This trip was the trip that almost did not happen, but then it did. It is fairly complex in how I booked it, so it deserves a post unto it’s own. This post is confusing, all over the map (literally, skiing Dubai on the way to skiing Japan? What?) and might take a few reads. In reality, this is how my brain works, and I want to show you that. I think of tons of different scenarios and eventually come up with something that is perfect for me. I want to show you this because it really does take a lot of work, and it will take you a lot of work. Never give up, because in reality, there is a way to reach your goals for travel, you just need to find it.
I have been wanting to ski Japan for years now. Looking at ticket prices in the $1700’s the past few years, I quickly learned that it would be close to impossible for me to afford it. Points were my only option.
Doing a lot of research showed me that American Airlines miles were going to be the mileage currency of choice. They charged 25k miles each way to get from the US to Japan and vice versa. This was a deal in comparison to say United which is 35k points each way. AA it was.
There was a problem though. American did not have any availability from Denver, Eagle/Vail, Aspen, Hayden (Steamboat) or Colorado Springs for the day(s) after Christmas to get to Japan. They did have availability to get from Japan back to the US, into Eagle/Vail, which was even better, because I could arrange my flights in a way that I could ski all day, transit the next day, arrive the day after that in the morning and then go skiing. I like to call this the “ski to plane to beach to plane to ski”. Why beach? The flights from Japan only left Sapporo and connected in Honolulu (more on this later). Leaving from Sapporo was perfect because Hokkaido, or Niseko is the resort that is acclaimed for deep, consistent snow, and Vail Resorts made an agreement that includes the resort for 5 days of free lift tickets.. Basically, all the pictures you have seen from Japan of people getting pitted and skiing tits deep all day every day was from Niseko. Perfect. Let’s leave from there. Except… how do we get there?
American did not have any award tickets from where I was to where I wanted to go, which was anywhere in Japan. This was a problem. But engineers know how to fix problems. It was time to find a solution. What were the options? 25k miles could get you to Korea; that might work. What about using a different mileage program? Nothing available. Another option was trying to use my Air Canada or United credits for a one way. No go. The prices were too high, although from Vancouver there was a round trip for $1000, which would go down to $600 for me. That was plan A. All I had to do was position to Seattle so I could take the bus to Vancouver. Why Seattle? Canada is ridiculously expensive to fly to because of limited competition and high taxes. This plan seemed tedious.
I had an idea. Mom always said that Polish Christmas’s are the best. Apparently they go all out, and it is an awesome time. All of my family lives in Poland, and my grandma wasn’t going to come to the US this winter for Christmas, so, maybe I should go there, then continue onto Japan. It would be great to see Babcia in Poland for Christmas before deteriorating health takes over. Initially I was looking for ways to use my United and Air Canada vouchers. I found a round trip from Eagle/Vail to London for $1000, so $500 after using my United Voucher. I can do that. Flying from a premium airport to Europe for $500 is good, not as good as the ticket I got to Switzerland, but it is good. From London to Poznan was a challenge, even Ryan Air wanted $200 for a one way. This route is usually $70 tops. That plan was destroyed after checking other city pairs that United flew to (I had to fly United to use my voucher). Back to the drawing board.
What if we flew one way, around the world? I could use AA miles to fly into Berlin then bus it to POZ. This would cost 20k miles and a $15 bus ride, if I did not fly British Airways (British Airways passes on fuel surcharges to American Airlines award tickets, which jacks up your price to $350 AND 20k miles. That’s a rip off). Unfortunately, the only availability was British Airways. Scratch that idea. What if I just flew to Warsaw or Poznan and figured it out from there? Brilliant. Lets check tickets. $620 for a one way straight into Poznan, PL (POZ). That is not bad for peak holiday season and getting me into Poznan. I did find a $425 into Copenhagen, and could spend the night then fly to POZ the next day, but that wasn’t working out time wise. As crazy I am about saving money while traveling, I want to save time more than anything. Time when you fly the equivalence of 3.5 times around the world every year is a precious commodity.
So we have this $620 ticket that leaves from Denver on the 22nd of December that can work. It did not meet my 6 CPM (CPM is ‘Cents per Mile.’ There is a simple algorithm for airline tickets to proclaim them as a deal, if it is below 6 CPM it is a deal. A post will be coming on this soon.) minimum “purchase go price,” but it wasn’t bad, and worked for the day that would allow me to maximize ski time and be in Poland for the big day. I read the fare rules, realized it did not have an expiration or “Buy by” date, and kept that in mind.
The next dilemma: Getting to Japan. I am a US based flyer. That means that most of my miles are with US carriers. Using mile to fly from Europe to Japan was a lot, like 45k for the one way. That was not worth it, especially since I could buy a ticket for $550 on Emirates and connect in Dubai. This was good. I could force a long layover and Ski Dubai for 6 hours…this is how I think: maximize everything because you don’t know when you will be back. This trip was not ideal, but for $1100 I would be 2/3rds of the way around the world. I could also knock it down to $700 using a credit from one of my AMEX cards. That is not bad, minus the fact that Emirates was not awarding full miles for that segment. I can’t do that. If I am spending money, I need to earn miles, all of them. They were going to credit to Alaska Airlines, which would earn me a 50% bonus because of my MVP status, but that wasn’t good enough either. I need all of the miles, not because of greed, but because that is a future trip. Whenever you buy a ticket, you need to look at what those miles can get you, unless a ticket is too cheap. What’s too cheap? $280 round trip to Chile earned me 50% mileage credit. I’m cool with that. Maybe i’ll do a post on earning miles through flying.
