The Best Ways to Use Points and Miles to Fly from the US to Australia
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From the teeming waters of the Great Barrier Reef to the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House, the vast deserts of the Red Center, the wineries of the Barossa and the sophisticated restaurants and galleries of Melbourne, Australia is a one-of-a-kind destination with experiences for all types of travelers.
Luckily, there are plenty of points options for flying there from the US, many of which are possible thanks to the transfer options from major programs like American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Today, we’re going to look at a few of them that you might not have considered before.
Before you start redeeming miles right and left, be sure to look at the taxes and fees you are likely to pay on some of these award tickets since, in some cases, they might not be worth it when you consider that there were fares as low as $386 on United from the US to Australia last April, or $665 round-trip fares from the US to Sydney on both American and United in February.
1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Program
Though it’s not in an alliance, Alaska’s Mileage Plan frequent flyer program has two compelling partners for travel to Australia in particular: American Airlines and Qantas.
American flies from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) while Qantas flies from Sydney to Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW), Los Angeles and San Francisco (SFO); and from Brisbane (BNE) and Melbourne (MEL) to Los Angeles, with service from Melbourne to San Francisco beginning in September.
Alaska also partners with, and allows award travel to Australia on, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Fiji Airways and Korean Air.
Mileage Levels: Alaska fields individual award charts for each of its partners, so here’s how many miles you will need one-way on each carrier from the contiguous US and Alaska to Australia.
- Economy: 40,000
- Business: 80,000
- First: 110,000
- Economy: 40,000
- Premium Economy: 47,500
- Business: 60,000
- First: 80,000
- Economy: 65,000
- Business: 120,000
- First: 225,000
- Economy: 40,000
- Business: 55,000
- Economy: 85,000
- Business: 125,000
- Economy: 42,500
- Premium Economy: 47,500
- Business: 55,000
- First: 70,000
Of those, the most interesting options are probably American, Cathay Pacific and Fiji Airways for economy, since you need just 40,000 miles each way (though only 2,500 more miles on Qantas).
That rate of just 47,500 miles for premium economy on Cathay or Qantas is also pretty compelling. You need just 15,000 more miles round-trip than economy for tickets that can cost several thousand dollars more than economy.
In terms of business class, your best bets are either Qantas or Fiji Airways at just 55,000 miles, or 60,000 miles for a Cathay award. 80,000 miles for an American award isn’t bad, but I would probably rule out Emirates and Korean Air altogether thanks to those astronomical redemption levels.
For first class, the two standouts are Qantas at 70,000 miles and Cathay for 80,000 miles, though with Cathay, first class will only be available on your US-Hong Kong portion but not from Hong Kong-Australia.
Transfer Partners: One downside to Alaska is that the only major transferable points program with which it partners is Starwood Preferred Guest, which will be changing in a few key ways, though points transfers remain relatively unaffected.
Award Searches and Availability: You can use AlaskaAir.com to search for awards on American, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Korean Air and Qantas, but not Cathay Pacific. For that, you’ll have to visit the British Airways site and then call Alaska’s mileage desk.
I find that economy awards are actually fairly easy to come by, especially on the busier routes like from Los Angeles to Sydney on Qantas and American, but even on Qantas’s Dallas-Sydney route.
Premium economy tickets are a lot less common, but not non-existent.
The bad news is that I have found business-class award space on the two nonstop options — American and Qantas — to be virtually nil for the next year on pretty much all routes, though these seats do pop up from time to time. It’s just a matter of searching over the course of a few weeks and booking immediately when you do find something.
Finally, first-class awards on American and Qantas are highly unusual but not impossible to find. I managed to track one down in August on Qantas’s LA-Sydney route.
By contrast, American Airlines would charge you 110,000 miles (40,000 more!) for the same ticket.
American would also charge you 40,000 miles each way for an economy award on its own flights or those of Qantas and 80,000 miles each way in business class and will not let you fly between the US and Australia on a single award via Hong Kong, so a decent redemption on Cathay is out.
2. All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club
We often pinpoint this Japanese carrier’s program as one of the best options for booking awards on its Star Alliance and non-alliance partners.
Mileage Levels: ANA has a zone-based chart that requires the following amount of miles for round-trip awards between North America and Oceania/Micronesia:
- Economy: 65,000 miles on ANA / 75,000 miles on partners
- Business: 110,000 miles on ANA / 120,000 miles on partners
- First: 210,000 miles on ANA / 225,000 miles on partners
The good news is award availability on ANA itself tends to be quite open and you can waitlist awards. Award availability on partners, notably United, which flies from Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO) and Houston (IAH) to Sydney (SYD), is also quite good. So though you’re paying more miles in each case, the redemption levels are still very reasonable at 37,500/60,000 miles each way in economy/business, and you’re likely to find seats on a lot of days. Plus, the taxes and fees end up being low.
