Look for a post tomorrow on getting to French Polynesia with Delta miles, Hawaiian miles, and AMEX Membership Rewards.
This post will be about getting to French Polynesia–Tahiti, Bora Bora, and more–with frequent flier miles. This is an award I get asked to book frequently through my Award Booking Service, and I wanted to share some free tips.
French Polynesia is a French-speaking “overseas country” controlled by France. It is south of Hawaii and east of Australia. The main tourist spots are Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea. People go to French Polynesia for the absolutely stunning beach-and-island landscape. I’ve never been, but the pictures make me jealous.
French Polynesia has only one international airport, F’a'a’a Airport serving Pape’ete, Tahiti, airport code PPT. Other islands have airports with flights within the islands, but to get to French Polynesia, you must fly to Tahiti. Here’s a complete list of flights to and from PPT, according to wikipedia:
American Airlines Miles
American Airlines miles are the best way to get to Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia from the United States. American considers Tahiti to be a part of the South Pacific, so it charges 37.5k/62.5k/72.5k miles each way for economy/business/first class though there is no way to use American miles to get to Tahiti in three-cabin first class. American doesn’t charge surcharges on either of its two partners that fly to Tahiti–Air Tahiti Nui and Hawaiian.
Air Tahiti Nui
One way to get to Tahiti with American miles is on non-oneworld partner Air Tahiti Nui, French Polynesia’s international carrier. For getting to French Polynesia, Air Tahiti Nui’s only route of interest to us is Los Angeles to Tahiti. Air Tahiti Nui also flies to/from Tokyo, but you can’t route to the South Pacific via Asia on one AA award. See The Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards.
You can search for Air Tahiti Nui space for free by calling American at 800-882-8880. I do my research before calling on Expert Flyer. See Free First Class Next Month: Using expertflyer.com.
On Expert Flyer, search for LAX-PPT and PPT-LAX, using aa.com to search for your domestic segments. The fare classes to check are I and W for business and economy. If you check A, you can see first class space. Unfortunately Air Tahiti Nui doesn’t release first class space to AA, or AA blocks the space, so adding class A to the search is not necessary.
The pattern I see is that when the award calendar opens up 330 days out, most flights have 1/2/4 seats or 1/1/6 seats in first/business/economy on Expert Flyer. Those are picked over, and not replaced. I have never seen more two business class seats, or seven economy class seats on a flight.
When booking 11 months in advance, you can pretty much have any flight you want. The more time you wait, the more space deteriorates. By a few months out, there will be some seats left on some flights, but most business class will have been taken, never to reappear again.
So far I’ve been talking about LAX-PPT, but I see the exact same patterns of availability PPT-LAX.
Air Tahiti Nui operates afternoon flights and redeyes from LAX to Tahiti. Returns to the US are all redeyes. All flights are operated by Airbus A340s configured with standard economy seats, recliner business seats, and angled lie flat seats in first class.
I haven’t flown the product, but frankly it doesn’t impress me. I would pay the extra 10k mile premium for first class over business class because I hardly consider a recliner seat to be a premium experience–unfortunately first class is not available to AAdvantage members. I would not pay the 25k premium per direction for a recliner business seat over a recliner economy seat. I value AA miles too highly.
Getting to Los Angeles
To get to Tahiti with AA miles you have to route through Los Angeles. Luckily it’s not tough to get to LAX with AA miles. I find AA to have incredible domestic availability, and you can also use Alaska domestic award space. Both AA and Alaska space are searchable on aa.com. Here are a list of direct AA and Alaska flights to/from LAX, though you don’t need to route to LAX on a direct flight:
Hawaiian operates a six-hour flight to Tahiti once a week from Honolulu on a two-cabin 767.
“First class,” which AA will price at the business class price of 62.5k miles each way, is a recliner seat with 42″ of pitch. For perspective, that 4″ more leg room than domestic first class. I would not pay the premium to fly business class over economy class on this flight.
Hawaiian Flight 481 flies HNL-PPT 4:35 PM – 10:30 PM on Saturdays
Hawaiian Flight 482 flies PPT-HNL 12:30 AM – 6:15 AM on Sundays
This flight can be booked with AA miles on aa.com.
Searching for two award seats–I’ve only ever booked two for Tahiti–I found no business class availability on the Hawaiian flight, but economy class space about 2/3 of available Saturdays.
American, Alaska, and Hawaiian all have great space to Hawaii. They are also all bookable with AA miles and on aa.com.
Free Stopovers in Honolulu or Los Angeles
You can get a free stopover each direction on international AA awards at your international gateway city. In this case, that would be Honolulu if flying Hawaiian and Los Angeles if flying Air Tahiti Nui. Los Angeles and Honolulu are certainly attractive cities for a few days. See How to Book Free Stopovers Online: American Airlines for more information on the topic. It should be a snap.
Keep in mind that you can mix-and-match carriers and cabins. For instance you could fly to Tahiti on Hawaiian in economy with a free stopover in Honolulu. You could return on Air Tahiti Nui in business class with a free stopover in LA. This would cost 100k AA miles total, 37.5k + 62.5k.
What about AA’s “published fare” rule?
Expert readers know that for an AA award to be valid, there must be a published fare from your origin to your destination on the overwater carrier. There is no analogous rule when using other types of miles.
I have had trouble with this rule when routing to Tahiti. A business class roundtrip from Raleigh, North Carolina (RDU) to Tahiti was priced at 175k miles by the AA computer. The explanation was that there was no published fare from RDU-PPT on Air Tahiti Nui. This is not true. I count three.
A supervisor, confronted with this fact, told me that these fares require flying US Airways or Delta on the domestic legs. I don’t believe that to be true, but either way, I’ve never heard or read that as a disqualifier for a paid fare. My email to American on this subject has gone unanswered since I sent it weeks ago.
The bottom line is that we had to buy a cash ticket for a domestic positioning flight.
Taxes and Fees
American doesn’t charge surcharges on Air Tahiti Nui or Hawaiian flights. A recent San Diego to Tahiti roundtrip award I booked in Air Tahiti Nui business class had $57 in taxes per person and a $25 phone-ticketing fee per person for $82 total.
Honolulu to Tahiti on Hawaiian in economy class would incur $53 in taxes with no ticketing fee if booked online.
Getting to Bora Bora, Moorea, and other islands
Air Tahiti–not Air Tahiti Nui, the AA partner–runs regular flights to other islands that you can purchase with cash. Or you can take a ferry to some islands.
American Airlines miles are the best currency to get to French Polynesia. AA partners, Air Tahiti Nui (Los Angeles) and Hawaiian (Honolulu), both fly to Tahiti, where easy connections to the other islands are possible.
American Airlines doesn’t charge surcharges on either partner, so total cash outlay should be under $100 per person to get to Tahiti. Stopovers are possible in Los Angeles or Honolulu, and free oneways are possible if you live in one of those cities.
This post was edited to reflect a comment by Gary Leff that AA miles can’t be used for Air Tahiti Nui first. I have confirmed that with American.