I recently wrote about booking my two award tickets to complete an around the world trip in February 2016. I thought I would go a bit more into detail about how I booked my around the world trip with Alaska miles, Hyatt points and cash.
Earning Alaska Miles
I started getting serious about accumulating points and miles about 9 months ago at the start of 2015. I had been collecting Alaska Airlines miles for a number of years, redeeming miles for domestic tickets here and there (I’ve since learned that Alaska miles are best used for international award tickets).
I came into 2015 with 54,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles in my account. Through credit card sign ups (two Bank of America Alaska Visa cards and one SPG Amex card that allows transfer to Alaska), flights, promos, luggage guarantee and shopping portals I earned 220,000 Alaska miles over the past 9 months.
I typically value Alaska miles at 2 cents a mile (say what you will about him, The Points Guy has a good running update on the value of various loyalty points). You can purchase Alaska miles but I never have and don’t recommend it.
Earning Hyatt Points
I started earning Hyatt Gold Passport points through their partnership with Mlife a year ago.
I came into 2015 with 18,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points in my account. Through the Hyatt Elite Tier Offer, Hyatt Chase Visa card, stays and promos I earned 108,000 Hyatt points over the past 9 months. That doesn’t include 2 free nights at any property through the Hyatt Chase Visa card (that I will be using over Christmas in Buenos Aires).
I typically value Hyatt points at 1.8 cents a point.
I wrote about booking my flights earlier here. If you already read that post, this section may be repetitive.
Alaska has some great international partners for both earning and redeeming miles. Two partners (Hainan and Icelandair) have been added in 2015.
I have flown a number of the partners internationally in the past (Air France, American, British) and have an AeroMexico flight to Buenos Aires coming up. Consensus in the travel world is that Emirates (on the A380) and Cathay Pacific offer two of the best First Class experiences. Based on reviews (I haven’t experienced it first hand), I would say that other top metal are Singapore, Ethiad and Qatar. OneMileAtATime covers his favorites and I trust his taste (even if I don’t always trust his advice on credit cards). Air France has their new La Premiére which also looks amazing (although mostly unattainable through miles redemption).
One thing to know is that when you book an award ticket through Alaska, you can get one free stop over (usually at the airline’s hub) for each one way reservation. So, for example, I could fly Seattle to Istanbul with miles on Air France and spend a couple of days in Paris for no extra cost.
Knowing I wanted to try First Class on Emirates and Cathay Pacific, I decided that I would spend a few days in each of their hubs — Dubai and Hong Kong. I don’t have an endless pool of vacation time, so I figured I could fit in one additional stop. I’ve wanted to visit Thailand and both Emirates and Cathay Pacific serve Bangkok, so I had my destinations set.
Award tickets with Alaska have varying cost based on partner. One way in First Class from the US to Asia on Emirates is 100,000 miles. On Cathay Pacific it is 70,000 miles. On American it can be as low as 50,000 miles.
Cathay Pacific doesn’t fly direct Hong Kong to Seattle (where I live), but they do fly direct to LAX. The other thing to know about Alaska award bookings is that you position to a another city if Alaska services the route you need at no added cost. So with my Cathay Pacific ticket, I could fly First Class BKK to HKG, stay for three nights, then fly HKG to LAX to SEA all for the 70,000 price. This is a good way to maximize your miles.
Similarly, I decided to position to LAX for my flight to Dubai. Emirates flies a 777 from SEA-DXB but flies the A380 (their flagship product) from LAX. Wanting to have the full Emirates experience, including a shower in the sky and access to the new Emirates Lounge at LAX, it was worth it for me to add the flight to LA (in Alaska First Class no less).
Now here is where it gets tricky. It is best to book award tickets on Alaska about 11 months in advance. Seats come and go. Typically Cathay Pacific, for example, releases only ONE First Class award seat per flight until a few days before the flight. Emirates is (currently) a bit more generous, but there can be dry spells. It really is a case of YMMV so it pays to be flexible with your dates of travel. I know that isn’t always possible; but it’s one of the costs of traveling with miles.
While most partner award tickets may be booked directly on Alaska’s website, Cathay Pacific must be booked over the phone. You can research which flights have open award tickets by going through JAL’s website and signing up for their mileage program then searching for award tickets.
Originally I was hoping to fly back to Seattle on a Sunday from Hong Kong, but there was no First Class seat available to ANY city in the US on Saturday, Sunday or Monday. I finally found one seat available for the following Tuesday and booked it.
The flights cost me a total of 170,000 Alaska miles and $112 (taxes and fees). I researched the cheapest way to book the same flights had I paid cash. I tried pricing the full ticket (e.g. SEA-LAX-DXB-BKK), I tried booking each segment individually, and combinations of the two. The cheapest I could find for the total cost, had I paid cash for the flights, was $36,080 USD. That values my Alaska miles at 21 cents per mile.
Now, you would have to be extremely rich and/or crazy to pay $35,000+ for the flights I booked. Typically I value my Alaska miles at about 2 cents each. 170,000 miles, in my valuation, are worth about $3,400. A sane person could definitely spend that for flights in First Class and three stop overs around the world on two of the best international airlines.
So why do I discourage people from using their Alaska miles for domestic award tickets?
