from a great two week trip to Borneo.  I'll take you step-by-step through our trip, the booking process, and the number of miles and dollars spent, so you can see what it takes to book your own trip.

Although almost everything was actually booked about a year in advance, our costs are broken out on a day-by-day basis.

Friday, August 16 - Pre-Trip to Chicago

In an unfortunate turn of events, my grandmother passed away just a few days before our trip.  Although Chicago was meant to be a quick Saturday night stopover, I called American Airlines and had them bump our first flight to Friday instead.  Even though it was a last-minute change, they waived any change fees ($75?) and let us on a Friday fight for free.  We were able to attend the funeral in Chicago before our big trip.

Flight: United Economy GRR-ORD (67,500 AA miles per person from Citi AA bonus)
Hotel: Hyatt Place (5,000 Hyatt miles transferred from Chase Sapphire)
Lounge: None
Totals so far: 5k Chase, 135k AA, $35

Saturday, August 17 - Overnight in Chicago

Originally, our Hong Kong flight departed on Saturday, but AA managed to mess up one of our tickets and we got bumped to Sunday.  This worked out well, though, since we were able to visit a friend.

Flight: None
Hotel: None
Lounge: None
Totals so far: 5k Chase, 135k AA, $35

Sunday, August 18 - Off to Hong Kong

Finally, we were starting our "real" trip.  The CTA Blue Line took us from Chicago to the airport without incident.  Ground service in Chicago consisted of a Swissair contract lounge with some extra food set out for Cathay Pacific passengers.  Pretty crappy, but it came with an escort to the gate which was a nice touch.  I spent much of the time before our flight exploring the old Terminal 5 including the old Alitalia lounge which was closed and in ruins but unlocked, and a section of unused gates that was filled with sleepy airport employees.

Blue Line to O'Hare
Swissair Lounge

Following a bit of urban exploration (airport style), my wife and I boarded our 777.  Wow, what can I say?  International first class is incredible!  Our suites consisted of a love seat, a guest seat/ottoman, a personal closet, and a nice size TV.  We found out there were three flight attendants working the six seat cabin, and they personally introduced themselves and offered pre-flight drinks.  I ordered their non-alcoholic specialty drink made of mint and kiwi juice -- mmmm!

Cathay Pacific First Class Suite

My wife and I pre-reserved seat 1A and 2A, which are separated from the rest of the first class cabin with a divider.  It was literally like having our own private jet.  The only downside is we sat so far away from each other, we couldn't talk much en-route.

However, at dinner time, they added a table extender and we were able to eat sitting across from each other.  Wow!

Dinner across from each other.

Following dinner, the flight attendants made up our very comfy beds, and we changed into our provided Shanhai Tang pajamas.  Classy!

First class pajamas!

Quite honestly, the beds were incredible -- better than many of our hotel beds.  I could actually stretch out with room to spare, and I'm tall (6'5").

When we landed, it was around 8pm in Hong Kong, one day later.

Flight: Cathay Pacific First Class ORD-HKG
Hotel: First class suite :)
Lounge: Swissair Contract Lounge
Totals so far: 5k Chase, 135k AA, $35

Monday, August 19 - Hong Kong Arrival

Upon arrival, customs were fast and easy, and we grabbed some local currency from the ATM.

Although there was a high-speed train from the airport, it didn't go directly to our hotel in Kowloon, and we didn't want to mess around with transfers.  Instead, we took the CityFlyer bus, route A21, toward Nathan Road.  The fare was HK$33 (around $4), far cheaper than the train, and it took us right to the door of our hotel.  Announcements were easy to understand, in English, and broadcasted on a LED panel above the driver.  Nearby hotels were listed, and there was tons of space for luggage.  What a deal!

About an hour later, we arrived at the Intercontinental Hong Kong.  As part of my IHG credit card renewal, they credited my account with a free stay anywhere in the world.  The Intercontinental in Hong Kong is one of IHG's flagship properties, right on the bay, and I was looking forward to our stay.

