Project Pacific Circle was the most ambitious award trip I’d ever concocted. Starting in Orlando, I traveled through Los Angeles on my way to an overnight in Fiji before spending several days in Auckland and the surrounding area, continuing on to Sydney, connecting through Bangkok on my way to Hong Kong and Macau, stopping in Taipei on my way to Osaka and Kyoto before winding up in Tokyo prior to my return via New York to Orlando.
In total, this trip spanned more than 25,627 miles in the air; you can see a map of the trip above.
Craziest of all, this entire itinerary took place over just 14 days. That meant, taking into account only flights and not movement on the ground, I was moving at an average speed of more than 76 MPH every minute of every day, sleeping or awake.
The trip may have taken just two weeks, but it took a bit longer to finish compiling my thoughts on the trip. Now, you can find all of my dispatches from Project Pacific Circle in one place:
Using points and miles effectively hasn’t saved me thousands of dollars. Using points and miles has made possible trips that simply wouldn’t have happened without them. And now, I’m using points and miles to concoct what will far and away be my biggest trip to date.
I’ve collected hundreds of thousands of miles and booked over 90,000 miles of free airfare for myself, family and friends, but I have an admission: I’ve never flown anything higher than a Premium Economy product! I’ve been unwilling to part with the miles or money necessary to do so in the past, but that changes on this trip in a big way: I’m flying in Business or First Class for nearly the entire journey, sampling as many different products as possible along the way.
Phase One: New Zealand
I’m already getting spoiled. As pedestrian as this flight was compared to the ones to come, I still enjoyed myself and discovered American has more to offer in their standard domestic First Class than I first thought.
Learn more in our full review of our first flight of the trip, from Orlando to Los Angeles.
This flight on Fiji Airways was far and away the most exceptional I’ve yet had the pleasure of taking. Walking into the cabin for the first time was sheer joy. I’d seen pictures and had a good idea of what to expect, and reality held up to the expectation.
Fiji Airways’ Business Class cabin is extremely fresh in design, at once modern and tropical, and very inviting. Learn more about this flight in our full review.
The Tokatoka Resort is located about a 2 minute drive from Nadi International Airport. There were some cheaper options, but at less than $60 for the night, it seemed like the least risky choice should a complication arise, like the airport shuttle not making its rounds.
I was quickly checked in and discovered I had not a room but a small villa, half of one of the dozens of huts that lined the interior of the property. Learn more in our full review.
I made my way back to Nadi International for my first award ticket’s final flight. I thought about how far I’d already come on little more than AAdvantage miles – and in what style – and was blown away. For 62,500 miles and about $135, I’d have traveled more than four times the distance of a transcontinental hike.
I started playing some math games: 10 hours out from Los Angeles, with another 4 hours to go after spending a night in Fiji, the cash price of over $4,000 for the same flight was beginning to look not so outrageous given the distance and level of quality. If gas were $4 per gallon, I’d end up at 269 miles per gallon for this part of my trip, while the cash passenger was lucky to hit 9.
I wonder if the people here appreciate the fact that they live in, literally, a fantasy land. Everything about the terrain here is breathtaking. Undulating hills, covered by the richest shades of green, often hosting more than a few sheep. In the distance, misty mountains – or perhaps the Misty Mountains, seem to hold in the beauty and keep out the rest of the world.
There’s at least one place a day’s trip from Auckland, though, that seems to hold special sway over even locals, where the beauty of the local area is brought into focus thanks to a aura of fantasy: the leftover remains of Hobbiton, the town at the center of the Shire, home of hobbits and holy shrine to fans of Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings.
The cows gave me a funny look as they heard the click of my camera’s shutter. They briefly stopped their chewing to size up if I was anything worth being concerned about. Apparently undeterred by my presence, heads descended one by one back into the grass to grab another bite. None of them seemed to realize what was worth looking at wasn’t below but behind them.
