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Using US Airways Miles to Book South African Airways Awards

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One piece of information that has been overlooked amid the US Airways/American Airlines merger is that US Airways has maintained its partnerships with several airlines outside of the Oneworld alliance, including South African Airways. While there’s no word yet on when these partnerships will end, or whether US Airways’ award chart will change further, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen finds that now is a good time to book an award on SAA.

You can read all about my experience on South African Airways.
You can get great value by using your US Airways Dividend miles to fly South African Airways.

As part of its merger with American Airlines, US Airways transitioned from membership in the Star Alliance to Oneworld back in March. While the airline lost some great airline partners like Lufthansa and Thai, it retained some individual airline partnerships from Star Alliance beyond its Oneworld join date. While many of those (including EVA, Singapore and Turkish) have also since expired, US Airways is still partners with the following non-Oneworld airlines: Aegean, Air China, Hawaiian (inter-island and South Pacific flights only), Jet Airways, South African Airways, and TAP Portugal.

Of those, South African Airways is one of the most interesting, since the airline flies to both New York JFK and Washington Dulles from its hub in Johannesburg, and is one of the best ways to get from North America to southern Africa.

Mileage Requirements

Flying South African Airways from the US to Africa has also long been a sweet spot in US Airways award chart, since the mileage cost is low. Here are the miles needed for round-trip award travel:

  • 70,000 miles in economy
  • 110,000 miles in business class
US Airways will only charge you 70K/110K to fly to South Africa.
You can get to South Africa for 70,000 US Airways Dividend Miles in economy, or 110,000 in business class.

Compare that with the number of miles you’d need to fly to South Africa in economy/business on other major domestic carriers:

  • American: 75,000/150,000
  • Delta: 100,000/160,000
  • United (on South African): 80,000/160,000

In economy you save at least 5,000 miles with US Airways miles (and potentially up to 30,000 miles compared to Delta), and in business, you save 40,000-50,000 miles.

If you wanted to fly South African Airways specifically, United is your next best option since the two are both Star Alliance members. However, United’s award chart devaluation last year raised partner awards to Africa by 40,000 miles in business class.

Availability

Because South African Airways only flies to JFK and IAD in the US, availability on these routes can be pretty tight. However, as I was researching upcoming itineraries, I found that there’s quite a bit of award space in both economy and business for the rest of October and November. The space dries up in December-February, which are typically peak season down there, but there are more awards available from March-May from both JFK and IAD.

If you do want to try for a ticket in December/January over the holidays, it’s worth checking award space every few days, since awards can open up at any time, and they usually do at the last-minute on these routes.

I mentioned the mileage requirements above, but you should also consider taxes and fees. When booking more than 21 days out, expect to pay about $75 in taxes plus the $40 US Airways will charge you for booking international awards over the phone. I find that charge slightly unfair since you can’t book these awards online, but there’s not much you can do about it. If you book within 21 days of travel, expect to pay another $75 unless you have Gold, Platinum or Chairman’s Preferred status.

I find that United.com is the easiest and fastest way to search SAA flight availability, and seems to be completely accurate. I would search there first, and then call US Airways with specific flight and date information.

Here are a few itineraries I found on a cursory search:

JFK-JNB in business class November 6-25

JFK JNB Bus

JFK-JNB in economy November 10-19

JFK JNB Econ

IAD-JNB in business class November 13-24

IAD JNB Bus

IAD-JNB (returning via JFK) in business class November 24-December 2 (so you could go over Thanksgiving)

IAD JNB JFK

IAD-JNB in economy March 3-12

IAD JNB March

Booking Through US Airways

Here’s the annoying part. As I mentioned, you have to call US Airways to book these awards, and let’s just say that their agents are not the most adept at finding partner award space. Add to that the weather delays and issues in the South at the moment, and you could end up on hold for a while.

Still, I was able to get through after just about 10 minutes on hold this morning and spoke with a very friendly agent. She didn’t find the award space on her own on the dates that I gave her, so I actually needed to give her the specific flight numbers that I had found on United.com.

She then found the flights immediately and was able to put the reservation on hold. Here’s the itinerary I found on United’s site:

JFK JNB Oct:Nov

And here’s my US Airways reservation on hold for 72 hours with a final cost of 110,000 miles and $199.50 in taxes and fees (because it’s close in and I don’t have Preferred status).

JFK JNB US Air res

South African Airways

TPG and I had a great experience on South African Airways when we flew to Cape Town via Johannesburg in January, 2013.

110,000 Dividend Miles for roundtrip to South Africa in business class- some carriers like Delta and United charge more than that for Europe business class!
TPG stretching out in his SAA business class seat.

While the airline doesn’t have the newest planes or classes of service, it’s still pretty comfortable. The business class seats are full lie-flats, the service is (mostly) friendly, the food and wine are fine, and the flights are non-stop from JFK and IAD to Johannesburg (rather than routing through Europe and having to fly two long-hauls), making this service pretty convenient.

Taking the cable car up Table Mountain in Cape Town.
Taking the cable car up Table Mountain in Cape Town.

South Africa

I won’t include a “what to do” section here because TPG has written about it before in the following posts:

My South African Safari was a breathtaking experience especially seeing this leopard.
We spotted this beautiful leopard while on safari at Sabi Sands.

However, I will say that even 9-10 days is enough for a great trip, depending on what you want to do. TPG and I were there for about 8 days and managed to see a lot of Cape Town, hit the Cape Wine Lands and the coast, swim with great white sharks, take a tour of Johannesburg, and go on safari for a few days, so you can definitely pack a lot in!

The Vrede en Lust vineyards in Franschoek - absolutely stunning.
The Vrede en Lust vineyards in Franschoek – absolutely stunning.

Getting Miles

If you’re looking for ways to top up your Dividend Miles account, there’s still time to get the US Airways Premier World MasterCard, which comes with a sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after you make your first purchase and pay the $89 annual fee. Many of the benefits of this card are set to change in 2015, but even if you can’t take advantage of the companion pass, lounge club pass, or others, the bonus puts you more than half way to an economy redemption on South African Airways.

US Airways is also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, so you can make use of the 25% bonus when you transfer 20,000 points to help book one of these awards.

Other Concerns

One of the major stories in world news at the moment is the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, and you may have noticed that many of South African Airways’ flights to the US aboard its A340-300’s require a quick layover for refueling in Dakar, Senegal, so I figured some readers might be concerned about public health and safety.

As with all travel plans, you should use your own best judgment when deciding where you’re comfortable going. However, the distance from Johannesburg to Monrovia (where the Ebola outbreak seems most concentrated) is about 3,400 miles – the equivalent of New York to London, so we’re really talking about different parts of the continent.

Furthermore, the WHO reports that there was just a single confirmed case of Ebola in Senegal (reported in late August). It was actually carried into the country by a visiting Guinean man who has since recovered, and all 67 people who came into close contact with him have passed the quarantine period and not shown any signs of infection.

If you’re planning to travel, I would stay up on the latest facts, but for the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to avoid South Africa on this account.

With all that in mind, good luck booking South African Airways tickets using your US Airways miles, and if you have any questions, please feel free to comment below!

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