Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tahiti Trip Planning:
Recession? What Recession? We Don't Have No Stinking Recession! (At Least Not in December.)

Earlier this year—quite a bit earlier in fact, like eleven months ago—my wife and I agreed it was time to see Vietnam. We also wanted to make a swing just north into Guangxi Province in southern China while in that part of the world. Our daughter was born in Guangxi Province only about 60 miles north of the border with Vietnam, and she is now five years old. It's about time to take her back for the first of what we hope will be several return visits to her homeland over her childhood.

Our kids' school calendar Christmas break in 2008 is particularly long, and so we planned a 16-day trip that would have covered much of Vietnam and still had several days in China before flying home. However, as the details of our itinerary came together, and we added up the cost of getting there for our family of four, the total bill shot up into the stratosphere--well over $20,000! This was after working hard to get multiple quotes for air and ground to Southeast Asia and China from experienced consolidators and agents known for obtaining client value.

This sticker shock occurred during the early summer, months before the current worldwide economic troubles began. After agonizing over whether to grit our teeth and commit to such high costs, we made a difficult decision around July 4 that it was just too much, and we abandoned our vacation plans to Vietnam and China. We are especially disappointed not to take our daughter back home, and we hope to make a China-only trip within 24 months instead.

This marks a first for me: I have never in my life given up on such a trip due to cost because I've always managed to find a reasonable bargain through sheer perseverance. But that approach didn't work this time; I looked for six months (January-June) for cheaper alternatives without success.

We were deflated, but still wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny and exotic for Christmas. I next looked at nearer, familiar destinations, such as Belize (we very much like Belize). No dice. December airfares and accommodation prices were sky-high during the summer. Same with other Caribbean vacation spots. In some cases only First Class seats were available for sale.

Of course this was still prior to the crash of September and the ensuing meltdown. I noticed recently that at least one airline, American, listed Belize City as a good option for finding frequent flyer coach seats in December—yet you couldn't even BUY one during the summer! Guess bookings are off now—too late for us to take advantage of the slowdown.

We could not have predicted the earthquake in the markets that would lower vacation travel costs over the holidays to many places. Not knowing what was coming, I kept looking for a warm, sunny vacation spot for December without success. Every seat to everywhere was expensive, and every hotel sold out or offering only a few remaining suites at through-the-roof prices.

Shortly afterwards, Ruth noticed a squib in the Washington Post about a special offer from Air Tahiti Nui to Tahiti from Los Angeles: a family special deal of 6 nights in Tahiti for a few thousand dollars, airfare included. We'd always wanted to see French Polynesia (who doesn't?), so I called and emailed the airline. I figured it was a good starting point for a discussion.

Soon several travel agents referred by Air tahiti Nui contacted me, and a new round of travel research began. Anybody who has looked into going to Tahiti and its nearby tropical islands of Moorea and Bora Bora quickly learns that the place to be is at a resort with those gorgeous overwater bungalows ones sees pictured in Tahiti travel ads. Talk about paradise!

Unfortunately, the "special" 6-night package didn't offer any such accommodation, and in some cases the hotel package wasn't even on a beach. Most of the ones included were in or near Papeete, the international port of entry on the island of Tahiti, which is not one of the "paradise" destination islands.

The more informed French Polynesian traveler takes a fast ferry from Papeete to Moorea, or a short flight, or takes a slightly longer flight to Bora Bora, where the REAL paradise resorts are located. And naturally those resorts are pricey—VERY pricey.

Well, it IS high season and Christmas time, when every kid in North America (and, presumably, in Europe) is out of school for some weeks, and when their parents have long holidays from work. I didn't mind that the better resorts on Moorea and Bora Bora were more expensive. It was still cheaper than the prices we were quoted for Vietnam and China earlier in the year (though the collapse of the economy may have changed that by now—I haven't checked back to see).

Long story short, I settled on an Air Tahiti Nui-approved travel agency, Goway, based in Toronto, and developed what seemed like a great rapport with Goway agent Ryan Kennedy, and pretty soon we had put together a plan for 11 nights at the Moorea Pearl Resort.

