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Over the last six months, the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced millions of travelers off the road. Road warriors and leisure travelers alike have been forced to hang up their backpacks and carry-ons. We are all left wondering when it'll be safe to hit the skies again, and when borders will reopen to Americans.
Amidst my lockdown restlessness, I stumbled upon an incredibly useful website run by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It displays regularly-updated travel restrictions by country. Essentially, you click a destination, and it tells you whether you can or cannot travel there. While fiddling with this tool, I discovered that French Polynesia has already re-opened its borders to travelers!
To make a long story short, this discovery lead to my booking a surprise trip to Bora Bora last month (review forthcoming). Along the way, I discovered a few exciting award trends that could make it a great idea to book your own trip there soon.
- Traveling to French Polynesia During COVID-19
- Why Now's the Time to Visit
- Flight Availability
- Hotel Availability
- Final Thoughts
Traveling to French Polynesia During COVID-19
Right now, safety is the primary concern when choosing a travel destination—especially in regards to COVID-19. After researching French Polynesia's situation, I was comfortable that the precautions and containment were enough to make traveling there relatively safe. While I think this is an inherently personal decision, I'll share with you why I felt that way.
Thanks to its geographic isolation, the initial outbreak in French Polynesia was relatively small. Small enough, in fact, that the French Polynesian government opted to re-open the borders on July 15, 2020.
As of this writing, French Polynesia is open to tourists of all nationalities. However, there are a couple of pre-departure requirements:
- Passengers over six years of age must present a medical certificate with a negative COVID-19 test result (RT-PCR) issued at most three days before departure. Check here for a list of all approved and non-approved tests.
- Using your test result, all travelers must complete an online ETIS Application and present the confirmation QR-code on arrival.
All travelers must also take a self-administered coronavirus test (mouth swab variant) on their fourth day in French Polynesia. Everyone must wear masks in public, and gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people.
While traveling anywhere involves a certain degree of risk, these precautions make French Polynesia seem like a reasonably safe place to visit under current conditions.
Why Now's the Time to Visit
Beyond COVID-19 concerns, the main reason it's such a great time to travel to French Polynesia is the overwhelming award availability.
Normally, French Polynesia is a tough destination to book with points. There are only a few airlines that fly there and only a few hotels bookable with points. Moreover, the hotels available are so famously aspirational that award availability tends to dry up quickly. In the past, this meant that if you wanted to go, you needed to book far in advance.
That isn't the case right now. Thanks to reduced travel, close-in award availability has skyrocketed. That makes it much easier to book trips within a few months, and exceptionally easy to book a last-minute trip.
The gateway airport for French Polynesia is Papeete (PPT), located on the island of Tahiti. The airport services nine airlines—five of which operate non-stop routes from the United States:
- Air France (originating in Paris-Charles de Gaulle with a stopover in Los Angeles)
- Air Tahiti Nui (originating in Paris-Charles de Gaulle with a stopover in Los Angeles)
- French Bee (originating in Paris-Orly with a stopover in San Francisco)
- Hawaiian Airlines (originating in Honolulu)
- United Airlines (originating in San Francisco)
Of these airlines, three have ceased their regular services to Papeete:
- Air France — The flagship carrier of France plans to re-start services again on December 15, 2020. However, I have noticed that Air France has developed a nasty habit of scheduling flights and simply canceling them if things haven't improved. Keep this in mind if you end up finding award availability with Flying Blue miles.
- French Bee — This French airline is a low-cost carrier, meaning typical point redemptions were never an option here anyway. With that said, it previously offered a good backup plan with consistently reasonable cash fares. It's unclear if or when the airline plans to resume services to French Polynesia.
- Hawaiian Airlines — Hawaiian Airlines halted its services from Honolulu to Papeete when the first wave of travel restrictions began. Now, it plans to restart this once-weekly service on December 5, 2020.
With these limitations in mind, the two best options for traveling to and from French Polynesia with points are United and Air Tahiti Nui.
United (via San Francisco)
United flies a Boeing 787-9 to Papeete from San Francisco (SFO) three times a week. Most departures have plentiful saver availability in economy class for 35,000 UA miles per person. More importantly, though, United recently started opening business class award availability around a month before departure. These awards go for 70,000 UA miles per person, or 73,500 UA miles if booked close-in.
If you want a lie-flat seat, a good strategy could be to book economy tickets and simply upgrade them to business class if availability shows up. Better yet, set an alert on ExpertFlyer to remind you if it does.
United miles are fairly easy to collect thanks to its partnership with Chase Ultimate Rewards and its portfolio of co-branded credit cards. For example, the United℠ Business Card is currently offering a signup bonus of 75,000 bonus miles.
- Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.
