I always said I would not write an article about how I effectively combine hotel and airlines points to create great trips. I figured that if I did, the travel industry would change how they do things to make it much more difficult. Well, they have started making things difficult anyway, so I figured there is no time like the present to share with travelers how I created the most exotic and wonderful Asian trip
to celebrate my 61st birthday in the fall of 2014. I flew out of LAX on November 1, 2014 and returned December 4, 2014. Everything went so successfully, my travel planning will never be the same. I spent five magnificent weeks in Asia for about $6, 000, including air, hotels, tours, and accommodations. This included a total of 13 flights, and everything went smoothly. There were surprises in the planning, and some great surprises on the trip. On some trips, the travel gods are just on your side. The itinerary for this trip turned out to be Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Taiwan, but the planning and reservations were not in that order at all.
Surprises In the planning
Of course all this planning began about 18 months prior, when I was thinking of going to Africa. That’s right, Africa. I have owned and exchanged timeshares for 25 years all over the world, and was looking to find my next exchange in Africa using Interval International. Then Bali jumped out at me online. That’s right, Bali. So I thought well, I have never been there, and of course India was climbing to the top of my travel to-do list. So I booked the week in a one bedroom unit in Seminyak at a resort owned by the Astana Group from November 7-14. The cost for the timeshare week maintenance fee and exchange fee was just under $1000.
I had been hearing a lot about the Overseas Adventure Travel trip to northern India called Heart of India. I picked up the phone and asked them if their 2014 dates were out yet, and sure enough they were. So I told them about my Bali reservation, from November 7-14, and asked if they had any departures around that time. They confirmed they had a departure with solo availability (no single supplement, which is always great) for November 14, and the group meets up on November 15-30 in New Deli. So far so good. The trip cost was $2,825. It was originally $3200, but they gave me $100 in travel credits, which brought the price down, and I paid early, saving another 10%.
I started poking around at airfare, and even though it was too early to book anything, Malaysian Air had great prices from LAX to Kuala Lampur that were constant, and it never seemed to fluctuate in price no matter when you booked or what day you flew. I could get one ticket that took me the entire way to all my destinations beginning with LAX to Kuala Lampur, then onto Bali, then Deli, and back again. That appeared in the planning to be $1800 for a single ticket with all the stops I wanted.
In early 2014 it was time to start actually booking airfare and hotels, since the requisite 11 months had passed and all my dates were now on the reservation systems. (12 months for many hotels). I had noticed in the intervening months that the Hilton Doubletree at the Intermark in Kuala Lampur was centrally located, and the cost for each night using hotel points was a little over 8,000 points. It had great reviews on Trip Advisor as well. Their reservation system seems to work by giving the customer the lower rate in either currency or points depending on the number of nights. The more nights, the lower the nightly rate. I had 50,000 points to spend due to a credit card promotion, so I was chomping at the bit to use those for such a great price. I booked a six night stay for about 48,000 points at the Doubletree, from November 2 through 7. The hotel has a great view of the Petronas Towers, is well located, and I was just thrilled to combine my timeshare week with hotel points. The card was even free for the first year. I later applied a free night certificate I receive each year from Hilton to the reservation, which brought the amount of points I spent down even further to 40,000. That is often the cost in points for a single night.
Also in the intervening time, a number of things had happened. I was still committed to using Malaysia airlines since I liked their routing, but noticed they had pulled out of LAX and were only flying inter-Asia routes. There was no longer a non-stop stop to KLIA as I had hoped. The new routing was American Airlines via Japan. I adored Japan, but I was going to want to see more of it if I used the code share flight with American, which would have extended my tip even longer. So I called United Airlines and asked about my mileage balance. I noticed I could not fly into KLIA very easily from what I saw online. However, if I purchased about $400 in miles, I would have enough to fly to KLIA using EVA, the Taiwanese carrier about whom I had heard great things, with only one stop in Taipei. They had availability for November 1st to KLIA, with a return from KLIA on December 1st. But then the reservation agent told me that since this was a frequent flier ticket, I had the option for a free layover in Taipei if I wanted it. Of course I wanted it! So I made my return from Taipei to LAX on December 4th, the day after my birthday. So now my round trip to Asia was only costing me $400 and mileage. Perfect.
