Piling up the memories — and the miles

A trip to New Zealand
A vintage tram in Auckland Park.
A vintage tram in Auckland Park.

Do you know how many frequent-flyer miles you can get by flying to New Zealand? Husband Eric does. “Quite a few,” he said with a sigh.

He misses traveling, and counting up his miles, very much.

For years we’ve been chasing down inexpensive airfares to accrue frequent-flyer miles, the accumulation of which offer status, and some substantial perks. We fly exclusively on United or its Star Alliance members, the better to accumulate those miles in one place. United flies out of Albany, so most of our trips start there.

You have to play games to get the miles now, but when we started it was just a straightforward matter of how many miles you covered sitting in a seat. Now, the price and class of your ticket, along with minimum spending, are factored in and that has made it more difficult to get the payoffs.

To put it simply, the more miles you get, the more your mileage credits for each trip multiply. If you reach a certain level, you may get double the miles, a higher level, even more. So a major consideration of our trip planning is, how many miles do we get?

That thinking has taken us to some places we otherwise might not have considered. We’ve gone to Singapore twice because it has the best mileage payoff for the price of the ticket. Besides, the city is in a lush garden. It has a rich, multicultural heritage and wonderful food.

There’s also a bird park: a zoo and sanctuary just for them.

Aukland trip by Caroline Lee
The Auckland skyline. 

Hong Kong was another mile-generating favorite of ours for many years. We were there both before and after Britain’s handover to China in 1997, well before the current troubles began. It’s mountainous and tropical, and we loved to watch the green Star Ferry boats ply Victoria harbor from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, ride the outdoor escalators between levels in the city and visit tony shopping malls where there is not a single thing we could afford to buy.

We’ve traveled to Sydney and admired the harbor and its coat-hanger bridge, and toured the famous opera house. We like to take the boat to Manly Beach, a sweet tourist town with restaurants that line the oceanfront. And in the old part of Sydney, its penal colony roots that were once a source of embarrassment are now celebrated.

But New Zealand always remained just a bit out of reach, not worth the mileage, so to speak. Until four years ago, when Eric found a decent fare with OK seats in coach. We grabbed it, and steeled ourselves for a very long airplane ride.

Trials and tribulations

First we flew to Chicago, then to San Francisco. It’s a long day doing just that much, but then you have to get on another plane, this time for 12 hours and 55 minutes.

You should know that our other consideration for travel is duration: We prefer shorter trips so we can stay at nicer places. So it sounds ridiculous, but we’ve taken very long trips for a very short number of days.

We booked the Langham Hotel in Auckland for a few nights, a five-star hotel in the lively uptown area, at the top of the hill from the harbor. Our rate gave us access to the club and their very extensive buffet that included drinks.

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We flew from SFO to AKL on a new 787, shiny and fuel efficient with cool lighting that helps you go to sleep and wake up. But the plane was crowded and the new and improved seats felt like plastic folding chairs with minimal padding. We booked an aisle and center seat, and though the adjacent seat was thankfully unoccupied, it was still 13 hours in a very small amount of space.

Don’t book a ride on a minibus from the airport to your hotel. It’s a long enough distance that the hotels don’t supply shuttles, and this trip contributed to our minibus travel horror stories. There was a late pickup, a screaming child and many, many stops before we reached our destination.

The Langham was a relaxed and refined place to end our travels, with a pink theme that extended to pens in the rooms (I took a few) and fresh roses in the lobby. The club had a row of long windows with a view of some mountains, comfy seats and lots and lots of excellent New Zealand wine.

“Don’t book a restaurant tonight,” the attendant told us. “You can eat here.” She waved her hand toward the bounteous display of snacks and more substantial food. It was good advice and we took it.

The Langham had a shuttle bus (also pink) between the hotel and the harbor every hour, and on the second day we boarded a boat to Waiheke Island to take a tour of the wineries. We booked the hop-on-and-off tour and spent most of the day there.


New Zealand is known for excellent wines, and its wineries are set up for tours and tastings; a number have restaurant and picnic facilities as well. We made it to two. There are long walks to get to some of the wineries from the dropoffs, and we dawdled at the ones we visited. Waiheke is in the Auckland wine district, the eastern part of the North Island.

The country has 700 wine producers, from tiny family operations to large, global companies such as Pernod Ricard, which owns several NZ brands, including Brancott Estate. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the most widely planted grapes. Most of the wine-growing regions are in Marlborough on the South Island. Because of its warmer climate, the focus on Waiheke is on Chardonnay and Bordeaux blends.

A group of women who got off the shuttle with us at Obsidian Vineyard had the right idea. While we wandered around the tasting room, they’d set up a blanket on a hill overlooking a steep valley. As we watched, a uniformed attendant carried over a bottle of wine and plate of charcuterie.

At another vineyard, there was parking for helicopters. Presumably some better-off tourists skip the shuttle bus. You can book a helicopter flight package that includes a three-course meal with VIP landing directly at the vineyard. “Eat out in style and arrive by helicopter,” one company advertises.

The following day we bought transit tickets that included a bus pass that took us to the Auckland Zoo (the kiwi was hiding) and the Western Springs Tramway at the Museum of Transport and Technology. We rode an antique wooden tram, to Eric’s delight, and I tried not to let him catch me rolling my eyes.

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We walked miles around the harbor, stopping into open-air cafes for refreshments. We shopped at Smith & Caughey’s, one of New Zealand’s oldest and most beloved department stores, and in the High Street District, with upscale boutiques, cafes and specialty stores.

The day before we left, Eric got an email from United asking if we wanted to upgrade to first class on the flight home for $600 each and a number of frequent-flyer miles. We thought of the molded plastic coach seats, and then the lie-flat seats and the multi-course meals in the front of the plane. It was a no-brainer. The trip home was delightful.

And we got 45,000 frequent-flyer miles, enough to boost us to the next member level, and almost enough for another round-trip ticket.

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