Typically if you are booking domestic, it costs about 12,500 miles for a one way ticket on Alaska in Economy. You would have to book a flight that cost $2,700 one way Economy ticket in the US to get a value of 21 cents per mile. However at a value of 2 cents a mile, you would still have to book an award ticket that normally costs $250 one way in Economy to get that value per mile on a domestic flight. Rarely do I see flight on Alaska that would normally cost $250 (one way in Economy) that I can book for 12,500 miles. More likely a $250 one way ticket would cost 20,000 miles.
Bottom line: It is a better value to save your Alaska miles for a big international trip then to use them for domestic tickets on Alaska. If you have the luxury of being able to do so.
I had three cities where I needed hotels. Hyatt is my go to chain for hotels. So for each city I did some research on FlyerTalk to figure out which Hyatt property was the best option. I may have been confining my travel by only looking at Hyatts, but as a Diamond member I get added benefits and I have always had good experiences at Hyatt properties. Yes, I am a sucker, Hyatt has won my loyalty.
Hotels typically don’t have the insane prices that you see in First Class airline tickets. While I would never pay cash for a First Class ticket on Emirates (unless it was a mistake fare), I do at times pay cash for hotels.
Hyatt has two tricks for getting lower prices for hotel reservations:
- The first is their Best Rate Guarantee. If you find a lower price for a room on a website other than Hyatt.com you can submit a BRG claim and Hyatt will match and beat that price by 20%.
- The second is their Points + Cash Rate. Instead of booking an award room reservation with only points (say, 15,000 points for a Category 4 property), you can pay half the number of points (7,500) plus some cash ($100). Again, I value my points at 1.8 cents apiece, so for a Category 4 hotel it would make sense to do Points + Cash if the daily rate was over $235 a night ($100 + 7,500 x 1.8 cents). You also get the added benefit of being able to use a Diamond Suite Upgrade on Cash + Point rates (you can’t on straight point award reservations) AND stays with Points + Cash also count towards elite status (straight point award stays do not).
Warning: Things are about to get technical.
Dubai: The first city to tackle was Dubai as it had the most options. Hyatt doesn’t have the best locations in Dubai, so I knew I would probably be a bit away from the center of the city. With that in mind, I decided to go big with the Park Hyatt Dubai using a Diamond Suite Upgrade (which would be expiring at the end of the month). The dates I needed were $435 a night for a standard room plus tax. Park Hyatt Dubai is a Category 5 property; meaning it would cost 20,000 points a night for an award stay. With my value of 1.8 cents per point, this property was a good candidate for a points stay. Since I had a DSU I wanted to use, I decided to book a Points + Cash rate and upgrade to a Suite.
If I paid cash, the suite would cost me $2,835 for the three nights. Instead I paid 30,000 points plus $375 cash and used a DSU.
Bangkok: The second city I wanted to book was Bangkok. It is much easier, there is only one Hyatt (although a second property is set to up next year). The Grand Hyatt Erawan‘s cheapest room for my dates was $198 however I found it on Expedia for about $170. Submitting a Best Rate Guarantee claim, I was able to reserve the room for $144 a night. As a Category 4 property, using points would cost me 15,000 points a night or $100 + 7,500. This time the math didn’t add up; it was a better deal to pay cash for this stay.
Hong Kong: The final city, Hong Kong, was a bit trickier. I really went back and forth between the Grand Hyatt and Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui. The Grand Hyatt is supposed to be lovely but is a Category 6 property. The Hyatt Regency is only Category 4 but it is not located on Hong Kong Island (although it apparently has great views). After price consideration, I went with a straight point stay at the Hyatt Regency. I usually don’t suggest this option over Points + Cash, but I didn’t want to use a DSU at this property so I bit the bullet. Lowest price for a standard room was on Hyatt.com (so no BRG); $834 for 3 nights. Instead I paid 45,000 points and $0 cash. I may still go back and do a Point + Cash reservation as it is a better value but a bit.
Total Cost of Around the World Trip with Alaska Miles
My 10 day, 9 night around the world trip with Alaska miles, points and cash ended up costing me:
- 170,000 Alaska Mileage Plan Miles
- 75,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points
- $920 Cash (Including airline taxes/fees and hotel fees. I won’t know exact hotel taxes until my stay.)
I could have lowered the cash cost by another $808 if I had booked my hotels using only points, but in the long run that didn’t get me the best value.
Had I paid straight cash for my flights and hotels, it would have cost me $40,448 total*. Of course I could have done it cheaper than $40,000 — flying economy and not staying in as luxurious accommodations. Update: I was able to change the LAX-SEA ticket to First Class on Alaska (originally there was no F availability), raising the value of the trip slightly more at no additional mile cost.
One final note. I mention that I value Alaska miles at about 2 cents each and Hyatt points at about 1.8 cents each. This should definitely be taken with a grain of salt as I do not own these miles. Tomorrow Alaska could change their program and say that now instead of 100,000 miles for an Emirates flight it costs 1,000,000 miles. Or they could end their partnership with Emirates. Or they could simply shut down my account on a whim. Airlines and hotels have a history of devaluing their miles and points by raising the amount needed to redeem for a free flight or night. It is not wise to hoard your miles and points. Points and miles only have value at the moment you redeem them. Before then they really are hypothetical. There is no gold standard.
Read my trip reports and see how those miles were spent here:
Emirates Lounge LAX
Emirates First Class LAX-DXB
Park Hyatt Dubai
Emirates First Class Lounge DXB
Emirates First Class DXB-BKK
Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok
Cathay Pacific First Class BKK-HKG
Hyatt Regency TST Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific The Pier Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific First Class HKG-LAX
Around the World Trip with Alaska Miles