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Top 10 ways to fly an international airline without flying all the way to its country

Dec. 09, 2019
15 min read
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Have you ever landed in Amsterdam and wondered what the heck an EVA Air jet was doing there, since the carrier doesn't fly nonstop from its hub in Taipei? Or been plane spotting in Sydney and trying to figure out why there were so many Emirates A380s on the ground at once? (Hint: they weren't all going to Dubai).

Just as North American fifth-freedom routes give U.S.-based travelers the chance to experience international carriers on routes that don't include their home country (like Emirates' daily flight between New York and Milan), there are plenty of international routes that get the same fifth-freedom treatment. Sometimes these routes are needed to break up a flight that would be too long for nonstop service, and sometimes they're a way for airlines to squeeze extra revenue out of aircraft that would otherwise be sitting idle at a foreign destination. Today we're going to look at 10 of the top international fifth-freedom routes, including how to book them with points and miles.

Related: What are the five freedoms of aviation, and how do they affect you?

Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires with Qatar, Ethiopian or Turkish

At just 2.5 hours, the flight between Sao Paulo (GRU) and Buenos Aires (EZE) is rather short, but it's a crowded route with over a dozen daily departures from local carriers (LATAM, GOL and Aerolineas Argentinas), and three surprising outsiders. Qatar Airways flies daily between the two cities with a 777 while Ethiopian flies 5x weekly with a 787 and Turkish flies 4x weekly with a 777. All flights continue on from Sao Paulo to the carriers' hubs in Doha (DOH), Addis Ababa (ADD) and Istanbul (IST) respectively. Flying nonstop from the Middle East/Africa to Buenos Aires is a bit of a stretch, but these fifth-freedom routes let these carriers serve both Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo in a more economical fashion.

A Qatar Airways Boeing 777-200LR like the one used on the Doha - Sao Paulo - Buenos Aires route (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

At just over 1,000 miles, the flight from GRU to EZE would be a great use of British Airways Avios. Flying with Qatar would cost 9,000 Avios in economy or 16,500 in business class. Both Ethiopian and Turkish are members of Star Alliance, giving you the following options to redeem miles (prices shown are one-way):

Frequent flyer programEconomyBusiness
Singapore KrisFlyer12,500 miles23,000 miles
United MileagePlus12,500 miles25,000 miles
Aeroplan15,000 miles27,500 miles
Avianca LifeMiles20,000 miles35,000 miles

Bangkok to Amsterdam, London or Vienna with Eva Air

EVA Air doesn't do much in the way of flying to Europe from its own hub in Taipei (TPE), but it has a surprisingly robust European route network out of Bangkok, home to its Star Alliance partner Thai Airways. EVA flies daily from Bangkok to London (LHR), 4x weekly to Vienna (VIE), and 3x weekly to Amsterdam (AMS). The London and Amsterdam flights are operated with 777-300ER aircraft featuring a very solid reverse-herringbone business-class seat, and the Vienna service features the airline's newest business-class seat on a 787-9.

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)

Where EVA really wins though is its soft product and service, including vintage champagne, an extensive menu of preorder meal options, and service that makes you feel like you're flying in first class. If you're looking to book these fifth-freedom routes with points and miles, here are your options for one-way awards:

Frequent flyer programEconomyBusiness
Aeroplan40,000 miles75,000 miles
Avianca LifeMiles55,000 miles78,000 miles
Singapore KrisFlyer45,000 miles92,000 miles
United MileagePlus45,000 miles100,000 miles

Related: Twice as nice the second time: EVA Air 777 in business cass from Houston to Taipei

Singapore to London with Qantas

Qantas made history last year connecting Europe and Australia with a nonstop scheduled flight for the first time in commercial aviation, but that route only stretches between Perth (PER) and London. Passengers looking to fly Qantas from Sydney to London still need a stop along the way, and Qantas has chosen Singapore (though in the past the airline has also routed through Dubai). This creates a fifth-freedom route on the Singapore to London leg, and a battle of A380s as Singapore, British Airways and Qantas all use their double-decker jumbos on this route. To make matters more interesting, British Airways operates this fifth-freedom route in reverse, with its A380 stopping in Singapore before continuing on to Sydney.

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(Photo by Nicholas Ellis/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Nicholas Ellis/The Points Guy.)

Award space is incredibly competitive on this route, especially since fifth-freedom travelers are competing for space with those flying all the way to and from Australia. If you're able to find it, here's how much a one-way award will cost you:

Frequent flyer programEconomyBusinessFirst
American Airlines AAdvantage35,000 miles75,000 miles90,000 miles
British Airways Executive Club36,2650 Avios108,250 Avios144,250 Avios
Qantas Frequent Flyer37,600 miles94,000 miles142,300 miles

Related: Awesome Aussie: A review of Qantas first class on the A380, Melbourne to LAX

Auckland to Bali with Emirates

Emirates has two North American fifth-freedom routes — JFK to Milan and Newark to Athens) — but an even more extensive fifth-freedom route network around Asia and the South Pacific. You can fly Emirates on the following routes without ever setting foot in Dubai: Colombo , Sri Lanka, to Male, Maldives; Bangkok, Thailand, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Singapore to Melbourne, Australia; Denpasar-Bali, Indonesia, to Auckland, New Zealand; Sydney, Australia, to Christchurch, New Zealand.

An Emirates Airbus A380 banks on takeoff from New York JFK. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
An Emirates Airbus A380 banks on takeoff from New York JFK. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

Unfortunately you can't use Alaska Airlines miles to book Emirates awards within Asia, so pretty much your only option is to transfer Marriott points to Japan Airlines. JAL's distance-based award chart is nice for these short hops, but you'll want to be careful as JAL does pass on fuel surcharges which can mount quite quickly on Emirates awards (though they appear to be fairly low on the Auckland to Bali route).