I knew Malaysian Airlines had the inter- Asian flights I wanted, I just wanted some web specials to bring the price down further. The reservation agent I called told me she did not know when the web specials would be out, but she informed me that there were some very good prices for booking over the phone that were better than online. So I went over my itinerary with her and she booked me two sets of tickets. From KLIA to Bali (DPS) and back, on November 7th and 14 respectively, then from KLIA to Deli (DEL) and back on November 15th and 30th . I already had the December 1st flight to Taipei secured on my EVA flight, as was my fight back to LAX from Taipei on December 4th. The cost of the Malaysia Airlines flight prior to the two problems later in the year had been $648. This brought the total for my entire all my airfare to under $1100, less than the $1800 I was originally prepared to pay. I later learned during the trip that I could have sold the Malaysian airiness flights back at no penalty after the two air disasters, and re-purchased them for an even better price.
I had a few holes to fill which were easy to plug. For my three night stay in Taipei, I used the last of some leftover American Express points, at wonderful Hotel Rido in downtown Taipei. This is a charming Chinese boutique hotel with a great Chinese buffet breakfast each morning included in the rate. I also had two nights to fill in Kula Lampur since I was routing myself in and out of KLIA. The Sama-Sama Hotel is attached to the airport, and the price per night is about $130. There aren’t a lot of options close to the airport, and it is a 4 star property. Another hotel I strongly recommend.
I used day tours in Malaysia and Taiwan pre purchased from either Viator or City Discovery. City Discovery tends to be more affordable for solo travelers, but there is no customer service if you need it. For the OAT trip of course, all that was included. I did however, want to go to Java for the day and see Barbadour and the temple complexes in Yogakarta. Prices for that ranged from the absurd to the astronomical and often included an overnight stay. I did however, find a local company, Bali Trips, who provided the service for me for $250 each. It was a long day, but it included airport transportation, flights on Lion Air, and a full schedule with lunch, a guide and driver in Java for the day.. Using this combination of resources, and not just depending on an escorted tour, I got to see some amazing highlights in each destination. In Malaysia it was the elephant orphanage; in Bali it was the fire dances at night; in Java, the temple complexes in and around Yogyakarta; in India, the Taj Mahal and experiencing the Ganges on Thanksgiving night; and in Taipei it was the National Palace Museum.
Surprises on the trip
This had already shaped up very nicely to be a wonderful trip using all my travel resources, but more surprises awaited me on the trip. When I got to Kuala Lampur and checked into the Doubletree, they told me they had upgraded me to Diamond level, and for my entire 6 night stay I would have full use of their Executive lounge for breakfast and dinner for free, as well as snacks in the afternoon. In addition, they gave me a voucher to try several of their retaurants for free. Since this was a 5 week trip, I decided to take advantage of this every day, even though it was a typical chain hotel experience. I had great views of the Petronas Towers each for breakfast and dinner, and met some great people in the lounge from all over the world. I was eating out each day during my day tours, so this worked out well. Such a treat!
In the months between booking and my trip, my timeshare unit in Bali was upgraded for free to a three bedroom villa with a private pool, and the location changed to one of their properties in Sanur due to changes in management. I ended up at the Astana Pengembak in Sanur, which quite frankly, I do not recommend. Although I was not happy with the accommodations and the mix up that had occurred between the resort and the timeshare company, my airport transfers were unexpectedly free, as were all my breakfasts. I also ended up inviting a Facebook Scrabble friend to join me since I had been upgraded to a three bedroom villa (we actually met for the first time at the Doubletree in Kuala Lampur the day she flew in from Oregon).
In Taipei, at the Rido Hotel in the last leg of this great trip, they noticed when I was checking in that I was going to be there on my birthday, so they even presented me with a birthday cake in the last night! It was a magical, if not perfect ending to an absolutely perfect and very affordable 5 week trip.