Why I burned over half a million miles & points to go to Japan, Part 1

Cherry trees blooming in Japan

Cherry trees blooming in Japan

The title of this post alone probably has you thinking I’m either the craziest or stupidest traveler on the Internet. I’m hoping that neither is true, but I’m probably the worst judge. What I do know is that I had a situation on my hands where a firm set of criteria was in play for planning a very special adventure. Let me give you some background…

One of the perks of marrying a Capricorn is that you end up doing a lot of the same things over and over. As creatures of habit, they stay fiercely loyal to those who give them a good quality experience. The converse is that bad experiences land a brand on the blacklist. In the case of air travel, this has caused us to align closest to Hawaiian Airlines and Virgin America. Our love affair with them both began in 2008, not long after we resurfaced from our own private recession just in time for the entire country to fall into one of its own.

Neither airline has an extensive route network, but that hasn’t stopped my husband from insisting that, if the option is available, we fly to one of their ports of call and drive or connect on another airline from there. It’s reached the point where he groans in agony when I suggest we go somewhere that neither of those airlines fly. So it came to pass that the bulk of our frequent flier miles ended up in the programs of these two airlines, as well as with Citi’s ThankYou program thanks to our longtime banking relationship with them. With the airlines, we picked up the credit cards (both of which, oddly enough, are no longer offered as of 7/2013) and it wasn’t long before I was trying to figure out the fastest and cheapest way to get us to some far off place on one of their route maps that we’d never been to before.

The Elf (my husband) had always wanted to visit Japan, so the HA miles were being stockpiled for that adventure while the VX eleVAte points were being stowed away for a possible trip to Europe on their gorgeously appointed sister airline, Virgin Atlantic. Both of these adventures were going to take awhile to save for though, because The Elf is a legitimately delicate flower when it comes to traveling. Flights over 5 hours in coach don’t treat him well physically or mentally, which in turn makes the first few days in our destination pretty miserable for us both. Me? I could fly in steerage for all I care. I’m just happy to be up in the sky. But in the case of a trip to Japan or Europe, was looking at saving up for business class seats so that the rest of the trip wasn’t a headache for either of us.

Things got really interesting when VX & HA announced a code share partnership at the end of 2012 that included the ability to redeem awards on each others’ planes. What started out as planning for two different trips way down the road suddenly became an opportunity to take one trip a little bit sooner. So in December the gears started turning in my head and I laid down a plan to get us to Japan during cherry blossom season in 2014 and have enough of the travel figured out in time to present the itinerary to The Elf on our 10-year anniversary in November 2013. That meant I had to do a few things before November to ensure all went according to plan:

  1. Earn enough points & miles to book an all (or nearly all) Hawaiian Airlines-based flight itinerary in First
  2. Start figuring out what our major stopping points in Japan should be
  3. Look at the best ways to leverage credit card signup bonuses for both the flights & hotel stays
  4. Start learning Japanese (eek!)

So let’s start with the first one, F airfare to Japan and back for two people. Using Hawaiian Miles alone, it’s damn near impossible to find two seats on the same itinerary at the saver redemption level of 210K miles R/T. The more likely scenario, which I kept running into, was that only one seat was available at that level and the second seat would cost a whopping 420K Hawaiian Miles. Let’s just think about that for a second. 630,000 miles for two people to fly LAX-Japan on HA using HA Miles. Return tickets on AA in business class (which thanks to their ongoing upgrade is a MUCH nicer seat than HA offers) could be had for 100,000 AAdvantage miles apiece! There was simply no way I was going to be able to generate that kind of spending and travel with Hawaiian in enough time.

But The Elf wanted to fly HA. And it’s kind of a special trip, since it’s ostensibly to celebrate our 10-year anniversary. So I had to get creative with planning this itinerary. What if I could spread this redemption out over a few different programs? As it often turns out in these types of situations, I could. And so I did.

So here’s how I made it happen.

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