About two years ago, I discovered so-called “travel hacking” and after reading countless blogs and hours of hours of research, I decided that I wanted to put my expertise into practice and eventually planned a round the world trip (and honeymoon) where my partner and I would try out some of the top first class cabins in the world and stay at a number of 5-star hotels. And I’d do this by spending less than 1% of the amount of money needed to pull off this trip with cash by using miles and points earned from credit card rewards. So here’s how it went.
Los Angeles to Tokyo (LAX to NRT)
- Actual price: $4,444
- Our price: $68 (131,750 KrisFlyer Miles)
The trip kicked off when we arrived at LAX from HOU and relaxed in the Star Alliance Business Class Lounge. This would be 1 of 10 lounges we’d visit on our trip, all of which offered us complimentary food and drinks (alcohol included) and things like shower rooms and some even had nap rooms. We had complimentary access to these lounges due to our airfare and certain credit cards.
Our first major leg started off with Singapore business class on board the big double-decker A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner. Singapore Airlines boasts one of the top business class cabins out of any airline, with it’s extra-wide seats and superb dining and service.
As you can tell leg room — or room of any kind — is not an issue in this cabin.
The service from Singapore Airlines is terrific, as is the dining.
They serve up dish after dish of fantastic foods, like this chicken dish.
And this shrimp and prosciutto dish.
You can always count on a solid dessert, too.
When it’s time to catch some shut-eye, there’s plenty of room to get comfortable, as the seats fold down into the bed giving you extra room to lie down and get comfortable.
InterContinental Tokyo Bay (3 days, 2 nights)
- Actual price: $1,000
- Our price: $0 (100,000 IHG Points)
While in Tokyo, we stayed at the InterContinental Tokyo Bay, where we were upgraded to a deluxe corner room with a fantastic view of Tokyo Bay.
The king bed was incredibly soft and comfy, although it came with an off-center headboard that really tested my OCD tendencies every time I looked at it.
The Tokyo SkyTree — the second tallest structure in the world — stood prominently from the view from our window, which provided the backdrop of some amazing sunrises and interesting people and boat watching.
For $0 a night, I think we did okay….
While in Tokyo, we got to experience a sushi making class, where we learned how make proper sushi rolls directly from a sushi master (or at least his translator).
I was pretty proud of the results, though I could definitely use a lot of practice. Apparently, sushi chefs get paid by the roll so some of the sushi masters can output sushi rolls like it’s nothing.
Later on we got to attend a traditional Japanese green tea ceremony. We watched as a woman demonstrated the ceremonial steps to turning ground up matcha into green tea. I can’t say I loved the taste of the tea, but I was sure buzzin’ on caffeine and L-Theanine by the time the ceremony ended.
And of course, we donned the necessary attire: kimonos.
We also made sure to explore the streets of Tokyo, so we booked a food tour that took us around all sorts of different alleyways lit with beautiful paper lanterns, where all sorts of fascinating restaurants were tucked away from the main streets.
And of course, the food and sake was delicious.
And no trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo.
Just before we left, we had to stop by and try the giant fluffy pancakes that everyone had been talking about and they didn’t disappoint.
Tokyo to Singapore (NRT to SIN)
- Actual price: $11,660
- Our price: $108 (102,000 KrisFlyer Miles)
After Tokyo we boarded another A380 to head to Singapore but this would be a much more special flight. That’s because we were flying on one of the best first class products in the world: the famous Singapore Suites.
The Suites, designed by French luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste, are very charming and sort of resemble a cozy train cabin.
And of course, leg room is not an issue.
When you board, you’ve got to make big decisions like what kind of champagne you’ll have first. Dom Perignon?
Krug Grande Cuvée?
How about both?
Singapore provided us with a designer amenity kit by Salvatore Ferragamo, complete with cologne, lip balm, and after shave.
The service from Singapore Airlines in first class is probably the best I’ve ever received… anywhere… doing anything. Turbulence rocking your plane? You can bet the champagne will still be flowing (without a single drop spilled, of course).
The dining experience will blow you away even more. Every dish is delicious and the presentation is second to none.
This is true especially when it comes to desserts….
But where Singapore Suites really sets itself apart from other airlines is its full double-bed that folds out, so you can sleep just like you would in a nice hotel. It’s roomy and very comfy, and with three pillows (and two stuffed animals), you’re bound to catch some decent shut eye.
