With a lot of people flying overseas to pinball shows and the like, I thought it might be worth sharing a little knowledge on how it may be possible to do it with a touch of luxury, convenience and saving a few dollars.
I recently returned from the USA with my wife after a 3 1/2 week trip (mid Sept to early Oct). Planning started about a year prior when we threw a few ideas off each other and confirmed with work we could get the September to October dates off.
All figures shown in Australian dollars.
The cards and rewards points
Having spent many evenings reading about traveling and earning points on Pointhacks and the like, we decided to take out a series of credit cards that offered bonus sign up points and lounge passes (among other benefits such as travel insurance etc). We reasoned that it was worth the effort as we were undertaking various minor renovations around the house. A quick tally of anticipated expenditure on the renos/appliances etc. plus normal household expenses showed we would not be spending money just for the sake of meeting the minimum spends required on the cards to earn the bonus points.
We went with Qantas points based cards. Each card has different income requirements, annual fees and spending criteria (usually around $3-4k but they vary). I’ll leave it up to the individual to assess the various cards. Additionally, I took out an American Express Platinum Charge card – more on this later.
In evaluating if this whole exercise is worth it, you need to calculate whether the costs associated with taking out the cards is offset by what you see as the benefit. In my case I had the following criteria:
Value of Qantas points redeemed must be less than outright cash price of flight ticket for the dates travelling
For example, annual fee of a card $300, with minimum spend of $3,000. Receive 120,000 points + 2 lounge passes valued at $50 each after minimum card spend. Plus you earn 3,000 additional points for the spending the $3,000 (at 1 point per $). So in effect it costs $300 for the points to fly, buyng a ticket with cash might cost, $1,300. It's worth spending the points.
Trip from Adelaide to Los Angeles departing mid Sept, returning early Oct flying economy was going to cost about $1300 outright in cash per person. Flying economy on points at the time cost 90,000 points and fees of about $50 (points needed to fly economy has now dropped to about 84,000 Qantas points). The price of the minimum spend on the card is not counted as we had to spend that anyways on the renos, even if we didn’t take out the card.
As you can see, so long as you are not spending money that you would otherwise, it can be worth the effort in taking out a card. I considered lounge passes as an extra bonus as it would all depend on the flight schedules whether there was time to use them.
So we repeated this process several times until we accumulated about 310,000 Qantas points by March 2019. By that time we had exact dates we could take leave from work and where we wanted to go. Below was the itinerary planned and eventually booked:
During the trial booking online I realised we didn’t have enough points to cover every flight. Grey represents those legs booked with the Qantas points. This included internal USA flights and the return trip to Sydney booked with American Airlines (AA) who are a Qantas partner. In total it was 302,000 points (151,000 points each). Fees and charges for booking all the rewards points flights came to about $800 in total. The American Airlines Paid Flights were not booked until about a month later, after I took out the American Express Card.
We were fortunate enough that premium economy seats were still available for Melbourne – Los Angeles, none were available for the return flight to Australia. If there had been, several more internal flights in the USA would have needed cash payment rather than by points. We just did not have enough points to cover everything.
American Express Platinum Card - Cost of the internal USA flights was going to be about $720 in total. If I booked the flights outright, I got no other benefit for that spend. I had looked at the American Platinum Card (Amex card) earlier but dismissed it as the annual fee had just risen to $1450 and some of the benefits cut. A second look at it showed I could still get $1450 of value from it if squeezed. The card gives a range of benefits including the following:
- 80,000 points (worth 40,000 Qantas points)
- Access for card holder and a guest to American Express lounges
- Access to Priority Pass lounge network for holder and guest
- Travel credit of $450
- Complimentary American Express Platinum Reserve credit card (with $400 travel credit)
- Gold membership of various hotel chains with perks such as upgraded rooms, breakfast etc.
The American Airlines paid flights must be booked with the travel credits via American Express website (and they are at a premium) and I upgraded to Main Cabin Extra for a few more dollars (extra legroom and free drinks). I made sure all layovers were extended. Anyone who’s flown in the USA knows you’re just as likely to be delayed several hours. We’ve experienced many delays before, one as long as 6 hours leading to a layover of almost 8 hours. One delay resulted in a missed flight home to Australia.
