I love showing real-life examples of squeezing the most “juice” out of your miles and points. So, recently, I was thrilled to be able to help one particular reader. Here is the email (condensed version) I got last week:
“My wife and I live in Portland, Oregon and would like to celebrate our next wedding anniversary in Hawaii. We want to spend 10 days exploring several islands and hope to use miles and points for award tickets. We have to fly next April, and don’t have a lot of flexibility on dates. Here is what I have right now: 40K SPG points and 200K transferrable Ultimate Rewards points.”
Conventional wisdom in the miles and points hobby would suggest using Ultimate Rewards and saving SPG points for something else. But there is nothing conventional about this blog! So, let me walk you through my reasoning process. First, you may want to read my post from last week. It tackles various award programs and ways to leverage miles and points for a trip to Hawaii.
In it I’ve mentioned Korean Sky Pass as the best overall value. The tickets cost 25K miles in economy and 45K miles in business/first class on flights operated by Delta. Korean Sky Pass partners with Ultimate Rewards as well as SPG program. In fact, this reader emailed me and wanted to know if this is the course he should pursue. Naturally, he was thinking about trying to get first class tickets for only 45K miles roundtrip. After all, they are celebrating a wedding anniversary, so why not splurge?
And normally, this would be the way to go. But after looking at it further, I advised him against it. Here is why. Delta doesn’t have any non-stop flights to Hawaii from Portland. They would have to make a connection, and most departures in April were very early in the morning (6:00 AM).
Sure, they would have nice seats, but it would add a ton of inconvenience, not to mention, a potential missed connection. I think this Korean Sky Pass redemption on Delta mostly represents great value for those who don’t live near West coast airports served by American, Alaska Air and Hawaiian.
Speaking of, being in Portland, the reader had two main options for non-stop flights to Hawaii: Alaska Air and Hawaiian Airlines. It’s best to book the first one through Avios program, at a cost of 25K Avios miles for a roundtrip ticket in economy (see my linked post above for details). However, there has to be low-level availability via Alaska Air program itself. And there wasn’t any for our dates.
So, that left us with Hawaiian program. Chase Ultimate Rewards points don’t transfer to Hawaiian Airlines, but SPG points do. However, there is a better way. Introducing new SPG/ Virgin America partnership where points transfer on 1:1 basis. I wrote a post on it few months ago and highlighted various sweet spots, including award flights to Hawaii.
Here is how you can take advantage of Virgin America partnership with Hawaiian Airlines:
1) Flights to Hawaii from West coast, Las Vegas, Phoenix and New York
Here is the map of all the flights to Hawaii operated by Hawaiian Airlines (look for yellow and white):
As you can see, they fly from Portland, several other West coast airports and even New York. All, except the last one cost 20,000 points roundtrip when you book them through Virgin America (Hawaiian partner).
New York-Honolulu route costs 35,000 Elevate points, not as good of a deal, but still respectable value. Check this link and plug in your city combinations (scroll to the bottom). It’s an extremely user-friendly page because it clearly displays the rate and taxes.
You get a discount for redeeming points for a roundtrip ticket. Even if you decide to fly one-way, the rate is still a reasonable 12,000 points per person on all routes except New York. The latter costs 20,000 points one-way.
In order to see availability, first, you’ll have to join Hawaiian frequent flyer program (free and takes 3 minutes). Select “miles” option when searching for flights and pick “one way” or “roundtrip” option. I selected roundtrip because I want the reader to get this flight for 20K points total per person:
I selected the dates in April for Portland-Honolulu route and started looking for 2 seats in economy on the same flight. Availability appeared to be fairly decent. As you can see, award flights cost 20K miles one-way (40K roundtrip) per person, which is the lowest level in Hawaiian program. Ignore that number because we will be booking through Virgin America where the cost is merely 20,000 points roundtrip for the same exact flight.
Now comes the scary part. You transfer you SPG points to Virgin America (hopefully getting a 5,000 mile bonus) and pray that seats are still there when miles post. It could take a week or even longer. That’s why I strongly recommend you have a Plan B in place. You will have to call 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474) to book your Hawaiian flights or any other partner redemptions, for that matter.
2) Inter-island flights on Hawaiian
Another excellent option. Availability is usually outstanding unless you are booking close to departure date. The rate is only 3,000 points for one-way flights; 6,000 roundtrip. It appears there is no penalty for redeeming points for one-way flights. You will have to once again do a search on Hawaiian Airlines website and then call Virgin America. They have to price out at 7,500 miles one-way in order for you to book them for only 3,000 points through Virgin America Elevate.
Dumping an entire stash of SPG points to Virgin America program
In order to get 2 roundtrip tickets, the reader would have to transfer 35K SPG points, since you get 5K bonus per each 20K transfer. Because he mentioned to me that they wanted to visit several islands, my advice was to just dump the entire 40K SPG points into Virgin America. Why?
Well, that way, he would get another 5K points bonus and would end up with extra 10K points in Virgin America account. That’s enough for 3 one-way inter-island tickets on Hawaiian Airlines. In fact, he would have 1K points leftover toward the fourth ticket when all is said and done. Buying Elevate points probably makes no sense because they normally cost 5 cents per point. However, if there is a sale, it’s something to keep in mind.
Of course, he can always just use his Amex SPG (if he has one) for everyday spending and then transfer points to Virgin America 1:1. Alternatively, consider buying SPG currency when there is a sale. Booking inter-island flights 10 months in advance isn’t as critical as taking care of the flight from Mainland.
Either way, getting 2 roundtrip tickets to Hawaii, plus 3 one-way inter-island tickets on top of it from just 40K SPG points is a heck of a deal. The reader followed my suggestion and he said the points posted in 24 hours, though YMMV. He was able to book the flights without an issue. Success!
Out of curiosity, I checked what revenue seats on Hawaiian go for in April of next year for this particular route. Here is the price for one economy roundtrip ticket:
Not too shabby of a redemption if I say so myself. 🙂
Don’t ignore flights to Hawaii operated by Virgin America
Let’s say you can’t find availability on Hawaiian Airlines or you don’t live near an airport served by Virgin America or Hawaiian Air. You should still consider Virgin America Elevate program and here is why. It’s revenue based, so no need to worry about award availability, which is a huge issue for families. You get around 2.2 cents per point, and some routes can be quite reasonable.
Here is a map of Virgin America coverage:
You can fly non-stop from Los Angeles or San Francisco to both Oahu and Maui. It could make sense to book an award flight on Southwest or another airline and spend the night in either city before continuing on to Hawaii. I love San Francisco and absolutely recommend you visit it. Here is the price in points that I found from San Francisco to Maui next March:
If you have a big stash of SPG points, you should at least look into transfer to Virgin America if you are planning on flying to Hawaii. The overall value IMO is terrific. It’s not the best fit for everyone, but for many American families this option quite possibly represents the most lucrative use of SPG points.
How you can accumulate SPG currency
Well, for most normal folks, the easiest way is to sign up for Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, either personal or business version. Both pay me commission, however, I recommend you hold off on applying till Amex raises the bonus to at least 30K points (right now it’s down to 25k points). Hopefully, we’ll even see an offer for 35K points before the end of the year. You can only get either bonus once per lifetime.
Even though it doesn’t sound like much, as you can see from the above analysis, there is a lot you can do with that amount of SPG points.
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