Tips for Seeing 4 Cities in 4 Days on an Award Ticket

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Recently Kelsey booked and took her first first class award trip to Asia. I’m proud to say that in addition to helping her find a solution for keeping her medicine refrigerated, I also convinced her to add a 4th city to their crazy layover schedule so they could experience the Thai First Class departure out of Bangkok. For anyone considering their first luxury award trip, here are her tips:

Hi there! My name is Kelsey, and I’m fortunate to be able to call Keri and Jeanne my friends. We bonded over a mutual love of travel when my boyfriend Chris and I lived in Washington, DC. Chris and I recently moved to Seattle so I can start graduate school this fall which now gives us a great excuse for cross-country mileage runs!

After I decided to go back to graduate school, I thought it would be appropriate to take a fun trip before my life became consumed with school work. I had always wanted to visit Australia and decided that one way or another I would find a way to get there. With a bit of luck I was able to find space for Chris and I using American Airlines miles to fly Qantas to Australia. Neither of us had enough miles for a round trip, but we did have enough United miles for the return portion.

I had always wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef!

I had always wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef!

The catch was that Chris wanted to stop somewhere in Asia on the way back. It made more sense to do this using United miles, as they don’t charge extra for stopping on another continent, unlike American (AA would charge you for Australia → Asia, Asia → US). The key, however, is to keep your stops under 24 hours, as you don’t get any free stopovers on a 1-way award ticket. Anything over 24 hours costs additional miles instead of being a “layover.”

To make this work, I had to spend some quality time with the ANA search tool (the best way to find Star Alliance award space) and adjust after our initial booking as space opened up (sadly United now charges $75 per change for non-elites to do this), but ultimately I planned stops in not just one city in Asia, but four: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo/Narita. We wound up having 23 hours in Bangkok, 18 hours in Hong Kong, 22 hours in Singapore, and 9 hours in Narita (we decided we didn’t have enough time to go into Tokyo).

Our final return routing

Our final return routing

With such short amounts of time in each city we knew we would have to plan carefully to get a taste of each city without trying to do too much. Here are some of the strategies I used:

1) Choose 2-3 key things you would like to see/do in each city. This can be really hard since there are often so many choices, but it’s important to narrow down exactly what you want to experience in your limited time. When estimating how much time you’ll have for sightseeing, remember to factor in travel time to/from the airport and to/from the attractions. It’s also not a bad idea to have one or two backup options in case something is closed or the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Lau Pa Sat Hawker Center was high in our list for Singapore

Lau Pa Sat Hawker Center was high in our list for Singapore

2) Do your homework. Knowing how to get to each attraction/restaurant/etc will save you lots of time and frustration. I compiled a Google doc with information on what we wanted to see as well as directions and printed it before we left so we had all of the details on paper. Google Maps also allows you to save maps to your phone which can be very helpful. I recommend grabbing a city map from your hotel for backup as well.

3) When possible, choose centrally-located hotels. This will save you time and money in the long run.

4) Pack lightly. Chris and I only took carry-ons with us so we could avoid waiting at baggage claim. We wound up checking our bags on a few segments, but since we were flying business or first it wasn’t a problem. If you’re flying economy, checked bags could mean extra wait times on top of customs and immigration.

5) Don’t be afraid to change your plans. That may sound strange after recommending extensive planning to maximize your time, but it’s important to be open to changing those plans. Who knows, you might wind up spending more time at the Singapore Night Zoo than expected or the Bangkok market you wanted to visit might be closed for a public holiday.

The weather in Hong Kong might be too cloudy for a visit Victoria Peak. You might just want to enjoy the view from your hotel room or get a little extra sleep (it is a vacation after all). In the end a vacation is all about doing what works for you, and that’s okay!

Cloudy morning in Hong Kong

Cloudy morning in Hong Kong

Seeing four cities in four days can be overwhelming, but it can also be a lot of fun. I found that ~20 hours was sufficient time to get a flavor of the city and decide if I wanted to go back. My favorites were Hong Kong and Singapore, so I’m already trying to figure out how we can go back sometime next year!

Would you ever consider a 4-day, 4-city tour of Asia?

Disclaimer: This is my first disclaimer.


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Heels First’s Travel Advice–Sophisticated Travel, Uncomplicated Advice. The travels and tribulations of two frequent flyers jumping into the world of travel, sharing their travel advice. Join Keri and Jeanne as they tackle mileage runs, elite status, and of course–the perfect travel accessories.

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