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I spent about a year planning my first trip to Kyoto, with my best friend and our youngest kids.  Booking flights for four people was a bit challenging but with a bit creativity it took just a few hours. On the other hand, the agony and fiasco I went through for choosing a hotel in Kyoto was quite a learning experience. And my indecision of where to stay nearly left us with no hotel rooms!

[SEE ALSO: My first trip to Kyoto is finally here ]

Booking JAL flights for 4 people using different points and miles

I booked our flight in early March 2016. While I had more than enough miles across all programs for two roundtrip tickets for me and my daughter, my best friend didn’t. She had 116,000 AA miles at the time and about 90,000 Chase points. Our choices were either flying United one-way and JAL the other, or flying JAL both ways. Even though United flight is nonstop from San Francisco into Osaka, I still prefer JAL over United. 

With JAL, we would fly nonstop from San Francisco to Tokyo Haneda, then continue onto Osaka which is served by two airports, Kasai (KIX) and Itami (ITM). But JR (Japan Rail) runs directly to Kyoto Station only from KIX airport. JAL flights can be booked using BA Avios (transferred 1:1 instantly from Chase), AA miles and just recently Alaska miles. It would cost 25,000 Avios from SFO to HND, and 4,500 Avios from HND to KIX.

Avios SFO to HND

BA HND KIX

There were only four economy seats for our desired outbound date and four business class on the return. So for my friend and her son, I used 29,500 Avios per person for the outbound in economy, and purchased additional AA miles to book the return in business class for 60,000 miles each. As for my daughter and me, I booked the same flights using 95,000 AA miles per person.

The downside of booking JAL flights using Avios is it would cost 3x Avios to upgrade to business class. With AA you can upgrade without fees to business class for 25,000 more miles or to first class for 45,000 more miles. Two weeks before departure, a business class seat opened up on the outbound flight, so I called AA and upgraded my ticket. Then one week before departure, a first class seat opened up, so I upgraded again. 🙂  JAL usually releases in advance 4 seats in coach, premium economy and business class plus 2 seats in first class, then adds even more 2-3 weeks prior to departure date. I have seen 4 first class award seats on the same flight two weeks prior to departure! So check often on BA or Alaska Airlines website if you plan to use either AA or Alaska miles to upgrade (Alaska charges $125 per person unless you are MVP Gold or MVP Gold 75K).

[SEE ALSO: Best routes and cheapest miles to Japan from mainland U.S. ]

5 nights at St. Regis Osaka for 48,000 points

Believe or not, the idea for this trip started because of the reservation I made at the St. Regis Osaka! 🙂 Find a hotel room in Asia that fits a family of 4 is quite a challenge. Hotel rooms with two twin beds usually mean just that — two twin beds for two people only! But at St. Regis Osaka, the deluxe room has two double beds and can fit four people.

I have my eyes on St.Regis Osaka for a very long time. I have never stayed at any St. Regis hotel, mostly because I am not willing to pay 30,000 points for one night.  Up until last March, St Regis Osaka costed only 12,000 a night, quite a value considering it’s one of top hotels in Osaka area. I just need to plan a trip to Kyoto, and add a few nights here to enjoy its luxury amenities without breaking the (points) bank.

With SPG’s 2016 category adjustment, St. Regis Osaka was moving from Category 5 to Category 6, jumping to 20,000-25,000 points a night! When the news came out, I thought to myself, “It is either now or never!” So i booked five nights during my daughter’s winter break for 48,000 points. I figured I had 11 months to change my mind. Since I could only put down two people in the reservation, I emailed the hotel directly and informed them we would be traveling with two kids. Hotel replied promptly, confirming that the kids would be staying free! Scored!

[SEE ALSO: 2017 SPG and Marriott Category Changes ]

My indecision of Kyoto hotel nearly left us with no hotel room

Now that our flights were booked, we would be arriving Osaka two days before our St. Regis stay starts. I wanted to spend those two nights in Kyoto. Finding a hotel room for four people in Kyoto is even more challenging. I looked at many independent hotels, as I was willing to pay cash if there was a compelling reason to do so. Using points, I really only had two options – the Westin or the Hyatt. Westin Kyoto doesn’t have good reviews, and a coworker did not like her stay there few years ago. So that leaves Hyatt as the only choice.