The pajamas they provide you with are designed by French luxury brand Givenchy, as are the slippers, pillows, and blankets.
Once it’s bed time, the ambient lighting illuminates your suite and you can shut your suite doors and window shades for a completely private experience as you drift asleep.
Marina Bay Sands Hotel (2 days, 1 night)
- Actual price: $450
- Our price: $0 (Capitol One Venture credit)
I’ve had the Marina Bay Sands Hotel on my bucket-list for a while so it made sense that with about 24 hours to spare in Singapore, we should stay there.
The hotel is probably the most iconic structure in Singapore and it’s connected to a number of attractions, such as a huge casino, a museum, and a giant shopping mall with a canal running through it.
The biggest highlight is the infinity pool, which is the longest of its type and stretches over the city at 57 stories. You can enjoy a few drinks up on the rooftop or just relax in the pool and admire the panoramic views of the bay.
It’s an unforgettable experience to say the least and being able to stay there for free was just the cherry on top.
Every night the hotel puts on a light show that’s the biggest light show in Southeast Asia and features some of the most state-of-the-art light and laser equipment. Hundreds gather all around the bay to witness the green and blue laser beams shoot out from hundreds of feet from the roof top. It’s a pretty incredible sight.
Singapore to Johannesburg (SIN to JNB)
- Actual price: $7,676
- Our price: $0 (used travel credits to eliminate fees and fuel surcharges) (38,250 KrisFlyer Miles)
We took one more long-haul flight in business class with Singapore airlines but this time on the smaller A350. Though the aircraft was smaller, the business class seats were still just as stunning and felt extra fresh since our aircraft was only one-month old!
Our connecting flight to Cape Town was also booked with miles and allowed us to save an additional $500 with travel credits applied. We had to fly economy on the roughly 2 hour flight but somehow managed to survive. 😉
The Westin Cape Town (5 days, 4 nights)
- Actual price: $1,160
- Our price: $0 (40,000 SPG points)
At the Westin we woke up and had an extraordinary complimentary breakfast each morning but best of all we were able to wake up to this stunning view of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head and watch the sunrise as it cast its glow on the cliff-sides and shimmering buildings.
Our room came with club access where we were able to enjoy complimentary food and drink and when the champagne’s on the house, just about anything can call for a glass.
In Cape Town, we made our rounds starting with catching a sunset at Table Mountain, where cable cars zip you up to over 3,000 feet, through a layer of clouds that pour off the mountain side. The sight is so stunning that it’s recently been named one of the new 7 wonders of the world.
We made a trip to Gansbaai where we entered the cold waters to encounter one of the most animals in the world, the great white!
Although we were inside of a cage, the encounter was still a rush, as several different great whites made appearances.
As you can tell, one of the sharks got a little too close for comfort….
Our next encounter with wildlife was a bit more subdued and definitely cuddlier. We got to hang out with penguins at the famous Boulders Beach, where thousands of wild penguins live.
These little penguins aren’t very shy and will waddle up right next to you, checking you out curiously.
To cap off our Cape Town experience we took to the sky for a doors-off helicopter ride. One of the great things about using miles and points to book all of your airfare and hotels, is that you’re left with more funds to spare when you travel and you can enjoy things like helicopter rides that would otherwise put more of a dent on your wallet.
The views of the different peaks and dramatic coastlines were nothing short of extraordinary. Cape Town has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi (JNB to AUH)
- Actual price: $104
- Our price: $4,040 (110,000 AA miles)
Our next leg of our trip was on Etihad’s A330 in business class. The seats weren’t as quite as comfortable and spacious as business class with Singapore Airlines, but still were a far cry from economy, as they were fully lie-flat seats and came equipped with built-in seat massagers!
The W Dubai (3 days, 2 nights)
- Actual price: $534
- Our price: $0 (40,000 SPG points)
After landing in Abu Dhabi, Etihad provided us with complimentary transportation all the way to Dubai where we checked into the ultra-swanky W Hotel. The rooms look like something out of Star-Trek as does much of the hotel, with its futuristic lighting and decor.
The lobby to the W is one of the flashiest I’ve seen and it’s a bit of a trippy feeling the first time you lay your eyes on its hypnotizing design. Interestingly, the check-in desk is located on the 30th floor, so as soon as you arrive you’re zoomed up to the top to check-in.
