My wife and I were thinking of going back to the Maldives for Thanksgiving. We’ve cancelled stays at the St. Regis there several times. I’ve still only stayed (5 times) at the Park Hyatt. We even had a redemption stay booked at the St. Regis at the old 60,000 point level, and Etihad First Apartment awards – although at the time there was a problem booking infant tickets in conjunction with AAdvantage redemptions on Etihad that’s since been fixed.
The idea, though, of traveling all the way to the Maldives with our daughter was daunting. At three months we took her to Paris. At five months we took her to Sydney. She’s a great traveler but she’d be over a year old come Thanksgiving and wanted something a bit easier to manage. That’s when business class awards on Air Tahiti Nui popped up and I booked those to give us another option. We were meeting friends for Thanksgiving and had to coordinate those plans as well.
Here’s a brief synopsis of what to expect, with reports coming describing each leg of the journey from booking and cost to the actual experience.
Settling on a Hotel in Bora Bora
At first we made redemption bookings at the St. Regis Bora Bora but recent reports were that the HNA Group-owned property wasn’t getting the investment it needed and decided to switch to the Conrad. My wife and I stayed there when it was part of the Luxury Collection, on our honeymoon back in 2005.
Initially there wasn’t redemption night availability at the Conrad, but three of the six nights I needed opened up and I began stalking the rest of the stay. Eventually I’d piece together multiple reservations – first at 80,000 Hilton Honors points per night, later Hilton was charging 89,000 points per night.
With the long haul flights booked on points, and Bora Bora stay booked, I went about planning the rest of the trip.
We decided to take only one flight per day with our one year old. We needed flights between Austin and Los Angeles, a one night stay in Los Angeles, as well a one night stay on Tahiti. We’d be arriving too late to fly on to Bora Bora in any case.
Booking Internal Tahiti – Bora Bora Flights
We’d also need our flights between Tahiti and Bora Bora. The long haul Tahitian airline is Air Tahiti Nui (Nui means large). The domestic carrier is Air Tahiti, and doesn’t partner with any frequent flyer programs. Those tickets were going to be paid in cash – and purchasing them from abroad they run around $400 roundtrip. Come late summer some of the flights were starting to sell out for Thanksgiving.
When I was researching these tickets for my honeymoon I discovered Travelocity pricing them at 90% off, a currency error that became one of the better mistake fares (anything originating in French Polynesia to anywhere in the world on any airline in any class of service 90% off if booked on Travelocity, and booking Air Tahiti Nui Papeete Los Angeles at the time meant paper tickets – rip out the first coupon and show up to start the trip in LA).
Booking Los Angeles Flights and Choosing a Hotel Night in Los Angeles
I have a much greater appreciation for non-stop flights traveling with my daughter. And we try to time the flights around her sleep schedule. Fortunately there are six airlines that fly non-stop between Austin and Los Angeles: Southwest, American, United, Delta, Frontier and Spirit.
The best-timed flight for the outbound was on Southwest. It even counted as my final flight to complete Southwest’s A-List Challenge. And Southwest’s open seating policy usually means getting an empty middle when my wife and I travel with our daughter as a lap infant. It’s like getting a seat for her without charge.
For the return we were flying straight through and the flight that gave us the layover we wanted (not an hour, not five hours) was on American. That would be my third to last one way on American for the year that will just barely put me over the top to requalify as an Executive Platinum.
I planned about a 24 hour stopover in Los Angeles, so I didn’t want to stay at an airport hotel. I wanted a chance to go out and do something. On the other hand with LA traffic, and a short stay, I still wanted to be reasonably close to the airport.
Flying Air Tahiti Nui, staying on Tahiti and Bora Bora, was reminiscent of my honeymoon fourteen years earlier. On that trip our ‘airport overnight’ was the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey. The neighborhood there isn’t super walkable, and wouldn’t give us much to do with our one year old daughter. Knowing there wasn’t much Hyatt in the area I searched Marriott’s site and was simply amazed by the number of choices, even knowing how large Marriott has become.
I settled on spending points at the new Santa Monica Proper Hotel. Santa Monica is walkable, we could take my daughter down to the water and even the Pier, and the hotel seemed interesting enough.
It’s a Design Hotel, a relationship Marriott inherited from Starwood, though notably elite benefits really don’t apply. Still I enjoyed my first Design Hotel stay in Chicago earlier in the year.
Travel to Tahiti
French Polynesia is one of the toughest awards out there, because the number of flights is just so limited. Space is either available or it isn’t, there aren’t a lot of connecting possibilities that let you get creative (sure, Hawaiian flies via Honolulu on Saturdays). From Los Angeles there’s Air Tahiti Nui and Air France (the latter only 3x weekly) and from San Francisco there’s United (which doesn’t release business saver awards) and French Blue (which doesn’t have a business class).