Total Cost of Flights per person
The 302,000 points represented just under the total bonus points obtained when taking out 3 cards. The annual fee for those cards totalled just under $800. Add in the $800 in fees and taxes when booking the reward flights brings it to about $1600 for two people or $800 per person. American Express Platinum card annual fee is $1450 or $725 per person. Total costs per person being $1525.
Costing the flights as if they had to be paid with cash per person ($):
Adelaide-Melbourne-Los Angeles (premium economy) $3,600*
Los Angeles-San Francisco $150
San Francisco-Dallas $230
Memphis-Dallas-Las Vegas $240 ($270 Amex price)
Las Vegas-Los Angeles $120 ($170 Amex price)
Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide $1,600
Total cost = $6,220 per person
*one way premium economy with Qantas is not half of a return trip, returns can be had for about $3,800 in the same class. I double checked on Qantas and Google Flights. :/
Assumes no flight sales
About 4 weeks out from our trip I received two complimentary Qantas International Business Lounge passes valued at $99 each. Bonus! We also used two Qantas Lounge passes that came with our cards during the long layover in Sydney before returning to Adelaide valued at $50 each.
This is where the American Express Platinum card came into its own. Almost every airport has some type of lounge you can visit for free while waiting for your flight (apart from Memphis it seems!). Either an American Express Centurion Lounge or Priority Pass Lounge was visited at the following airports (in order of use) and costed per person:
Adelaide - Rex Lounge valued at $33 (due to our very first flight being delayed by 90 minutes)
Melbourne - Qantas Int Business Lounge valued at $99 (not included in calculation as they were freebies)
- Amex Centurion Lounge valued at $70
Los Angles - Alaska Lounge valued at $70
San Fran - no lounge used due to early flight
Dallas/Ft Wrth - Amex Centurion Lounge valued at $70
Memphis - no lounge available
Dallas/Ft Wrth - Amex Centurion Lounge valued at $70
Las Vegas - Amex Centurion Lounge valued at $70
Los Angeles - Alaska Lounge valued at $70
Sydney - Qantas Domestic Lounge valued at $50
Total value of the lounges used per person= $500 (rounded), of this the American Express/Priority Pass lounge value was $450 per person.
So I came out in front by taking up the American Express Platinum card. Cost was $725 (half the $1450 fee). From that I booked flights for about $360 ($240+$120) and the $450 of lounge access totalling $810. There were some other benefits re room upgrades/free breakfasts totalling about $200 per person for the trip. That makes the total value gained at about $285 per person ($1010 - $725). And I didn’t even use the Amex points towards flights.
Conclusion and Observations
Most cards offering bonus sign up points will also earn you between 0.75 – 1.25 Qantas points per dollar spent. Wherever possible we paid with Amex to earn maximum points.
Plan well in advance, 2 years prior to a trip would not be too early. Award seats are released about 11-12 months in advance. The higher class seats are snapped up quickly and offer the best “bang for buck” per point. To get those seats you will likely have to be flexible with your travel dates.
To me, good travel insurance is worth every cent. We always take out comprehensive travel insurance separately and didn’t rely on the insurance that came with any of the cards as there can be various exclusions and pre-requisites to qualify for the insurance.
Qantas sometimes have bonus points sales on hotels booked through them, often 6 or 8 points per dollar. We were lucky enough to book a same star rating hotel in LA (next to the one we were planning to stay at), earning about 13,000 Qantas points.
To maximise your value, consider cancelling or down grading the credit card prior to 12 months or you pay another annual fee with no bonus points on offer.
Dodger Stadium watching the Dodgers
Golden Gate Bridge
On the grassy knoll in Dallas
Downtown Dallas from the Geodome at sunset
AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys
[ATTACH=CONFIG]156715[/ATTACH] Drinking at the Flying Saucer in Memphis (long story and a long, happy afternoon)
Southern end of Las Vegas strip