I recently posted on my success in booking the St. Regis Bora Bora for just 48K Marriott points per night (See: Booked: St. Regis Bora Bora for 48K per night). A few readers asked how I intended to get there — which is a good question since there aren’t exactly a ton of options for getting there on points. In this post, I’ll lay out how I went about determining the options (a key step get getting started on any award), how I narrowed things down, and what I ultimately booked.
Figuring out the options
Whenever I’m trying to figure out how to get to a destination on miles, my first stop is the Wikipedia page for the destination airport. That page has a list of airlines and destinations that will tell me which airlines fly into the airport. That allows me to reverse engineer an award by figuring out which of those airlines are allied with partners I could use to book. In the case of Papeete (PPT) airport in Tahiti, that list is pretty compact.
I didn’t see myself flying via Chile or New Caledonia, so that eliminated LATAM and Aircalin right away. French Bee has had some good fares out of San Francisco, but I’m not really comfortable with choosing a low-cost carrier and risking that a flight gets canceled or the airline folds a la Primera Air. I’d take a risk with a low cost carrier on a trip to Europe knowing that there are a billion ways to get there at the last minute on miles if something goes wrong with my original flight — but I can’t chance not getting to Tahiti on time for my 5-night reservation at the St. Regis. So my options became limited pretty quickly.
Out of the various options from the US, I considered how many miles each award would cost and potential sources of the points. Here were the options as I saw them (lowest-priced options in bold):
|Carrier that flies to PPT||Partner Miles||Source(s)||Economy Award||Business Award|
|Air France||N/A||Amex, Chase, Citi, SPG/Marriott||From 25.5K||From 64K|
|Air New Zealand||United||Chase||35K||80K|
|Air Tahiti Nui||AA (also Delta)||AA credit cards, SPG/Marriott||40K||80K|
|Hawaiian Airlines**||Virgin Atlantic||Amex, Chase, Citi, SPG/Marriott||27.5K||47.5K|
|United Airlines||N/A||United credit cards, Chase||35K||70K|
**Note: Award rates on Hawaiian Airlines are based on originating in Hawaii
There are a lot of variables in collecting miles, but I also thought it might make sense to give a quick glance at how you might generate those miles based on the credit card with the best category bonus for earning miles that can be transferred to the corresponding program. That might help you either focus spend on an award goal or compare costs in terms of how you generate the miles. Note that for Hawaiian miles, I used 4x at US Restaurants and US Supermarkets (on up to $25K per year, then 1x) on the newly-revamped Gold Card despite the fact that the Platinum card earns 5x on flights since it is unlikely that anyone would focus on manufacturing flight spend to generate miles.
|Carrier that flies to PPT||Best CC & bonus category||Spend for Economy Award||Spend for Biz Award||Other notes|
|Air France||Ink Cash: 5x Office Supply||$5,100||$12,800||If you can take advantage of a transfer bonus (25% from Amex comes around now and then), the Amex Gold offers similar return.|
|Air New Zealand||Ink Cash: 5x Office Supply||$7,000||$16,000|
|Air Tahiti Nui||Various AA cards at 1x||$40K||$80K|
|Hawaiian Airlines||Amex Gold: 4x US Restaurants / US Supermarkets on up to $25K per year (then 1x)||$6,875||$11,875||If you can take advantage of a transfer bonus (25% from Amex expired over the summer), you could do even better.|
|Hawaiian Airlines via Virgin||Ink Cash: 5x Office Supply||$5,500||$9,500||If you can take advantage of a transfer bonus (currently 30% from Citi, formerly 30% from Amex), you may do even better.|
|United Airlines||Ink Cash: 5x Office Supply||$7,000||$14,000|
If you’re looking to fly in economy class, it might be worth keeping an eye out for airfare sales. We recently published a sale from San Francisco on United for just over $600 round trip (since expired). That would be something just north of 40K Ultimate Rewards points round trip if you have the Sapphire Reserve and book through the Chase portal. French Bee also runs similarly cheap fare sales from time to time and competition may keep fares reasonable enough to book paid flights over award flights in economy class.
It’s also worth noting that I included American Airlines at 1x above since that is the best you would do based on regular credit card spend. Note that for American miles, your best bet is probably to use a card that earns more than 2% cash back and then buy the miles when American puts them on sale for under 2c each. For example, if you were to earn 2.5% cash back and buy American miles for 1.88c each, it would be like having earned 1.33 miles per dollar spent, which changes spending requirements above.
Narrowing down options
In my case, I was able to eliminate a couple of options pretty easily.
United’s flight to Tahiti from San Francisco is seasonal and will not be running when I need to be there. Based on a few searches, saver economy appears to be available on some flights, others range from 45K to 80K in economy class. I did not see business class availability readily available.
Air New Zealand rarely ever releases business class award space and it also involves overshooting the destination a good bit. Flying extra time, in economy class, and without a stopover in New Zealand added up to a quick elimination for me. That said, if you’re willing to fly in economy class, you can find decent availability on United flights to New Zealand and then on to Tahiti on Air New Zealand for 35K each way in economy class, with $5.60 in taxes departing the US and just over $50 on the way back.
