I like to do “travel projects,” or long-term travel that’s a tad quixotic requiring a lot of planning and research. For instance, visiting every Major League Baseball stadium across America, plus that one in Canada (done!). Or staying at all the casino resorts along the Vegas Strip (17 and counting!). Or trying out the best pizza across the globe (and no, East Coast snobs, it ain’t all in the Tri-state area!).
When I got into points and miles in the summer of 2016, I could sense a new project brewing: “aspirational travel” on the Middle East Big Three (ME3)—Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways. Yet, no matter how many tricks and tips I learned online, I came to realize that flying all three wasn’t going to be easy. Why? Well, mainly because of time: the one travel currency cooler-than-thou bloggers don’t talk that much about. I could take literally years to visit every MLB stadium, Vegas resort, or top pizza joint. But I wouldn’t have that kind of time, nevermind all the points and miles necessary, to fly up front with the ME3.
Still, while amassing a ton of points and miles over the past two years (almost exclusively through credit card sign-up bonuses), I kept my focus on eventually flying in ME3 premium cabins. For the record, I do very little “manufactured spending,” mainly because I’m too square. However, I could be approved for multiple credit cards, and I could make the minimum spend to earn the sign-up bonuses without carrying any credit card balances. (Unless you can do the same, I don’t recommend trying what I’m about to describe.)
Most bloggers will gush about flying up front in various ME3 aircraft. They will also rave about the lounges in the ME3 hubs in Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. A little cynically, I sometimes wondered if their reviews of the ME3 (and other top-notch airlines) were just a ploy to get readers to sign up for credit cards through their affiliate links. Was I just a sucker among suckers? Or was it actually possible to fly on the ME3 like they did—not just on one of the carriers, but on all three, and in the top cabins—using points and miles? And could I, like them, access those posh lounges?
For a while, it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to collect enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Amex Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points, Starwood points, or American Airlines (AA) miles. And as I mentioned before, even if I could, I didn’t think I’d have enough of that other crucial currency: time.
I mean, making multiple trips to the Middle East just wasn’t going to be practical for me. If you want to fly the ME3, in the vast majority of cases, you’re going to have to fly to or from Doha, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi. And if you’re like me (a middle-class guy, based in the heartland of America, who doesn’t travel that much for work), you’re not going to have that many shots at flying on award or revenue tickets to the Middle East. My assumption going in was that I would have just one shot.
Because of the time factor and the limited amounts of points and miles I had, I began to figure out ways I could fly the ME3 on a single trip with multiple legs. This travel project took over a year to plan, but the vacation itself would only take about ten days. As much as I poke fun at travel bloggers for their subtle and flagrant credit card hawking, I’ll admit I couldn’t have done this trip without their practical strategies and advice (more than a few helped me through Twitter and in-person exchanges at events like ZorkFest, and of course, their blogs are filled with good stuff, if you can filter out the fluff).
Here’s what I ended up flying. I mention the specific aircraft because in most cases, even on the same carrier, your experience in first and business class will differ (sometimes dramatically) depending on which plane model you’re on. Rather than reviewing each product myself, I’m going to point you to reviews I’d read while planning my trip:
• Qatar Airways’ “first in business” class Qsuite on the 777-300ER,
• Qatar Airways’ “old” business class lie-flat seat on the 787-8 Dreamliner,
• Emirates’ “old” first class suite on the A380 (featuring an onboard shower and bar),
• Emirates’ new first class (fully enclosed) suite on the 777-300ER (the one product on the list you can’t currently fly with points/miles),
• Etihad’s first class suite on the 787-9 Dreamliner, and
• Etihad’s first class “Apartment” on the A380 (also featuring an onboard shower).
Some of you #avgeek completists out there might be wondering why I didn’t seek out Qatar Airways’ first class seat on the A380. I didn’t mainly because several reviews (like this one) claim it doesn’t differentiate enough from its business class product, which frankly I was more drawn to.
