Video Sunday Reader Question: Using Miles to Get to South Africa For a Honeymoon

by on January 13, 2013 · 23 comments

in Aeroplan, American Express, South African Airways, star alliance, Sunday Reader Questions, Video Blog Post

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TPG reader Jon has been reading about my adventures in South Africa and is thinking about going there for his honeymoon (congratulations, by the way!) later this year. Here’s what he wants to know about getting there:

“Your recent trip to South Africa inspired me to reach out and see if you had any tips regarding flights from NYC to Johannesburg, as I will be getting married on April 20th and we would love to honeymoon in SA. We would ideally like to leave New York soon after the 20th, return approximately two weeks later and fly business class. 

I currently have 150,000 Avios, 200,000 Amex Membership Rewards points, 90,000 Delta miles and a Travel Together Ticket for British Airways. I have a personal Amex Platinum card, a Business Platinum card and a British Airways Chase Visa card.  Any thoughts, advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.”

South Africa is a great honeymoon destination! I have been here for a week and some of the things we’ve done so far have included shark cage diving, hanging out with cheetahs and going wine tasting in the wine country.  Once you have arrived there are a ton of great things to do whether you want adventure or relaxation, but the hardest part of the trip can getting here.

The South African Airways A340-600 I flew from JFK.

The South African Airways A340-600 I flew from JFK.

My recommendation would be to fly non-stop from the US which you can do on either South African Airways from New York or Washington, or Delta from Atlanta. I flew on South African from New York JFK to Johannesburg in business class on their A340-600 using 110,000 US Airways miles and paying $126 in taxes. You could also use 120,000 United miles to do so since that’s what their award chart requires. I thought it was a pretty good experience overall, though not top notch.

Delta has non-stop flights from Atlanta on their 777-200LR, which I enjoyed flying to Tokyo back in 2011. A roundtrip business class ticket from North America to Africa requires at least 140,000 SkyMiles, but finding low-level availability can be extremely difficult. Most trips I priced out were at least 250,000 SkyMiles!

Aeroplan award chart for Canada and Continental US to East, West and South Africa.

Aeroplan award chart for Canada and Continental US to East, West and South Africa.

Another option is to use your American Express Membership Rewards points that can be transferred to 3 different Star Alliance partners -  Aeroplan, ANA and Singapore Airlines. I would recommend using Aeroplan because the transfer is instantaneous and it’s 150,000 miles roundtrip though you might get hit with high fees and surcharges if you fly South African – though still nothing compared to buying a $9,000 ticket.

Using Singapore KrisFlyer miles requires only 145,000 miles, but what’s great about Aeroplan is that they allow you to book 2 different stopovers so you could fly to Cape Town, then to Johannesburg and build in flights to Nelspruit (MQP) if you wanted go on safari. It may make more sense to have those flights built in and pay the fuel surcharges vs saving 5,000 Amex points.

When searching for award availability, keep in mind that South African Airways usually doesn’t release more than one award seat on the same flight on the same day. Luckily you’re going at the start of low season in South Africa. Right now there is one business award ticket available for April 23rd though that could change by the time this post goes live.

As of writing this post, there was at least one business class award seat on SAA's JFK-JNB flight.

As of writing this post, there was at least one business class award seat on SAA’s JFK-JNB flight.

TPG Managing Editor Eric and I got lucky because once I put my business class award ticket from JFK to Johannesburg on hold through US Airways, another one opened up for him the next day. Unlike US Airways, Aeroplan won’t let you place tickets on hold, however you can book an award and hope that another award is released in the following few days. The key is to be diligent about checking for updated availability.

In a worst case scenario, you can always fly through a Star Alliance hub like Cairo aboard Egyptair if you are comfortable doing so. Keep in mind when you connect on Star Alliance partners you’ll add on a ton of travel time (I saw one itinerary aboard United that transited via Bombay!), but you could build in a stopover for a day or so in Frankfurt if you end up flying Lufthansa back to the US.

Flying into Cape Town aboard SAA.

Flying into Cape Town aboard SAA.

If you do choose to use Aeroplan, it will cost you 300,000 miles total for yourself and your soon-to-be wife while you currently only have 200,000 American Express points. There are a couple of ways to build up your balance in a hurry, though. Since you have a Platinum card, American Express allows you to advance yourself up to 60,000 points. To get an extra 70,000 points you can buy Amex points at 2.5 cents per piece which, though not cheap at $1,750, might not be a bad option since you’ll be getting two $9,000 tickets out of it – and you’ll be getting to spend your honeymoon in South Africa.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Scott Cunning

    I thought you could advance 60K points with Platinum card.

  • Fábio Vilela

    I didn’t find any availability from JNB to MQP with miles.
    Is this route done by South African and marked as SA flights?

  • trAAveller

    It’s worth clarifying in your post above that Delta’s award to South Africa is 140k round trip in business. The rest of Delta’s Africa destinations are the dated 120k. I managed to grab 2 tix roundtrip on the nonstop to JNB for the unicorn low-level rate of 140k each. :-)

    @Fabio: I too had difficulty finding any SAA awards (via on the JNB-MQP short domestic segment. United didn’t even show the flight. But I did get the others like HDS-CPT, CPT-WDH, WDH-JNB.

    Thanks TPG for the detailed trip reports. I’m looking forward to my trip in 2 weeks.

  • Adam Siegler

    What about all those avois he has and the fact that BA is a transfer partner of Amex (often with bonuses)? He would have to pay fees and taxes routing through London, yes, but with that travel together ticket he could bang out first class on BA (awesome) and maybe even use the stopover in London (ideally 2 days or so) for some excitement at the start of the trip (great food, sights, etc…). BA has tons of availability on the New York to London route as well as daily flights from London to JNB. Thoughts?