Since it was September in Dubai, we opted to stick with some activities on the cooler side. One such activity was scuba diving in the Dubai Mall Aquarium, home to an array of sharks and rays, including the large sand tiger shark (related to the great white) below.
The sand tigers sharks aren’t known for attacking humans but their looks could easily fool you on that.
Even though it was scorching outside, we couldn’t visit Dubai and not do a little bit of dune bashing/desert wandering. Unfortunately, I got pretty car sick with all the thrashing around but it didn’t stop us from getting a selfie at sunset.
And the next day we caught the sunset at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. I should say we caught the sunset(s), since the Burj Khalifa actually experiences two sunsets due to its phenomenal height at a dizzying 2,722 feet.
It’s hard to grasp how tall the Burj Khalifa is, but it’s well over 1,000 feet taller than the Empire State Building, which is insane. But it won’t be the tallest for long — Dubai has already broke ground on their new tower to surpass it!
Abu Dhabi to New York City (AUH to JFK)
- Actual price: $18,000
- Our price: $104 (180,000 AA miles)
We saved the best for last on our trip. From the W in Dubai, Etihad chauffeur service picked us up and took us to Abu Dhabi Airport, where we would depart flying on the Etihad Apartment, considered to be the top first class cabin in the world!
Our terminal at AUH had its own private entrance for first class passengers, where our bags were immediately taken for us and we were ushered to the exclusive first class check-in desk.
From there we entered the First Class Lounge and Spa.
In this lounge you’re treated to world-class dining, complimentary hair-cuts, beard trims, massages, and can even relax in a whiskey and cigar room.
After all that pampering, we entered the A380 where the mystical boarding music playing as we entered along with the mosaic lighting and decor almost put us into a spell as we marveled at the over-the-top luxuriousness of the cabin.
After being shown to my “apartment” numbered 4K, I finally laid eyes on the throne-like seat of the Etihad Apartment.
There’s so much space that you really don’t know what to do with yourself. There’s cabinets, closet racks, a 3-panel vanity mirror display, and a large television screen, along with several touch screen remotes to control everything.
The Apartment even comes with its own mini-bar.
And just in case you want to get up and walk around a bit, there’s a lounge area known as “The Lobby” that you can hang out in.
When it’s time to sleep on this bad boy, Etihad prepares your bedding, which comes with ultra-soft bedding, blankets, and pillows and the screens swing out so you can still enjoy the in-flight entertainment as you doze off.
Ornate lamps provide you with just the right amount of lighting when needed.
It really doesn’t get much better than this….
Then there’s the lavatory. It’s big and elegantly designed like the rest of the cabin. But it’s what’s inside of the lavatory that puts the experience over the top. Hint: it’s not the toilet.
A fully functional shower! Yes, you get to take a real shower, with flowing hot water, as you’re flying through the air at 40,000 feet. It’s a different type of feeling, bathing in an airplane, but you feel remarkably refreshed when you finish.
And after getting freshened up, it was time to pour up another glass of champagne and take in the view as we prepared to touchdown at JFK.
The Ritz-Carlton New York — Battery Park
- Actual price: $1900
- Our price: $0 (free night certificates)
Etihad also offered us complimentary chauffeur service that took us to our hotel at the Ritz-Carlton New York. Our visit coincided with the UN’s convention, so our hotel was loaded with diplomats, but they still upgraded us to a room with a view of Lady Liberty that was listed at close to $1,000 a night.
The Ritz-Carlton hooked us up with a little dessert.
Despite battling a little exhaustion from all the traveling and flying, we were able to catch a broadway show, explore Manhattan, and enjoy the view from the newly opened One World Trade Center Observatory.
After all the flash and glamour, it was time to head back to Houston on Southwest Airlines! Despite the initial shock of going from an Etihad A380 Apartment experience to a Southwest 737, it was kind of a good thing to be brought back to reality.
The final tally
Adding in our two Southwest fights (our first flight from HOU to LAX for $480 and the final flight from LGA to HOU for $450 which we paid $24 for), the expenses for our trip came out to a total of about $52,294 and we only paid $408!
Now it’s true that miles and points don’t just appear out of thin air. It takes a fair amount of work to learn how to earn and redeem them in efficient ways and having access to many credit cards is definitely not something that’s for everyone. However, when you are able to properly sign-up and manage many credit cards, the return in value for your time and effort can be astronomical, as seen by this trip.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.