US Airways has always had one of the most lucrative award charts, especially for stretching long international redemptions. They've got very flexible routing rules, awards that are priced by the agent and not the computer, and an extremely good award chart, especially amidst recent devaluations.
There are two items on the award chart in particular that are very lucrative: 1. 90,000 miles in Business Class from the US to "North Asia" 2. 90,000 miles in Business Class from Mexico & the Caribbean to "Southeast Asia"
The US to North Asia award has since been devalued to 110,000 miles (though first class remains a very lucrative 120,000 miles), but the second item remains unchanged: 90,000 miles from Mexico or the Carribbean to Southeast Asia. That's a heck of a deal! It's especially perverse because it costs 120,000 miles to go to Southeast Asia from the US - so you save 30,000 miles by starting in Mexico.
Back in December, when US Airways was still in Star Alliance, I decided to book a 90,000 mile business class award, deliberately starting in Mexico to take advantage of being able to go all the way to Southeast Asia for only 90,000 miles roundtrip. US Airways allows one stopover or one open jaw on an award, and allows routings through Europe. I planned on doing a stopover in Europe.
I knew I had to start in Mexico, but planned on routing through LAX on the return so I could just get off the plane and skip the remaining segments. I also wanted to use this award as an opportunity to sample new Star Alliance business class products I had never flown, so specifically looked for interesting routes.
After a lot of research using United.com for award availability, I eventually found and ticketed this award - 23,952 miles around-the-world in business class:
MEX-FRA on Lufthansa 747-8i Business Class (Upper Deck) FRA-ZRH on Lufthansa A320 Business Class Stopover in Zurich for 5 Days ZRH-BKK on Swiss A340 Business Class BKK-CGK on Thai 777 Business Class Destination Jakarta, Indonesia for 9 Days CGK-TPE on EVA A330 Business Class Deliberate 21 hour "Layover" in Taipei TPE-LAX on EVA 777-300ER "Hello Kitty" Business Class LAX-PHX-MEX on US Airways (Skipped Segments)
This award would cost 90,000 US Airways miles and $156.20 in taxes. Since I took advantage of two US Airways share miles promos that effectively allowed me to buy 100,000 miles at 1.1 cents a piece, the net cost to me was $1,146 (not counting my positioning flight to Mexico).
I flew to Mexico City on a paid United Airlines ticket from Rochester, where I was participating in an RIT Alumni Jazz reunion. Even though I had lived in San Diego for almost three years, I had never been to Mexico before.
Mexico City was pretty awesome. I stayed at the Marriott Reforma hotel on points, and had a lovely two night stay in Mexico exploring the streets and eating some delicious food.
MEX-FRA on Lufthansa 747-8i Business Class (Upper Deck)
I'm a huge fan of Lufthansa's 747-8i - a stretched version of the 747 that currently only Lufthansa is flying. In booking this award, I was happy to find that MEX-FRA was on this new plane. I was able to secure an upper deck seat and had a pretty good flight. Service wasn't quite as good as I remember it being FRA-LAX on a previous trip, but the I got plenty of sleep in the lie-flat seat, and the timing was just about perfect (leaving at 8:30PM).
Zurich and Munich
I chose Zurich as my stopover in part because I had never been there, and partly because I've been wanting to try Swiss Airlines business class. Zurich is a wonderful city to walk around and explore, and Lake Zurich is absolutely beautiful. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza hotel on points.
But… Zurich is an incredibly expensive city, so I decided to spend most of my stopover in Munich (a four hour train ride away), where I met up with some friends passing through on a different round-the-world trip booked with United miles.
In Munich I stayed primarily at a Marriott that I booked for free with some MegaBonus certificates, then moved to a super cheap Priceline booking at the five-star Le Meridien, where I was able to provide my SPG number and get SPG Platinum benefits.
ZRH-BKK on Swiss A340 Business Class
My first time in Swiss Airlines business class was a little dissapointing. The seat felt cramped, jammed up against the window, although it was lie-flat and I ended up getting a great seat. Service was definitely above average, but the hard product felt fairly dated.
The only available award flight to Jakarta was at 8AM, which required a forced overnight in Bangkok. This ended up being shortly after the Thai Army declared martial law on Bangkok. Aside from a warning sign at my hotel, I didn't notice anything different in the city. It turns out, during my flight from Bangkok to Jakarta, Thailand then had a full-scale military coup.
I had dinner at my favorite restaurant in Bangkok (Somtum Der), serving up authentic Issan (northern Thai) food, then walked around the Siam area near my hotel.
I stayed at the Hyatt Erawan Bangkok for the first time, and used one of my expiring Hyatt Diamond Suite upgrade certificates to reserve a suite on their Club floor.
Because I was leaving too early to enjoy breakfast in the lounge, they gave me complementary early morning room service: a full "Thai Breakfast" spread.
BKK-CGK on Thai 777 Business Class
I had a fairly typical flight in Thai Airways Royal Silk. I have flown their angle-flat 777 business class before and it's definitely more than adequate. I ended up getting some sleep on this flight because I was pretty tired from all the time zone hopping.
Wow, Jakarta. This isn't a particularly touristed place, and I really wanted to go here just because I had never been. The traffic is absolutely crazy: on my one hour journey from the airport to my hotel, the taxi drove mostly in the shoulder and cut off two police cars. There are no rules, but somehow people get by.
I had several encounters of Indonesian school children wanting to take pictures with me and practice their English. They all learn English in school, but have few opportunities to speak with a native speaker, given virtually no Westerners visit Indonesia except for business.
Especially for a hot city in Southeast Asia, I did quite a lot of walking around, but Jakarta is very unfriendly to pedestrians. Although I'm glad I finally went there, I probably will not be back.
I stayed at the Grand Hyatt Jakarta on a cash & points rate, also applying one of my expiring Hyatt Diamond suite upgrades. The hotel was a bit dated, but overall pretty nice considering where I was.
Side Trips to Kuala Lumpur & Panang, Malaysia on Malaysia Airlines
Within Jakarta on my "shell" trip, I decided to book separate flights on Malaysian Airlines to visit Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia, both delightful cities. Kuala Lumpur was great to walk around, and ascend one of the tallest buildings in the world.
I stayed at the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, one of the nicest Hyatt Properties I've been to. I used one of my Hyatt Diamond suite upgrades.
In Penang I stayed off the beaten path at the Four Points by Sheraton on a very cheapCash & Points rate (1,500 points + $30 / night), and applied one of my Starwood Platinum suite upgrades). I had a relaxing time there on the beach and eating some incredibly delicious food. I'd come back to Penang just for the food!
Returning from Penang to Jakarta I used the Malaysian Airlines First Class lounge due to my OneWorld Emerald status (through American Airlines ExecutivePlatinum), even flying economy on a cheap ticket. The lounge had a sit-down restaurant and outstanding service.
CGK-TPE on EVA A330 Business Class
After a quick overnight in Jakarta, I arrived at Jakarta airport quite early. Shortly after my arrival the check-in queue opened, and a lady asked if I was traveling in business class. She pulled me out of the line and escorted me to a separate sit-down checkin area for premium passengers departing CGK, where I got my boarding passes for four flights: CGK-TPE-LAX-PHX-MEX. I definitely chuckled at seeing a boarding pass for a US Airways flight Phoenix to Mexicoty City printed on EVA Airlines card stock.
I deliberately booked a long layover in Taipei since it was free on the award I booked, and I was looking forward to visiting the original location of Din Tai Fung that a friend and I visited last time I was in Taipei.
I spent my short layover eating delicious dumplings and strolling around the streets of Taipei.
TPE-LAX on EVA Airlines 777-300ER "Hello Kitty" Business Class
The flight I was looking forward to the most was my Taipei to Los Angeles flight on the EVA Airlines 777-300ER. Their reverse herringbone lie-flat business class is highly acclaimed in the blogosphere, and I was lucky enough to be on their "Hello Kitty" service.
Unfortunately the plane did not end up being adorned in Hello Kitty livery, but the service was fully Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty aprons, Hello Kity coasters, Hello Kitty menus, Hello Kitty checkin kiosks, Hello Kitty boarding passes, even Hello Kitty toilet paper! It was definitely a ridiculous experience.
Besides the Hello Kitty, this flight was my best business class flight ever. The service was outstanding, and EVA's reverse herringbone seat is just about perfect.
The value I got from this 90,000 mile award on the US Airways chart was huge. These business class flights would cost somewhere around $20,000 if paying cash, yet I was able to buy those 90,000 miles for $990 (plus $156 in taxes).
If anyone out there is considering using their US Airways miles, around-the-world trips like this are still doable, but a little more difficult now that US Airways is in OneWorld alliance. Nevertheless, routings like this should be possible in theory:
MEX-LAX-HKG-HKT (Cathay Pacific 777-300ER Business Class) Destination Phuket, Thailand HKT-KUL-CDG (Malaysian Airlines A380 Business Class) Stopover Paris, France CDG-LHR-LAX-MEX (American or British Airways Business Class)
Since US Airways and American are in the process of merging, I can pretty much guarentee these miles will devalue sometime within the next two years. But they are probably safe for at least the next six months. Beyond that, I'd recommend burning your US Airways miles on a redemption like this.