I began to squirm, though, when I was quoted Air Tahiti Nui's very high fares in coach, and I learned that not a single one of the 6 First Class or 24 Business Class seats was available on either segment (LAX/Papeete or return). By the time we totted up all the air fares and resort and transfer costs, the number had surpassed $10,000—frankly more than I wanted to spend. Did we really want to go to Tahiti that badly?

More research ensued, and also the markets blew up in the meantime. I committed to the trip, but only paid a deposit, hoping for better air fares and cheaper accommodations. However, the more I read about and researched Tahiti, the more I came to realize that French Polynesia and Air Tahiti Nui (which has something close to a monopoly in the markets it serves) are as close to recession-proof as one can imagine. Despite free-fall cancellations to other holiday and vacation destinations, Tahiti hardly seems to have noticed that trillions of dollars of value have been shredded in the world's financial markets.

As further confirmation, I checked again this week with some knowledgeable insiders at Air Tahiti Nui, and their premium cabins (First and Business) remain fully booked. There is little chance that I can buy a premium cabin seat on either segment, even at the last minute. Even more surprising is the fact that Air Tahiti Nui has few or no coach seats left on most of their December flights, either.

Meanwhile, as we all know, most other international carriers are drastically discounting their Business Class fares, especially over the Atlantic.

Resort accommodations on Morea and Bora Bora are reported to be in short supply over Christmas as well. In hindsight, despite the high cost, it appears that we were very lucky to have snagged overwater bungalows at a fancy resort over the holiday period in December.

Thus we have decided that, all things considered, this trip does represent good value for money, even if the figure is high, and I paid for the trip in full last week. We are anticipating our tropical isle jaunt with great glee.

To my happy surprise, I easily found four AAdvantage award seats to and from LAX to connect with Air Tahiti Nui, with a 2-day layover in Los Angeles to boot. I plan to give my kids a brief intro to southern California.

While in L.A., we will be staying at the Hilton Garden Inn-LAX/El Segundo, one of my favorite hotels in the country. The property is almost always fully booked, so I had planned to use Hilton points, but was surprised to get a super rate of just $109/night.

All is not roses for me, though. I freely admit that my greatest anxiety in putting this trip together is having to endure an 8-9 hour flight from Los Angeles to Papeete in coach. I don't do well any more in economy cabins on long international flights, and this one is about 2 hours longer than I can usually endure in a claustrophobic, cramped coach seat.

But since there are no premium seats to be had, I will have to grin and bear it. To allay my fears, I've done my homework on what to expect aboard Air Tahiti Nui in economy. Next week I will be reporting on my findings in their "Moana" class (the coach cabin). Unlike my experiences on U.S. carriers in their generally crummy international coach cabins, it appears that Air Tahiti Nui has a refreshingly different product offering.


Blogger Dan said...

We flew Hawaiian airlines in April from the west coast to Tahiti with a one day stop over in Hawaii. Broke the trip into a couple of 4+ hour segments over 2 days. Reasonable service for coach class on 767's and very affordable (about half the price of other flights I found at that time). They only go out on Saturday and back into Hawaii in early morning on Sunday so it is a very limited schedule. Coach runs about $2000r/t and biz is $3000r/t.

11/22/2008 2:20 AM  
Blogger MaryS said...


My opinion.... for what it's worth:

If you go to a 5 star- KNOW it IS a 5 star ahead of time- like the Peninsula Palace Hotel in Beijing (did I spell that correctly?) I LOVE the breakfast and the people there !

Otherwise, we went to a low-priced place($126)- no frills- on Moorea, expecting great water we could swim and float in and a beach and our room was very sparse but modern plumbing etc. We had the open air restaurant about 25 yards from our hut and a very nice restaurant 50 yards away. We didn't expect much and we got a lot. We enjoyed ourselves totally- vegged and relaxed totally and met some of the nicest people ever (islanders who worked at the place and workers over for the weekend from Tahiti.

That's my take. If you want 5 Star service , go to Paris or Europe or US cities.... Moorea is different.

1/16/2009 8:48 PM  

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