A few months ago I wrote a post outlining a strategy on how a family can visit Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti at a deeply discounted price. No gimmicks or manufactured spending, just good old sign-up bonuses. I got some interesting comments from reader Brad and asked him if I could publish a post highlighting his story. He was gracious enough to agree and even let me use some of the amazing photos from the trip.
We (wife and I) spent 2.5 years signing up for cards that came with a sizable upfront sign-up bonuses after meeting the minimum spend. We booked 330 days from our anticipated dates of travel for the long haul flights and flew our family of five to Australia and French Polynesia. We spent 3.5 weeks, did several excursions, and spent under $10k total out-of-pocket. Since we were a party of five, we had to secure two rooms everywhere with the exception of a condo in Cairns that we secured using AA miles.
The most challenging part was booking five seats in business class from US to Sydney. With all of the cross alliances out there that I wasn’t that well versed in I decided to use Juicy Miles to get the most out of our stash of miles and points. We originally booked United business to Auckland where we changed to Air New Zealand under the same ticketing. United had recently opened new routes to Auckland and Josh from Juicy Miles knew that they had larger banks of business seats available on the new routes.
We were able to secure the SFO-SYD direct when United changed some flight times and made our already close connection times too short. Booking close connection times has allowed us to negotiate better flights on multiple other occasions when the airlines changed flight times; which they almost always do when tickets are booked that far out. The downside is that you sometimes have to hustle between flights or risk missing a connection if the airlines do not change flight schedules and give you the leverage to work yourself onto a better flight.
5 seats in business class TPA-IAH-SFO-SYD using 400k United miles (value of $24,000)
2 rooms at the Westin Sydney for 6 nights using SPG points, Club level upgrade (value of $4000)
5 seats on flights from Sydney to Melbourne using BA Avios on Qantas (value of $900)
2 rooms/4 nights at Melbourne Hyatt using anniversary nights and points, Club level from status (value of $2200)
5 seats on flights from Melbourne to Alice Springs on Qantas using BA Avios (value of $1500)
Hilton in Alice Springs for 2 nights/2 rooms (value of $1000)
5 seats on flights from Alice Springs to Cairns using Avios on Qantas (value of $1800)
6 nights in condo in Cairns using AA miles (value of $1900)
Flights from Cairns to Sydney/to Auckland/to Tahiti and then LAX (2 business, 3 economy) using AA miles with a 12-hour stopover in Auckland, and 4 nights layover in Tahiti (value of $22,000)
1 night/2 rooms in Auckland using IHG points (value of $500)
1 night in Tahiti, 4 nights in Moorea using IHG anniversary nights and points. Garden view room upgraded to pool/ocean view due to Ambassador status (value of $3000)
LAX to RSW using AA miles (value of $1900)
The retail costs add up to $64k conservatively. I definitely could never have done this trip without miles and points hobby! There was no manufactured spending involved.
Cards we used to help make this happen – Chase IHG (2x), Hyatt (2x), UA Personal (2x), British Airways (2x), UA Business (1x), Ink Business Cards (4x), Amex Platinum (2x), SPG Personal and Biz (2x), Hilton (2x), Citi Executive (2x), Platinum (4x), Hilton (2x). Cash rewards earned playing the game to help make this trip possible included Barclaycard Arrival Plus (2x) for $1k and his and hers Chase Savings and Checking bonuses for another $1k.
Young AvGeek, fancy flight and lots of wine
We flew United out of Tampa through Houston to SFO and then jumped into our business class seats with much anticipation. My son is somewhat of an airplane enthusiast so the opportunity to fly business class for 15 hours on a Dreamliner was a big highlight for him. The rest of the family was happy to have the personal space and attention to help make that long flight a much more pleasant experience but nobody smiled like my son did.
I enjoyed the wine selection and the meal service even though it was around 3 am our time by the time dinner was served, and then enjoyed some more wine before finally getting a good 8 hours of sleep. The service was excellent, seat was hard for my taste abut mattress pad helped little. Unfortunately they did not have the Polaris seats in place yet but we were all able to get the mattress pads and the gel pillows by putting in our requests shortly after take-off.