Below are the legs of my trip and the amounts of points and miles (and cash) I spent on each one:
|Chicago O’Hare to Reagan National DC||American 737-800 domestic first||63,000 American Airlines miles (for both legs), plus $8 in fees/taxes and a $55 Uber drive between Reagan and Dulles|
|Washington DC Dulles to Hamad Int’l (Doha Qatar)||Qatar 777-300ER business|
|Hamad Int’l (Doha) to Kuwait Int’l||Qatar 787-8 regional first (international business)||18,000 British Airways Avios points, plus $45 in fees/taxes|
|Kuwait Int’l to Dubai Int’l (United Arab Emirates)||Emirates A380 business||$105, plus 2,750 Emirates Skywards miles, for economy seat ($165 for upgrade to business class)|
|Dubai Int’l to Chhatrapati Shivaji Int’l (Mumbai, India)||Emirates A380 first||52,500 Emirates Skywards miles, plus $320 in fees/taxes/fuel-surcharges (and $100 for the Indian e-visa, though technically I didn’t end up using it)|
|Chhatrapati Shivaji Int’l to Bandaranaike Int’l (Colombo, Sri Lanka)||Jet Airways 737-800 business||7,393 Chase Ultimate Rewards points spent through the Chase portal ($135 for upgrade to business class)|
|Bandaranaike Int’l to Dubai Int’l||Emirates 777-300ER first||North of $2,000 (for both legs): New Emirates first class (on the leg between Dubai and Geneva) could not be booked with miles or points when I was planning my trip, but originating out of Colombo, Sri Lanka, kept the cash cost way down (more details later)|
|Dubai Int’l to Geneva-Cointrin (Switzerland)||Emirates 777-300ER first|
|Geneva-Cointrin to Abu Dhabi Int’l (United Arab Emirates)||Etihad 787-9 first||59,500 American Airlines miles, plus $28 in fees/taxes|
|Abu Dhabi Int’l to New York JFK||Etihad A380 first (Apartment)||117,700 Etihad Guest miles, plus $225 in fees/taxes/fuel-surcharges|
|New York JFK to Chicago O’Hare||Delta E-175 domestic first||Free (using a travel voucher received as compensation for being bumped from a flight to Chicago from Las Vegas)|
That’s a lot of points and miles (and the associated cash fees, mostly fuel surcharges, can add up). But if you consider the cabins I got to fly in and the lounges I got to visit, I think my trip was well worth the cost. Plus, all these flights and lounge visits were taken as part of a single whirlwind trip, meaning I did my aspirational travel about as efficiently as I could while still enjoying myself. (I could’ve opted out of my revenue flight to try the new Emirates first class and subbed in an award flight to Abu Dhabi from Mumbai or Colombo, saving me a ton of cash. But then I would’ve been unable to quench my curiosity, possibly for years, and there would have been other opportunity costs in not paying up for that experience, which I’ll go into later.)
How I spent my points and miles for this trip: A breakdown
So, let me go into some detail on my ME3 flight redemptions. Throughout my breakdown, I’ll be referring you to resources I consulted online to make this trip possible. (Again, I recognize I owe a huge debt to several travel bloggers while reserving the right to throw a little shade their way.) Later on, I’ll go into the specific credit cards I opened to fund my travel because both Travel Fanboy and I think the earning side of the equation tends to get neglected (probably because that side is not what compels most readers to click on bloggers’ affiliate links).
How I booked award flights on Qatar Airways
One of my two main goals for flying with Qatar Airways was to try its new Qsuite (the second business class product to provide a sliding door for extra privacy). At the time of my booking, in September 2017, Qatar Airways was only flying Qsuite planes (back then, only a few 777-300ERs) out of two U.S. airports: New York JFK and Washington Dulles. (An updated list of Qsuite routes is available here.) I knew snagging an award flight out of New York JFK would be tough, so I looked for award flights out of Dulles using the British Airways (BA) website.
Once I found some award availability for late July 2018, I called American Airlines to make the award booking. For 70,000 AA miles and minimal fees, I could fly from Chicago O’Hare to Reagan National and then from Dulles to Doha, Qatar (I’d be responsible, the agent told me, for getting myself from Reagan to Dulles—I was just relieved I wouldn’t have to burn any extra miles to get to DC from Chicago). I took that option, though I could have flown directly on a non-Qsuite 777 from Chicago to Doha (or on a non-Qsuite A350 by way of Atlanta).
