Free $10,000 Trip: Sydney and Great Barrier Reef With My Mom

After months of applying for credit cards and making plans, I finally booked a nearly-all-free itinerary for my mother and I to travel to Australia to see my (other) cousin get married and to check out the Great Barrier Reef.

When we first decided to make this trip, just the two of us, I immediately set the goal of traveling in a premium class, which seemed doable since we only needed to get two tickets. What I didn’t know is that first and business class seats between the United States and Australia are really hard to get. We focused on accumulating American Airlines miles, since American and its partner Qantas both fly the route. I figured we would take Hawaiian Air one way, since I had a bunch of Hawaiian miles and was able to help my mom get a bunch of those too, then return via American or Qantas.

However, too late, I realized that we were never going to be able to book a first or business class seat from Sydney to DFW or SFO on American or Qantas. I needed a plan B.

Hawaiian Air turned out to be that Plan B. Since Hawaiian is also an American partner, we were able to use some of our American AAdvantage miles for the flight we had been planning to use AAdvantage miles on. HA premium class is much easier to get into, and while it’s not an international first class experience, they have lay-flat seat/beds and it looks nice.

Here’s the itinerary:

  1. On Monday April 30, we will fly from Oakland to Honolulu in coach on Hawaiian Air, arriving at 11:25 a.m. Cost for two: 35,000 Hawaiian miles (retail $400). We’ll stay overnight in a Waikiki hotel, which I plan to pay for with SPG points.
  2. On Tuesday May 1, we’ll fly from Honolulu to Sydney in business, leaving at 12:35pm and arriving 11 hours later at 7:30pm Sydney time. Cost for two: 260,000 HA miles (retail $5,567). We’ll stay at a Hilton in Sydney, paid for with Hilton points.
  3. On Monday, May 7, we’ll fly from Sydney to Cairns on Qantas in economy, arriving at 4:15 p.m. Cost for two: 20,000 British Airways Avios (retail $260). We’ll take a shuttle to Port Douglas, an hour north, and stay at a lovely boutique hotel paid for with a combination of 75,000 Citi ThankYou points and $200 cash. We’ll also book a hotel in Cairns for the night of Saturday, May 12, using AmEx points.
  1. On Sunday, May 13 (Mother’s Day in the US) we’ll take the Spirit of Queensland train from Cairns to Brisbane, departing at 9 a.m. and arriving the same time the next day. Cost: US$571 total, including meals. The most expensive part of the trip by far!
  2. On Monday, May 14, we’ll fly from Brisbane to Honolulu in business, departing at 9:45 pm and arriving at 10:55 a.m. Hawaii time. Cost: 120,000 AAdvantage miles (retail $3,533).
  3. Also on Monday, May 14, we’ll fly from Honolulu to Oakland in coach on Alaska Air, departing at 2:45 and arriving home, very tired I expect, 5 hours later at 10:57 p.m. Cost: 25,000 BA Avios (retail $530)

My mom will take care of her flights from her home in Wisconsin to California, and back, probably using her Southwest miles.

Now, all these points have different values, but if you add them all up, this trip for two, with the long flights in business and the short flights in coach, is costing us 440,000 points, or 220,000 each. Plus my mom will end up spending another 20,000 to 25,000 points to get to and from her home to my home (not counting the small fees on each flight). If we paid cash, the flights we got for 440,000 points would cost us $10,290 total, or $5,145 each.

It may look like we are wasting miles by paying for all these different flights separately, instead of crafting a multi-leg itinerary all on one airline and its partners. I did try to plan the trip that way, for example, booking just one round trip American flight that would go ORD-SFO-HNL-SYD and back. If it were possible, I thought such an itinerary, all business would cost us about 160,000 AAdvantage miles each, which is a better deal than the 210,000-235,000 we’re paying to get to and from Australia (I’m not counting our one domestic flight in Australia). But it didn’t work out for a number of reasons, and besides, we wanted to rest for a night or more in between some of these flights instead of going on a round-the-world marathon.

So, by applying for a bunch of credit cards over the course of a few months, and using some miles we already had, mostly from spending on credit cards, my mom and I are each getting more than $5,000 worth of travel free. Not bad at all!