  • Travel4Nana

    Thanks for the info. We too are going though in 2014 as my daughter-in-law is from SA. We are going to meet her grandparents, aunts, cousins, etc and then going to Krueger. Our son has been a few times and he really liked the cage shark diving off Seal Island.

  • MCK

    Another option is routing through GRU….I found the availability on the SA GRU-JNB route to be pretty good. We also ending up spending 5 days in Brazil (another good honeymoon option). Iguazu Falls for 2 days then Rio for another 2.

  • Lively

    Great post. I want to do this someday.

  • Carl

    My dad and I did the F award to JNB on CX with stopover in HKG for 140k Alaska miles, which included the gateway flights on AS in F as well. Fantastic trip!

  • Jon

    Thanks so much for the help, Brian. Interestingly enough, I checked the BA site today and they offered a reward flight from EWR – LHR – JNB, which is surprising as I’ve been checking for months with no luck. So I booked two roundtrip business class reward flights using 180,000 Avios (transferred from Amex to BA using the 30% bonus), my Travel Together Ticket and $3200 in fees. The fees aren’t ideal, but BA is great and it’s our honeymoon, so I can’t complain. Thanks again for the suggestions. Your trip looked & sounded amazing, so we can’t wait.

  • Mike

    I dont see aerplan as a transfer partner. I see aeromexico. Is that the same?

  • Mike

    Nevermind. I see awroplan is Air Canada

  • Scuta

    It is 60k.

    Plus I don’t like the idea of comparing buying points to a $9,000 ticket that you would not have bought in the first place…misleading.

  • thepointsguy

    Whoops meant to say 60,000- thanks just updated!

  • Fred

    A few tips to do this (MQP, Safari, flying via Europe): I also did South Africa as a honeymoon via miles 10 months ago, it was just awesome!
    For MQP: Another small airport near Kruger is HDS. We actually did choose a small private game reserve instead of Kruger (it’s easy to get lost or find your way around but do not see any animals if you don’t hire a very experienced guide), I suggest you read this on trip advisor and you might also want to choose Naledi:
    They’ll pick you up from MQP and/or HDS. Anyway, I also didn’t find any award space, but I refused to give up. A few days and countless hours on the phone later I had found out: They flights to HDS and MQP are actually handled by South African express, so they do NOT show up on the main systems star alliance partners use. BUT they do have a SA codeshare number. What you have to do is:
    1.) Book via an agent on the phone
    2.) Be VERY patient with them
    3.) Tell them which route you want to go, wait for them to tell you they don’t have any space, tell them a friend of you just did it and found out the space would just not show up because it’s a South African Express flight, but it has a SA codeshare number so it was possible to book it, the agent just had to use another system to look it up. That should help them to figure it out.
    Only 50% of the agents will figure it out, so you might have to try a few times, and even if they figure it out, the award space might actually be taken. Actually I forgot to book this flight till it was almost too late and had only 2 days to choose from for the onbound/outbound flight… I was lucky to get both of my wifes flight as an award, and 1 award for me while I had to buy the last segment for myself – the dates had already been fixed. If this sounds too complicated for you: You could also just try to book the shorthaul flights on SAs websites, in fact they are not that expensive there.

    If you have to fligh via Europe to get to SA: Do NOT choose Lufthansa if you can avoid it, they do not have real 180 degree flat seats in business. Swiss and Southafrican have, so I’d try to get an SA or LX flight (we choose LX for the inbound and SA for the outbound flight). Swiss serves ZRH-JNB-ZRH, SA serves FRA-JNB and MUC-JNB (MUC might be much nicer and gives you more options than having just FRA) and vice versa, they also have LHR-CPT as a DIRECT connection. I would avoid JNB if you can: Ugly and dangerous if you leave the airport, so for a honeymoon, we did just connect there because my wife got no visa for LHR. Choose CPT, HDS and CPT instead to spend you segments.

    Good luck with booking your honeymoon trip and enjoy it!

  • Ciana

    We are heading off off on this trip on Feb 1. Using 300,00 Aeroplan points and $1368 for 2 business tickets. Routing is YYZ-LHR (AC) -JNB (SA) Return is CPT-IST-MUC (all TK)- YYZ (AC)

  • Carolg

    My friend recommended buying coach tickets and using points for the upgrade. This usually requires paying an extra fee but is still cheaper than buying biz class. But when I tried to do that thru UAL for 2 seats, the biz class seats to JNB always show “unavailable”. Is this the same issue with only releasing one seat per day? How do you get around it?

  • Scott Cunning

    But then you need to update the rest of the calculation. Only needs another 40K points at 2.5 c/p, for $1000. :)

  • Justin

    If you’re going to pay out the butt with fees on Aeroplan, may as well use the travel together ticket and fly via LHR on BA J/F?

    180k Avios (which he almost has and can easily augment via MR->BA) for J or 270k (would nearly wipe him out of MR) for F. If you’re going to spend ~250k for business anyways, then why not spend 270k and fly F?

  • thepointsguy

    BA fees were $3k+ vs $500ish and when I checked there were no BA f flights available around his dates.. But agree companion pass can make sense.. Just not 100% sure here

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  • Justin

    Fair enough, I guess I’ve just given up on the idea of travel being truly free, so I’d be excited to score BA F for $3k.

    Another option would be MR->ANA and booking on EY or QR in J. Both programs tend to have great availability. JFK-DOH-JNB and back would be 125k in J (within his ability to advance MR) and QR has a fantastic long haul J product. EY would be the same via AUH and they don’t charge any fuel surcharges…

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