Booked: Summer in Asia

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After a few weeks recharging my batteries in Toronto, I’m looking forward to embarking on my next trip later this week, which will take me to Asia over the rest of June and most of July. 

Compared to the action-packed journey through the Mediterranean and Middle East that I took last month, this trip is going to be a lot more… businesslike. A handful of the destinations are motivated by certain commitments I have, although I’ve still managed to plan out a fair few new places for sightseeing and exciting airline products and upscale hotels for me to try. Let’s walk through the details of the trip together and take a look at the planning process behind the scenes.


The Trip

The planning for this trip began organically with a few commitments that popped up on my calendar for the summer of 2019. Specifically,

  • I’ll be speaking at a TravelCon panel in Boston later this week (there are still virtual tickets left, if anyone’s interested in hearing the sessions and learning more about the business of creating travel content online)

  • Jessica and I will be visiting our families back in China – mine in Beijing and hers in the city of Anshan in China’s northeast

  • We then needed to be in Vancouver by late July for a friend’s wedding

I was therefore looking at flying out to Asia from the US East Coast, spending some time there, and then booking a return flight into Vancouver. While I do my best to book my trips as far in advance as possible, I took a pretty casual approach to this trip, and hadn’t even started looking at flights by the turn of the year. 

Lo and behold, this past New Year’s Eve was exactly when Cathay Pacific dropped those crazy US$988 round-trip First Class fares between Hanoi and Vancouver, so when I saw that, I knew I had to act immediately and book it right then and there.

I’d use the outbound segment of the Cathay Pacific mistake fare, from Hanoi to Vancouver, as the return portion of this trip. Meanwhile, I booked the inbound segment, Vancouver to Hanoi, on a future date to kick-off my next trip to Asia sometime later. It’s the principle of nested trips in action.

Since I’d need to originate from Hanoi, I figured I might as well take this opportunity to visit a few new places in South East Asia. I had briefly explored Hanoi on one of my trips last year, so my focus this time shifted to Cambodia and the Angkor Wat temple complex, which had been near the top of my bucket list for quite some time.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

With the tail end of my trip sorted out, I then began thinking about the outbound from Boston to Beijing. What other cool places could I check out along the way? 

I do love spending time in New York City, and while I’ve done a few weekend trips to the Big Apple in recent years, it’s been so long since I’ve been there in the summertime. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to slot in a quick pit-stop in New York right after TravelCon in Boston.

The next stop along the way to Beijing came about as a result of the Marriott Bonvoy luxury hotels sweet spot prior to March 2019. I had speculatively booked two nights at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto (widely considered to be one of the best Ritz-Carltons in the world, which, crucially, extends full elite benefits to Platinum members and above) right around these dates, with the hope of stopping in Kyoto for a few days on my way to Beijing.

After all, Kyoto’s considered one of Japan’s most beautiful cities (and nearby Osaka is a food lover’s heaven), but I’ve actually never had the chance to visit on my many previous trips to Japan.

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find the right flights to get me into the Osaka/Kyoto region on my desired dates, but fortunately everything worked out and I was able to schedule the flights to fit perfectly alongside my locked-in Ritz-Carlton reservation.

Speaking of the flights, let’s talk about that in more detail…


The Flights

To kick off the trip, TravelCon covered my flight from Toronto to Boston, a no-nonsense economy class booking on Air Canada. 

After TravelCon, I then needed to get from Boston to New York. I had the option of flying, taking an Amtrak train, or taking a Greyhound bus, and you know what? I decided to take the Greyhound just for fun.

It felt like one of those situations where flying would be just as much hassle despite the time savings on paper, since I’d need to travel to and from the airports in both cities compared to getting to the centrally-located bus or train stations. 

Then, between the Amtrak and the Greyhound, I felt the former would’ve probably been a little more enjoyable, but I couldn’t quite justify the four-times price premium, so I went with the Greyhound. It’ll certainly bring back a bit of nostalgia from when I took the 10-hour Greyhound ride all the way from Toronto to New York back in my first year of university.

Next, I needed to get to Kyoto for a few days and then fly onwards to Beijing. Now, one-way flights between Japan and China can be deceptively expensive if booked with cash, so my first instinct was to use Alaska miles to fly on Japan Airlines from the US East Coast to Tokyo, have a multi-day stopover in Tokyo, and then continue onto Beijing.

After monitoring award availability for a few days, I decided on a Chicago–Tokyo–Beijing itinerary in Japan Airlines business class for 65,000 Alaska miles per person. I booked this just last week, about two and a half weeks before the date of departure, so it goes to show that you can indeed use your points to book relatively last-minute if you have some measure of the flexibility. 

I would’ve loved to fly Japan Airlines First Class again, especially since it’d only cost me an extra 10,000 miles per person, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any First Class space on any of Japan Airlines’s US routes on my chosen travel date.