So I was fortunate to have Air Tahiti Nui business class awards. They fly out of the Tom Bradley terminal. Years ago they contracted with the British Airways and Qantas lounge (back when there was no toilet facility inside the lounge, the Bradley terminal really was a put back then). Now they use the LA International Lounge, which was better than I expected.
Air Tahiti Nui’s business class isn’t a great product – think United’s old business class that’s being replaced by Polaris – but it’s new for them and an improvement over the old recliners. It’s fine for an 8 hour flight, and 2-2-2 seating makes sense when most of your passengers are traveling to Tahiti as couples.
From Tahiti to Bora Bora
We arrived around 11 p.m. so had to spend the night on Tahiti. Years ago we spent our first nights at the Intercontinental, which is about a mile from the airport, and we repeated that this time as well. It’s close and easy and nice for Tahiti. The rooms have seen an update, it’s on the water, but the physical structure is visibly worn.
Basing near the airport makes good sense when you’re just going to head back to the domestic terminal the next day to catch an Air Tahiti domestic flight to Bora Bora. While you can spend points for the Intercontinental overnight, the only points that work for Air Tahiti are credit card points that let you pay yourself back for revenue travel.
Six Nights at Bora Bora Nui
It took piecing together multiple reservations to secure my booking at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui, which meant not being able to take advantage of Hilton’s 5th night free on redemptions. During the process of making bookings Hilton even quietly devalued in awards in many cases, including charging more points for this hotel. But I managed to secure the reservation I needed over peak Thanksgiving and I was thrilled. And I arranged with the hotel to upgrade to an overwater bungalow for a surcharge in advance.
As with Air Tahiti Nui, the ‘Nui’ means large and this is a large property. They’ve even built onto it since we visited last, when it was still part of Starwood and the largest hotel on the island. It’s well cared for, and everyone was friendly, but it also seemed somewhat impersonal at times.
One of the first things you realize in French Polynesia is that even where service is good it’s never quite as good as you expect (for the price of things). You’re in the middle of the ocean, staff come at a premium, and the local employment culture is heavily influenced by the French. Requests are sometimes forgotten, service can be slow.
Regular readers of the blog know that I am not much of a photographer. And I use a fairly old phone taking photos. The remarkable thing about Bora Bora is how amazing my photos look anyway. It’s just one of the most beautiful spots on earth.
And our trip started off on an incredible note. When we stayed 14 years earlier we lucked into one of only 3 bungalows with a direct view of Mt. Otemanu. Bora Bora Nui is in some ways on ‘the wrong side’ of the island, since it lacks the archetypal view – though some prefer the location because there aren’t rows of resorts right next to each other. We had the best of both worlds, with the view and the seclusion. I mentioned the room we had last time, and the hotel assigned it to us again – noting at check-in that most people didn’t express specific preferences, so they honor them when they can.
Returning Home – The Sunday After Thanksgiving
Our time in Bora Bora ended the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and we decided that unlike the trip ot we’d more or less travel straight through on the way home. That meant the hotel’s boat back to the Bora Bora airport, Air Tahiti back to Tahiti and then Air Tahiti Nui to Los Angeles… followed by a shower in the Admirals Club and an American flight home to Austin.
The Air Tahiti Nui flight was overnight, so instead of looking for a late afternoon checkout at the Conrad we departed early afternoon giving us enough time for a room at the Intercontinental Tahiti before our flight. If I’d be traveling alone with my wife we probably wouldn’t have done it this way, but we got a nap for our daughter before leaving the resort on Bora Bora and I wanted to make sure our daughter could have dinner and sleep as much as possible before the flight back to the States.
We were he only guests leaving the Conrad who were on our particular flight, so I managed to get the hotel to organize the boat just over an hour to departure instead of their standard 90 minutes. The airline allows check-in 20 minutes to departure, there are basically no formalities at the Bora Bora airport (not even security). The airport is small, and check out the views from inside.
After a visit to the Intercontinental again, navigating the late night chaos of the Faa’a International Airport in Papeete, Tahiti, and visiting the airport’s lounge – that most airlines pay for business class passengers to access and which is also a Priority Pass lounge – since it’s the only air conditioned place in the terminal, it was time for our Boeing 787 to take us home.
We arrived in the States off the overnight flight on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, so that’s when we’d be clearing customs and going back through security as well as navigating the crowds at LAX. Everything wound up surprisingly smooth though. And our 9 days away turned out to be perfect.
The Rest of The Trip Report
I plan to write each section of the trip report in the coming days.
- Introduction to Thanksgiving in Bora Bora (this post)
- Santa Monica Proper Hotel
- LA International Lounge
- Air Tahiti Nui Business Class, Los Angeles – Papeete
- Intercontinental Tahiti
- Air Tahiti, Papeete – Bora Bora
- Conrad Bora Bora Nui
- Returning to Tahiti
- Air Tahiti Nui Business Class, Papeete – Los Angeles
It’s been awhile since I’ve shared a trip report, and I’m looking forward to it.