There are a few different ways to book Qatar Airways award flights, but I generally found American Airlines’ frequent flyer program the easiest to use for this purpose (simply call 1-800-882-8880 in the U.S. after finding award availability on the BA website). Back then, I held two AAdvantage credit cards, either of which gave me 10% back on award bookings (up to 10,000 miles per calendar year), so the flight’s base cost was just 63,000 miles.
My second goal for flying with Qatar Airways was to visit its flagship first class lounge in Hamad International Airport in Doha: the magnificent Al Safwa Lounge. As a business class traveler on Qatar Airways you cannot buy your way into this lounge (though you can Emirates’ and Etihad’s first class lounges in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE). At present, you cannot even gain access by being a top tier (Emerald) member of the oneworld alliance, which Qatar Airways is part of. But if you’re a first class passenger on a regional Qatar Airways flight (the seat and service being equivalent to non-Qsuite international business class), you can access Al Safwa Lounge.
So, since I’d have to fly to a third country in order to get to Dubai anyways (direct routes between Qatar and the UAE were swiftly eliminated last year because of a blockade against Qatar), I booked a first-class regional flight from Doha to Kuwait City on a Qatar Airways 787-8 (which gave me the chance to check out this plane’s customized reverse-herringbone seat).
Again, I used the BA website to search for award availability, but this time I decided to use 18,000 BA Avios points with a modest fee (all done online), a tip I’d picked up from this online review. Thanks to those Avios points, I managed to catch a few winks and take a shower in a private room within Al Safwa Lounge. I also got to enjoy both breakfast and lunch there before heading on to Kuwait. All told, I spent a good five to six hours in this lounge on a Sunday, and at times I felt like I was the only guest in the entire place.
How I booked award flights (and one cash flight) on Emirates
The feather in almost every travel blogger’s cap is flying first class on Emirates. On the A380, you not only get to sit in a fairly private, blingy suite with sliding doors, you also get to take a shower at 37,000 feet and imbibe very expensive alcoholic drinks at a fancy bar. On certain Emirates 777-300ERs, you will get what many bloggers are calling the best first class product in the industry: a fully enclosed suite, with floor-to-ceiling doors, featuring design elements inspired by the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, plus high-tech individualized temperature and light controls (the middle seats even have crystal clear virtual windows).
Flying Emirates first class on the A380 with points or miles has become quite challenging following detrimental changes to partner programs such as Alaska Air Mileage Plan and JAL Mileage Bank. Alaska’s and JAL’s programs used to be the best ways to book first class award travel on Emirates. In some cases, JAL’s still might be. But JAL Mileage Bank miles are difficult to come by. As for the new first class product on the 777-300ER, when I was booking my Emirates flights in early 2018, it couldn’t be reserved with points and miles (that policy might’ve changed since then, but the same difficulties in locking in any first class award travel on Emirates would still apply).
Despite these obstacles, I really wanted to fly both Emirates first class products and, while I was in area, stay in the airline’s massive first class lounge at Dubai International. I decided not to mess around with the partner programs, given the award devaluations and fuel surcharge hikes. Instead, I figured out which Emirates A380 routes featuring first class (not all of them do) would be the cheapest to book with Emirates Skywards miles. I presumed—and then confirmed—that the shortest A380 routes would cost me the fewest miles. But the very shortest one (at 1 hour and 45 minutes), the Dubai to Kuwait route (costing 28,750 miles, plus about $290 in fees, taxes, and fuel surcharges), probably wouldn’t give me enough time to take a shower or enjoy the experience more generally. The next shortest A380 route (at about 3 hours) was from Dubai to Mumbai, India (costing 52,500 miles, plus $320). And that would be my choice, despite the additional $100 I needed for an e-visa on account of India’s very strict transit policies when flying on two separate bookings.
To book my flight from Dubai to Mumbai, I transferred 40,000 Starpoints to my Emirates Skywards account, which resulted in 50,000 Skywards miles (because you get a bonus of 5,000 points for every block transfer of 20,000 points—this key feature still works, more or less, the same way under the new Marriott Rewards program). I already had 5,250 Skywards miles (earned from a previous A380 flight between Bangkok and Hong Kong). So, I then had enough miles to reserve my award.