I’m still checking back every now and then, but if nothing opens up, I’d be perfectly happy with business, especially since I’ve yet to try and review Japan Airlines business class on a long-haul flight.

Japan Airlines 787 business class

Japan Airlines 787 business class

(Between New York and Chicago, I booked a US$110 cash fare using some American Airlines gift cards that I was keeping around as a result of cashing out the airline fee credit on my Amex US credit cards.)

Since the Japan Airlines itinerary would only get me to Tokyo, I then added on a round-trip to Osaka Itami Airport in economy class, leveraging the British Airways Avios sweet spot on short-haul Oneworld flights. This was after British Airways devalued their partner awards slightly on May 31, so I ended up paying 12,000 Avios per person for this round-trip.

Where were we? Okay, Beijing. I’ll spend about a week at home before heading to Anshan, and Jessica and I booked ourselves on the overnight train for that portion of the journey. We’re no strangers to overnight trains, so that 8-hour train ride should bring back some good memories of last summer.

Then we needed a way to get from northeastern China down to Cambodia, which was surprisingly tricky business. There’s relatively limited air service going into Cambodia compared to neighbouring countries like Vietnam or Thailand, with the local Cambodia Angkor Air providing most of the connectivity to the wider Asia-Pacific region.

However, I did manage to find a daily Shenzhen Airlines flight that goes into Phnom Penh, and since Shenzhen Airlines is part of Star Alliance, that meant that an Aeroplan redemption was in play. 

By piecing that flight together with another Shenzhen Airlines flight from Shenyang, the larger metropolis an hour’s drive from Anshan, I was able to book the whole thing on a single intra-Asia award for 20,000 Aeroplan miles per person in economy class. The 20-hour layover in Shenzhen also has the added side effect of allowing me to visit my aunt and cousin who live there. Talk about a happy coincidence! 

With four days planned in Cambodia, I decided to split that evenly between Phnom Penh, the capital, and Siem Reap, where the temples of Angkor Wat are found. The intra-Cambodia flight on an airline called Lanmei Airlines cost me only $50 per person, while the flight out from Siem Reap to Hanoi on the low-cost carrier VietJet Air cost me $83 per person.

From Hanoi, I’ll pick up Cathay Pacific’s special New Year’s fire-sale, with a Cathay Dragon business class flight to Hong Kong followed by the main event in Cathay Pacific’s intimate six-person First Class cabin on the way to Vancouver. Needless to say, I’m buzzing with excitement at the thought of rekindling the fond memories from my maiden flight in Cathay First from last year.

Cathay Pacific First Class

Cathay Pacific First Class

Lastly, there’s the small matter of flying back east from Vancouver, and with the one-way cash prices reaching $400–500 during the peak of summer, I was briefly feeling pretty stressed out that I had left this until the last minute. That’s until I remembered the article I had written on WestJet’s Member Exclusive fares, and sure enough, I was able to book a transcontinental flight for 125 WestJet Dollars + $37 in taxes and fees, scoring some pretty significant savings. Don’t be sleeping on WestJet Dollars, people…

Overall, the flights are looking as follows:

  • Toronto to Boston on Air Canada, departing 12:55pm and arriving 2:30pm, economy class

  • Newark to Chicago on American Airlines, departing 7:10am and arriving 8:44am, economy class

  • Chicago to Tokyo Narita on Japan Airlines, departing 1pm and arriving 3:55pm the next day, business class

  • Tokyo Narita to Osaka Itami on Japan Airlines, departing 6:25pm and arriving 7:40pm, economy class

  • Osaka Itami to Tokyo Haneda on Japan Airlines, departing 1:30pm and arriving 2:40pm, economy class

  • Tokyo Haneda to Beijing on Japan Airlines, departing 4:50pm and arriving 7:45pm, business class

  • Shenyang to Shenzhen on Shenzhen Airlines, departing 1:35pm and arriving 5:40pm, economy class

  • Shenzhen to Phnom Penh on Shenzhen Airlines, departing 1:40pm and arriving 3:20pm, economy class

  • Phnom Penh to Siem Reap on Lanmei Airlines, departing 2:10pm and arriving 2:50pm, economy class

  • Siem Reap to Hanoi on VietJet Air, departing 7:15pm and arriving 9pm, economy class

  • Hanoi to Hong Kong on Cathay Dragon, departing 7:55pm and arriving 10:50pm, business class

  • Hong Kong to Vancouver on Cathay Pacific, departing 12:30am and arriving 9:25pm the previous day, First Class

  • Vancouver to Toronto on WestJet, departing 6am and arriving 1:30pm, economy class


The Hotels

Just as the flights for this trip were chosen in a rather piecemeal fashion, so too are the hotels composed of a mix of carefully-planned aspirational properties and off-the-cuff last-minute bookings. 

