Escape to the Land Down Under, Part 1: Intro, Using AA miles to Australia, and Positioning– DCA SkyClub and DCA to New York on Delta

Last weekend, I got back from a fantastic two week trip to Australia, booked mainly on AA miles. Due to some reasons you’ll read, blogging got a bit delayed. But here’s the first in what I imagine will be a series of 6-8 posts, giving a brief overview of the trip and my positioning flight.

In October, I decided I wanted to go to Australia. I didn’t have any particular reason other than I’ve never been before, and I have (well, now, had) a lot of miles. I started looking at award tickets for the winter, and then remembered that it was Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in late February and early March – when there was availability. Gangbusters!

As a preview, the intended plan was as follows:
Delta DCA to JFK (Coach, revenue ticket)
Qantas JFK to LAX to SYD (Business, AA miles)
4 nights Sydney: Radisson Blu Plaza Sydney, Intercontinental Sydney
Virgin Australia SYD to CNS (Cairns) (Coach, revenue ticket)
2 nights Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef: Hilton Cairns
Qantas CNS to MEL (Melbourne) (Business, AA miles)
3 nights Melbourne: The Grand Hotel, Park Hyatt Melbourne, Grand Hyatt Melbourne
Qantas MEL to SYD, Hawaiian SYD to HNL (Business, AA miles)
Honolulu Layover – Pacific Marina Inn
Hawaiian HNL to LAS, US Airways LAS to DCA (Business, AA miles)

Courtesy GCMap.com

Courtesy GCMap.com

I ended up with a great outbound flight. Initially, I was flying United from DC to Chicago, and then Asiana from Chicago to Seoul, Seoul to Sydney, all in Business, using United miles. But twelve hours later, I found availability on Qantas from New York to L.A. to Brisbane to Sydney, in Business Class. So I canceled my United booking for no penalty, and rebooked using American miles. Alas, I couldn’t get the trip to price properly flying from DC to JFK and then onward to Sydney on AA.com. Rather than call and pay the booking fee, I just booked from JFK. The flight was on a Monday night and I figured I’d go up to New York on a revenue ticket and see my family before heading out.

Connecting in Brisbane to Sydney wasn’t ideal, as the domestic and international terminals are a few kilometers apart. So I set an ExpertFlyer alert for nonstop from LAX to Sydney. Sure enough, one opened up. In the meantime, Qantas had changed its flight numbers a bit. So what was one flight number from JFK to LAX to BNE was now two separate numbers. And the JFK-LAX flight now shared a number with a later LAX-SYD flight, and presumably was operated by the same 747. I realized that if you looked on aa.com for LAX-SYD, the flight wouldn’t show up. But if you looked for JFK-SYD, it did. So even though I was already on Qantas 18 from JFK to LAX, I had to be taken off that flight and put on Qantas 18 from JFK to LAX to SYD. Still on a 747, and not the A380 that Qantas operates once a day on its earlier LAX to SYD. I also was pretty excited to fly JFK to LAX on Qantas, a route only available to those continuing on to Australia (making it a “second freedom”, not “fifth freedom”(or eighth freedom) flight for the nerdiest of you).

I ended up using a Delta credit I had and booking a DCA – JFK flight for the Sunday morning before my departure, figuring I could spend Sunday with family, and work most of the day from New York on Monday. It turned out I was flying on March 1 – which was the day after my elite status with Delta expired after 5 years of Silver and Gold Medallion status. On February 27, my upgrade cleared, and I wondered if it would kick me back out on the 1st. It didn’t, but when I woke up on the morning of the 1st, my 11am flight was delayed to 11:30. At first, I just kept an eye on it, knowing I had plenty of time and options to get to New York for my connecting flight the next day. But then the delay got extended and extended, as the outbound plane from JFK was delayed. The weather wasn’t bad in DC yet, but I knew it was going to be, so once the plane was delayed to 2:30pm, I switched to the 1pm flight from DCA to LaGuardia. Unlike AA and US, Delta makes it so easy to do that, and I didn’t have to call anyone or wait – just push a button. And I was showing as #1 on the upgrade list with 2 seats available.

I headed to the airport from my apartment at 10:20, checked my bag, went through Precheck, and was at the Skyclub by 11:00, where I saw that my initial JFK flight was canceled. At the Skyclub, the agent offered to switch me to the 12:00 flight to LaGuardia. As the weather was getting worse, I figured why not. I had some yummy minestrone soup and chicken salad (please take note AA Admirals Club – this is what food should be free for members), and headed to the gate.

For some reason, although the plane had stayed overnight at DCA, it didn’t get brought over to the gate until 20 minutes after scheduled departure time. Although I was number 1 on the upgrade list, and the plane took off with 3 empty seats in F, I remained relegated to row 17 of the 18 row plane—economy minus. As a plus, I had two seats to myself. As a minus, it was bathroom central. We sat at the gate way longer than necessary without explanation and then there were debacles with deicing—apparently the first deicer ran out of deicer fluid. So we didn’t hit the runway until 1:20. After a relatively turbulent flight, we touched down at LaGuardia around 2:05, where snow had begun to accumulate. It was a long, slow taxi to the Marine Air Terminal, followed by a long wait for luggage, getting to my parents’ waiting car at around 3:05. At that point, there was at least 4 inches of snow on the ground, so the drive to my sister’s house on the South Shore of Long Island took an hour – about twice what it normally would.
I hoped this would be the last of my delays.  It wasn’t, nor was it the most stressful flight of my trip — which involved a horrendous Qantas agent in Cairns.  To be continued…

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