Incidentally, I used a combination of cash and leftover Emirates Skywards miles to book an economy flight on the A380 between Kuwait City and Dubai (the ability to blend cash and miles is one of the few positives about the Emirates Skywards program). A few days before my trip began, I upgraded to business class with cash.
I knew I couldn’t book the new Emirates first class with miles, so I made a judgment call to lock it in with cash (following a long debate with myself and then a conversation with my wife). When I booked this flight in early 2018, the 777-300ERs with new Emirates first class were available on just two routes: 1) between Dubai and Brussels, Belgium, and 2) between Dubai and Geneva, Switzerland. Taking cues from this blog post and the review of the new first class product cited earlier, I booked my flight out of Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Geneva (with a connection in Dubai) for north of $2,000.
While that was quite an extravagance, I could rationalize that starting out of Colombo would save me a few thousand dollars relative to starting out in Dubai. I also reasoned that Emirates had not made it clear when it would make the new first class product available through miles and, again, I didn’t know if I’d get more than one opportunity to be in this part of the world. Moreover, I knew for sure I would get a solid return in points and miles on the revenue first class ticket by 1) using my American Express Platinum Card (to earn well over 10,000 Membership Rewards points, given this card’s five times multiplier on dollars spent directly with airlines) and 2) requesting the miles I’d accrue from Emirates be credited to its partner Alaska Airlines (to gain over 15,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles, a very valuable currency).
My Emirates first class flights would give me free access to the airlines’ flagship first class lounge in Dubai International (but you can buy your way in from another class). Many bloggers have covered this lounge in great detail, lauding its dining and other features, so I won’t go into my experience too much. In this lounge, I had one of the best filet mignons I’ve ever had anywhere, and while no private rooms were provided (as in Qatar’s Al Safwa Lounge), there were plenty of quiet semi-private places to lie back and take a nap. Just be sure you visit the main (massive) lounge in concourse A of terminal 3 at Dubai International, and give yourself around four hours to explore and relax. There are smaller, older Emirates first class lounges in the B and C concourses, but they do not give you the full experience.
How I booked award flights on Etihad
Besides first class on Emirates and Singapore Airlines, Etihad’s first class “Apartment” on the A380 is probably the most blogged about product among premium cabins. That’s partly because up until Singapore Airlines introduced its new first class suite in 2017, the Apartment offered the most square footage per passenger in first class. Additionally, Etihad first class on the A380 is just one of two premium products offering an onboard shower (Emirates first on most A380s being the other). When Etihad’s A380 Apartment entered the commercial aviation market in 2014, it set a new bar for first class cabin design and experience. At the time, only Etihad’s own even more over-the-top ultra-first-class product, The Residence, seemed more luxurious.
Locking down an Etihad first class Apartment was my A-1 priority for this trip—I wouldn’t have bothered with the whole thing if I couldn’t snag a first class seat on an Etihad A380. As with both Qatar Airways and Emirates, there are a couple of ways to book award flights on Etihad. Most travel bloggers recommend booking with American Airlines. But in the fall of 2017, when I was looking to reserve my travel, some Etihad award flights, including first class flights between Abu Dhabi and New York JFK, could not be accessed by American’s customer service agents, regardless of whether the call center was based in the U.S., Australia, or elsewhere. It didn’t matter that award availability could be seen on Etihad’s website; American’s agents simply couldn’t complete certain award redemptions.
That problem has since been resolved, for the most part. But back then, I couldn’t find a way around it, so I decided to book directly through the Etihad Guest frequent flyer program. After finding award availability with Etihad Guest for early August 2018, I transferred 118,000 Membership Rewards points (I hadn’t earned any Citi ThankYou points by then) to Etihad Guest, and booked my Apartment for 117,700 Etihad Guest miles, plus $225 in fees, taxes, and surcharges, for the ride back home. (Had I been able to go through American, I would have needed 115,000 AA miles, plus some cash to pay for fees and taxes, but no fuel surcharges, so it would’ve been cheaper. But by going through Etihad Guest, I was able to reserve complimentary chauffeur service, which is not available via partner awards, so that help offset the difference a little.)