Breakfast was served in time for our consumption prior to the 6 am local time arrival. Thanks to Josh at Juicy Miles for helping us find a way to get the most out of those 400k UA miles. Did I mention the wine selection was fairly good for an airline?
We chose to stay in the CBD (Central Business District) which is basically the Manhattan of Australia with Sydney being the financial capital of Oz. We used a pre-arranged service to pick us up and I think our guy was at the pub too late the previous night, so we waited an hour for his replacement in the 50 degree weather that greeted us upon our arrival. Not the best way to start our time there and was thankful that our mood was good as could be thanks to having secured the lie flat seats so we could get a good sleep en route.
We used up our stash of SPG points to secure two rooms at the Westin for 12k a night with one night free so we averaged 10k a night for our stay. We arrived at our hotel at 8 am and thanks to an advance request they agreed to provide us one of our rooms early. We checked in and got a shower to refresh ourselves and put on some warmer clothes. In a bit of an understatement, we were slightly underdressed as our winter wardrobe is pretty slim down in SW Florida and consists mainly of the hiking wardrobe we have for annual summer trips to Alaska.
On our arrival day we stumbled into a free walking tour and joined in and learned a lot about just how young Australia really is. When visiting urban areas we always seek out these walking tours and haven’t ever really been disappointed. Our observations was that Oz was somewhat like a young US with less racial diversity. We encountered a lot of Chinese, Greek, and Italians but very few people of African descent. That lack of racial diversity was a little surprising to us.
Geographically, Sydney is a natural harbor with no upstream river or estuary and over 300 km of natural shoreline. The ferry system in Sydney is a major transportation network with three different companies running the routes competing for business. We pre-purchased a 3 day unlimited ferry pass through Viator that saved us a little and gave us the options to move around the harbor faily easily. The train system is also a major part of their transportation network with a main station on the edge of the CBD for trips outside of town but mostly bringing the commuters into the CBD.
On our second day we did the Sydney Harbor bridge climb. It was one of our major cash outlays but something we had decided to do before we ever left Florida. You are required to wear their jumpsuits and everything (gloves, hat, sunglasses) is tethered to the suit to insure that nothing falls onto the traffic passing below you. A few basic ladder climbing tests and a willingness to plunk down the cash and you too can get a tour to the top of the Sydney Harbor bridge aka the “iron lung” because it breathed life into Sydney during the great depression due to the number of primary and secondary jobs it created.
We were fortunate to get a great weather day and are glad that we did the climb, got the picture (from their camera, can’t bring your own), and have the experience to add to the list of things we have shared as a family. Following the bridge climb we headed over to the viewing platform that sits atop the one of the bridge supports closest to the Opera House to snap some pictures with our own camera.
That afternoon, we did another walking tour to learn all about the Rocks which is the original landing area where they could find fresh water and scrape out a living. The first currency in Oz was rum and one of the first criminals was convicted of counterfeiting when he was producing rum beneath his duly licensed pub.
The following day we used another of our viator purchases to tour the Opera House. It is a truly transformative structure with so many hidden features and attention to lots of little details that maybe it takes an architect or engineer to truly appreciate. We went around and through the place and wouldn’t visit Sydney without visiting again. Wish we could have seen a show but that didn’t work out. We were fortunate enough to witness a concert and light show projected onto the shell of the structure as part of the aboriginal culture appreciation week.
Visits to the zoo, the gardens around the Harbor, Bondi, Manly, and Watson’s Bay filled out our full 5 days spent in Sydney. We enjoyed the city and its suburbs. Probably would have enjoyed it more if we would have went during the summer instead of their winter. Food was expensive and it wasn’t until our third day there that we found the underground shops, grocers, restaurants that offered some better values than the street level establishments that were more easily identified.
