If all goes to plan, we will be flying to Hong Kong next week for a whistle-stop tour of Asia over Easter. Whilst there will, at some point, be a slug of flight and hotel reviews published, I thought I would do an introductory piece in advance to explain how I put the trip together and what I learned.
Lesson 1: be flexible
This all started back in November when my wife decided that it might be fun to go to Japan for Easter. She has never been (I’ve been twice) and, as our youngest is almost 6 now, it seemed manageable.
My British Airways American Express 2-4-1 voucher was already in the bank. My wife was a few thousand pounds short of triggering hers, but luckily she had to make a major purchase that week which sadly ended up being returned – but we had the voucher regardless.
The first thing we found is that getting 4 premium seats to Tokyo on British Airways over Easter, which coincides with the prime ‘cherry blossom’ period this year, wasn’t going to happen. We had to be flexible.
The good news is that getting around Asia on Avios is easy due to Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon, Malaysia and JAL being oneworld members.
We quickly found four Club World seats to Hong Kong. My wife has never been there either and, for kids, it probably has more options than Tokyo – or at least more options closer together. That was the outbound sorted.
The return was trickier. With Tokyo off the radar, Seoul looked like the nearest departure point home which had availability. However, we also found four seats out of Beijing. You can now get a 72-hour transit pass for most major Chinese cities so we wouldn’t need a visa. My wife also has a friend working there, so that settled it.
What was originally meant to be a Japan trip became Hong Kong – Japan – 48 hours in China, booked on British Airways using 2 x 2-4-1 vouchers.
The dates were still not perfect. I would have preferred to leave one day later (to preserve a day of my wife’s holiday allowance) and come back a day later on Easter Sunday and not Easter Saturday. Given that we booked in November, fairly late by Avios standards, I am pleased enough.
Lesson 2: Avios offer excellent value for internal Asian flights
The connecting flights around Asia were easy to book – you can do it on ba.com.
An additional benefit is that some airlines use long-haul aircraft for intra-Asia flights. I will be taking my first ever Premium Economy flight when we fly on JAL from Hong Kong to Tokyo on a Boeing 777. This was just 15,000 Avios and £15 taxes each.
From Tokyo to Beijing, I have done even better and got four long-haul Business Class seats on a new JAL Boeing 787 for the four hour flight. This cost 20,000 Avios plus £16 each.
I was slightly annoyed that I couldn’t get Business Class from Hong Kong to Tokyo. I expected something to open up but, apart from a Cathay option which required a stop in Taiwan, nothing has.
Lesson 3: Pay cash if it means you’ll get a better experience
In Hong Kong, we are booked into the main InterContinental. There are better hotels in Hong Kong, but none has a better view than the IC, sitting as it does directly on the harbour facing Hong Kong Island. The view from the harbour-side rooms is roughly what you see in the picture above.
You can redeem IHG Rewards Club points to stay here, but only for street view rooms. This is utterly pointless. If you are staying at the InterContinental, you stay for the view. The hotel will never upgrade you to a room with a better view – if you book city side, all you get is a better room on the city side.
(EDIT: feedback from the comments below is that booking a street view on a reward night and then paying for Club access – which gets you the view from the lounge – is a good compromise.)
Rooms to sleep four were disproportionately expensive so I booked us into two Deluxe Harbour View rooms for cash. As we are there over a weekend, I am using my InterContinental Ambassador free weekend night voucher to get one night on the house. We also get a guaranteed upgrade which, in this case, means to a Junior Suite. I also signed up my wife for Ambassador so she also gets a free night (the $200 Ambassador fee was more than covered by the value of the free night) and Junior Suite upgrade on her room.
Lesson 4: If you need to be somewhere at the peak tourist season, points really come into their own
Once we leave Hong Kong, everything is on points:
In Tokyo, we are the Conrad using Hilton Honors points. I really wanted to stay at one of the Hyatt properties – Hyatt has fantastic coverage in Tokyo – but there was no availability. Cash rates were well over £500 per room per night (peak tourist season, remember) so it was excellent value as a redemption for 95,000 Hilton points per room per night.
In Kyoto, we are at The Ritz-Carlton. This was selling for a ludicrous £1,100 per room per night including taxes (peak, peak tourist season – and it is now showing as sold out) so using 70,000 Marriott Rewards points per night made sense. This redemption was only possible due to the acquisition of Starwood by Marriott, which let me transfer my Starwood Preferred Guest points to Marriott Rewards at the generous 1:3 ratio.
In Beijing, we are at the Waldorf-Astoria. This was a more marginal ‘cash vs points’ call but I still got a better deal for points (67,000 Hilton Honors per night, this one was booked after the February 2017 changes) than I would from a Hilton redemption in Europe.
(By the way, I fully accept that these are not necessarily the best hotel choices for getting a genuine feel for the real Tokyo / Kyoto / Beijing. They are good choices for not paying a fortune when travelling at peak periods, however, and good choices if you only have a couple of days in each place.)
So …. it should be fun. Most of the above will be reviewed on Head for Points during April. I might even do a bullet train review. By coincidence, Anika is in Tokyo over Easter reviewing ANA’s business class product, so there will also be a review of that plus the ANA InterContinental Tokyo where she is staying. If you follow our Instagram feed you will be able to keep track of us.