Maximize this AA sweet spot to fly Etihad or Qatar to the Maldives (in luxury) for less
There are so many places I want to visit that at this point in my life I'm comfortable chasing deals and letting the tail wag the dog to a certain extent. Not only does it remove some of the analysis paralysis that goes into vacation planning, but it ensures that I stretch my points and miles as far as possible.
Since moving to China, I've fallen in love with a sweet spot in the American Airlines partner award chart that lets me fly halfway around the world at a fraction of the cost. Even if you're originating in the U.S., you should strongly consider working this hidden gem into any future trips you plan to the Middle East or Indian subcontinent, including remote island getaways like the Maldives.
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The cheapest way to fly Etihad Apartments
This sweet spot centers around flights between Asia (the Asia 1 and Asia 2 regions in the American Airlines award chart) and either the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent, which according to AA's definition includes the following countries (note this is not a complete list):
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
- Sri Lanka
One-way flights cost 40,000 miles in business class or 50,000 miles in first class, which is a truly incredible deal for these ~10 hour flights. You could also book economy awards for 25,000 miles or premium economy for 35,000 (subtract 2,500 miles for both if you're flying to/from Korea or Japan), but there's no reason not to splurge the extra 5,000 miles and upgrade to business class.
Between Oneworld alliance members Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways and American's partnership with Etihad, you have a ton of different route combinations you can use to take advantage of this deal. Flights on Etihad or Qatar will connect through the airline's respective hubs in Abu Dhabi (AUH) and Doha (DOH), while Cathay Pacific offers direct service to a number of these destinations.
If you have your heart set on flying Etihad Apartments, the ultra-spacious first-class cabin only available on the carrier's 10 A380s, this is by far the cheapest way to do it. Etihad flies an A380 between Seoul (ICN) and Abu Dhabi (AUH), which you can book for only 50,000 miles in first class. For that same price of 50,000 miles per person, I was able to book two tickets for my girlfriend and me to fly from Seoul to the Maldives (MLE) via Abu Dhabi this February. Etihad also flies to a number of other cities in Asia, including Tokyo (NRT), Hong Kong (HKG), Shanghai (PVG) and Singapore (SIN), mostly using 787 aircraft that don't feature a first-class cabin.
If you're flying in business class, you'll absolutely want to look for a Qatar Airways flight through Doha. Not only will it give you a chance to fly Qsuite, the world's best business class, but Qatar has a much more extensive Asian route network than Etihad including multiple daily flights to some destinations which should make it easier to find award space.
Most people have forgotten about this since the launch of Qsuite, but Qatar does still offer a true first-class cabin on its A380 aircraft. You can find this plane flying to Guangzhou (CAN), making this one of your only opportunities to redeem points and miles to fly Qatar first class.
Last but not least, Cathay Pacific flies from its hub in Hong Kong (HKG) to a number of destinations in India, as well as Dubai (DXB) and the Maldives. You won't find a first-class cabin on these flights, but if you're in Hong Kong you can book a nonstop trip to your destination for just 40,000 miles in business class.
Building a trip from the U.S.
So at this point you might be thinking "well that's well and good, but I live in Chicago, not Japan, how does this help me?" The Middle East and Indian subcontinent are incredibly popular destinations, between the sheer population dynamics of India and the luxurious draw of the Maldives. Most people would prefer to fly in business class on these ultra-long trips, but finding award space from the U.S. is hard to do.
Ever since American Airlines made it possible to book Qatar and Etihad awards online and through the AA app, competition for that award space has been fierce. Assuming you have a bit of flexibility in your schedule, why not take a detour to Asia first?
The first immediate benefit is that you get to see a second destination on your trip, and you can choose pretty much anywhere in the continent. Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok — you name it, all of these destinations will set you up to use this American Airlines sweet spot en route to the Middle East. If you choose to stop for a few days, this can help alleviate jet lag and leave you feeling better rested when you arrive at your final destination.
Let's take a look at how you could piece this all together in practice. You could start with a $283 nonstop flight from Chicago (ORD) to Beijing (PEK) on United.
Spend a few days exploring Beijing and the surrounding areas, and then for just 40,000 AAdvantage miles, book a nine-hour Qsuite flight to Doha, including an onward connection to the Maldives, India or a dozen other countries in the region.
Of course not everyone wants to fly 14 hours in economy, so you could always book yourself a separate premium-cabin award ticket to Asia. You could enjoy a Cathay Pacific first-class flight to Hong Kong for just 70,000 Alaska Airlines miles. Alaska even lets you add on a free stopover so you could spend a few days in Hong Kong before continuing on to Beijing, seeing the city, and then eventually catching a Qsuite flight onward.
Of course at some point you'll end up returning from the Middle East or India, but this sweet spot works much better on the outbound (i.e. from Asia to the Middle East) than the other way around. That's because the flight times are significantly longer flying west, giving you more time to enjoy these incredible premium cabins. At 10 and a half hours, the flight from Seoul to Abu Dhabi is a full two hours longer than the return from Abu Dhabi to Seoul. Etihad Apartments is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people, and eight and a half hours is barely enough time to eat, sleep, shower and fully enjoy the onboard experience.
Between a devaluation a few years back and a gradual shift to dynamic pricing, American Airlines miles aren't as easy to use as they once were. That said, for the second year in a row I'm getting an incredible value booking 10+ hour premium-cabin flights to the Maldives for only 40,000 miles in business or 50,000 miles in first class.
Getting to fly Qsuite for roughly the same cost as an economy trip from the U.S. to Europe, or Etihad Apartments for less than a British Airways business-class flight to Europe is an incredible deal. There are plenty of award chart sweet spots for travel outside of the U.S., and sometimes splitting up a long trip into multiple parts can help you unlock hidden value.