Some of the other options…
So where were we? All the way around the world and missing the middle part. I toyed with different mileage programs, flying round trip from Europe, flying from various other cities in Europe, and tons of other stuff. At one point, I had a ticket to Europe, from Europe to Taipei, then flying from Tokyo to Europe to the States again. ~3 days to get back going the long way. I actually almost bought this ticket because I would earn about 20k miles haha.
Nothing was working great, until I saw the new Flying Blue (Air France/KLM) Promo Awards. I love Flying Blue Promo Awards. Drew from “Travel Is Free” did a really good review of their awards chart, which has some real gems. (I kind of knew about a lot of these awards already, initially drawn from the Promo Awards into their actual mileage program, but, I didn’t really have enough of their miles to fully take advantage. So be it.). Anywho, they had a ticket from anywhere in Europe to Osaka, Japan for 20k miles, or half price. BINGO. Check the fuel surcharges? $100. I still don’t like it, but it was perfect, especially since purchased flights went up to $800 one way from Warsaw now.
This was it. This was the trip. Around the world in 3 weeks. My first RTW ticket. I was stoked. As in STOKED.
Booking this gem turned out to be a breeze. Once everything was available, I started with putting the AA ticket on hold. This ticket involved a long layover in Honolulu and an overnight in San Francisco. Not ideal, but i’m down to sleep in the airport (Shit I can get dinner and a drink at the lounge before it closes, pass out, then get breakfast and fly out). Getting a hotel or Couchsurfing would be stupid. It’s only 8 hours.
Next was availability from Warsaw. It was available for December 27th. I would have to overnight since it is an early flight, and checking some really quick hotels/hostels I found a Hilton next to the airport for 5,000 points. It works.
The last leg was Denver to Poznan. I checked the dates around December 22nd. I found an overnight red eye leaving Denver on the 21st of December that had a 12 hour layover. Some people say that sounds like hell. They don’t know that the Air and Space museum is right next to Dulles Airport. I have always wanted to go, and since I was not going to be able to ski on the 22nd regardless, I could ski the 21st, pass out on the plane, go to the lounge for breakfast for 4 hours until the museum opened; go to the museum, look at some stuff, then get back to the airport for the puddle hop. This was AWESOME. Another thing I wanted to do at no marginal cost. What else? That flight was $30 cheaper. I could get some food with that money in the airport and pay for the Uber rides to and from the Air and Space if I had to! This is what you call a win-win-win situation.
Are you with me? Does that make sense? Also note that about another 50 itinerary ideas came up, like spending 2 days in Beijing on a VOA (Visa on Arrival-you can go to China without a visa if you have an onward plane ticket within 3 days of when you arrive. The plane ticket has to be to a different country than you came from). We are almost completely booked.
The next step was the smaller transport options. Poznan to Warsaw was a cinch: train or bus with a night at the Hampton. Japan, however, was a bit trickier. After deciding where I wanted to go, linking it all together was a bit of a logistical challenge, mainly because I don’t speak Japanese. I was flying into Osaka, and wanted to ski near Hakuba or the Nagano area. I then wanted to visit a friend in Tokyo before going to Hokkaido to use my pass. This would be my cheapest option:
I would spend 2 nights in Tokyo with my friend Hiro. Staying with amigos is always great. yes, you don’t meet new people, but you see friends and maybe a side fo the culture that you don;t normally get to see.
From Tokyo I needed to get to Sapporo. I checked flights and they were a whopping $370 for the hour and fifteen minute one way. Wow. I have British Airways Avios from the family account, so this was not a problem. Avios are great for short hops that are really expensive, as they are a distance based award chart. My flight cost 4500 points and $2.57. Perfect. From Sapporo I would take a bus to my hostel, and back to the airport.
Time to book. Transfer points from Amex to Flying Blue, then purchase in this order: Denver to Europe, Europe to Japan, Japan to the US. Within 24 hours, I had confirmations and ticket numbers for all of my flights. I just bought my first RTW. That was always a dream for me, and now I was doing it for 3 weeks with skis to Japan. I call that a Triple Dream Redemption (TDR). Also that is about 20 days, checkmate Around the World in 80 Days.
Now I needed to figure out what to do. I am not huge on planning things far in advance unless I am in certain places, like Europe for the summer. It will save you money to plan it out. This trip needed to be planned because it was a limited amount of time. I wanted to maximize time.
Poland was done, as already described above.