[SEE ALSO: Best hotel in Kyoto on points from 4 major hotel chains, (and Osaka too) ]

Hyatt Regency Kyoto

As a Hyatt Diamond member, I have every reason to stay here – free daily breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, and possibly a room upgrade. The only problem? Its location is not ideal — 8 minutes by taxi from Kyoto station. and 7 minutes by foot from the closest subway station. We would be relying on taxi to reach most tourist sites. Nonetheless to be safe, I booked the hotel using 10,000 points per night plus $150 a night, and inquired by email if my room could be upgraded. The hotel offered to upgrade my Standard Twin room to Deluxe Twin for $75 per night, and put in a roll-away bed free of charge. I took the offer but also decided to keep looking for better alternatives. Months later I asked Hyatt Concierge via Twitter to switch my booking to all points (40,000 points total instead of 20,000 points and $300 cash).

Kyoto Map Hyatt

Hotel Granvia Kyoto

My brother has been to Kyoto many times and always stayed at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto because of its location directly above Kyoto station. If we stay here, we could just roll our luggage in once we get off JR from Osaka airport. The location is super convenient for taking trains or subways to anywhere in Kyoto. Feeding the kids would be easy as there are many restaurants and shops right inside the station! Using Orbitz’s 15% discount code, i paid $475 for two nights in a Superior Twin room.  Hotel website shows a big room with two double beds in Superior Twin, which would fit the four of us, even five people with a roll-away bed.  (That was what I thought but boy was I wrong!)

Oh the agony and the fiasco I put myself in

By paying $475 cash at Hotel Granvia, I would save 40,000 Hyatt points but also give up all the Hyatt Diamond benefits. I really agonized over my choices. Unable to make up my mind, I kept both reservations for months. Three weeks before my trip, I decided to cancel Hyatt, forgoing my diamond benefits for the convenience of being at Kyoto Station!

Right after I cancelled the Hyatt reservation, my friend Lisa who lives in Tokyo decided to tag along to Kyoto. Now I need a room for 5 people! I emailed Hotel Granvia Kyoto and they offered a roll-away bed for a small charge.I thought we were all set! Just one week prior to the trip, I found a guest photo on Tripadvisors for the Superior Twin room. It showed two small twin beds!! Oh no! It wouldn’t even fit 4 people, let alone 5!

Knowing that the Deluxe Twin room at Hyatt Regency Kyoto would fit 5 people, I quickly rebooked at the Hyatt. I emailed them to see if they could upgrade my standard room, but their answer was no even though deluxe rooms were available on Hyatt website. I contacted Hyatt Diamond desk and unfortunately there was no way to book this room type using points. Oh I was in big trouble! Cheapest rate for the Deluxe Twin room would be $918 total including taxes. My alternatives were 1) book two standard twin rooms at Hyatt for 80,000 points total; or 2) book a second room at Hotel Granvia for another $475, meaning $950 for two rooms! Suddenly, the super location of Hotel Granvia was not so appealing anymore!

I decided to try Hyatt again and made another booking using points and cash. I emailed the hotel about upgrade but oddly not a word from them for a few days. Then I noticed in my account two reservations at Hyatt with same dates. The hotel upgraded my room to Deluxe Twin with no charge! I confirmed it with Hyatt twitter team, and asked them to change the reservation to all points. Instead of paying $918 cash, I paid 40,000 points for a room that fits 5 people. I got really lucky this time!

4 lessons I learned from planning my Kyoto trip

Planning the Kyoto trip was a real learning experience for me, though I am pretty sure I gained a few grey hair in the process.

  • Short on miles or points for flights? With a little creativity you might be able to book multiple tickets using different miles or points for the same flights!
  • When visiting Japan, do consider independent hotels as they sometimes offer far better value than redeeming points.
  • For Japan (and many parts of Asia), if you need a room that fits 4 people, do your research and make sure it does fit 4! Don’t rely on the descriptions on online booking websites.
  • Don’t kill yourself trying to maximize every point! My indecision of where to stay in Kyoto nearly left us with no hotel for two nights! I was so relieved that it worked out in the end. And fingers crossed that everything runs smoothly when I get there.

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