This flight covers just over 4,000 flight miles, meaning it would cost 90,000 JAL miles or 225,000 Marriott points (once you factor in the transfer bonus) for just under nine hours of bliss in Emirates first class.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges when booking Emirates first-class awards

Colombo to Male with China Eastern, China Southern and Korean Air

The Maldives is booming in popularity, with dozens of new resorts opening in recent years or under construction. Foreign airlines are flocking to Male (MLE) to meet this demand, and several of them have set up shop flying fifth-freedom routes to Colombo (CMB,)in Sri Lanka. Given the heavy seasonality of tourist demand in the Maldives, this is a great way to make slightly more permanent fleet plans without flying empty planes during the rainy summer months.

(Photo by Javier Rodriguez / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Javier Rodriguez/The Points Guy.)

In addition to Sri Lankan, you'll find Korean Air, China Eastern, China Southern and Emirates operating fifth-freedom routes between Colombo and Male. These flights are often incredibly cheap, with tickets routinely selling for under $150 for the 90-minute hop. This might be a good time to save your points and pay cash instead, though if you're feeling burned by the expensive resort transfer costs in the Maldives you can consider paying with your Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards points if your card offers a bonus or rebate for booking this way.

Related: Where to stay in the Maldives using points and miles

Dubai to Muscat, Oman with Swiss

When I went to Dubai this past February, I was irrationally bent on flying Qatar Qsuite home. With the Gulf blockade of Qatar in full force, there were no direct flights from Dubai to Doha and I had to get creative, which is how I ended up discovering Swiss' daily flight from Dubai (DXB) to Muscat, Oman (MCT). Oman is one of the only countries not actively blocking Qatari flights, and I figured from Oman I could easily connect on to Doha.

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.)

While Swiss doesn't fly direct to Oman, Oman Air flies nonstop to Zurich so perhaps Swiss is trying to reclaim market share, or perhaps simply meeting demand for this destination. Either way, ticket prices almost never break $100 so you're best off paying cash here.

Helsinki to Iceland, Ireland and the U.K. with Juneyao Air

There are so many different Chinese airlines that it's hard to keep track of them all. Juneyao Air has been a primarily regional carrier for most of its existence, but having taken delivery of six 787 aircraft (out of 10 total on order) Juneyao is showing its ambitions for long-haul growth.

Earlier this year Juneyao launched Dreamliner service from Shanghai (PVG) to both Helsinki (HEL) and Athens (ATH), and now we're seeing some interesting fifth-freedom routes pop up around this.

A Juneyao 787-9 Dreamliner during its delivery ceremony at the Boeing plant in Seattle in November 2019 (Photo by Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

On different days of the week, Juneyao will be tacking on fifth-freedom flights from Helsinki to Keflavik, Iceland (KEF), Dublin (DUB) and Manchester (MAN) rather than letting its new and expensive planes sit unused in Helsinki for nearly 12 hours. The flight to Dublin will operate twice a week (Sunday and Thursday), as will the flight to Keflavik (Tuesday and Saturday), while the flight to Manchester will operate the other three days of the week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday).

Juneyao is a Star Alliance Connecting Partner, an agreement which provides a more seamless transfer for passengers connecting from a full Star Alliance member. These fifth-freedom routes were only announced quite recently and Juneyao doesn't appear to have released any award space yet, but you can book its "normal" Shanghai to Helsinki flight through United MileagePlus, with wide open business-class award space all summer.

Related: How to redeem miles with the United Airlines MileagePlus program

Madrid to Sao Paulo with Air China

Twice a week, an Air China 787 makes the 10.5-hour trek from Madrid (MAD) to Sao Paulo (GRU) and back again, before returning to Beijing (PEK). Madrid is an interesting choice as it isn't a Star Alliance hub, and Air China doesn't even fly daily, only 4-5x weekly from Beijing.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

If you're looking to book this route with points and miles, here are your options:

Related: Air China 787-9 business class review

Kuwait to Bahrain with KLM

While Kuwait (KWI) to Bahrain (BAH) is a relatively popular route with more than 10 daily flights, KLM stands out as the only European airline to operate this route and the only widebody jet, operating an A330 amidst a sea of A320s and A321s. KLM is able to flex its muscles here and demonstrate pricing power, keeping tickets below $100 every day that it operates this flight, and usually at least $20-$25 cheaper than what any other airline is offering.

A KLM A330 taking off from Amsterdam Schiphol (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

Buenos Aires to Santiago with Air Canada or KLM

Rounding out our list is another Star Alliance carrier setting up shop in Buenos Aires, far away from home. Four or five times a week, an Air Canada 787 operates a fifth-freedom flight between Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile (SCL). Even farther away from home is the KLM 787 making this trip six or seven times a week.

Air Canada Boeing 787 Dreamliner landing at Amsterdam Schiphol. (Photo by Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.)

Air Canada keeps its prices pretty low on this route to compete with low-cost airlines, while KLM prices itself as a full-service carrier and often charges $650 or more for the two-hour flight. If you're dead set on flying KLM, even over local SkyTeam partner Aerolineas Argentinas, you can usually book this flight for a reasonable 16,000 miles and ~$70 in taxes.

Bottom line

One of the best things about fifth-freedom routes (in addition to competition driving down prices for travelers) is the chance to try a new airline without flying all the way to its country. It also makes you wonder a little bit more about the planes you see while waiting at the airport. Is that Emirates A380 really flying back to Dubai, or is it going somewhere exotic like Bali or Auckland?

Featured image by Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG