Over the Christmas / New Year break, Australian Business Traveller will be revisiting some of our most popular articles of 2017. We’re still around to report on any breaking news during this time, otherwise our regular publishing schedule will resume on Monday January 8, 2018.
Australian Business Traveller journalist Chris Chamberlin got married in 2017 – and booked his entire two-week European honeymoon, including business class flights and five star hotel accommodation, using airline and hotel points. Here's how he did it, so you can do it too...
A luxury overseas honeymoon can cost almost as much as a wedding itself – but if you’ve accumulated a stash of frequent flyer points and hotel loyalty points, even across a host of different programs, you may be able to take a romantic getaway for a much more affordable price.
For instance, my wife and I recently enjoyed a two-week honeymoon in London, Venice and Paris, travelling business class on every flight and staying only in 4- and 5-star hotels: an itinerary that could easily cost $25,000 or more.
By mixing together airline and hotel points from six different loyalty schemes and by flashing the odd elite-level membership card, the actual ‘cost’ of our trip was less than $3,000 per person: and yes, that’s including return business class flights to (and within) Europe, and all of our hotel stays.
Here’s how I planned and booked our extravagant, dream European honeymoon for little more than you’d pay for a single economy seat to London.
Planning our honeymoon trip: background
Taking every opportunity to earn points over the last few years – including on flights, hotel stays, credit card spend, online shopping and more – gave us a respectable starting tally of around 320,000 Qantas Points, 134,000 Virgin Australia Velocity points and 60,000 United MileagePlus miles to work with.
We’d also saved up 71,000 Hilton Honors points and 4,000 Le Club AccorHotels points to use towards hotel nights.
Combined, that still wasn’t enough points to get us to Europe and back again in business class, but by buying a few extra points via Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and taking advantage of a great Qantas epiQure wine promotion, we were able to piece together our trip, one part at a time!
Step 1: Fly business class from Brisbane to Hong Kong
A few quick sums showed that our 60,000 United miles were enough to get us both from Brisbane to Asia in business class, so we aimed for Hong Kong via Singapore with Singapore Airlines, paying A$66.10pp during the telephone booking process to cover various government taxes and fees.
That secured us business class seats on Singapore Airlines’ overnight Boeing 777 Brisbane-Singapore flight – complete with fully-flat beds as you’d find on SQ’s Airbus A380, below – along with business class tickets for our onward Singapore-Hong Kong leg.
As business class passengers, we also had access to the SilverKris business class lounges in Brisbane and Singapore prior to each flight, although flashing a Solitaire PPS Club frequent flyer card saw the Singapore experience upgraded to the SilverKris first class lounge: a quieter space with much nicer Champagne (2002 Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime).
While Singapore Airlines doesn’t allow United MileagePlus bookings in business class on its Airbus A380 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, this restriction doesn’t apply to other jets like the refurbished Boeing 777-200ERs flying to Brisbane, albeit with the same seats – you just need to call United to book as this can't be done online.
Total cost: 60,000 United MileagePlus miles + A$132.20
Step 2: Fly business class from Hong Kong to London
At the time we booked, Virgin Atlantic Upper Class from Hong Kong to London could be had for 82,000 Velocity points per person, one-way: 164,000 Velocity points for two. With 134,000 Velocity points in the kitty, we needed to find a further 30,000 Velocity points to get on board.
Fortunately for us, the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) hotel loyalty program was selling its own Starpoints at a 25% discount, and knowing that Starpoints can be converted into Velocity points on a 1:1 basis, I scooped up 20,000 points for US$525 (A$691: usually A$922 at full price).
Starwood also offers a year-round bonus of 5,000 Velocity points for every 20,000 Starpoints you convert across to Velocity, and at the same time, Virgin Australia was running its own temporary promotion providing a further 25% boost on the base amount of all hotel points transfers, or an all-out bonus of 50% after buying Starpoints at a discount.
Those 20,000 Starpoints quickly became 30,000 Velocity points, allowing us to book two seats in Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787 Upper Class cabin to London, including fully-flat beds (below) and an inflight bar on board, and access to the Virgin Atlantic Revivals Lounge at Heathrow after touch-down for showers, complimentary day spa treatments and a cooked breakfast with barista-made coffee.
Total cost: 134,000 Velocity points + A$1,463 ($691 to buy points + $792 in taxes, fees and carrier surcharges)
Step 3: Book a London hotel for four nights
To maximise our 71,000 Hilton Honors points, a search for hotels on the Hilton website revealed that the Hilton London Kensington was offering rooms for 20,000 Honors points + £55.85 (A$92.40) per night when using points, or for £170/night (A$283) outright at retail price.
Rather than spending 60,000 points + A$277.20 for three nights and then a further A$283 to book the fourth – being A$560.20 spent in total – I instead purchased 9,000 Honors points for US$90 (A$119) direct from Hilton, and then burned all 80,000 Honors points plus A$369.60 for a four-night stay.
Even with the added cost of buying points (making the total outlay A$488.60), that was still less-expensive than actually ‘paying’ for the fourth night, and in recognition of my Hilton Honors Gold status, our basic room was upgraded to one on the Executive floors with Executive Lounge access.
There, we enjoyed complimentary daily breakfast plus evening drinks and canapés as our schedule allowed, with free bottled water and WiFi provided in the room and priority check-in and check-out for swift service.
Total cost: 71,000 Honors points + A$488.60 ($119 to buy points + $369.60 in booking co-payments)
Step 4: Book an overnight hotel at London Gatwick
With a fifth night in London but a morning flight planned for the next day, an airport hotel was the most relaxing choice for our last night, and with attractive room rates at just £95 (A$158) at the Sofitel London Gatwick, this was a time where paying for a room made more sense than using points.