Wairere Falls, less than 20 minutes’ drive from Hobbiton, is the tallest waterfall in New Zealand. It becomes visible well before your arrival, where you’ll be greeted by a small parking lot and that herd of cows.
There are two things I can’t feel comfortable without when traveling. The first is local currency. Holding just $50 or $100′s equivalent is more than enough to make me feel confident of being able to handle most scenarios. The more important missing element? A local SIM card.
For my stay in Auckland, I turned to neither miles nor points, but rather an old-fashioned bargain.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in the city without spending a bundle, I highly recommend checking out Jucy Hotel. Read our full review to learn why.
Playing a set of Beethoven sonatas on a piano used for a tour by a Polish performer a hundred years earlier, on an island off the coast of Auckland, was not a way I’d ever anticipated spending an afternoon, but exploration tends to lead to unexpected and whimsical results.
Learn more about our trip to Waiheke Island inside.
Phase Two: Sydney
When the time came to depart Auckland, I hopped an unlikely ride to Sydney. Because of New Zealand and Australia’s great distance from most other population centers, many international carriers offer flights that stop first in either Sydney or Auckland on their way, in part to consolidate the number of flights they have to operate along the costly route and in part because they simply need more fuel.
Emirates, for example, flies their A380 to Sydney first and then continues onto Auckland. Chilean carrier LAN, flying west from South America, stops one of its A340s in Auckland first before continuing on to Sydney. Learn if hopping a ride with the carrier was worth it in our full review.
My stay at the Hilton Sydney reminded me why Hilton is my hotel group of choice when paying for stays. The benefits afforded to HHonors Gold members always – always – make for a truly exceptional stay, no matter where in the world I might be.
Learn what made it such a memorable stay with our full review.
Some places and things you haven’t seen tend to seem bigger than they actually are. At least for me, the opposite could be said of the Sydney Opera House. I was surprised by how big it actually was, in large part due to some misunderstandings I had about what was inside its famous sails.
Find out what I learned inside!
They call it Australian Reptile Park, but that’s not quite right. Sure, there are a variety of snakes and lizard-like animals to be found, but the main attractions aren’t reptilian at all. This was our first stop of the day and a chance to get up close with some of Australia’s most famous animal residents.
Learn about our adventures playing with kangaroos and koalas there, the dolphins we saw off Port Stephens and where we caught one of the most breathtaking views of the entire trip inside.
Phase Three: Hong Kong & Macau
In the mental map of the American not-so-world traveler, Sydney and Hong Kong might not seem close, exactly, but certainly closer than, say, Los Angeles and Fiji. When traveling via Bangkok, however, the trip from Sydney to Hong Kong ends up being about 200 miles longer. That meant spending 9 hours and 20 minutes on the first leg of the trip, then another 2 hours and 45 minutes completing the journey after a layover of a few hours in Bangkok.
I was in for a full day of flying, but that meant an excellent opportunity to test Thai Airways Business Class on both a long-haul and a short-haul flight. Learn about Thai’s Business Class experience inside and why this might be one of the best values on United’s award chart inside.
Every bit of the store’s walls not hidden by shelving is plastered with hundreds of pictures, nearly all autographed with a personal message, from a cavalcade of world leaders and celebrities. George, George W, and Jeb Bush are all here. So is Bill Clinton, and Hillary. Angela Merkel, Prince Charles, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Venus Williams, Richard Gere: all here.
Some of the most immediately recognizable men appear in just an undershirt, carefully holding in place a pair of partially constructed pants. Others appear at events and banquets in full regalia. Nearly all of them appear with one of three men, all of Indian heritage, always with a grin and often with measuring tape in hand. Every autograph is addressed simply to Sam, followed by a note: see what it says inside.
One of my favorite stops on Project Pacific Circle was Hong Kong. I’ve never been somewhere with such a high density over such a large area; the number of high-rises is almost impossible to believe.
Simply taking it all in is much of the fun on a quick visit, so I wanted to share a few tips from my time on the ground so you can make the most of your time in the city. Find our tips inside.