We also did a day trip via train up to the Blue Mountains. After having toured almost all of the western national parks in the US as well as Canadian Rockies from Waterton to Jasper, and Alaska from Homer to Fairbanks we were not overly impressed by Blue Mountains. I wish we would have spent the extra day visiting more of the parks and gardens in Sydney. Nice little town, easy train ride out from Sydney, and scenery somewhat like the Blue Ridge mountains but not something I would do again
We left Sydney and flew to Melbourne on Qantas using BA Avios points, grabbed our rental car and headed downtown for our stay at the Hyatt. I’m very fortunate to have some friends who work for Hertz because I’m able to take advantage of their “friends and family” program. Note that in Sydney the domestic and international terminals are in close proximity to each other but are essentially two different airports so make sure oyur transport knows which terminal you want to go to.
The Hyatt is a very nice hotel in a centralized location of Melbourne that is one of the best cat 4 Hyatts out there that you can use your anniversary nights for. We managed to utilize two years worth of free nights from both mine and wife’s cards to help cover the stay along with some of our remaining Hyatt points. As we were on a holiday in the middle of the business district we were perpetually underdressed, but thankfully we didn’t get denied admittance anywhere.
Melbourne reminded us of a newer Boston. We didn’t know it until we did our walking tour there but Melbourne has won “best city in the world to live” award for 7 years running, in spite of their weather ( something about the term fronts coming in from Antartica ….). We learned on our walking tour was that there was more gold mined around Melbourne than in California and Alaska combined and that was the source of a lot of the wealth that helped to build the city and establish it as a sort of educational and artistic center.
There is very large and prominent Chinese element here that supports a vibrant Chinatown section not far from the Hyatt. When all of the people in Melbourne headed to the hills to strike gold, the migrant Chinese took over the supply stores, restaurants, retail, etc and became prominent members of the City by earning their position through those opportunities. Naturally, we had some authentic and very good Chinese food while there.
Driving in Melbourne was challenging for me. They use a “hook turn” motion to allow the through traffic to proceed unimpeded when you want to make a right turn. Basically, you are on the left side of the road and want to turn right, but you have to pull in a staging lane on left side and let through traffic go until you get a light change, and then you can turn right across through traffic and light rail traffic which also has to stop.
Between the crazy amount of pedestrians, hook turns, light rail down the center of the street, driving on the left, and all lights being post mounted with all kinds of advertising lighting in background, driving in Melbourne was some of the most stressful I’ve ever done.
As it was explained to us, Melbourne was founded after Sydney and wanted to be the capital as it wasn’t populated by “criminals” who were sent there from England. Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t agree, so they built a whole new city to become the capital of Oz. We went to an Australian football game which is different than rugby.
There was constant action compared to the 11 minutes or so of actual game action in a US football game with lots of fighting on the pitch behind and away from the play. There were lots of boisterous but well behaved fans supporting both teams with the Melboune squad having a decided home field support advantage. The traveling teams there use bulk buying power to arrange for budget-friendly flights and hotel packages for fans to travel en masse to away games.
We spent three days exploring the city and one day driving the Great Ocean Road and visiting the 12 Apostles landmark. The Great Ocean Road is comparable to the Pacific Coast Highway in California and was built with manual labor of mostly people who returned from WW1 and couldn’t find a job. It was dedicated to the soldiers who lost their life in WW1 and is the world’s largest war memorial. I wish we would have had more time to spend along the road exploring the little towns and hikes. Doing the road and the 12 apostles in a single day wasn’t our best decision.
We arrived late afternoon at the 12 Apostles and I had the sun in my face for most pictures and not enough time to explore them properly. There were lots of bus tours disgorging large amounts of tours at each of the locations we stopped which took something away from the experience but it wasn’t that different than some of our national parks these days.
In hindsight, I wish we would have driven straight to that area first and then did the Ocean Road Drive on the way back. Either way, it is a very long day trip but we didn’t want to pack up and move so we did what we could to make the most of the time we had.
Melbourne has lots of universities and is a very artistic type of town. Talking with the residents there it seems like they like Sydney about as much as Boston people like NYC and the feeling was mutual. Melbourne was very walkable and the light rail within the city center area was free to ride so getting around town was no problem. Lots of churches in Melbourne were built when the gold was flowing and offer some good structures to visit and experience. We loved Melbourne and the artistic/welcoming vibe of the city.
