March in Japan

By virtue of maintaining the unofficial digital version of the Prince Edward Island school calendar, it’s been on my radar for more than 6 months that this spring’s March school break, being followed as it is the next weekend by a 4-day Easter long weekend, presents a unique “go away somewhere far away with Oliver and don’t miss too much school” opportunity. And so, for most of the fall and winter the notion of where has been tickling the back of my mind.

March Break Calendar

As March drew nearer and the sense of urgency grew – I didn’t want to try to spin “hey, a trip to Bathurst!” to Oliver because of my procrastination – I started to narrow down the possibilities.

Norway was high on my list: what’s not to love about a country that’s mad for coffee, has this amazing building, this amazing voice and otherwise remains a complete mystery to me (I don’t believe I’ve ever met a single person from Norway). The idea of Norway got me started experimenting with the Aeroplan, where I’ve been collecting and not redeeming “miles” for long enough to have accumulated 110,000 of them, which is, in theory, enough to get somewhere serious, even for two people.

What I kept coming up against, however, is routings across the Atlantic that saw Air Canada tacking on a $500 “fuel surcharge” on top regular airport taxes and fees that aren’t included in the “free” Aeroplan trips. I noticed, however, that one return routing from Oslo to Charlottetown via Newark was on United Airlines, and that booking only had half the fuel surcharge of others, suggesting that United doesn’t have the same (or perhaps any) fuel surcharge regime that Air Canada does.

Then I recalled a casual comment the other week by Isaac Grant in the coffee shop: “Dan always calls,” he said, referring to consummate traveler Dan James, and he doesn’t stop until he finds an agent that will work with him. And then I realized something else: you don’t actually have to have enough “miles” in your Aeroplan “bank” to pay for the entire cost of a trip: you can purchase “top-up miles” with cash.

Together this got me thinking more ambitiously: what about trying to max out the Aeroplan system and the super-March-holiday opportunity and go to Japan, which is a county I’ve wanted to visit for a long, long time but which has always seemed too far away, in time and money, to be a reasonable school break destination.

I started to poke around the possible routes to Japan from Charlottetown (when you’re flying on points it doesn’t make any sense to do a “drive to Halifax” or “drive to Moncton” unless scheduling requires it). Japan is in the Asia 1 Aeroplan region, and requires 75,000 “miles” return per person from Charlottetown.

Aeroplan Reward Chart (detail)

I was 39,937 “miles” short of the 150,000 I needed, and the Aeroplan booking engine quoted me $1198.11 (or 3 cents/mile) to top up and $251 in taxes and fees without fuel surcharges. Routing by Air Canada showed fuel surcharges of $584 per person, for a total of $1168 on top of that.

So, I decided to try and pull a Dan.

Last night before supper I called Aeroplan on the phone. I laid out my plan honestly: “I want to take my son to Japan, but I won’t fly on Air Canada because I don’t want to pay $1168 in fuel surcharges; can you route me from Charlottetown to Tokyo without Air Canada?”

Fortunately I got a good, helpful agent who understood my plight and resolved to help me. I told him I wanted to leave on March 15th and come back on March 31st, but that I was flexible.

He worked away for about 10 minutes and then presented me with a plan: Charlottetown to Toronto on Air Canada followed by Toronto-Washington Dulles-Tokyo on United to get there on March 13th, and then Tokyo-Chicago-Halifax on United followed by Halifax-Charlottetown on Air Canada to get back on March 27th. Fuel surcharge: $0. The only downside was the need to stay overnight in Halifax on the way back, but I was willing to eat that.

“Book it!”, I said.

Total cost for the airfare was $1449.37.

Comparing an AirCanada.com booking for the same dates the best routing (Charlottetown-Toronto-Narita) was quoted at $3892.76 and an overnight-in-Halifax-en-route-routing was $3156.76, so we “saved” about $1700 over buying tickets with cash.

“Saving” is all relative in the virtual world of airline points, of course, and I may live to regret not paying an extra $2400 to get a one-stop trip to Japan. But I come from a long line of “walk 12 blocks to save 50 cents on a tub of yogurt” suckers-for-a-good-bargain, so we’ll go via Washington and Chicago and be happy.

Why Japan? What will we do?

Well, Oliver really likes sushi. And that neat FabCafe that Peter Bihr wrote about. And the Printing Museum. And the 9 hours capsule hotel. And the chance to stay on a mountain.

But if I’m being honest, the attraction is in the unknown: I know almost nothing about Japan. I’m afraid of the food, and prospect of strange toilets. I’m not sure how I’m going to be an effective parent after flying across the Pacific. And, of course, I neither speak nor read Japanese. And what’s that about there being no street addresses in Tokyo?

But that’s why we travel, isn’t it? To see through new eyes. To take ourselves out of the “who moved the toothpaste to the other side of the sink!?” regularlity of every day life. And, with Oliver, the chance to ramble into this as father-and-son, showing him the value on leaping into the unknown and affording me the chance to see the world through his eyes.