- Receive a 5,000-mile "better together" bonus each anniversary when you have both the UnitedSM Business Card and a personal United credit card.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases, dining (including eligible delivery services), at gas stations, office supply stores, and on local transit and commuting.
- Earn 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. Plus, employee cards at no additional cost - miles earned from their purchases accrue in your account so you can earn rewards faster.
- Enjoy a free first checked bag - a savings of up to $140 per roundtrip (terms apply), 2 United ClubSM one-time passes per year, and priority boarding privileges.
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for one year with DashPass, DoorDash's membership service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- $100 United travel credit after 7 United flight purchases of $100 or more each anniversary year.
- 2x on United purchases
- 2x on local transit and commuting- including train tickets, taxicabs, mass transit, tolls and ride share services
- 2x at gas stations, restaurants and office supply stores
- 1x on all other purchases
Air Tahiti Nui (via Los Angeles)
Air Tahiti Nui is a French Polynesian airline based in Tahiti. It operates a small fleet of Boeing 787s to several international destinations from Papeete—including Los Angeles, Auckland, Paris, and Tokyo. The great news is that Air Tahiti Nui is a partner of American Airlines. Consequently, it's possible to use AAdvantage miles to book Air Tahiti Nui flights.
For an ~8hr flight, award rates aren't exactly a bargain. Economy is 40,000 miles per person, premium economy is 65,000 miles, and business class will set you back a whopping 80,000 miles. Considering you could fly nearly 27 hours in Qatar Qsuites to South Africa for 5,000 miles less, the price is certainly a cause for pause.
However, all of the flight options from Tahiti to Los Angeles are redeye flights. So, it's slightly easier to justify spending the miles for business on the return. Or, if you're starting from the US East Coast, it can be worth the splurge for business class on what's a much-longer journey.
Depending on which direction you're flying, availability is there, but not quite to the same degree as United. While United appears to open more availability close-in, Air Tahiti Nui availability gets better a month out or more.
In case you need to top off your balance of AA miles, you can easily earn a boatload in a hurry with one of the airline's co-branded credit cards. For example, the AAdvantage® Aviator® World Elite Business Mastercard® currently offers up to 75,000 bonus miles to new applicants.
If you're a little short, you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to AA at a 3:1 ratio. Marriott offers a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred. So, you can get 25,000 AAdvantage miles for transferring 60,000 Marriott points.
Here's what I'm most excited about. As I wrote before, French Polynesia has a relatively small number of hotels bookable with points. But the properties they do have—well, let's just say they're worth checking out if you're in the neighborhood.
In this post, I'm going to focus on the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. Between these three islands, there are currently six hotels that you can book with major point currencies:
- The Intercontinental Tahiti Resort & Spa (IHG)
- Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa (Hilton)
- The Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort (IHG)
- The Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa (IHG)
- Conrad Bora Bora Nui (Hilton)
- The St. Regis Bora Bora (Marriott)
Again, under normal circumstances, standard award availability for these properties is extremely difficult to come by. But now, if you're willing to book close-in, you may find availability at almost every property.
As the only major points hotel on Tahiti, the Intercontinental is the perfect choice to spend one night before or after a long flight. It's only a five-minute cab ride from the Papeete airport, but still offers exotic amenities like overwater bungalows and a ‘lagoonarium'.
Of the hotels in French Polynesia, this is the property that you'd most likely find award availability even under regular circumstances. Still, it's a nice place to stay for only 50,000 IHG points per night.
Pro Tip — There is a small trick that can help with extended bookings here. For whatever reason, multi-night stays may not show as available, even if each individual night is available. If you find that's true for your desired dates, consider booking the nights separately. You can always request the hotel to merge your bookings later.
Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa (Moorea)
Just a short ferry ride (or ten-minute flight) away is the beautiful, heart-shaped island of Moorea. In the dead center of the island sits the stunning Hilton Moorea, offering pristine beaches, villas with private pools, and overwater bungalows.
The standard Hilton award rate here is 80,000 Hilton points. The funny thing is this rate is reserved for the bottom-tier ‘King Garden' guest rooms—of which there's only two on the entire property. This meant that it's usually impossible to find standard award availability. But now, Hilton appears to be opening space close-in, likely offering complimentary upgrades to keep the room category available.
Keep in mind that if you hold elite status, you'll get Hilton's 5th-night-free benefit on award stays.
The Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort (Bora Bora)
Of the two Intercontinental properties on the island of Bora Bora, Le Moana offers arguably the most authentic experience and the most award availability. It's located on the southern tip of the main island, meaning the views of the famous Mt. Otemanu are limited. However, it makes up for it with stunning sunrise and sunset horizon views over the open sea.
