Journey To Middle Earth: Introduction


  1. Introduction
  2. Delta Air Lines Economy/First ECP-ATL-ORD
  3. Aloft Chicago O’Hare
  4. Korean Air Lines Prestige Class ORD-ICN
  5. Conrad Seoul
  6. 24 Hours in Seoul
  7. China Southern Airlines Business Class ICN-CAN-CHC
  8. BreakFree on Cashel Christchurch
  9. Christchurch
  10. South Island Road Trip
  11. Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
  12. Air New Zealand Economy ZQN-AKL
  13. Hilton Auckland
  14. Auckland
  15. China Eastern Airlines Business Class AKL-PVG-JFK
  16. Delta Air Lines Economy Class JFK-ATL-ECP
  17. Conclusion

I had only been home from my Around The World Trip for a few months, when I started plotting my next big trip. I thought that the RTW would have been my last big one for a while, but I started to look at the long term schedule for work and noticed that I had this opportunity in the Spring of 2016 to go somewhere and take a decent amount of time off. In this case, it really would be the last opportunity for quite a long while where I would be able to take off more than a week and not feel irresponsible about everything that was going on.

So where do you go to follow up the epic journey that was the RTW trip? Well the best thing I could think of was Antarctica; I still have that goal of getting there before I turn 30 (which is fast approaching, I might add), but that is also extremely expensive. I started thinking through through all the other great destinations that I had rattling around in my head as well as could I get there with SkyMiles in Business Class. Another component to this is that I wanted to continue spending my hundreds of thousands of SkyMiles down given all the changes to the program and my fear that SkyMiles will eventually transition to a revenue-based redemption model. To that end, I wanted wherever I decided to fly to to be the greatest combination and bang for the buck in terms of Business Class flying and with as many new (to me) airlines.

I knew that this would pivot my thinking towards Asia. However I had visited a fair amount of Asia in the past several years between Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Thailand. I looked south; there’s Australia which I have been wanting to go back to since I went there to bury my head in the sand for a week after graduating college and then there’s New Zealand.

Like most people, New Zealand has been on the travel wish list for quite a long time for me. For whatever reason, I hadn’t ever really made it a priority or even subject to my random planning of trip possibilities. In comparison, I had planned a complete South Africa trip twice before heading there as part of my RTW trip.

So I sat down over the Christmas and New Year time frame, taking advantage of minimal work distractions, to start figuring out flights, where to visit and everything else. I wanted to maximize this award as much as possible since a Business Class award to Australia/New Zealand costs a whopping 160,000 SkyMiles at the low level, or just 20,000 SkyMiles less than what my RTW in Economy cost. One advantage that I quickly discovered is that since no SkyTeam or Delta partner flies from the US to New Zealand, is that the routing is pretty generous.

The most direct would be to fly Delta or Virgin Australia to Australia and then Virgin Australia to New Zealand. However, those are also some of the most difficult awards to book, given the popularity of the route. And thus the manic searching of partner airlines and gateway cities began.

Around this same time, I discovered that Korean Air Lines had been rolling out a Suite-style Business Class seat on their 747-8I aircraft; I figured this would be the holy grail if I could do an upper-deck Business Class suite seat. Korean Air Lines has a number of North American gateways and so the searching began! Thankfully I was able to use to hone in on the availability, and eventually I found space on a day in late March from Chicago to O’Hare that was on the 747-8I. Yes!

From there, I was able to easily enough find Business Class award availability on China Southern Airlines from Seoul to Guangzhou and onward to Christchurch. This would include flying on the 787, although unlike last year on Kenya Airways, this would give me an opportunity to fly in Business. Even better, since Delta had killed off stopovers on award tickets, the way these flights worked out was that I was able to schedule a 23 Hour and 45 Minute “layover”, giving me a night in Seoul and being 15 minutes under the window for the maximum layover time. I was surprised how easily and perfect these flights were working out!

For the return, I figured why not try see if I could get another airline into the mix. Since I knew I would be flying out of Auckland, I started looking to see what I could find with China Eastern Airlines and China Airlines. I found a few options via Taipei on China Airlines, but they either made the trip shorter or longer than I would have preferred. China Eastern however, had plenty of availability; ultimately I opted to route Auckland to Shanghai and onward to New York-JFK.

The only downside to this was that I would need to book separate flights to position myself in Chicago to catch the Korean Air flight and to get me home from NYC. Hardly something to worry about when you realize how much of an amazing award you just constructed! There would also need to be an New Zealand Domestic flight that would need to be booked as well to get me from wherever I wound up on the South Island to Auckland. That would mean flying Air New Zealand, which is a Star Alliance airline. I would just wind up paying cash for that.

You’re There, Now What?
Once I had it figured out that I was arriving in Christchurch on this day and leaving from Auckland on this other day, I could start figuring out what exactly I wanted to do and where to go. New Zealand definitely has plenty of options and variety of things to see and do. I almost became overwhelmed with the choices that I had. Should I spend most of my time on the North Island or South Island? Do I try to go to Stewart Island (NZ’s “third island”) or do I explore Hobbiton? I knew there was at least one thing I was going to do: Penguins. Surprised?

As I started reading and exploring the map and everything else, my trip really started to just all seem to fall right into place. I would spend several nights in Christchurch before heading south to Oamaru (home to a bunch of Penguins) and then continuing the road trip up into the central part of the South Island and eventually to Queenstown. Queenstown is pretty touristy, but for good reason; the area that surrounds it is phenomenally beautiful and I would take advantage of that by ultimately taking a Lord of the Rings Tour, taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain, and going hiking. All of this would still leave me a couple of days in Auckland, which although it would have been nice to have a few more days to explore some of the surrounding areas, was going to be enough to at least explore the city.

So there I had it; a good basic itinerary that also still left a few things in the wind. I wasn’t exactly sure of some of the places I would be staying; in fact one night during my road trip across the South Island I wound up sleeping in a pub in a small town (not as bad as that might sound).

All I had to do now was to get to New Zealand! Thankfully I had to only wait about two months between booking and getting there compared with the six months of anticipation that I had with my RTW. I couldn’t wait for the trip to begin, especially with all the unique things that I would get to see and experience and of course….penguins!

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