How to fly top international airlines from North America — without setting foot in their home countries
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Fifth-freedom routes are a unique quirk of aviation that give North American travelers a chance to experience superior planes and service, often at a fraction of the cost. Have you ever booked a trip from the U.S. to Europe, only to realize that your flight was operated by an Asian or Middle Eastern airline? If so, there’s a good chance that you’ve stumbled across a fifth-freedom flight before.
Technically speaking, a fifth-freedom flight is one operated by a carrier between two countries neither of which is the airline’s home base. These routes are typically part of service connecting those markets to the carrier’s home country. For example, Emirates flies an A380 between Christchurch (CHC) in New Zealand and Sydney (SYD), with the same flight continuing on from Sydney to Dubai (DXB). There are several reasons an airline can choose to do this: range (Dubai to Sydney is already a 14-hour flight), gaining traffic in a new market, or improving aircraft utilization, among others.
There are a large number of fifth-freedom routes operating all over the world, but here are 10 of the best for North American travelers to consider, including how to book them using points and miles:
New York to Milan and Athens with Emirates
Emirates’ A380 first class is one of the most aspirational bucket-list flights you can possibly imagine, and luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Dubai to experience it. Emirates operates two fifth-freedom routes from the New York area to Europe, including New York-JFK to Milan (MXP) and Newark (EWR) to Athens (ATH). The Milan route is operated by the carrier’s flagship A380, while flights to Athens feature a Boeing 777-300ER with the same gold-studded first class suites, but no on-board shower or bar. Both flights continue on to Dubai after making the stop in Europe.
In addition, Emirates will be launching service from Dubai to Mexico City (MEX) in December. Given the length of this flight and the elevation of the Mexico City airport, the flight will stop in Barcelona (BCN) in both directions, creating a new fifth-freedom route. This is the only North American fifth-freedom route that Emirates flies without a first class cabin — the 777-200LR that will be used to operate this route stops at business class.
You can check out our guide for a full walk-through of the best ways to book awards on Emirates, but generally speaking you’ll want to concentrate your efforts around three currencies: Emirates’ own Skywards program, Japan Airlines’ Mileage Bank program and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program. All three are Marriott transfer partners, and you’ll earn a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer. Emirates is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Capital One so you can transfer points (or miles) earned from cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card directly to the Skywards program.
Here are the redemption rates for round-trip flights between New York-JFK and Milan on Emirates:
|Emirates Skywards||45,000 miles + ~$400||90,000 miles + ~$1,135||135,000 miles + ~$1,135|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||95,000 miles + $80||210,000 miles + $80||360,000 miles + $80|
|JAL Mileage Bank||80,000 miles (94,000 as of 11/20) + $397||130,000 miles (170,000 as of 11/20) + $1,131||210,000 miles (270,000 as of 11/20) + $1,131|
As you can see, the biggest tradeoff comes between Emirates Skywards, which offers the lowest mileage rates but has massive fuel surcharges, and Alaska Airlines Mileage plan, which charges way more miles but keeps the taxes below $100.
U.S. to Europe or Asia with Singapore Airlines
Until Singapore relaunched the world’s longest flight from Singapore (SIN) to Newark, the airline had a very good excuse for its large number of North American fifth-freedom routes; except for the brand new A350-900ULR, aircraft simply can’t reach most U.S. cities from Singapore without a fuel stop along the way. While the carrier has made a few changes to its transpacific routes over the years, Singapore currently operates the following fifth-freedom routes from the U.S.:
- New York-JFK to Frankfurt (FRA), Airbus A380
- Houston (IAH) to Manchester (MAN), Airbus A350
- San Francisco (SFO) to Hong Kong, Boeing 777-300ER
- Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT), Boeing 777-300ER
- Los Angeles (LAX) to Seoul (ICN), Boeing 777-300ER
If you’re looking to fly in economy, you have your choice of Star Alliance partners with which to book, including United MileagePlus and Aeroplan. If you’re looking to fly up front, Singapore doesn’t release premium-cabin award space to their partners so you’ll have to book through Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.
