Reader Debra wants to travel from Florida to South Africa for a honeymoon. She’s never been out of the country and has only taken one vacation in recent memory. She’s a private school kindergarten teacher and wants to make this trip happen with her newlywed husband before life gets too complicated.
Though her 19,810 Delta SkyMiles and 8,557 Southwest Rapid Rewards points are better than nothing, trips to South Africa from North America require such a substantial outlay of points that we’re essentially starting from scratch. Today, we’ll take a look at which programs offer the best values to South Africa and how folks like Debra can most easily begin amassing the miles needed to cover such a trip.
Expanding Our Horizons
We might normally restrict our search to the most popular US frequent flyer programs in some cases. South Africa, however, is often an extraordinarily expensive destination from a miles and points perspective, rivaled only by jaunts to the South Pacific. As such, we’ve widened the scope of our search to include many more programs than usual, including most transfer partners available to the Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards programs.
Here’s a broad chart of possibilities in Economy and Business Class, sorted least-to-most by Economy Class:
|ANA Mileage Club||32,500||52,500|
|Alaska (Air France/KLM)||40,000||70,000|
|Alaska (Delta Air Lines)||42,500||70,000|
|Alaska (Cathay Pacific)||50,000||62,500|
All mileage amounts for one-way travel.
Remember, the lowest numbers aren’t always the best. We’re looking for the best value, which means finding a program offering a fair rate, using miles that are easy to earn, with a fair amount of award availability and low out-of-pocket costs on things like taxes and fees. With that in mind, let’s look into a few programs in a bit more detail:
ANA to South Africa
In theory, All Nippon Airways’ Mileage Club might offer the best value to South Africa. This program is distance-based, so the exact number of miles required are subject to change.
In this case, we calculated these one-way amounts based on a roundtrip booked from Jacksonville to Johannesburg, with a connection at Washington-Dulles. That’s a 17,528 mile roundtrip, placing it just inside ANA’s 14,001-18,000 mile distance category. A connection in Chicago or New York, for example, or a trip originating from the West Coast instead of the East Coast could easily boost the miles required from 32,500/52,500 to 37,500/57,500 each way. That’s still a good value, though, so worth considering.
ANA awards are more painful to book than many others, requiring a call to their reservations center and a $25 booking fee. Tickets may be booked anytime from 330 days prior to departure up to 4 days prior to boarding. Trips must be booked as roundtrips beginning and ending in the same city, though it’s possible to build in additional stopovers along the way. ANA levies fuel surcharges on award flights, though they tend to be relatively low on United and Air Canada. South African Airways flights should be avoided, though, since ANA fuel surcharges tend to be high with them.
The easiest way for most Americans to earn ANA miles is through the American Express Membership Rewards program. You may also apply miles earned on United and other Star Alliance carriers to ANA’s program.
I always look at sign-up bonuses for travel credit cards as a great way to rapidly accumulate a starting balance of points. Unfortunately, the sign-up bonuses for Amex cards tend to be lower than the advertised sign-ups offered for other programs unless you receive a special, targeted offer. In that case, sign-up bonuses of up to 100,000 Membership Rewards points can cover a trip like this in one fell swoop.
American miles are relatively easy to earn, and from a miles perspective, the 37,500 miles Economy rate is the best available unless you’re traveling a very specific itinerary from the East Coast using ANA’s program. Additionally, award availability tends to be fairly healthy.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to avoid including British Airways in American award flights to Johannesburg if you book through American’s website. American doesn’t fly to South Africa, so it’s necessary to rely on partner airlines like British Airways. Between British Airways’ fuel surcharges from London to Johannesburg and the prohibitive Exit Tax levied by the UK on all departing flights, taxes and fees added up to an eye-watering $729.90 for one Economy seat roundtrip. That’s actually fairly low, as flying British Airways for the transatlantic hop instead of American or US Air would add even more to this trip:
However, there is a way around these fuel surcharges if you’re willing to do some digging and spend some time on the phone with an American Airlines booking agent. American partner Qatar Airways offers service to Johannesburg from its hub in Doha, and so long as you fly on Qatar to Doha as your transatlantic hop, it’s possible to book an award at this same mileage amount while avoiding almost all fuel surcharges and fees. For example, Hack My Trip was able to find a flight to South Africa for just $23 in taxes/fees one-way, with similar savings on the roundtrip.
Qatar Airways flies from Doha to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Newark, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. If you can catch an American or US Air connection to one of these cities, you’ll save hundreds on this itinerary.
American miles are fairly easy to accrue. Citi AAdvantage cards with bonuses of 50,000 miles can be found regularly, and a limited-time bonus of 100,000 miles on a Citi Executive AAdvantage card popped up earlier this Spring. Best of all, American awards can be booked as one-way travel, so there’s no need to save up for a roundtrip before taking advantage of the savings.
Alaska Mileage Plan
There are a number of different ways to put Alaska miles to work for this trip. Alaska has one of the most interesting arrays of partnerships seen in aviation, despite the fact that it doesn’t participate in any of the three major air alliances. Its separate partnerships with many world carriers mean high versatility in mileage usage, but different redemption rates also apply to each partner.
If you want to use Alaska miles on KLM or Air France for this itinerary, it would cost you 40,000 miles each way. Flying the same itinerary using Alaska miles on Delta, however, would require 42,500 miles. 47,500 Alaska miles will fetch you a seat on Emirates, while 50,000 Alaska miles each way covers your journey on Cathay Pacific.
The most interesting redemption option with Alaska miles is probably 62,500 miles each way on Cathay Pacific.
You may fly on Alaska – but not on other partners – for no additional miles in order to connect to a partner flight, so you could theoretically fly from as far as Orlando or Fort Lauderdale to Seattle in First Class on Alaska, then onwards in Business Class on Cathay Pacific from Seattle to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Johannesburg, taking the extreme long way around the globe. That’s nearly 16,000 miles flown in each direction, but if you’re interesting in spending the most time flying in style, it’s an option.
Alaska miles are tough to earn if you don’t fly much. There’s an Alaska Airlines Visa Signature available from Bank of America with a small sign-up bonus, but opting to earn Alaska miles on American and Delta flights is the best way for regular domestic travelers to rack them up quickly.
On the surface, this feature is about traveling to South Africa. However, it’s also about traveling just about anywhere.
If you’re new to miles and points, the thought process I share in this piece is the one I recommend for just about any trip. It’s always best to evaluate many different programs and determine which is the right one for you and your specific dream trip. I’m asked all the time what the best mileage program is, but the answer depends wholly on where you want to go. Some programs are pretty bad across the board, but even the best have their strengths and weaknesses.
Learning the ins and outs of individual programs can be tough, but the PointsAway Book can make it easier for you. If you’d rather go it alone, Google can be your friend. In any case, a bit of effort can save you thousands and bring your dream trip in reach!