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Welcome to the October instalment of What Did You Book, brought to you by us: Sash and Mohammad. Each month, we feature a travel booking each of us made, its reasoning, and valuable tips and tricks. This month we talk about an Etihad Etihad Residence booking, a quirky Qatar ‘Pacific’ 777 First Class route with ample availability and finally a high value redemption at 7Pines Sardinia.
Sash made an Etihad First Class Apartment booking using the American Express International Airline Benefit (IAP) stacked with a 35% rebate and further upgrading to the 3-room Etihad Residence Suite for a net cost of 147,982 American Express Membership Rewards points plus USD 2500.
Mohammad discovered and booked a Qatar Airways route flying the Cathay Pacific fitted First Class on the 777 which offers decent award availability for 2, alongside a great value bonus hotel booking at 7Pines Sardinia using World of Hyatt points.
What did Sash Book?
The Etihad Residence is today’s pinnacle of commercial aviation, mainly due to its exceptional hard product. If you have never heard of the Etihad Residence, it is a private 3-room suite aboard Etihad’s A380 aircraft. Its three rooms consist of a living room, a bathroom with an ensuite shower, and a double bedroom.
The Etihad Residence (and First Class Apartments) fly only between Abu Dhabi and London-Heathrow 3 times daily.
To Book or Not Book – The Thought Process
I’ll be honest: the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) kicked in when I heard the Residence would be available for booking from August 2023. My excitement for flying Etihad’s First-Class Apartment quickly led to my desire to experience the best, the Residence. This dream was quickly shattered when I learned that Residence could only be booked as a USD 2500 cash upgrade on top of a cash-paid first-class ticket only. This meant my upcoming 65,000-point Aeroplan award redemption flight in December would have me sitting in the back, behind the Residence, in the First-Class apartments. Can we call this First-Class cattle class? 🙂
A couple of months later, we now have data points from individuals who flew the Residence, some “cheap” fares, and discounted methods to maximize the experience not just for 1 but for 2 people.
Please bear with me while I review some of the questions/concerns I needed answers to before committing to the purchase. These are important, and I suggest you read them in detail, and then I’ll get to the booking process, costs, and savings.
Q: Is it worth spending USD 2500 to upgrade for a relatively short 7h 40min flight?
A: Initially, I thought it was not worth it for a short flight. However, the upgrade cost would be significantly higher if Etihad ever decides to fly the A380 on a long-haul route (e.g. New York). In addition, there may not be any “cheap’ First class fares to upgrade from. Am I willing to spend $7000-$10000 on a first-class ticket, PLUS another $2500 for an upgrade?
Q: I am travelling with a companion; how do I get around paying for a second upgrade?
A: Disclaimer that your mileage may vary (YMMV) despite the positive data points thus far. By default. Etihad requires the companion you are flying with (on the same PNR) to be upgraded to Residence. However, you can bring any first-class passenger in the Residence with you. We would then have the Residence plus a First-Class Apartment. The only unknown is ground service. Will my companion be permitted in the exclusive Residence lounge? We don’t have a concrete answer, and I think it will be YMMV. However, I’m sure more data points will trickle over the coming months.
Q: Will the flight AND residence upgrade costs be refundable if I need to cancel? The flight I am booking is 11 months out and requires flexibility.
A: Yes! Etihad’s First Class fare plus Residence upgrade cost are both fully refundable (Note: Always double check)
Q: What will Etihad’s First and Residence ground experience look like at the new Midfield Terminal? It should be better, but will the lounges be open by then?
A: We don’t have an answer, but since the new terminal is set to open in Q4 of 2023, new Etihad lounges will likely be fully operational by August 2023.
Booking Process – IAP
The cost of my ticket was 160,300 American Express Membership Rewards points plus USD 2500. Interested in learning how? I’m going to walk through the process:
To fly the Residence means to purchase a cash-paid First Class ticket, which is USD 5000+ expense. However, the fare drops significantly if you begin the journey in a 3rd country and connect through Abu Dhabi.
The following information uses the US American Express Travel (amextravel.com) with US American Express Credit cards.
The two sweet spots are departures from Jakarta, Indonesia or Bangkok, Thailand. The fare drops significantly; have a look (all prices in USD):
It’s a pretty fantastic price for First Class. So that you know, the first leg will be business class to Abu Dhabi.
Let’s further reduce this through American Express Travel’s International Airline Program (IAP). IAP gives preferential fares when purchasing with over 20 global airline partners in First, Business, and Premium Economy classes. The amount of discount varies, but for Etihad First Class, it is approximately 10%.
To receive IAP prices, not only must you hold a Platinum card, you must also:
- Pay with your Platinum or Business Platinum Card
- The cardholder must be one of the travelling parties.