This property is in IHG's top hotel category, meaning award rates are generally around 70,000 points per night. With cash rates floating around $550 per night, this translates into a value of almost 0.8¢ per point. I usually value IHG points around 0.5¢ per point, which makes this a strong redemption.
Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa (Bora Bora)
The “Pearl of the Pacific”, the Intercontinental Thalasso is one of the crown jewels of the IHG portfolio. Put simply, it's absolute paradise—an overwhelming location that leaves you breathless from the moment you arrive until the moment you're dragged away.
Award availability here is normally non-existent, leaving die-hard fans (like myself) searching day by day through entire months just to find two nights in a row. It's worth the search, though, since even the standard room is a 1,000+ square-foot overwater bungalow.
However, there's no lack of availability now. If you're willing to be spontaneous, the likelihood of finding several days in a row is pretty good. In fact, I recently managed to find an unheard of SIX days in a row for a last-minute stay!
Cash rates are naturally high, usually floating around $950 per night after taxes. This translates into an excellent ~1.4¢ per point value for your IHG points.
Plus, if you hold a IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card or IHG® Rewards Club Traveler Credit Card, you get every 4th award night free. That means you can book a four-night stay for 210,000 IHG points.
In case you're short on IHG points, you can buy IHG points at one cent each without a promotion. Or, you can top off your account by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to IHG. Conversely, you can currently earn a massive signup bonus of 150,000 bonus points by signing up for the IHG Rewards Premier Card.
- Earn 150,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening
- Enjoy a Reward Night after each account anniversary year at eligible IHG hotels worldwide. Plus, enjoy a reward night when you redeem points for any stay of 4 or more nights
- Earn up to 25 points total per $1 spent when you stay at an IHG hotel
- Earn 2 points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants. Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
- Platinum Elite status as long as you remain a Premier card member
- Global Entry or TSA Pre✔® Fee Credit of up to $100 every 4 years as reimbursement for the application fee charged to your card
- IHG Rewards Club Bonus points are redeemable at hotels such as InterContinental®, Crowne Plaza®, Kimpton®, EVEN® Hotels, Indigo® Hotels & Holiday Inn®
- Earn 25 points total per $1 spent when you stay at an IHG hotel
- 2X points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants
- 1X point per $1 spent on all other purchases
The earning for spending at IHG hotels breaks down as follows:
- Earn 10X points for being a IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Cardmember
- Earn 5X points from IHG® with Platinum Elite Status, a benefit of having this card
- Earn 10X points from IHG® for being an IHG® Rewards Club Member (Being a cardholder is not required to earn this bonus for participating in the IHG® loyalty program)
Conrad Bora Bora Nui (Bora Bora)
Not to be outdone by IHG, the Conrad Bora Bora Nui has often ranked the #1 hotel in French Polynesia by multiple well-known travel publications. Its isolated location offers some of the bluest waters on the island, while also featuring the first two-story overwater bungalows in French Polynesia.
Award rates are usually sky-high, but right now, it's easy to find standard availability for 89,000 Hilton points per night.
Again, members with any Hilton status can take advantage of the 5th-night-free benefit, meaning five nights here would only set you back 356,000 Hilton points. You can currently get the status and almost half the points necessary just by signing up for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (review), thanks to its 150,000-point welcome bonus. Enrollment is required for select Amex benefits.
- 14X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for each dollar of eligible purchases charged on your Card directly with a hotel or resort within the Hilton Portfolio
- 7X Hilton Honors Bonus Points on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com, car rentals booked directly through select rental companies, and at U.S. restaurants
- 3X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for all other eligible purchases on your Card
The St. Regis Bora Bora (Bora Bora)
Last, but certainly not least, is the famous St. Regis Bora Bora. You may recognize it for its massive overwater villas (which start at 1,550 square feet) or as the setting for the 2009 movie Couples Retreat. This photo makes it pretty easy to see what all the fuss is about.
As a category eight property, standard award nights are 85,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. If you book soon, you may even manage to snag a few nights at the 80,000 ‘Point-Saver' price. Plus, if you find five nights in a row, you can take advantage of Marriott's 5th-night-free benefit. I demonstrate that here:
Availability with Marriott points seems especially great when booking last minute. Just make sure you're not looking at ‘Points + Cash' fares. To make it easier to find dates bookable with points only, use the ‘Flexible Dates' search function. This tool limits the results to only show standard award availability.
Bottom line, if you're going to travel anywhere right now, it might as well be to paradise. Given the safety measures and the plethora of award availability, French Polynesia is a fantastic place for an escape. After all this time in lockdown, a week (or four) in Bora Bora might be just what the doctor ordered.
Would you feel comfortable traveling to French Polynesia soon?
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