Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cruising in Asia: Intro and Planning

Intro and Planning
Getting to Tokyo - Southwest, Sheraton LAX, and JAL First Class LAX to Narita
Shinjuku and Beyond - Park Hyatt Tokyo, Shinkansen, and Kitty Chan?!
I'm On a Boat! - Sun Princess Yokohama to Hong Kong
Hong Kong - Grand Hyatt, 10 McDonalds, and More Hello Kitty!
Getting Home - Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong to San Francisco

Around February of 2013, we had just received the dates for my wife's summer break schedule. With my work being relatively flexible with vacation time and her having nearly 5 weeks between teaching sessions, we had a fairly large window. We just had to figure out where to go.
We already had a number of places on our travel checklist, so we started with the primary focus of cruising. Considering there are only so many cruises sailing in any one month, it didn't take us too long to narrow it down to a few options. When we started searching for matching award tickets to get to and from the cruise it quickly narrowed down much further. In the end our trip was based around a 7 night cruise from Tokyo (Yokohama) - to Hong Kong. More on that booking process in an earlier post.

With the anchor of our trip in place it was time for flights. Our goal initially was to locate business class tickets for the two flights. We had on hand 150,000 AA miles (from 2x CitiCard 75k offers). 100,000 British Airways miles (transferred from Marriott as a gift), and 50,000 Amex MR points (Mercedes Bendz Platinum 50k offer). After a bit of looking at award charts. I realized it would cost us 100,000 BA miles for two one way Business Class tickets on JAL from SFO to Tokyo (HND) and another 110,000 for Cathay Pacific Business Class from Hong Kong back to SFO. Unfortunately (or not..) I could not get the dates to line up quite right. So I expanded my search a little further and found that we could instead transfer 50K from Amex to BA and spend 150,000 miles on two one way First Class tickets on JAL, but we would have to fly from LAX to Tokyo (NRT). I also found that the difference between Cathay business and first would only be 25,000 more miles, I could not resist. And so, for the first time ever, we would get to fly international first class, not once, but twice on two highly acclaimed airlines and products.

With our flights booked, we now had a few gaps to fill in. We had to get to Los Angeles for our flight to Tokyo, and we needed hotels for LA, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. At this point, we are less than 3 months from the trip, and I have only maybe enough points for 1 night in any hotel program. Looking at cash rates for our dates, I was aghast at the $300+ per night for standard rooms and knew I would need another approach here.

After quite a bit of research and some procrastination, I applied for 2 new cards. The Chase Sapphire Preferred (40,000 points) and the Barclay's Arrival Mastercard ($440 Cash Back on Travel). I had both cards within two weeks and thanks to some reimbursable work expenses had both of the spending requirements done within another week. My plan was to use 28,000 Chase points to transfer to Hyatt (leaving me with ~37,000 in my account), to book 1 night at the Intercontinental Yokohama for ~$110 (very cheap, but poor reviews) and 2 nights in a club room at the Hyatt Regency TST in Hong Kong (36,000 Hyatt points).

We still needed a room in LA for 1 night before the Tokyo flight, and I was very happy to find that my pitiful 3000 SPG points would be enough to book a room at the Four Points LAX. That is, it was enough until that same night the hotel bumped its rate to 7000 points at nearly the exact moment I tried to book it (more on that here). Thanks to some pleasant customer service agents, the extra points were deposited in my account and I was booked!

Now with less than 2 months to go, everything seemed to be in order, but I was not 100% satisfied. We only had 1 night in Tokyo before getting on a ship and sailing away, and I was still paying cash for the hotel night. This is where I made things complicated, and drove my wife a bit crazy!

I had been reading about the Hyatt Diamond challenge and the Hyatt Card from Chase. I knew that I wouldn't be able to stay 12 nights in 60 days to keep the status, but I knew if I got instant Diamond, I could get 2 nights in a suite at any Hyatt hotel from the card. Having Platinum status with IHG (from the chase card and from IC Ambassador membership the year before), they let me start my Diamond Challenge immediately. Within hours, my status was live and I applied for the chase card. 7 days later, I had the card in the mail, bought a few things (maybe a gift card or two) and met the $1000 spend requirement in a few days. Less than a week later, the suite nights showed up in my account and I used them to book 2 nights in a suite at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, and switched our Tokyo stay to 1 night at the Park Hyatt for 22k points.

Whew its over... right? To make it more complicated, I had been checking availability tirelessly on JAL for an earlier flight. Less than 9 days to departure, finally, two seats opened up 2 days earlier. I quickly canceled the original flights (paying ~$50 in fees on and rebooked the new flights. Anticipating this move, I had booked with Southwest for our SFO>LAX flight so there was no added cost there. The stay at the Four Points had to be changed, but I wasn't able to online so I just canceled it. The 7000 points posted immediately back to my account. I went to book again and found that the Sheraton and Westin LAX were also 7000 points. Having heard better reviews, I switched to the Sheraton on our new date. But now we had 2 more nights to fill in Tokyo!

I quickly transferred the remaining Chase UR points to Hyatt and changed the Grand Hyatt suite nights to regular nights at 22,000 points per night (I was short 700 points and bought 1000 for $24 from Hyatt). I kept the 1 night at the Park Hyatt, and added on two nights in a Park Suite King with the Chase Certificates.

Not able to leave good enough alone, I took advantage of the $440 cash back from the Barclay card and booked two Japan Rail East Passes. This covered our Narita Express train ride to Shinjuku as well as Shinkansen tickets to Niigata and back where we would visit my host family from many years prior. For good measure, I also made use of AA routing rules to add on two additional flights for no extra charge. SFO>LAX and LAX>MIA in 3 cabin first class. We may or may not get to use these, but now we get to start planning again!

In the end, our trip would look like this:

SFO>LAX Southwest ($138)
Sheraton Gateway LAX (7000 SPG)
LAX>NRT JAL First Class (150,000 BA + $640 Taxes)
Park Hyatt Tokyo (Park King 22,000GP + Park Suite 2x Suite Award)
7 Nights Sun Princess 
Grand Hyatt Hong Kong (Executive Harbor View 2x 22,000GP)
HKG>SFO Cathay Pacific First Class (135,000 AA + $126 Taxes)
SFO>LAX>MIA American Airlines Flagship First (FREE)


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