I factored in a half day in Kyoto, to see some temples and stuff. In reality while reading about Kyoto you could easily spend a week there, if not two, but something is better than nothing. From there I was searching for an overnight bus so I did not have to pay for accommodations for another night. I am a fan of overnight things, planes, trains, buses, you name it. You pay a marginal amount for accommodation for a trip that you already had to take. There were no buses that I could easily find. Japanese transport websites are not very English friendly, so I had my Japanese friend look as well and there did not appear to be anything. Train it was. This would allow a short 3-4 days in the Nagano/Hakuba region where I could also see the Snow Monkeys. They looked awesome, and I would be willing to forfeit a day of skiing for that, if the snow was not good. This option is left open for when I get to Hakuba. Onwards from Hakuba I would take a bus to Nagano, then the Shinkansen to Tokyo. I had to splurge once to check the bullet train out. Saving money is not always worth missing out on cultural events, whether they be temples, food, activities, transport or anything else.
Booking budget hostels was difficult, because this is a high time of year. This is the worst time to book accommodations on the cheap, but luckily, I found something. From here, I would ski, then hopefully see the snow monkeys.
After Hakuba, I would head to Tokyo, see my friend Hiro, then fly to the North island and ski for 5 days. From here, I would catch my flight home. Pretty easy!
My flights back from Sapporo to Eagle had a schedule change after they were booked. This schedule change actually played in my favor, because it did not get me to Eagle at a “reasonable hour.” When I called in, the agent tried to find me something that got in at a different time. I looked to see availability departing two days later and the flights were perfect. A double red eye with a long layover in Honolulu and a layover in an airport that I can get a shower and a meal at, and it still got me in early enough so I could ski that day. Once again, a win-win-win. I asked if she could just put me on that flight, and she said that would not be a problem at all. I do not know if it was because she could not find something that fit my schedule more or if she was just nice (maybe a bit of both), but it goes to show you: if you don’t ask, you won’t know. Bingo, I got two more days in Japan, a better layover in Honolulu, did not have to sleep in the San Francisco airport and had a nice shower and breakfast with mimosa’s waiting after a double red eye. Perfect.
Because of the AA schedule change, I wanted to shift my flight from Tokyo to Sapporo by two days, so I would not be as rushed. I looked into changing the Avios award, but that cost a $55 fee. That is stupid. What is even more stupid is when I became curious to see what would happen if I canceled my award, then booked a new one, I would incur no fee and only have to pay the taxes on a new ticket, as they were not reimbursed from the previous ticket. So out another ~$2.50 and I had a flight 2 days later. I would say that is a helpful little trick!
So there you have it. A complex trip booked around the world across 3 airline alliances on 6 different airlines, for what I think is a reasonable cost. I could have lessened the cost if I had a bit more flexibility, but it works. I think the itinerary turned out pretty damn good, and am very excited to see what I come across and what I can change for future RTW trips.
Some Things I Changed
- I am taking the train from Poznan to Warsaw, which is cheaper because I am a Polish National and student.
- I am staying at H15 Boutique Hotel in Warsaw, because of the Orbitz Cyber Monday Sale. They offered $100 off a hotel of $100 or more. I booked a Jr. Suite for $25.
- I added dates to Tokyo/Hakuba, due to the schedule change above.
- I may add a night in Nagano, for easier access to the snow monkeys, we will see.
Where did I get the miles?
Most of these miles were from sign up bonuses. I have some pretty high roller cards, with high annual fees. I value some of the amenities and that is why I keep them. If you fly a lot, I think they are well worth it, but, that is for you to decide.
- 20k Flying Blue miles transfered from my American Express Platinum Card sign up bonus + family Costco spend.
- 4,500 Avios transferred from family Chase Sapphire Prefered Account.
- 25k AA miles from signing up for the Citi Executive card, which had a 100k mile sign up offer earlier this year.
What to take away?
- Always be willing to ask the airline if they can do something for you. They did not have any more availability for something that I originally booked, and were willing to work with me.
- Draw from several sources. The more you look at airline awards charts and build a more diverse set of miles, the more options you have. Know where the strong a weak parts of each award chart. It takes work, but it pays off.
- Don’t get emotional. Sometimes I convince myself that a ticket is a better deal than it actually is. Let the numbers speak for the deal, not your emotions.
- Check constantly. Award availability changes all the time. So do ticket prices. Check a few times a day if you are serious.
- Try different options. Different dates, different ideas, and research multiple ways to get places. I even checked flying to Hong Kong and then to Japan. That way I can see HKG as well.
- Combine multiple trips. If you can get a layover in a city that you would like to do something, take it. Here I am going to the Air and Space museum and the beach in Waikiki.
- Step away. When all options seem to fail, step away, give it some time, and come back to it.
- Search for resources. There is a website for everything, find it. It makes your life easier, for instance this was a Japanese railway ticketing site that I found. The internet has everything you could need for resources, if it doesn’t it has a forum where you can ask.
- Lay out all the facts and go from there. I had free ski days in Niseko, grandma in Poland, and a friend in Tokyo that would be nice to see. I built a trip around that.
Hopefully you found this post informative. A lot goes into planning a trip, especially under tight time frames. I love logistics so it is fun for me. Let your mind run wild, then tone it down to see what is realistic.
While posting this, I just realized that I have no idea how to get anywhere on the ground in Japan. All I know if where I am going. Missed a few details there 🙂