Transfer Partners: Here’s another strength of the program: You can transfer points from both American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest to ANA.
Award Searches and Availability: One of the other great things about ANA is that its award search engine is robust and tends to find most of the award availability on partners including United and Air Canada (though not necessarily all of it, so be sure to cross-check with searches on United.com and Aeroplan.com). The other bit of positive news is that there seems to be plenty of award availability both on United’s nonstops from Los Angeles and San Francisco in both economy and business class. While the Boeing 787-9s United uses on these routes do not have new Polaris seats, they do have the Polaris amenities.
As you can see, ANA will charge you 75,000 miles and about $117 in taxes/fees for an economy ticket.
A business-class ticket would be 120,000 miles plus $206 in taxes/fees.
By contrast, ANA’s own economy flights would be 65,000 miles round-trip and $206 in taxes fees, while a business-class award would be 110,000 miles round-trip plus $206.
Finally, a first-class award where the segments between Los Angeles and Tokyo Haneda (HND) on a 777-300ER are in first class, but the segments between Tokyo and Sydney are in business class aboard a 787-9 would be 210,000 miles and $206 in taxes and fees.
Consider that United will charge you 40,000 miles each way in economy (not much more than ANA) and 80,000 in business class plus about $30 in taxes/fees. So you save a few dollars, but you’re using a lot more miles for the same itinerary.
Aeroplan is even worse because it would charge you 45,000 miles each way in economy plus some considerable taxes/fees.
It charges the same 80,000 miles each way for business class.
Look at this award that includes a flight on Air Canada itself, though, and those high taxes/fees, which knock this particular program out as a top choice for mileage redemptions to Australia.
The one downside of ANA is that Mileage Club requires partner awards to be round-trip, but what you give up in flexibility, you gain in affordability.
3. Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
Cathay Pacific’s mileage program is often overlooked, but should remain under consideration for certain awards to Australia thanks to some decent saver-level awards and plenty of transfer partners.
Mileage Levels: Asia Miles has one of the most complicated sets of award charts to decipher. The award you book will depend not only on the distance flown — you look at the one-way distance of your flight — but also which airlines you fly.
You can take a look at all the charts here, but to keep this simple, let’s assume you’re flying from Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) to Brisbane (BNE) or Sydney (SYD); and that you’ll be flying American, Cathay Pacific and/or Qantas in some combination.
Looking at the chart for single-carrier awards where you fly just one airline, or Cathay Pacific and one other airline (like American or Qantas), flights from the West Coast to Australia’s eastern hubs fall just under the 7,500-mile band, so here is how many miles you’d need.
- Economy: 40,000 one-way/60,000 round-trip
- Premium Economy: 48,000 one-way/72,000 round-trip
- Business: 70,000 one-way/120,000 round-trip
- First: 105,000 one-way/180,000 round-trip
Those round-trip values are pretty incredible and beat Alaska’s and American’s redemption rates in several cases. However, things get even more interesting when you consider the program’s Oneworld Multi-Carrier Awards that include two Oneworld carriers not including Cathay Pacific, or three Oneworld carriers including Cathay Pacific.
The specific case I’m thinking of is if you were to fly American Airlines in one direction and Qantas back. A round-trip from Los Angeles-Sydney, for instance (and basically all Qantas’s other flights from the US to Sydney, Melbourne (MEL) and Brisbane (BNE), too) your total mileage would fall within ninth distance band of 14,001-18,000 miles
At that rate, you’d need to redeem…
- Economy: 90,000 miles round-trip
- Business: 135,000 miles round-trip
- First: 190,000 miles round-trip
While these are higher than in the single-carrier award section, it does open up more route and award possibilities by letting you mix and match carriers and destinations. The bad news is, thanks to the current paucity of premium awards on both American and Qantas, I could not find any awards in the coming months where this would work.
Transfer Partners: Here’s why Asia Miles makes it onto this list. The program is a transfer partner of three of the major points programs: American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.
Award Searches and Availability: Asia Miles’ search engine is really good at finding awards on Cathay Pacific and (sometimes) on Qantas, but not much else that I can see. For instance, I didn’t find any of the American Airlines economy award availability I had found on AA.com and AlaskaAir.com searching on Asia Miles. But I did see a lot of Cathay Pacific availability that did not seem to come up consistently on BritishAirways.com. So what I would suggest is looking for Cathay and Qantas awards on Asia Miles, and then using other sites to look up award availability on American.
