The Ultimate Travel Hack
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
When we first started playing around with points programs and churning credit cards about six years ago, I would spend hours at a time reading (and drooling over) blog posts on the most amazing points trips like a safari in Africa, flying in Etihad Airways' “The Apartment”, and visiting Richard Branson's Necker Island and strategizing where we would go with the gagillions of points we were going to earn.
Fast forward to, well, now, and I have to say I'm pretty happy with how far our points have taken us in our round-the-world quest. In general, we've used them pretty conservatively, flying mostly economy and staying in lower-tier accommodations to stretch those points as far as they would go, but there was one splurge of which I was not going to let go – the overwater bungalow in Bora Bora.
Ever since I learned it was possible to stay in one of those $700+/night beauts with points, I started hoarding. I did a ton of research and found that there's a handful of these properties that are points-bookable, including several Starwood (SPG) properties (St. Regis and Le Meridien), a couple of IHG spots (InterContinental), and some Hilton hotels (Conrad). Comparing costs, my original plan was to aim for the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso, as it's incredibly luxurious, but also on the lower end of the scale in award pricing.
We had a decent stash of IHG points, and in theory, we could use our annual anniversary free night certificates (in exchange for the $49 annual fee on the IHG Rewards Card Select) to cover two nights. In addition, if we needed more points, it would be possible to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to IHG.
Unfortunately, award bookings for these properties are not always easy to come by, especially at the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso, as this is one of the most popular options. I spent weeks checking websites for openings, making reservation phone calls, and researching optimal dates out from booking when award availability typically opens up (FYI, the consensus seems to be 330 days out). I have to be honest – I was starting to get a little worried. But about a month before we were beginning our journey, emails from several of the points bloggers I follow started showing up rapid-fire. Starwood Hotels was running a promotion on overwater bungalows! And not just a promotion, but an award promotion!!!!!
If you've ever accidentally stepped on a hamster that's just found the largest piece of whatever hamsters dream about eating, you know exactly the sound I made. I squealed and jumped up and down repeatedly and then furiously started clicking. The sale reduced award bookings by 35% and could be combined with Starwood's SPG fifth-night-free policy. So we could book five nights at the price of four nights, minus 35%. At the Le Meridien Bora Bora, our cost per night would be just 31,200 SPG points instead of the usual 60,000.
SPG points are highly coveted and something of which we didn't have a lot anymore, but luckily for us, Marriott points are transferable to SPG since the two companies have joined forces, and we did have a ton of Marriott points. We wound up booking a five-night stay costing 156,000 SPG points (normally 300,000 points) by transferring 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott, netting us 468,000 Marriott points (transferable to SPG at a 3:1 ratio) plus $97.
The Le Meridien Bora Bora also charges $88 per person for the boat transfer roundtrip from the airport, which seems crazy expensive for a sub-10-minute ride, but compared to the $140 the Conrad Bora Bora charges, the $350 the W Maldives bills, and the $645 (!?!?!) the St. Regis Maldives has the audacity to levy, it almost comes across as reasonable. To save even more, we actually opted to pay for the boat transfer only one way (for our return to the airport) by taking the free Air Tahiti airport-to-Vaitape (the main village) shuttle boat and grabbing the Vaitape-hotel boat for a third of the cost. It added almost an hour to our transfer time, but we didn't mind.
The property is breathtaking, the bungalows were pure perfection, and we even got upgraded to a fancier room with a larger deck because we had SPG Gold status, a completely forgotten status perk we received from an AmericanExpress Platinum card 😜 – score! Additionally, we were pleasantly surprised by the Le Meridien Bora Bora Turtle Center, a sanctuary for injured turtles and a program that focuses on marine life and lets guests join in on the action. I visited the center at least once a day while we were there to watch a resident octopus change colors, to feed the turtles, and to snorkel with the fish and sting rays. Definitely an unexpected bonus.
The next hurdle in planning was finding points flights. Our last destination in Asia was Indonesia, and we were able to use Ultimate Rewards points to book a flight from Bali (DPS) to Tahiti with a 4-day layover in Australia to visit friends (coincidentally over Australia Day, which was a blast!) for 83,168 Ultimate Rewards points each, or 166,336 total. We wanted to fly direct from Tahiti to our next destination on points as well and decided our best bet was Los Angeles, which made a good base for a subsequent point flight to South America. 80,000 Alaska Air miles + $128 (40,000 miles + $64 each) got us from Tahiti to LAX on Air France. We actually had more than enough Alaska Air miles to fly business on this flight, but there was sadly no availability. Luckily, we had the economy row to ourselves and were able to spread out and relax.
The last piece of the puzzle, and the biggest expense since there's no way to use points to book it, was the 50-minute flight from Tahiti to Bora Bora. Air Tahiti has a monopoly on this segment and charges accordingly. Each of our round trip tickets were $363, totaling a whopping $726 for less than 100 minutes in the air. That was a painful purchase. And for anyone who's extra ambitious, there is a workaround for at least part of this expense! There's several credit cards that offer a signup bonus in the form of travel expense reimbursement, our favorite of which is the Barclaycard Arrival+, which has a signup bonus of 40,000 points after $3,000 spend, equivalent to $400 in travel credit.
And there you have it, the ultimate travel hack and the most bucket-listy item on our year of travel!