I get by (and to Alaska) with a little help from my friends

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In my recent post “Where to?” I mentioned that my family had scrapped plans for Paris in favor of either an Alaskan cruise or a first class trip to Hong Kong.  Well, the Hong Kong option didn’t pan out so we’re now headed to Alaska for sure.  Below, I describe our plans, how we made the most of our points and miles, and why it took three colleagues to help book the trip…

File:Tracy Arm fjord Sawyer Glacier.jpg

Cathay Pacific

This is somewhat ridiculous, but the whole idea of going to Alaska started with my desire to use British Airways miles to fly Cathay Pacific business class between New York City and Vancouver.  I checked availability and found it was wide open on the dates we wanted to travel.  The flight to Vancouver looked a bit painful in that it arrived at about 2 in the morning, however the return flight looked good: it leaves Vancouver at around 10 pm and arrives JFK at 7 am.  I saw that I could book the three of us in business class for that one way flight for only 25,000 Avios each.

Celebrity Cruise

Next, we looked at the cruises that were available during the dates we wanted.  We liked best the one way options: go from Vancouver to Anchorage or vice versa.  Since we wanted to take the Cathay Pacific flight from Vancouver to NY, we decided that a southbound cruise (Anchorage to Vancouver) would work best.  After reading reviews, we picked the Celebrity Millennium. 

The next challenge was to get the best deal we could find.  Sadly, the Chase deal of 6 points per dollar for booked cruises had ended earlier in the summer.  I called to see if they would extend that offer anyway, but no dice.  All sites I checked had the same exact price for the cruise with a couple of exceptions: TravelToGo advertised a teacher discount (and Mrs. Miler PhD qualifies!) and Travelocity advertised a $250 shipboard credit.  So, I went through the Ultimate Rewards Mall to Travelocity (to get 2X bonus points) and booked the cruise on hold.  I then called Travelocity to see if they could match the teacher discount.  Success!  I used my new BA card to pay so as to make a lot of progress towards the $20K spend that will get me another 50K Avios.  Under other circumstances I might have used my Sapphire Preferred to get 2X (for travel), or a NetSpend card to get 5X indirectly (see “NetSpend challenges the throne”).

Getting There and Back

The next challenge was to figure out how to get to Anchorage, and then how to get back home from JFK after the Cathay Pacific flight.  I spent a couple of hours checking award options through United, BA and others, but became increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t find good low level award availability on reasonably timed flights. 

MileValue to the rescue
I turned instead to MileValue who had offered me a discount on his award booking service if I promised to write up a review (which will be coming, I promise).  In very short order, MileValue found a good option for our flights.  Nice job MileValue!  The only problem was that since the flights were soon, United would charge me a $75 fee for each person.  Ugh.

Scottrick to the rescue
Scottrick, from the blog Hack My Trip, has high level elite status with United.  As such, he can book awards for free.  So, I asked him for a favor… could he book our flights so as to save me some money?  He agreed and I pushed some Ultimate Rewards points over to his United account to cover the trip.  Next thing I knew, the flights were booked!  Thanks Scottrick!

Lodging

For various reasons, I wanted to stay in Anchorage at the downtown Marriott the night before our cruise.  Strangely, Marriott.com showed no availability, whereas Orbitz was willing to let me book a room.  I could have booked via Orbitz, but then I wouldn’t have been able to pay with a Marriott gift card I have lying around.  Also, I didn’t think a room booked via Orbitz would qualify for Marriott’s “stay two nights, get one free” promo that I’ve registered for.

GrizShel to the rescue
I met FlyerTalker, GrizShel, at the recent Ann Arbor DO (more about that in a future post).  He organized the DO, and at breakfast he talked authoritatively about Marriott hotels and how to snag BRG (best rate guarantee) rates.  So, I told him my situation.  He said that with his Platinum status, he could book the room for me.  Next thing I knew the room was booked and he used his BRG trick to cut the room rate almost in half!  He put me as a guest on the reservation and instructed me to change the room over to my Marriott account when I arrive at the hotel.  Sweet.

By ourselves, we were able to snag a great rate the Renaissance Vancouver for the night after the cruise.  Since this is a Marriott property, this stay and the Anchorage stay should together get us a free night certificate thanks to the Marriott promo I mentioned above. 

Finally, for an overnight in New York City I booked the Hotel Intercontinental Times Square using the annual free night certificate given to Priority Club Visa holders.  Done!  The annual $45 fee for the Priority Club Visa, by the way, has to be one of the best values out there!

So, now plans are set with a lot of help from my friends.

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