- IAP fares cannot be booked over the chat. Only online and over the phone.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that I wanted to avoid paying for the Residence upgrade for my companion? That meant booking two independent tickets and forgoing the IAP benefit for my companion, given rule #2 above. However, the reality is that IAP bookings seem to ticket successfully despite the Platinum cardholder not on the booking.
This is the booking I made from Jakarta with an extended 8h 15min layover:
The plan is to upgrade the Abu Dhabi to London leg to the Residence directly with Etihad. Given the extended layover, I would be eligible for a chauffeur service to/from the airport if desired.
Booking Process – 35% Airline Rebate
First, a hat tip to my co-author, Mohammad, for teaching me the power of the American Express 35% Airline Rebate. A benefit that I overlooked for too long.
The 35% rebate is of the American Express membership reward points used to purchase a business or first-class ticket with any airline through American Express Travel. The benefit also applies to economy tickets purchased for your selected airline. You MUST have a Business Platinum Card to receive the benefit, but not necessarily the charge the airfare to the card. Putting the airfare on a personal Platinum card would make more sense to earn 5X the membership rewards points.
The rebate is received approximately 4-6 weeks after purchase. This means that you must have sufficient membership reward points before the refund is applied. The airfare can be paid with cash and points if you do not. Here is how Amex describes it the 35% benefit.
I was not ready to pay nearly USD 7500 for myself and my companion to fly the Residence. This cost calculated as follows:
The plan will cover the First Class fare of $2467 for each passenger using my Membership Rewardbpoints. I proceeded to book each traveller individually and apply 246,710 membership rewards points.
Nearly half a million membership reward points were redeemed for 2 tickets, and I should receive back 140,000 in about 4-6 weeks. Let’s not forget that I will receive 12,380 ($2476 x 5) membership reward points since I used my personal Platinum card that gives 5X on airfare.
Total Cost Per Passenger: 147,982 Membership Reward Reward Points
Fly from Bangkok, and cost will be even lower!
Lastly, will also earn airline points after the flights are completed. I will likely credit these to American Airlines, which should net me approximately 17,600 AAdvantage points.
Booking Process – The Residence Upgrade
Since the tickets have been issued, upgrading to the Residence is supposed to be straightforward, but I hit a snag. The first step is to go to Etihad’s website and pull up the booking made through Amex Travel.
Under “Manage My Booking,” there will be an option to “Experience the Residence” that will take you to the Residence upgrade screen:
I hit a snag here: the “Add” button does not work. The entire webpage becomes frozen. I called Etihad Airways twice and was informed that the Residence was “Full.” In fact, every A380 flight on that day a year out and subsequent days after were all full. I suspected something was wrong as ExpertFlyer showed the Residence as “blocked,” and if I was to try as book an Abu Dhabi-London single segment, the “Add” button work. Clearly the Residence is available and three is a technical glitch on the website.
After a 3rd phone call to Etihad, they opened up a case, and I received a call back 24 hours later confirming the Residence was indeed available. The agent emailed a link to pay for the upgrade while I remained on the call, and subsequently, the upgrade was confirmed.
There you have it, an in-depth decision-making and booking process for booking the Etihad Residence!
What did Mohammad Book?
7Pines Sardinia – Destination By Hyatt
7Pines Sardinia opened in August 2022 and is a 76 room property located on the northern shoreline of Sardinia, a large Italian island off the western coast of Rome. 7Pines Sardinia is the second such property within the brand after 7Pines Ibiza and falls under the ‘Destination by Hyatt’ umbrella. While I have no imminent desire to venture off to Ibiza – Sardinia though has long been on my radar ever since I first visited Italy. For those of you who know me, know that I am a recovering Italy addict – and having scoured a fair amount of the mainland, I keep missing out on the two big Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia, as well as Corsica – a French island just north of Sardinia. Hopefully though, that’s going to change next year.
I’m currently planning a very special trip for next spring/summer which I’ll share details off on the blog in due time, but for the time being I can say that the plans include some time spent in Sardinia. Peak tourism season is summer in Sardinia and temperatures can soar uncomfortably high. As I’m not the biggest fan of scorching summer heat, I’m currently planning on catching early summer around mid-June.
Prices at 7Pines range massively depending on time of year, which is reflective of the seasonality on the island. During early/mid spring, a standard room starts at around USD $225, with the same room going USD $1,600+ in July & August. 7Pines is a category 8 property in the World of Hyatt program meaning that a redemption ranges between 35,000-45,000 World of Hyatt points meaning that the time of year you’re looking to book is going to be a big factor on whether cash or points is the better deal.
