Trip Report: Returning To Australia After Three Years, Part I: Austin – Vancouver

Regular readers know that I have family that moved to Australia when I was five years old. My aunt and uncle had two kids there, each of whom married and have their own children. It’s some of the family that I’ve been closest to over the years. They’re regulars back to the States, and I’ve traveled to Australia more than any other country.

During the pandemic, of course, that wasn’t possible with Australia’s borders closed. I last made it there in the spring of 2019. I was going to visit in 2020 and of course that got cancelled. Ove and over in 2020 and 2021 I’d make award bookings, hoping things would open up. Back in March 2020 (‘two weeks to flatten the curve’) surely the fall seemed possible! By fall 2020 I figured ‘there must be a decent chance that Australia would re-open for the northern summer 2021. And so on.

After the country re-opened its borders I booked awards on American Airlines. These were extra mileage awards, spending 195,000 miles each way per person for business class. It was a lot of miles for a family of three but that’s why I went all-in on December’s SimplyMiles promotion. But American cancelled its Sydney flights for summer and into fall and refused to reaccommodate business class awards in business on joint venture partner Qantas. They were happy to move us to economy.

Fortunately I managed to put together new awards on Air Canada and United. American’s cancelled route wound up saving me miles!

  • Air Canada had a couple of rounds where saver awards to Sydney were wide open. They were even starting non-stop Austin – Vancouver flights. With a three year old I didn’t want to try to push through all at once, so we booked a stopover in Vancouver.

  • I spent the extra 10,000 Aeroplan miles per person for a refundable award despite pandemic travel waivers because that grants access to Air Canada’s Signature Suite. I was really impressed with the one in Toronto and had never visited the one in Vancouver that opened right at the start of the pandemic. It’s arguably the best lounge dining in North America, and certainly the best business class lounge experience, but upgrades, partner awards and lowest-cost saver awards aren’t eligible. for entry.

  • I booked an award stay at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, confirmed at booking in a suite. I’ve come to really value suites traveling with my daughter.

  • And in Sydney we booked the Hyatt Regency Sydney. Normally we stay at the Park Hyatt, but a confirmed suite tipped it for me.

  • I don’t just have family in the Sydney suburbs but also about half an hour from Gold Coast. We spent six nights up there (my Sydney family joined for half of those nights). For the outbound we bought cheap Virgin Australia business class (too cheap to spend miles) and for the return Qantas business class awards. With no real hotel options near my cousin and his family we booked a house on Airbnb.

  • On the return we flew United business class Sydney – San Francisco. A schedule change gave us a long layover in San Francisco and I booked the Grand Hyatt San Francisco Airport so that we could have a long nap after the transpacific flight, before flying home to Austin. Our San Francisco – Austin flight left from the international terminal, making it convenient to use our long haul boarding passes to access the Polaris lounge there before our final segment home.

All in all we spent 16 nights away and 12 nights on the ground in Australia. It was a wonderful time, my three year old traveled like a champion, and miles and points made it possible for us to (1) make flexible bookings throughout the pandemic without putting cash on the line, (2) book comfortable flights, and (3) more easily reconnect with family – we had a fabulous time over meals, on Sydney Harbor, at the Taronga Zoo but most of all just spending time together. And we’ve got plans to meet up with part of the family again later this year in Hawaii.

To begin though we took Air Canada’s second-ever Austin – Vancouver flight. We arrived at the Austin airport about 1 hour 45 minutes prior to the 3:50 p.m. departure.

As is often the case recently there was a backup on the road into the airport, but our Uber made it through in under 10 minutes. There was no line at the check-in counter. Our Canadian entry paperwork was processed quickly and we used CLEAR to bypass the long security queue.

Then we picked up a couple of Sprinkles cupcakes. There wasn’t quite enough time to make stopping at the United Club worthwhile, especially with Air Canada departing from the very far end of the terminal about 18 gates away.

The Vancouver flight, scheduled at nearly four and a half hours, is operated by an Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX as flight 1063. Oddly, I had understood that these planes were delivered new without wifi. And the Air Canada website showed that the flight wouldn’t offer connectivity. However when we boarded I found that it had internet, which for me makes all the difference.

I find Air Canada’s 737 MAX seat even less comfortable than American’s. In fact the best way to describe Air Canada’s mainline transborder business class is domestic first class with a less comfortable seat and printed menus.

A bottle of water and a Covid kit was at each seat prior to boarding.

The seat did have a large screen, though, and plenty of entertainment options. I watched a couple of episodes of Succession.

Inflight I chose the chicken rather than the gnochhi.

The flight passed quickly enough. Service was fine if unmemorable. And the new Vancouver non-stop served to give us a few days in a city I hadn’t been to in years, as well as visit Canada for the first time since the stasrt of the pandemic. It also made it possible for us to take advantage of Air Canada’s award availability on its Sydney flight – since we’d otherwise have had to double connect just to start our journey, which I probably wouldn’t have done traveling with a three year old.

Having Vancouver service from Austin is great, even if it’s a flight I’m not likely to take again for awhile – unless connecting to Air Canada transpacific.

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