Needing to find a way back to the UAE from Geneva, I did end up using American Airlines miles to book first class on Etihad after all: not for an Apartment, but for a cozier, but still spacious, first class product on a 787-9. Normally, that flight would have cost me 62,500 AA miles, plus a few dollars, but I got a 3,000-mile discount (after having already gotten a 7,000-mile discount for my Qsuite flight) because I held an AAdvantage credit card. This version of Etihad first class doesn’t get covered very much in the travel blogosphere (it doesn’t feature a shower or anything else all that ostentatious). But I had a wonderful time on it. Any airline seat with sliding doors will rate high in my book.
My flight in an A380 Apartment got me free access to Etihad’s flagship first class lounge in Abu Dhabi International (but anyone flying in any class on Etihad can buy their way in). There’s no access to this lounge upon arrival, so my flight from Geneva didn’t get me any extra time in there.
Etihad’s first class lounge at Abu Dhabi International is not anywhere near as spacious as Emirates’ in Dubai International or Qatar Airways’ in Hamad International. It’s also nowhere near as impressive in terms of its design and service. I wish I had visited Etihad’s first class lounge before the others, so that I wouldn’t have felt a little let down.
Etihad has had to make several cutbacks to become profitable again (in 2016 and 2017, it had annual losses north of a billion dollars). And they show in the lounge. Not so much in the hard product, which was fine, but in the service, which I found less polished and professional compared with the service in Emirates’ and Qatar Airways’ first class lounges. Fortunately, the flight attendants on both my Etihad flights were superb (on my flight home on the A380, I was even given a free tour of the unoccupied Residence by an attendant who was trained at the Savoy Butler Academy, but no pictures were allowed). And the Etihad meals both in the lounge and on the flights were presented impeccably and tasted very good (the fact that caviar is still available for first class passengers on the A380 shows that the embattled airline is not skimping on everything!).
The earning before the burning
How did I earn the points and miles that I burned on all these flights? Below are details on the credit cards that I opened between the summer of 2016 and the autumn of 2017. That period already seems like the good ole days in light of certain changes—to name just a few, further restrictions on (re)earning sign-up bonuses for Chase Sapphire cards, Citi’s removal of the 10% miles rebate on its AAdvantage Platinum Select card, and the completion of the Marriott/SPG merger.
If you search online for the following cards, you’ll notice that many of their sign-up bonuses and minimum spending requirements (and sadly, some of their benefits) have changed since I’d opened them (note that I closed most of these cards before the one-year anniversary so that I could avoid the annual fees and, in some cases, so that I could reapply for them once I’m eligible for their sign-up bonuses again).
|Credit or charge card||Sign-up bonus||Minimum spending requirement||Annual fee||Selected notable benefit|
|Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard||60,000 AA miles||$3,000 within first three months||$0 the first year/$95 each subsequent year||10% rebate for award bookings (up to 10,000 miles per calendar year), which is no longer available|
|AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard from Barclays||60,500 AA miles||One purchase of any amount within first three months||$95 (not waived the first year)||10% percent rebate for award bookings (up to 10,000 miles per calendar year), but not stackable with other card’s rebate|
|American Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card||35,000 Starpoints (equal to 105,000 new Marriott program points)||$3,000 within first three months for 25,000 Starpoints; an additional $2,000 within the first six months for an extra 10,000 Starpoints||$0 the first year/$95 each subsequent year||5,000 bonus points when transferring 20,000 points to airline partner|
|American Express Platinum Card||50,000 Membership Rewards points||$5,000 within first three months||$450 the first year/$550 each subsequent year||5X points for airfare booked directly with airline or through amextravel.com; access to the Centurion Lounges; access to Delta Sky Clubs when flying on Delta|
|American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card||50,000 Membership Rewards points||$2,000 within first three months||$0 the first year/$195 each subsequent year||3X points for airfare booked directly with airline|
|American Express EveryDay Preferred||30,000 Membership Rewards points||$2,000 within first three months||$95 (not waived the first year)||50% bonus on purchases (minus returns and credits) if 30 or more purchases are made in a billing cycle|
|British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase||50,000 Avios points (plus potential for an additional 50,000, which I passed on)||$3,000 within first three months ($10,000 in total within first 12 months for an additional 25,000 Avios points; $20,000 in total within first 12 months for yet another 25,000 Avios points)||$95 (not waived the first year)||Distance-based award chart (e.g., economy flights for 7,500 Avios points on partner American Airlines if traveling fewer than 1,151 miles)|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||100,000 Ultimate Rewards points||$4,000 within first three months||$450 (not waived the first year)||$300 travel credit (making the annual fee effectively $150) and access to Priority Pass lounges|
Reviewing this list of cards, I do realize that some readers may not have the spending opportunities and, more critically, the income to make the minimum spend to get the sign-up bonuses. In the two years leading up to my trip, I had a present for my sister’s wedding, my wife’s training courses, and other large expenses that I could put on these cards. And lucky for me, my wife and I were (and still are) earning enough to always pay off credit card balances in full each month.