During my dates in June, the points rate was 40,000 points a night vs a refundable cash rate of USD $730. Having earned Globalist status again in 2023, I’ve got a handy number of Hyatt Suite Upgrade Awards (‘SUA’) in my account that I can use to confirm an upgrade into a standard suite and really wanted to make use of one for this stay. 7Pines has two suites that they categorize as standard suites – the Laguna View Suite and the Sea View Suite, both of which were available during my dates. The Sea View Suite was my preferred, and also cost a premium over the Laguna View suite, which when all said and done, would have come to ~USD $2,300+ a night – representing a great use of a SUA.
Another nuance of booking was that when searching for rooms for 2 adults and 1 infant during peak season, no points options were coming up, or only suites were coming up during off-peak times. It seems adding the infant filtered out the standard room award space which seems restricted to just two guests. I had to just search for two adults for the purposes of my booking, knowing that I’d be onside with the hotels policy once my SUA was applied – though I still find it surprising that an infant less than a year is considered a third person in the room.
Overall, the 4-night booking came to160,000 Hyatt points with an SUA having been successfully applied to Sea View Suite. In all probability I’ll end up dropping a night and reducing the stay to three nights but should not be a probable given points redemptions have a 14-day cancellation charge. While definitely not a cheap redemption, I’m looking forward to the property, as well as the overall destination. Redemption value is decent, much more so the closer to July and August you go, and aside from that the property so far has received great reviews- so I’m certainly looking forward to it.
Qatar Airways 777 First Class
In early 2022, Qatar Airways secured the lease of 4x Boeing 777-300’s from Cathay Pacific primarily due to an aircraft shortage that the airline was facing following the grounding of its A350’s. Part of what made this news interesting was that Qatar would be able to offer first class on these 4-cabin configured planes, with Qatar’s only other first class product being offered on its A380 fleet, which also had been reactivated during this time.
Cathay First Class was the first F cabin I’d ever experienced and while the hard product is not cutting edge by means, I still have very fond memories flying with them. Additionally I still consider it one of the most comfortable beds in the sky and the seats are incredibly spacious. Being able to experience this product but with the Qatar Airways soft product had a lot of people in this community very excited about this hybrid product.
While it was well covered that these planes were on the DOH-MLE routes, the only other route that I was aware they were operating these planes on was DOH-HKG. So it came as a complete surprise to me when, while searching to piece together an Avios multi carrier award redemption for a family member’s honeymoon, that I came across first class availability between IST and DOH operated on these 777’s. While availability on the DOH-MLE has been pretty good, the Maldives isn’t quite an accessible destination/transit city as Istanbul is, representing an excellent way for anyone interested, to get a 4 hour taste of what this hybrid experience would be like.
Two daily frequencies between IST-DOH seem to be operated on the 777, with at least two award seats available on most days with flight time of ~4.5 hours.
To search for award space, I’d recommend using American Airlines’ website. Searching for First Class for IST-DOH-MLE with the below parameters should display the dates where the seats would be available (always make sure all legs are in the desired cabin).
The best program to use is going to depend. For just the IST-DOH leg, it is hard to beat Qatar’s own pricing of 52.5K Avios. BA Avios prices similarly, followed by 62.5K points for American AAdvantage and 90K Alaska miles. If you want to go to the full distance to the Maldives, the points required using American AAdvantage remains the same at 62.5K, whereas Avios required for Qatar Airways and British Airways increased to 90K (route didn’t price out with AS miles).
While the higher cost of Avios over AAdvantage miles for the longer route is notable, its worth remembering how much easier it is to earn Avios as well as the frequent transfer bonuses from transferable points currencies to the various flavors of Avios programs. That being said, AA still represents a great option for this booking.
In my case, I went ahead and used Qatar Airways Avios to book 2 seats for 90,000 Avios + USD $200.50 per person for the IST-DOH-MLE route on one day, meanwhile I am trying to book one day later on the same route, but as part of an Avios multi carrier award booking to try and get a more cost effective booking and also build in stopover in Doha (which otherwise would increase the cost of the the aforementioned booking options).
With first class award space become increasingly scarce, it’s always welcome to see a decent option come up, especially with space available for more than 1 person. While not the longest flight experience, the IST-DOH route is nonetheless a relatively easy routing to potentially build into a travel plan and in the process enjoy the quirky hybrid experience for an overall reasonable amount of points.
Our third instalment of “What Did You Book?” showcased the exclusive Exclusive Etihad Residence and Qatar’s unique 777 First Class booking strategies. Sash presented a way to make Etihad Residence affordable by employing Amex IAP and the the 35% airline benefit. Meanwhile, Mohammad hinted at what 2024 holds for him with a high value redemption in the Italian island paradise of Sardinia, along with sharing an additional route that ‘Qatar Pacific’ is regularly operating on.
See you again next month!