The other thing to beware of is that, though award availability is good, even economy awards come with high taxes/fees (about $437 in this case), which would not be worth it, even if you are saving a lot of miles.
One reason you might want to consider paying those fees anyway is to score a business-class redemption like this one for a mere 120,000 miles total and about $442 in taxes and fees where you could fly on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong in business class all the way.
4. Japan Airlines Mileage Bank
Another Oneworld member, Japan Airlines has a mileage program with some incredible redemption values, though its only transfer partner is Starwood Preferred Guest, and booking awards involves calling the mileage desk.
Mileage Levels: You can find JAL’s Oneworld partner mileage chart here. To find out how many miles you need, you must add together the mileage of all your segments and then find the corresponding award level. We’re going to look at Zone 6, which includes total mileage of 14,001-20,000 miles, into which flights from the West Coast to most destinations in Australia definitely fit. Here’s how many miles you’ll need round-trip…
- Economy: 90,000
- Business: 120,000
- First: 170,000
As you can see, these are some good values, especially that business-class redemption level.
Transfer Partners: As I mentioned, JAL Mileage Bank’s only major transfer partner is Starwood Preferred Guest.
Award Searches and Availability: Since you’ll be looking for awards on American Airlines and Qantas, I would recommend searching for partner awards on either the AA site, or that of Alaska, then you will have to call Mileage Bank to book them for you. When I did so, the agents I spoke to had no trouble finding the same economy awards I had, and taxes and fees were a reasonable $50-$90 each way. However, they could not find the same first-class award I had found on Alaska and American’s site, so there might be an issue with premium awards.
5. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Though US-based flyers might first consider Delta SkyMiles for booking awards on Virgin Australia or Delta itself, both airlines also partner with a number of other carriers, including Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
Mileage Levels: Now, hear me out since the mileage levels are not amazing, but there are a few good reasons to consider Virgin Atlantic miles for a redemption on Delta or Virgin Australia. Flying Club has separate award charts for its individual partners, so here is how many miles you will need on each for a round-trip award from the US to Australia.
- Economy: 100,000
- Business: 150,000
- Economy: 94,000 miles
- Premium Economy: 141,000 miles
- Business: 188,000 miles
Here’s why I think this is interesting. Virgin Atlantic will let you book one-way awards on its partners. While 47,000 miles on Virgin Australia and 50,000 miles on Delta for economy are not awesome values, keep in mind that Delta will charge you 45,000 miles for its own flights and 55,000 for Virgin Australia each way with about $113 in taxes/fees on either, as in the below example.
Delta will also charge you at least 110,000 miles each way for business class on its own flights, as in the below example, though redemption levels I found were usually closer to 175,000 up to 325,000 miles!
It will also charge you 115,000 miles each way for a Virgin Australia business-class award like this one.
By contrast, Virgin Atlantic requires just 75,000 miles each way for a business-class redemption on Delta and 99,000 on Virgin Australia (that’s not great, but you’re still saving 16,000 miles). The taxes and fees are also lower, at about $60 on the outbound from the US and $90 on the return. So while Virgin Atlantic redemptions are somewhat high, they are still much better than trying to use Delta SkyMiles for the same awards.
Transfer Partners: Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is one of the few mileage clubs that partners with all four transferable points programs: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.
Award Searches and Availability: Now we get to the one major sticking point about Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Unfortunately, you cannot book these awards online, but instead have to call the Flying Club phone desk. I find the agents to be friendly and well-versed in award bookings, so I do not mind, but hold times can be long.
The agent I spoke to was able to find quite a few economy awards for me on Delta and Virgin Australia that pretty much matched up with what I could find on Delta.com. However, when it came to business-class redemptions, there was no correspondence whatsoever. He did find one award on each, though, that verified the numbers in Virgin Atlantic’s charts and was able to quote the taxes and fees cited above to me.
Award tickets to Australia can be some of the hardest airline trips to book, which is why it pays to look beyond the typical US mileage programs like American AAdvantage and United MileagePlus to some international frequent flyer clubs. Many, like Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, have several transfer partners, allowing you to top up your account with the necessary miles quickly. Others, like ANA’s Mileage Club have some amazingly low redemption requirements on certain tickets that make them a downright bargain. If you are thinking of visiting Australia and would like to use miles, do your homework, figure out your options, and consider these programs, one of which might be a great fit for your needs.
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