With all that said, nearly anyone with a solid credit profile should be able to do what I did (as long as you’re solo or have an understanding partner like I do). My approach is very square, requiring little to no advantage play to harvest points and miles. Flying up front on all three of the ME3 can be done for a fairly reasonable cost when you’re short on time. Just axe the cash flight featuring the new Emirates first class from my example, and variations of this trip can be done by nearly anyone who can accrue the requisite points and miles through credit card sign-up bonuses.
To keep my cash costs down, I stayed in hotels (mostly IHG or Starwood properties) that went for between $50 and $125 per night, or I’d just camp out in the fancy airport lounges, courtesy of the ME3 or Priority Pass. I won’t discuss my hotel stays, but I’ll share that most of them were close to the airports (in true travel blogger style) and provided free shuttle service. Many of these stays earned me travel currencies not only with hotel loyalty programs, but also with American Airlines through a special promotion. So, I was earning points and miles while burning them.
Not the bottom line
On this trip, I flew over 26,000 miles in first and business class for about 320,000 points and miles and north of $3,000 (the bulk of which was for a single once-in-a-lifetime revenue ticket). I wanted to fly up front on the ME3 and check out their flagship first class lounges, and these goals happened to align with maximizing the value of my points and miles.
Yes, I recognize my trip was pretty crazy bougie, but I’m no crazy rich Asian American (OK, OK, I might be a little nuts). Over the summer, there was a debate online about whether frequent flyer miles were a tool of inequality. I personally don’t think they are. Sure, the wealthier you are, the more you can leverage travel currencies. But I would argue that miles and points allow at least middle-class folks with good credit to have phenomenal experiences that would be otherwise unattainable. This piece is just one detailed example of how this is possible.
How you spend your points and miles is very personal, and I’m not here to suggest you spend them like me. This was in part an exercise in using points and miles to prove to myself what’s actually possible, beyond the hype that a lot of travel blogs are riddled with (not TFB’s, of course). I don’t begrudge how (most) travel bloggers make a living. As I’ve explained, I’ve learned a lot from them, but part of why I made this trip was to distinguish knowledge and wisdom from marketing and empty bragging. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether I’ve done enough here to make the distinctions clear.
Let me close with some brief notes on the main destinations of my trip (to say nothing about them at all would be too travel-blogger-like): To be honest, I had mixed feelings about hanging out in Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi—I went to the Middle East really wanting to like these cities, but I never felt completely at ease or able to penetrate (even momentarily) the surface of these societies. Sometimes I got to talk with very friendly folks in the service industry (a lot of them from the Philippines), but I didn’t get to have any meaningful chats with Qatari or Emirati locals.
That said, I still think all three cities are worth visiting, but be prepared for the heat and humidity, possible sandstorms, and some mild culture shock. If you’re very short on time and can only explore one place in each city, I’d say check out the Museum of Islamic Art (admission is free) in Doha, the Burj Al Arab (for high tea with panoramic city views, plus the fancy lobby) in Dubai, and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (also free to enter) in Abu Dhabi.
As the tourist infrastructure improves in all three cities (especially in Doha as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup), they’ll only become more accessible to foreigners.