We flew Qantas from Melbourne to Alice Springs using Avios. We picked up our rental car and headed off to our hotel. The rooms weren’t yet available so we set out and explored the Aboriginal museums and the Royal Flying Doctors Service museum/exhibit before returning to check in.
The stories of how the settlers mistreated the aboriginal natives was very similar to how the settlers treated the native Americans in the US except the aboriginal natives didn’t fight back as fiercely as the US natives. Seems that colonization is never pretty or fair no matter where it happens.
We spent the next day exploring some of the natural features around Alice Springs. The following day we made the long drive out to Uluru and spent the night out there. The only kangaroos we saw were dead ones beside the road.
We did the hike around the base of Uluru (climbing was closed due to winds at the top), got up early the next day and went out to see sunrise but got clouded out. The hotel rooms out at Uluru were the only ones we paid cash for. They are all controlled by the same company and rates are very high. I put my family in a separate room for four and booked myself into a bunk room. Two of the mates there snored very loudly and I ended up sleeping in the car that night. Really wanted to do some star photography that night but the weather didn’t cooperate.
The long drive back to Alice Springs was made longer when we got a flat and only had a donut tire to trade it out to. 50 km/hour is pretty slow but with an SUV full of luggage and a plane to catch I didn’t push it. We did purchase some aboriginal art at Uluru for less than half the price that we saw in Melbourne and Sydney.
Side story: son dropped his iPhone in garbage at a gas station when throwing out some trash. I managed to track it, contacted the owner of the station, he found it and mailed it back to the US for only cost of shipping. Props to him for being a good mate and going above and beyond to lend a helping hand.
We flew Qantas using Avios to Cairns, arrived late and headed to Trinity Beach condos. I used 120k AA miles for two-bedroom condo in a nice location, 15 minutes outside of Cairns proper. We had a 3-day reef pass bought through viator and we picked best days we could see in the forecast. The “calm” days still had 3 – 5 feet waves but that is somewhat standard during their winter months. The good part of the winter is that there were no jellyfish to be found. We did two boat trips out of Cairns and one out of Port Douglas.
I have done quite a bit of diving in the Keys, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii and by comparison, the visibility was not nearly as good but the Great Barrier Reef offered some diversity we had not seen before. The giant clams were very cool and all different colors.
I wish I would have had a better underwater camera. We visited Kuranda for a day where the kids got to hold koalas, we visited an aviary, and did some souvenir shopping. One day in Cairns and one day in Port Douglas completed our 6 days in the area. As someone with salt in my veins, this was my favorite place in Oz. I would like to go back during their summer and take a shot at crossing a black marlin off my bucket list.
We used a combo of Avios and AA miles to book flights from Cairns back to Florida. This was a hard route to book and was another area where Juicy Miles service was extremely helpful piecing the different airlines and segments together into a single award.
We flew Qantas to SYD, Air New Zealand to AKL (12 hour layover), then Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete. We burned IHG points on two rooms at Intercontinental Tahiti for the night of arrival and then took a cab/ferry to Moorea. The ferry to Moorea was an easy and enjoyable transport and we grabbed a private cab to our hotel with a few stops to snap some pictures along the way.
We spent four wonderful nights at Intercontinental Moorea Resort and Spa. Highlights included a snorkel tour and visit to nearby island and a jeep tour to some of the viewpoints and gardens on the island. I bought IHG Ambassador status which gave us automatic room upgrades. I also negotiated with manager for pre-paid breakfast buffets at a substantial discount at check-in. We all loved Moorea and hope to go back. Best pineapple anywhere!
I hope my story inspires others to play the game and enjoy the benefits. This was high school graduation present to two wonderful daughters and I never could have done it without miles and points. Life is a collection of experiences and I would urge everyone to get started and get out there and explore this wonderful planet we occupy if you haven’t done so already. Every journey begins with a step and the miles and points game is a marathon that anyone can run with proper planning and a little attention to detail.
Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.