The corny adage is that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. This is true and false. Memories made there get inextricably tied to the place, but you absolutely take them with you.
Vegas isn’t a place. It’s an idea, and perhaps for some, an ideal.
It was with this thought in mind that I boarded a ferry from Hong Kong, heading westward to Macau. What I found wasn’t quite what I expected.
I’m glad I took the long way.
When looking for flights from Hong Kong to Osaka, I noticed that several flights came in at a shade under four hours but one took nearly six hours. What’s with the extra flight time? Turns oaut Cathay Pacific operates its regionally configured 777s on the direct flight, but actually runs one of its 747s on the flight that stops in Taipei. I sprung for the longer flight for a last-minute chance to try out Cathay Pacific’s long-haul Business Class product on a plane quickly being lost to history. See what it was like inside.
Phase Four: Japan
It was late by the time I arrived at the Sheraton in Osaka. Given how far Kansai International is from downtown, I was worried about not only taking the right limo bus from the airport, but precisely how close to the hotel it would take me.
Turns out, I had nothing to worry about: the bus made its first stop at the Sheraton after a half hour or so on the highway from the airport. See if this is should be your place to stay when visiting Osaka in our full review.
It was a pilgrimage I knew would be stopped short of its goal, but one to which I was committed anyway.
There was no way, after all, that I could travel so far from home and come so close without seeing it. I am, unfortunately, talking about nothing more exciting than the Kyoto headquarters of Nintendo.
See if this foolhardy adventure was worth the trip inside.
Before I left, I’d read accounts about how the Hyatt Regency Tokyo was the fourth of four in Hyatt’s Tokyo lineup and a “slum” compared to the Grand Hyatt, Park Hyatt and the brand new Andaz, all located nearby.
Is the Grand Hyatt really a bad place or is it a great value stay? Find out in our review!
Akihabara is known as ground zero for otaku culture worldwide. It’s a term applied to people with obsessive interests, most often in anime or manga, but can also apply to those drawn heavily to technology or gaming, too.
If you geek out about things, the thing you geek out about is probably here. Learn more about our adventure in Tokyo’s most famous district inside.
I went to the museums. I went to the gardens. I did what I was supposed to do, until I didn’t. Then I went to Disney.
Learn why a last-minute trip to a unique Disney park just outside of Tokyo became one of the most memorable stops of the entire trip inside.
The first thing to know about Tsukiji Fish Market is that it’s a real-life, honest-to-god market. Workers swarm through early each morning as the latest catches come in from port, and they’re not particularly happy about how hot of a tourist spot their workplace has become.
Despite its industrial background, Tsukiji Fish Market is quickly becoming one of Tokyo’s must-see stops for one simple reason. Find out why inside.
I have a new favorite airport lounge.
While I can’t imagine the Centurion Lounge in Las Vegas being usurped domestically anytime soon, my new favorite is JAL’s Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita. That’s despite the fact that I also spent a substantial amount of time in Cathay Pacific’s exceptional lounge, The Wing, in Hong Kong. That’s because there are a few things that set the Sakura Lounge apart. Find out what they are inside.
My long trip was coming to a swift end, but not before taking my longest flight yet. Clocking in at 13 hours and 5 minutes, the 6,728 mile jump from Tokyo to New York JFK would get me almost all the way home. Only a comparatively brief 3 hour flight on JetBlue from JFK to Orlando would remain, and Project Pacific Circle would be complete.
Despite its length, this 13 hour+ flight might have been my favorite of the whole trip. Find out why inside.
Ready, Set, Go!
I saved almost $20,000 on this whirlwind adventure, flying like royalty on seven different airlines and staying in some of the nicest hotels in several of the world’s greatest cities. Here’s the crazy part: you can, too.
Project Pacific Circle might be over for me, but your dream trip is still ahead! Everything you need to plan an itinerary just as bold as this one can be found in our definitive guide to free flights and nights worldwide.
PointsAway is available for iPad, Kindle and as a PDF perfect for reading anywhere.