That narrowed my choices to Air France or Air Tahiti Nui out of Los Angeles or Hawaiian Airlines out of Honolulu.
Air Tahiti Nui looks pretty nice, but it’s the only one of the three that does not have lie-flat seats, which put it in third place to start the race. On the flip side, it is the easiest award in the sense that you can book from your home city to Tahiti on a single award if you can find flights on AA to position you to Los Angeles.
Hawaiian Airlines does also offer the ability to fly from its North American gateways on a single award, though that will cost an additional 20K in economy class or 40K in business class — assuming you can find saver availability from North America to Hawaii. If you use Virgin Atlantic miles to fly on Hawaiian, you would need to book a separate award from the West Coast to Hawaii at those same rates (20K economy or 40K business). Oddly, Virgin only includes the West Coast in its award chart for Hawaiian Airlines.
In the end, Air Tahiti Nui did not have any availability around my dates — which cut my options down to Air France out of Los Angeles or Hawaiian our of Honolulu. I’d have to position to and from for either option since I’m located on the East Coast.
As I insinuated in my post on booking the St. Regis Bora Bora, I found availability near the end of the booking calendar. Marriott’s booking calendar extends beyond the booking calendars of most airline programs. Generally, airlines allow award tickets to be booked about 331 days in advance, though it varies a bit by program. This meant that when I booked my stay at the St. Regis, flights were not yet loaded into the system for my dates. That made the reservation a bit of a gamble since I didn’t know how I’d get there.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Air France offers availability farther out than most airlines. Here was the calendar for next September for flights from Papeete, Tahiti to Los Angeles in business class (I took this screen shot a few days ago).
As you can see, pricing varies from 73,500 miles to 337,000 miles one-way thanks to the new Flying Blue dynamic pricing. You’ll notice that there are no dates available for 64K as shown in the chart above. That was the low end rate shown by the Flying Blue mileage estimator, but I didn’t actually see flights available at that price (though I did not search the entire calendar).
Hawaiian Airlines has a limited schedule to and from Tahiti, only flying a couple days of the week. However, I pretty reliably found 2 saver business class seats available during the last couple of months of the schedule and saver economy seats readily available. You have to log in to your Hawaiian Miles account to search availability (just as you do with Air France), but it’s pretty easy to find as long as you’re looking near the end of the calendar. I found that availability I saw on Hawaiian’s website also showed up on American’s site.
Traveling with a lap infant to Tahiti?
My next consideration is the fact that we’re traveling with a baby. It is generally difficult to get three award tickets in business class at the saver level (and “anytime” levels are unreasonable). We’re willing to make the trip with our son as a lap infant. I know that people have strong opinions on that, and I’ll leave that argument for the commenters. The fact is that we’re planning to bring him in business class and had to figure out the most cost-effective way to do it.
Air France, and Hawaiian both charge 10% of the adult fare & taxes/fees for a lap infant — as do all of the other airlines whose miles you can use to book award flights to Tahiti except Virgin Atlantic. Virgin charges very reasonable rates for infants at just 1K miles each way in economy class or 5K each way in business class.
Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic couldn’t find any availability in Hawaiian business class. I had Virgin search multiple dates in June, July, and August 2019 when Hawaiian’s site showed 2 saver awards available and American’s site showed the same — and Virgin agents did not see business class availability. They did see economy class seats available, but nothing in business class. I called multiple times to be sure I wasn’t just running into a roadblock with a single agent who was unfamiliar with how to look up availability. I don’t know whether Virgin just sees less availability than other Hawaiian partners or blocks these awards altogether, but I was unsuccessful in booking Hawaiian Airlines business class with Virgin Atlantic miles
That meant being stuck ponying up 10% for a lap infant — on top of positioning to either Los Angeles or Honolulu.
What I booked
Based on all of the above, I narrowed my choices down to Air France or Hawaiian Airlines. In the end, I decided to do both. I did that because of cash prices — I found Hawaiian had cheaper rates flying westbound and Air France had cheaper fares flying eastbound, which made a difference in lap infant fees.
Positioning is obviously the challenge since I live on the East Coast. However, my wife will have a Southwest Companion Pass through December 31, 2019. I’m banking on Southwest getting its act together on starting up Hawaii flights and then I think positioning costs will be reasonable each way (and we have a healthy stash of Southwest Rapid Rewards points). While in the past, I would have viewed positioning as an inconvenience, I’m actually glad to do it this time. Traveling with a baby has been a bit more challenging that I’d have imagined and I think breaking up the trip with a night or two in Los Angeles and Honolulu might help us ease our son into the time changes and be less stressful than the 24 or 30 hours or more of travel time on a continuous itineraries.
Options to get to Tahiti on miles are not as plentiful as to most destinations in Europe or Asia as there just aren’t many airlines flying to Papeete (and not all of them are in alliances). However, if you plan in advance, there are some potentially reasonable options using Air France / Flying Blue miles or using Hawaiian Miles or Virgin Atlantic miles – particularly if you can take advantage of one of the transfer bonuses we see to those programs every year. While past transfer bonuses are no guarantee of future bonuses, you can take a look at our Current point transfer bonuses page to see both current and past bonuses and gauge whether you might be able to plan on them in the future.