Giant room at the Intercontinental
Upon check-in, we found out we were upgraded to a huge room overlooking the pool (not the bay, unfortuantely), and received a couple of drink vouchers for the evening.  Our room had a giant bed (much larger than a king), lots of art including a sculpture in the bathroom, and a nice selection of fruit including a dragonfruit.  We were even able to check-in inside our room instead of the lobby -- a nice touch.  My wife and I are both IHG platinum due to our credit cards, but typically Intercontinental hotels don't offer a lot of benefits to platinum members because they have their own buy-in loyalty program.  We were pleasantly surprised with the treatment we received, and the room was a great use of our free night.

View from the bar at the Intercontinental Hong Kong

Flight: None
Hotel: Intercontinental Hong Kong (free from Credit Card Renewal)
Lounge: None
Totals so far: 5k Chase, 135k AA, $43

Tuesday, August 20 - Dim Sum

We woke up the early the next morning to a warm, sunny day.  Having been introduced to Dim Sum back in the states, we were anxious to try the "real thing" in Hong Kong.  We grabbed the Star Ferry across Victoria Bay, which was a cheap, clean, and pleasant way to make the jump.

Star Ferry
When we arrived on the opposite shore, we were somewhat amazed to find out that Hong Kong is connected together with a series of above-ground walkways, making walking on the street mostly unnecessary.  The walkways were well-used, clean, and direct, although we couldn't help but think were were running around in a giant habitrail.

Finally, we arrived at our destination, the old and drab but oh-so-delicious Lin Heung Tea House.  The place had all the atmosphere of an interrogation room -- shared dirty tables, clocks on the wall pushing you to eat faster, and bright flourescent lights covering the entire ceiling.  Old women shoved trolleys through the aisles, tossing down selected food and writing down marks on patrons' tally sheets.  If you exhibited any hesitation, the trolly would be gone -- fortunately, the next one was not far behind.

Dim Sum

I honestly have no idea what we ate, and I'm pretty sure they just charged us some random amount at the cashier stand -- likely unrelated to our actual orders.  But, it was cheap and good, and quite an experience!

Dim Sum

We explored some of the famous escalators, used to pull people up and down the mountains that make up the city center, and eventually made our way back toward the airport on the bus.

My next report will detail our flight to Malaysia.

Flight: Malaysian Airlines Hong Kong -> Kota Kinabalu
Hotel: Intercontinental Hong Kong (free from Credit Card Renewal)
Lounge: Cathay Pacific "The Wing" First Class Lounge
Totals so far: 5k Chase, 135k AA, $85

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Borneo Trip: What a privilege to be able to travel like this!

About a week ago, my wife and I returned from a two week trip to Hong Kong, Malaysian Borneo, and Singapore.  In many ways, it was an epic trip.  We flew over 30 hours in private first class suites, complete with gourmet meals, comfy beds, and our own private flight attendant.  We saw Orang Utans in the wild, stood face-to-face with flying foxes, and got to release baby sea turtles into the sea at a turtle sanctuary.  We slept on everything from a huge luxury bed at the Fullerton Bay Hotel in Singapore to a moldy mattress in the jungle at Uncle Tan's Wildlife camp, and loved every second of it!

These are experiences few Americans ever get to experience, and for most, this would be a trip of a lifetime.  Our flights alone retailed for around $60,000.  Yet, our combined out-of-pocket expenses for the entire trip only totaled $2,500, including everything from domestic flights to tours to lodging and ground transportation.  And, about a third of our expenses went toward our climbing expedition to Mount Kinabalu.  Unfortunately, they haven't built a Hyatt on the mountain yet.

Perhaps even more amazing is that we didn't have to do anything crazy to get there.  Our flights came from fewer than two credit card signups each (we had miles to spare at the end!) and almost all of our hotels were covered by everyday spend on our Starwood and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards.  Nearly anyone with a decent credit score could have done the exact same trip.  By taking advantage of our hotel status and points-based upgrades, we were able to get breakfast, snacks, and evening drinks at many of the properties we visited, cutting down on food expenses.

In the upcoming weeks, I'll be dissecting this trip in more detail to show you how obtainable a vacation like this can really be.  Until then, I'll continue to sit in amazement about what is really possible with this hobby.