Why I burned over half a million miles & points to go to Japan, part 2

So when we left off, I was faced with a conundrum: Try and save up (at minimum) a whopping 630,000 Hawaiian Miles in order to give The Elf the trip he’s dreaming of, or see what magic I could work by redeeming points from different programs. The choice was clear. I mean, there was just no way we’d be able to earn that many miles in one program in such a short amount of time. Even the famed Vanilla Reload cards wouldn’t be enough. So with that in mind, I began to look at our options. Between us we had combined totals of about 75,000 Virgin America points, 80,000 AAdvantage miles, 175,000 Citi ThankYou Points, 100,000 Membership Rewards points (we both signed up for the AmEx Premier Rewards Gold card this February), and just over 230,000 Hawaiian Miles (we *may* have done a tiny bit of churning the BofA cards when they were still around).

If I wanted to work with our currently available points and miles, it quickly became clear that my best chance for success was to break up the trip into two separate components: R/T Los Angeles to Hawaii & R/T Hawaii to Japan. That way I could take advantage of Virgin America’s code share agreement with Hawaiian and cash in Elevate points for first class tickets from LAX-HNL, then use ThankYou points to buy the remaining segments in coach and upgrade those segments to First with our HawaiianMiles. The AAdvantage miles would just have to wait for a trip to Europe down the road, since there weren’t enough of them to cover one-way flights for two to Tokyo.

This strategy came with two other benefits as well. First, using ThankYou points would make the international leg a revenue ticket in the eyes of Hawaiian, so we’d each end up with 9,000 fresh new miles in our accounts after the trip (Though I’ll probably have my share credited as AA miles instead). Second, I could build in a 2-night stopover in Maui on the way back which would be a great way to decompress after spending 10 nights running around Japan. Given that Maui is The Elf’s favorite relaxation spot, I had a hunch he’d appreciate the chance to just chill out for a bit after such an adventure.

Figuring out the game plan was just the start though, because Hawaiian doesn’t make it easy to grab two award seats in first class on the same flight through their partners like Virgin. Partners only get access to their “saver” inventory of seats, and many flights only have 2-3 seats available in that booking category for First Class. I actually got the full skinny on this from the Elevate CSR the first time I called Virgin to redeem the points. He was very helpful and quite forthright about the restrictions on seat availability, suggesting that Hawaiian will often wait until 30 days before dearture or less to open up more saver seats in order to exploit the nature of people to book their vacations in advance.

He also gave some great advice, which was basically to keep an open mind about routing options. Even without my asking, he had started researching availability not just from Los Angeles, but Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Jose for the dates I was looking at. (I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that Virgin flies to all those cities from Los Angeles.) Then he started looking at the days surrounding those dates. Apparently, this was what he ended up doing almost every time someone wanted these awards. Taking to heart what he said and writing down some of the flight pairings he found (none of which were all that great), I thanked him for his time and hung up the phone. This was going to require some compromise on my part.

For the next several days, I took advantage of a free trial of Expert Flyer’s premium service in order to poke around HA’s flight schedules.I didn’t just look at the flights moving in and out of LA, either. I started examining our options for the Honolulu-Japan segments to see if any flights around our ideal travel period had two saver seats in order to reduce our upgrade costs because even having one set of Saver upgrades at 45k miles a seat (versus the standard 90k upgrade) would be a big help in getting these flights booked sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, I went ahead and starting moving some Membership Rewards points around. I already had over 50,000 eleVAte points in my account that I’d been saving up over the last several years, but we needed to add just over 25,000 points to The Elf’s eleVAte account so that he’d have the required 50,000 for a 1st class R/T to Honolulu. And because American Express was running a special transfer bonus at the time, I converted 50,000 MR points into 60,000 HawaiianMiles to put towards the cost of upgrading our coach seats on the international legs. In short, a lot had to fall perfectly into place for this to work with our available miles & points if I wanted to secure these flights as soon as possible. I was going to need all of my Irish luck to make this work in our favor.

And as luck would have it on the last day of my trial a few seats suddenly opened up on HA9, an LAX outbound flight that leaves in the early evening and arrives in Honolulu around 8:30p. I also found 2 Saver seats from Honolulu to Fukuoka on the flight the following day. But return flights at the end of our trip were for the most part a total bust. I finally ended up choosing HA4, a red-eye back to Los Angeles because it had 2 seats available and it afforded us a little extra time in Maui. In the past I always felt like a red eye in First was a bit of a wasted opportunity, but in this case it was actually a sound decision from a time-management point of view.

So without hesitation, I called Virgin America and started booking our flights to and from LA. At the same time, I booked our coach international flights online with 165,000 ThankYou points (which would have cost $2200 cash if we had bought the tickets outright). After verifying the seat availability, Virgin said they’d need half an hour to redeem the awards so I hung up with them and immediately got on the phone to Hawaiian so I could have them process the upgrade of our Japan flights for 270,000 HawaiianMiles. They too had to basically hang up and call me back in half an hour or so when everything was taken care of.

So I waited.

And waited.

And then within minutes of each other, both airlines called me back with confirmation numbers. and so, by handing over 270,000 HA, 100,000 VX & 165,000 Citi points, we had ourselves two first class seats on my husband’s favorite airline for a two-week journey to the Land of The Rising Sun during the peak of cherry blossom season. Yay, teamwork!

545,000 miles & points may sound like a huge stash to hand over for such a trip even considering that we’ll earn 18,000 HA miles back when we fly, but I honestly think value is in the eye of the beholder. This is our first time visiting Japan and I want it to be memorable, exciting and comforting. Doing this trip on this particular airline will be key to keeping my loved one’s stress levels as low as possible, especially since we get to relax with old friends in Maui before we come home. So, no cents per mile calculations here. Why bother? I think it was worth every point.

Now… Where to stay on our adventure? Stay tuned for part 3.

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