Fortunately these miles are easy to earn, since KrisFlyer is a partner of all five major transferable points currencies: Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, Capital One and Marriott Bonvoy. One-way saver awards cost the following amounts:
|U.S.-Europe||22,500 miles||72,000 miles||86,000 miles|
|U.S.-Tokyo and Seoul||35,000 miles||92,000 miles||107,000 miles|
|U.S.-Hong Kong||33,000 miles||89,000 miles||104,000 miles|
Remember too that booking through Krisflyer allows you to waitlist for awards if your desired flight and/or class of service isn’t available at the time of booking.
Washington, D.C. to Accra with South African Airways
South African Airways offers service from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Johannesburg (JNB) with a stop in Accra, Ghana (ACC) on the way, opening up an interesting fifth-freedom route. While much of the carrier’s fleet is well-worn, the A330s that operate the flights to D.C. are newer aircraft, featuring the more modern staggered seating configuration shown above.
Depending on which Star Alliance program you pick, you can expect to pay about 50,000 miles for a one-way economy ticket and about 80,000 for a one-way business-class ticket with minimal taxes.
North America to Cuba or Panama with Air China
While it’s easy to understand Emirates wanting to tap into a leisure market in Italy or Singapore needing a fuel stop in Asia, Star Alliance member Air China offers two of the most interesting fifth-freedom routes in North America. Once a week (every Friday to be exact), the carrier flies from Montreal (YUL) to Havana (HAV). It also operates twice-weekly flights between Houston and Panama City (PTY). The flights are operated by a 787 and 777, respectively, and both planes feature fully flat business-class cabins in a 2-2-2 configuration, like the 777 shown above.
You can book these awards with Aeroplan, and a one-way award flight will cost you 20,000 miles in economy or 30,000 in business. United would charge you 17,500 miles in economy or 30,000 in business.
The Paris to Los Angeles to Tahiti route
Connecting French Polynesia to actual France, you can fly from Paris (CDG) to Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui’s shiny new 787 Dreamliner and then continue from Los Angeles to Tahiti (PPT) on an Air France 777. Of course, this guide is geared towards North American travelers, so these flights are also available to book individually.
If you’re looking to fly Air Tahiti Nui to Paris, you have two primary ways to book. American will charge you 30,000 miles in economy or 57,500 miles in business, but thanks to a recent partnership you can also book Air Tahiti Nui flights through the Air France/KLM Flying Blue program. Unfortunately it appears that both programs are blocking award space on the new 787s. To make matters worse, Flying Blue appears to be blocking all award space on Air Tahiti’s Paris route, even when ExpertFlyer shows multiple award seats available.
Getting to Tahiti, on the other hand, is surprisingly easier using points and miles. You can book economy awards through Flying Blue for as little as 29,500 miles one way, although thanks to Flying Blue’s new variable pricing, that number can easily shoot up to nearly triple that amount (see below). Business-class award rates to a sought-after destination are every bit as obscene as you’d expect, with one-way awards setting you back 340,000 miles on every date I searched. To put that into perspective, you could fly from LA to Paris in Air France’s fabulous La Premiere first class for fewer miles than this eight-hour business class ticket.
Newark to Togo with Ethiopian
After announcing earlier this year that they were cancelling their LAX to Addis Ababa (via Dublin) route, Ethiopian quickly back tracked and put it back on the schedule. However, Ethiopian no longer has local traffic rights on the LAX-Dublin segment, meaning this isn’t a fifth-freedom route anymore, as U.S.-based travelers can only book all the way to Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Airlines still offers a fifth-freedom flight out of Newark on the way to Addis Ababa (ADD). Flight 509 stops in Lome, Togo (LFW) and typically operates on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. The carrier does allow you to redeem miles on just the first leg of the trip, a notable difference from its off again, on again Los Angeles to Dublin (DUB) route. This flight no longer has local traffic rights on the Los Angeles to Dublin sector, so it’s no longer a North American fifth-freedom route bookable with miles, since you must book it all the way to Addis Ababa.
