Trip Report: Flying from Koh Tao to Singapore (And Eventually Home to New York)

Elina GellerApril 9, 2020
On a similar note...
On a similar note...

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Although flying from the U.S. to the islands in Thailand on miles is feasible, the return home is another story. This process is even more difficult if you’re booking close to your travel date. From the U.S., Thailand is nearly on the other side of the earth (as evidenced by the time difference of 11 to 14 hours). Although Thailand has a decent transportation network, if you’re heading to an island without an airport, you could be looking at a combination of plane, train (or bus) and ferry.

Here's how I decided to leave Thailand in early January, following a holiday trip. Hopefully, this information will help you if you're ever in a similar situation.

My flying strategy

Since I fly almost exclusively on miles and points, I never plan ahead when booking flights. One of the benefits of flying with miles is that award availability can pop up a few days before your flight, so you can get away with waiting until the last minute to book. This is very different from cash flights, which generally increase in price as the travel date gets closer.

But one of the drawbacks of my easygoing approach is when my travel involves many different transportation options. As I began to plan my flight from Koh Tao to New York City departing after New Year's Eve, I realized just how creative I would have to be with my itinerary.

Flying out of Koh Tao

I knew that the trip from Koh Tao back to New York was going to be long, so I decided this was a good opportunity to use my hard-earned miles to fly first or business class. My general rule of thumb for flying is that if it's a quick overnight or daytime flight, I don't mind an economy seat. However, if it's a long flight (eight hours or more) and during the day, I prefer to be in first or business class — during those waking hours, the comfort really matters to me.

Koh Tao (indicated above) is a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. Getting out of Koh Tao isn’t easy. The nearest airport is in Koh Samui, an island to the southeast and a two-hour ferry ride from Koh Tao. Although a ferry and then a flight out of Koh Samui airport is the most convenient option, it is also the most expensive one because the airport is privately owned and operated by Bangkok Airways (which results in limited competition). So if flights are expensive, there isn’t much you can do about it.

Award search

When looking for an award flight, I always check one of the online travel agencies (Skyscanner, Google Flights, Kiwi, etc.) to see which airlines are flying and what the prices are. The results let me know which alliance I need to focus on and which airline’s miles I could feasibly use.

I started looking at flights from Koh Samui to New York, but didn’t find any with a single alliance. I realized that the best bet would be to look at flights to New York from nearby international airports. The closest international hubs were Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore.

I wanted to use 50,000 Alaska Airlines miles to fly business class on Cathay Pacific, but unfortunately, there were no award flights out of Hong Kong or Bangkok until late January. I've flown Cathay’s business class product before and really enjoyed it.

Luckily, I was able to find a business class seat on Japan Airlines from Singapore to New York-JFK via Tokyo-Narita on Jan. 3. The award ticket cost 65,000 Alaska miles + $81 in taxes. That was the only award seat in business class for the next two weeks with Japan Airlines.

Although the hard part was over, I now needed to find a way to get to Singapore by that date. I knew I wanted to spend New Year's Eve in Koh Tao, which meant that I needed to fly out on either Jan. 1 or 2.

I found nonstop flights from Koh Samui to Singapore on both days. However, I waited a day to book — and when I checked again, all flights on Jan. 2 were sold out. I had no choice but to fly on Jan. 1.

I booked a flight for $374 with Bangkok Airways with an early-afternoon departure, which meant that I would have to take a two-hour ferry from Koh Tao that would get me to the Koh Samui airport by 11:30 a.m.

Since it was New Year's Day, there were only two ferry times available: 6:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. So, after a night of celebrating, I woke up early and dragged my tired self to a 6:30 a.m. ferry.

I booked my flight on Expedia because it has a free 24-hour cancellation policy on flights booked with most airlines. While U.S.-based carriers (and international carriers marketing to U.S.-based customers) are required to offer a 24-hour cancellation policy, it applies only for flights booked seven or more days in advance based on a ruling by the Department of Transportation. Expedia comes in handy when booking flights on miscellaneous international carriers and flights departing less than seven days in advance.

I’m glad I used Expedia to book; the next morning, the flight decreased in price by $30. I quickly canceled my flight and rebooked it for $344. As ridiculous as this will sound, spending $344 on this flight was particularly painful since I was paying for a flight and not earning miles with any airline that I’m trying to accrue with. When flying with Bangkok Airways, you can earn miles with the following airlines:

  • Cathay Pacific.

  • Emirates.

  • Etihad.

  • Japan Airlines.

  • Qatar Airways.

Nerd tip: Award tickets on Bangkok Airways are bookable using Air France/KLM Flying Blue miles, but you need to call Air France customer service to check award availability. Make sure you call far enough in advance, because in my case, there were no available award flights. However, this wasn’t surprising given that I was calling a few days before my flight during a particularly busy travel week.

Ferry and flying experience

The ferry ride from Koh Tao to Koh Samui was pretty uneventful, and I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. The Koh Samui airport is beautiful, and I really enjoyed the Blue Ribbon Club Lounge thanks to my Priority Pass membership through the Chase Sapphire Reserve® credit card.

The flight was nice and quick, and I landed in Singapore a bit early, feeling excited that I’d have plenty of time to explore the city that day. However, as I was heading to baggage claim, I realized that I'd left a duffle bag in the overhead compartment. I had to go to the lost-and-found, and waited about 45 minutes for my bag to arrive. I finally got to my hotel by 6 p.m., checked into my room, quickly ate and got ready to explore Singapore.

Although this was a really hectic travel day, I didn’t feel tired because I was so excited to have 36 hours to explore the city. I was also really excited for my upcoming business class award ticket with Japan Airlines from Singapore to New York via Tokyo that I'd booked using 65,000 Alaska miles + $81 in taxes. To read my recap of the business class experience, check out my posts on Singapore to Tokyo-Narita and Tokyo-Narita to New York-JFK.

The bottom line

Finding creative ways to reach destinations is one of the things I love most about traveling. Although searching for the most cost-effective combination of ferry, bus, cash flight and award flight can be a nightmare for some, for me, it is a fun puzzle to solve.

A key takeaway from this trip was remembering that sometimes you will find yourself in a part of the world where you cannot use your miles. In those instances, it's best to plan ahead and book your flight sooner rather than later to avoid a price surge or a hectic travel experience.

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