While many people dread long-haul flights, one Sydney family is flying around the world in business class for less than the cost of an economy ticket.
Flying is an unavoidable part of most overseas holidays, but with savvy planning and astute research, the in-air experience doesn't have to be ruined by cramped legroom and screaming babies.
For the past 20 years, Mark Baines, a 41-year-old church pastor from Sydney, has been quietly accumulating his Qantas frequent flyer points to redeem them on a round-the-world trip in business class.
Perhaps surprisingly, Baines is not actually a frequent flyer; he occupies the lowest tier (bronze) in the Qantas loyalty program. Instead, he earned his points by other means: signing up for credit cards that provide bonus points; earning points through spending on those cards; and receiving bonus points for switching to Qantas products like health insurance.
Two weeks ago, having finally amassed enough points, Mr Baines pulled the trigger, cashing in more than 1 million points to book the trip of a lifetime for his young family.
"I really wanted to do this with my wife before we had kids, but it just didn't happen," he says.
Over two months, the Baines family will take in the sights of the United States, Europe and Asia, while enjoying the perks of airport lounge entry and lie-flat beds.
"Doing it with my family is the part I'm looking forward to most. The boys looking out the window, me trying to help them understand the entertainment system, and just looking over and seeing the family relaxing," he says.
How is this possible?
As part of the Oneworld alliance, Qantas offers a round-the-world ticket, which must include travel on at least two alliance airlines besides Qantas. The trip costs 280,000 points a person, plus taxes paid in cash, in exchange for business class luxury. While it sounds difficult, accruing that many points can be relatively easy with entire websites like Point Hacks dedicated to helping maximise your points.
Daniel Sciberras, a frequent flyer expert from Point Hacks, says the Oneworld classic award round-the-world booking represented "the holy grail" of frequent flyer points redemptions.
The round-the-world ticket costs roughly the same number of points as a return trip to Europe from Australia, but allows stops in five cities (plus stopovers) for a total distance of up to 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometres).
"If you're looking for one of the best [points] redemptions out there, that is it for most Australian travellers," Sciberras said.
Virgin Australia's Velocity rewards program does not offer the same round-the-world trip as Qantas, but it is possible to convert Velocity points to Singapore Airlines' Krisflyer program and book a similar trip through the Star Alliance. The trip costs an equivalent of 372,000 Velocity points after you convert them to Krisflyer miles – 92,000 more points than the Qantas Oneworld redemption.
"By the time you transfer your Velocity points over, it does cost more," Sciberras says. "But it's still going to be great value as well."
On top of the 1.1 million Qantas points Baines used, he paid just $935 a person for the trip. If purchased outright in cash, the fare would cost more than $10,000 each.
Sciberras praises Baines for managing to book his whole family using the points redemption.
"I'm surprised he managed to find availability for four seats. I've just got to clap my hands and applaud. Congratulations to him," he says.
While people like Baines are squeezing the most value out of their points, many others clearly aren't, with rewards schemes becoming increasingly profitable for airlines. Qantas has nearly 12 million members in its frequent flyer program, with Virgin recording more than 7 million. Last year alone, Qantas' loyalty division made $372 million, nearly as much as its international airline business ($399 million).
To get the best value, Sciberras recommends using points for flights redemptions, rather than on purchasing products through the Qantas online store, which offers poor value in comparison.
"The general rule of thumb is that online mall redemptions generally get you around 0.4 to 0.8 cents per point in value, whereas flight redemptions can range from one cent to as high as 14 cents per point for first class long-haul redemptions," he says.
'It does require dedication'
Renae Knowles is an avid traveller and points hoarder.
Using the same methods as Mr Baines, she and her husband Dwayne embarked on their own business class adventure last year, visiting the US, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Their main way of collecting points is an open secret among frequent flyers: signing up for new credit cards which offer sign-up bonuses, while never paying an annual fee.
For example, a premium card might offer a bonus of 75,000 Qantas points, with no annual fee for the first year. Renae Knowles eagerly signs up, knowing she has the means and discipline to pay off the card each month, thus avoiding sky-high interest charges.
"We pay our credit card off every month. If we can't afford to pay it off, we don't apply for the card," she says.
Renae Knowles estimates she spent up to 40 hours researching and planning the flight redemption, in order to get the best value and smoothest flight connections.
"It does require dedication if you want the most direct route," she says.
According to Scriberras, the key to booking the trip is planning well ahead of time.
"You have to have a bit of flexibility," he says. "And you need to get in sooner rather than later."
Despite the frustrating and tedious booking process, which took hours to complete, Renae Knowles says she would do it again "in a heartbeat".
"In our view, we got it for less than the cost of an economy ticket, and we got the extra value we didn't have to pay for."
A long trip home
In total, the Baines family will take 11 flights, including five during a mammoth 59-hour trip to get home from Europe.
But even then, it was difficult to find four seats together. Despite describing himself as "relatively persistent", Baines admits he almost gave up.
"It got pretty discouraging," he says. "I'm not sitting on a computer all day."
Their journey home begins in Amsterdam, stops in Hong Kong and then on to Manila, where they have a 24-hour stopover. Then they fly to Tokyo (both airports) before finally landing back in Sydney.
Although the trip home will be a long one, he's hopeful the business class comfort will make it more than bearable.
"How bad can it be?" Baines says.
Scriberras agrees: "Ninety-five per cent of the population would cringe at that, but I'd be in the five per cent that wouldn't."
'It's an honour'
There's only one problem with a trip like this. After swanning around business lounges and enjoying lie-flat beds on long flights, Renae Knowles says flying economy again wasn't quite as exciting.
"It's definitely hard to take, that's for sure. You sit there thinking, 'Gee I wish I was up in business'. But you also think 'at least I'm not paying $25,000'.
"At the end of the day, if you're a traveller you're happy to be going somewhere. I'm thankful for the times I've been able to fly business rather than regretting all the times I can't," she says.
Despite the prospect of squished seats, average food and crying babies in economy, she keeps perspective.
"Some people think it's a right to travel in business class, or that it elevates your status, but to me it's an honour. All the other times you're sitting in economy, you appreciate the fact that you're on a plane going somewhere when much of the world's population can't afford to feed themselves," she says.