Not only could I earn Le Club AccorHotels points with this booking, but being a Le Club Silver member also unlocks ‘VIP treatment’ on all Sofitel stays: in our case, that meant a room upgrade, gifts of chocolates and sparkling water from the hotel and heart-shaped swans awaiting our arrival…
… plus free alcoholic welcome drinks at the bar and 20% off at the hotel’s Asian restaurant.
Total cost: A$158
Step 5: Fly business class from London Gatwick to Venice
Being a short two-hour flight, booking this leg in business class wasn’t a high priority – but with ample points in our accounts and British Airways Club Europe business class reward seats available when we needed them, the decision to fly up front was an easy one.
In exchange for 52,000 Qantas Points and £77.44 (A$128) in total, two business class tickets were ours: providing priority check-in, access to the ‘Gatwick Premium’ priority security channel and also to BA’s new Gatwick lounge, not to mention inflight brekky with Champagne… lots of Champagne!
Certainly, this flight could have been booked for fewer points via other frequent flyer programs instead – as is true of several flights in our itinerary – but our goal was to use the points we already had to fly business class where we needed to go, and in that respect, we succeeded.
Total cost: 52,000 Qantas Points + A$128
Step 6: Book three nights at a Venice hotel
Having saved hundreds of dollars in London by redeeming our Hilton points, we decided that Venice was an appropriate place to splurge on a suite – but to reduce the cost, we turned in our 4,000 Le Club points in exchange for an €80 (A$112) discount on the final bill at the Papadopoli MGallery by Sofitel hotel.
After discounts, our newly-renovated canal suite averaged A$330/night, offering an extended private balcony, 180-degree views and full daily breakfast in the hotel restaurant, plus a new round of welcome drinks at the bar courtesy of my Le Club Silver status and a complimentary bottle of Prosecco in the room.
This hotel also has a private dock connected to the lobby, so naturally, a water taxi ride from the airport terminal to the front door was justified.
Total cost: 4,000 Le Club AccorHotels points + A$990
Step 7: Fly from Venice to Paris
Without enough SkyTeam miles to book us both in Air France business class from Venice to Paris, we settled on buying economy class tickets instead for €74.39 (A$105) per person – but because I’d taken advantage of an earlier ‘status match’ offer by fellow SkyTeam airline Alitalia, my shiny SkyTeam Elite Plus card would guarantee us most of the usual business class perks anyway.
Among them: priority check-in, security screening, airport lounge access, priority boarding and priority baggage delivery… yet during online check-in, the Air France website offered us business class upgrades for only €89 (A$125) each to complete the experience, so who were we to refuse?
Total cost: A$460 ($210 for economy flights + $250 for upgrades)
Step 8: Find a suitable (and affordable) Paris hotel
Having spent all of our hotel points and with no favourable ‘buying points’ deals to avail of, Paris found us booking a hotel using money alone, but served as another an opportunity to earn points for a future trip by paying the bill using a points-earning credit card.
Knowing that newly-opened hotels debut with very attractive room rates, we jumped at a deluxe room at the Le Clef Tour Eiffel, selling for €240/night (A$338) for a three night stay at a perfect honeymoon location within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe.
Breakfast wasn’t included here which was a good motivator to go and explore the options nearby, although a long-stemmed red rose and bottle of Charles Heidsieck Champagne awaited our arrival after a brief mention of our honeymoon during the booking process. Certainly no complaints!
Total cost: A$1,014
Final step: Fly business class home from Paris to Brisbane
At first, our plan was to spend 256,000 Qantas Points to fly home in Emirates business class via Dubai, but with a co-payment amount of over $1,000 for a mere one-way flight, we set our sights on Cathay Pacific business class via Hong Kong instead, costing a higher 278,000 Qantas Points but with only A$169pp in charges.
The problem? We were around 10,000 Qantas Points short of that goal.
The solution? Qantas’ wine club epiQure was selling mixed cases of 12 wines for $340 including delivery, with 10,000 bonus Qantas Points on the side.
Naturally, I bought a case which gave us the extra points needed for those Cathay Pacific flights, and the overall cost was still hundreds of dollars less than that Emirates booking: even with an entire case of wine thrown into the mix!
As an added extra, I contacted Cathay Pacific’s public reservations number and ordered a surprise ‘honeymoon cake’ for HK$300 (A$51), which was delivered during our final flight home from Hong Kong to Brisbane, along with a card signed by the pilots and cabin crew.
Total cost: 268,000 Qantas Points + A$678 (A$338 in taxes and charges + $340 in epiQure wine for 10,000 points)
Booking our honeymoon using points: the final cost
Across all our combined flight and hotel bookings, we spent a grand total of $5,511.80, or $2,755.90 each – including purchasing extra points and wine, as needed – along with all of our original 514,000 frequent flyer points and 75,000 hotel points for a two-week European honeymoon with all flights in business class and hotels no less than four-star standard.
Many couples would pay that much just to fly to Europe during the busy season: and that’s for economy, without any hotels included!
But by combining our Qantas, Virgin Australia, United, Hilton and Accor points, taking advantage of a few sharp ‘buying points’ (and ‘buying wine’) deals, booking well in advance and flashing the occasional elite loyalty card, I was able to craft us a unique and memorable honeymoon with maximum luxury at minimal cost.
For now, I’m safe with the missus – but feel that our next holiday, whenever that may be, will need to top this one somehow… wish me luck!