Both Aeroplan and United group Ethiopia and Togo in the same region, so regardless of your final destination, you’ll need the same number of miles to get there. If you’re booking an economy award, you’ll be better off going through United at 40,000 miles one way (Aeroplan will charge 50,000). However, Aeroplan has the slight edge for business-class awards, requiring 75,000 miles compared to the 80,000 miles you’d need through United.
Honolulu to Tokyo with Korean Air
Between Hawaii’s prime location (halfway between the U.S. and Asia) and the consistently strong demand for leisure travel, many airlines are vying for a share of the premium travel market to and from Honolulu. Of the six airlines that fly between Honolulu (HNL) and Tokyo (NRT), only two offer a true first-class cabin: Korean Air, thanks to its daily A330 service that complements the daily 747-8 service to Seoul, and ANA with its newly delivered A380s.
Even though Chase Ultimate Rewards points no longer transfer to Korean’s SKYPASS program, you can still transfer Marriott points at a 3:1 ratio and take advantage of the 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer. One way off-peak awards on the Honolulu-Tokyo route will set you back 35,000 miles in economy, 62,500 miles in business and 80,000 miles in first class. You can also hold awards for up to 30 days even if you don’t have the miles in your account, which is a great option for planning a more complicated trip.
*Ending soon* New York to Vancouver with Cathay Pacific
One of Cathay’s several daily frequencies between New York-JFK and Hong Kong (HKG) makes a stop in Vancouver along the way, and you can book that North American leg separately. The flight is operated by a four-class 777-300ER, featuring Cathay’s spacious and luxurious six-seat first class cabin along with comfortable business class, premium economy and economy. Unfortunately this flight will be discontinued in the spring of 2020, so if you want to try out this popular fifth-freedom route make sure to book it ASAP.
Since the flight is wholly within North America, there are some interesting options for booking this route in any cabin. Unlike the Emirates flights above, the rates are very reasonable and incur minimal taxes and fees. Here are four popular programs to consider (all rates are one-way):
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||17,500 miles||25,000 miles||35,000 miles|
|American Airlines AAdvantage||15,000 miles||30,000 miles||55,000 miles|
|Cathay Pacific Asia Miles||10,000 miles||25,000 miles||40,000 miles|
|British Airways Executive Club||12,500 miles||37,500 miles||50,000 miles|
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles is a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One Miles, while British Airways partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards (and frequently offers transfer bonuses). You could also boost your Alaska or American balances with sign-up bonuses on the carriers’ cobranded credit cards, including:
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card: Currently offering a limited time offer: $100 statement credit, 40,000 bonus miles and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Currently offering 50,000 American AAdvantage miles after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
All four of the programs also partner with Marriott Bonvoy.
*Ending soon* Los Angeles to London with Air New Zealand
Air New Zealand is based in a geographically remote country and uses fifth-freedom routes to serve important markets. One example: its daily 777-300ER service from Los Angeles to London-Heathrow (LHR). This plane features Air New Zealand’s Skycouch, which can go a long way towards making an economy flight more comfortable. Note that this route is ending in October 2020 at the same time that Air New Zealand launches non-stop services from Auckland to Newark.
Unfortunately award space on this route is practically non-existent in both business class and economy, but if you are able to find a seat you have several Star Alliance options for booking. Singapore has a slight edge for economy bookings, charging only 27,500 miles for the one-way award (vs. 30,000 with United or Aeroplan). If you’re looking to fly business class, you’re best off transferring Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan to book, as the program charges the lowest number of miles (55,000) and doesn’t tack on fuel surcharges for Air New Zealand flights.
Fifth-freedom routes aren’t just appealing to the #AvGeeks out there. Under the right circumstances, they can represent a unique value for North America-based travelers, as the foreign carriers operating them can provide a much better in-flight experience than their American counterparts (even in economy).
If you’re traveling from the New York area to Frankfurt, why would you ever cram yourself into one of United or Delta’s ancient 767s when Singapore flies a shiny and spacious A380 on the same route? Don’t limit yourself when you’re planning your next trip and consider redeeming your hard-earned points and miles on one of these unusual routes.
Featured photo courtesy of Singapore Airlines.
Updated on 2/27/20
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