In Boston, TravelCon is generously covering my four nights at the Westin Copley Place Boston, and I’m grateful to Matt from TravelCon for choosing a Marriott hotel for the conference where I can continue to enjoy my Titanium Elite benefits. 😉

Westin Copley Place Boston

Westin Copley Place Boston

For the one night I had planned in New York, there was only ever going to be one choice given the pre-March sweet spot of booking top-tier luxury properties for 60,000 Bonvoy points per night: the St. Regis New York, a timeless address on Fifth Avenue that retails for US$900+ a night.

As a big fan of the St. Regis brand, I’m looking forward to knocking the original St. Regis property off the bucket list, and by my valuation of Marriott Bonvoy points at 1 cent per point, I’m also getting a pretty sweet deal at this iconic Manhattan hotel. 

(One thing that annoys me about the St. Regis New York is the US$50 destination fee charged on cash and points bookings alike. As a result, I intend to fully maximize my usage of the ancillary benefits that the destination fee comes with, like the two museum tickets, the use of the hotel’s Bentley town car, and the two US$50 credits for food and beverage as well as laundry and dry cleaning.)

St. Regis New York

St. Regis New York

After an overnight stay at the SpringHill Suites Newark Airport before our early flight (which I decided to book with cash at US$97 rather than redeeming 17,500 points), we find ourselves in Kyoto, where the two-night stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto had similarly been booked for 60,000 Bonvoy points per night prior to March 5. This hotel ordinarily retails for 85,000 JPY ($1,043) per night, so I’m happy to be getting excellent value for my Bonvoy points once again.

While the Ritz-Carlton brand doesn’t formally participate within the Marriott Bonvoy elite program, the Kyoto property is one of the few hotels that go above and beyond and offer complimentary breakfast to Platinum Elite members and above. I’m therefore very excited to try it out.

The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto

The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto

After staying with family in Beijing and Anshan, I then booked the St. Regis Shenzhen, which is located all the way up on the 96th floor of the KK100 skyscraper, for 35,000 Bonvoy points. The cash rate comes in at around $390 for the night, again making this a worthwhile points redemption in my books. I’m looking forward to treating my young cousins to some killer views of their city and hopefully a nice suite upgrade! 

Now, I haven’t really decided on which hotels to book in Cambodia yet. If I go with the “easiest” option of sticking with Marriott properties, I’ll probably end up at the Courtyard Phnom Penh and the Le Méridien Angkor; however, but I’m also considering branching out into other hotel chains once in a while, and the Raffles Le Royal Phnom Penh and Park Hyatt Siem Reap are looking pretty tempting too.

I’m open to recommendations here, if any of you have spent time in Cambodia before and stayed at any hotels you particularly liked.

Park Hyatt Siem Reap

Park Hyatt Siem Reap

Finally, I needed somewhere to stay in Vancouver during my my week in town in late July, and after my previous stay at the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver, I knew I had to come back for a return visit. 

Spending time in my birthplace is always special, particularly in the summer when the weather’s kind of tolerable (sometimes), and the JW Parq should make an excellent base in the city. I redeemed a Category 6 seven-night certificate from the legacy Marriott Travel Packages for a week here – this was my one and only Category 6 certificate remaining, so I knew it had to spend it somewhere very nice! 

Adding it all up, my total out-of-pocket costs for this trip came to the below, per person:

  • Greyhound bus, Boston to New York: $30

  • St. Regis New York destination fee: $33

  • One night at SpringHill Suites Newark Airport: $127

  • Alaska Mileage Plan taxes and fees, ORD–TYO–PEK: $69

  • British Airways Avios taxes and fees, NRT–ITM–HND: $16

  • Train, Beijing to Anshan: $28

  • Aeroplan taxes and fees, SHE–SZX–PNH: $40

  • Lanmei Airlines PNH–REP: $50

  • VietJet Air REP–HAN: $83

  • Half of a Cathay Pacific First Class mistake fare: $651

  • WestJet Member Exclusive fare taxes and fees, YVR–YYZ: $37

  • Total: $1,164


Conclusion

I gotta say, now that I’ve written this post, I’m pretty damn satisfied with how nicely this trip all came together the end. I’ll get to visit a few new places between Japan and Cambodia, try out a new long-haul business class product while revisiting an old First Class favourite, and indulge in a few more five-star hotels along the way – all while fulfilling a speaking engagement, visiting my family, and attending a wedding. Not bad for a trip planned mostly on-the-fly, eh?!

If you’re attending TravelCon this week, I hope to see you there! And there’s a chance I’ll plan a reader get-together of some sort when I’m in Vancouver in late July (not a full-blown Miles & Points Event, more of a casual thing), so if you’re interested, shoot me an email to let me know!