3 Ways to Do Johannesburg on Points

Oct 14, 2018

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With most tourism in South Africa revolving around Cape Town, Johannesburg, more commonly known as Jo’burg or Jozi, is an afterthought for many tourists. While it’s still important for visitors to be mindful of their surroundings, most of the neighborhoods you’d want to spend time in are safe and offer an experience as diverse as the city itself. Home to emerging arts, music, culinary and fashion scenes, it’s hard to imagine ever getting bored in this vibrant destination.

Photo by THEGIFT777 / Getty Images.

Although there aren’t necessarily as many options for getting there or staying there using points and miles as you might expect, doing so is not impossible. Here are three ways points and miles could help you see the city depending on your budget and your interests.

Budget

It’s pretty easy to have a good time in Jo’burg without breaking the bank. Between exploring Africa’s past at Museum Africa (MuseuMAfricA), immersing yourself in Chinese culture at the Nan Hua Buddhist temple and reflecting the legacy of Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, there are plenty of activities you can enjoy sans admission fees.

Photo by THEGIFT777 / Getty Images.
Photo by THEGIFT777 / Getty Images.

Getting There

With tickets from the US to Johannesburg (JNB) regularly costing upwards $1,800 round-trip, even economy awards could get you serious value from your points. Regardless of your preferred transferable points currency or airline alliance, you should be able to book your flights for 80,000 miles or less round-trip.

During the low season, from March to May and September to November, your best bet is usually to fly Delta and book through its own SkyMiles program, which you can transfer miles to from American Express Membership Rewards if you have a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express. Delta is the only US carrier to offer non-stop flights to JNB, and thanks to its variable award pricing, you can typically score flights for 60,000 to 70,000 SkyMiles round-trip during this time. That said, its award pricing scheme also makes it the most expensive option during the peak season when flights cost upwards of 180,000 SkyMiles round-trip. Despite also having variable award pricing, SkyTeam flyers may be able to find cheap KLM awards through the Flying Blue mileage program (a 1:1 transfer partner of all the major transferable points programs), though those awards often come with hefty fuel surcharges.

United flyers, or those with a lot of Chase Ultimate Rewards points to transfer to the MileagePlus program, will want to look for economy awards on Turkish Airlines. Turkish flies out of ten cities throughout the US, including Los Angeles (LAX), New York-JFK and Washington-Dulles (IAD), and the carrier sets its economy-class experience apart by offering special touches like fully stocked amenity kits and delicious DO & CO catering. Although you’ll need to connect in Istanbul (IST) to fly Turkish, you qualify for a free city tour if your layover is at least six hours long. Round-trip awards cost 80,000 miles year-round, and United doesn’t pass on any fuel surcharges for Turkish flights.

The seats.

Economy class on SWISS and Lufthansa are solid Star Alliance alternatives if you don’t find availability on Turkish, or you could always try to redeem your United miles for a nonstop flight out of New York-JFK on South African Airways. However, the SAA fleet is outdated, and with just one US gateway with nonstop service, isn’t much more convenient for most people.

Where to Stay

While Johannesburg isn’t home to as many points hotels from the major chains as let’s say London or Dubai, most of them can be booked for very low rates. One of the best neighborhoods in which you could stay is Melrose, and Marriott, a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, has three terrific low-cost properties you could choose from there. If you’re looking to minimize the number of points you need to spend, then you’ll want to stay at the Category 1 Protea Hotel Johannesburg Wanderers, where award rooms are available for just 7,500 points per night.

Photo courtesy of Protea Hotel Johannesburg Wanderers.

If you’d like something a little nicer but still on a budget, you could stay at the Category 2 Protea Hotel Fire & Ice Johannesburg Melrose Arch or African Pride Melrose Arch, Autograph Collection; both of these properties are just 12,500 points per night. Don’t let their low price tags fool you — these hotels are much more glamorous than your run-of-the-mill low-tier hotels in the US.

As a reminder, you could score even lower rates by leveraging Marriott’s fifth night free benefit. By combining stays at Category 1 and 2 hotels like these with the benefit, those who picked up the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card could get more than 16 free nights from its limited time welcome bonus.

If it’s properties under the IHG Rewards umbrella that you seek, a great pick would be the Crowne Plaza Johannesburg. Reward nights are priced at 20,000 points per night but are often available for even less through IHG’s PointBreaks point discount program. The Holiday Inn Johannesburg Rosebank is located just steps away, but considering that it costs the same amount of points per night, it typically won’t yield as much value as the Crowne Plaza. IHG Rewards is also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, though you could also redeem points earned from the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card.

Photo courtesy of the Crowne Plaza Johannesburg.

If you’re willing to stay farther afield, you could choose from the Holiday Inn Sandton Rivonia Road and Holiday Inn Express Sandton Woodmead, which are available for 15,000 and 10,000 points per night, respectively.

Moderate

While Johannesburg has some slightly nicer hotels at which you could stay, the biggest difference a few more points can get you is a higher class of service for your flights. Since you’re keeping some cash in your pocket by using points and miles, you may also want to put some of those savings toward a day safari. The Dinokeng and Plumari game reserves have rich wildlife and are both just an hour’s drive away from the city.

Photo by SL_Photography / Getty Images.
Photo by SL_Photography / Getty Images.

Getting There

As you might guess, there are some fantastic business and first-class products you could fly to Africa. But before we dive into them, let’s take a look at an economic alternative that’s frequently overlooked: premium economy. Although premium economy seats are far from lie-flat, the few extra inches of space, additional recline and improved service could help significantly on longer flights like those to Africa.

We typically stray away from using points and miles for British Airways flights due to the outrageous surcharges the airline tacks onto award tickets, but BA premium economy is Oneworld flyers’ best option when it comes to flying premium economy to Africa. However, rather than book through BA itself, you’ll want to book through Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program, a transfer partner of Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. A round-trip premium economy ticket on BA costs 130,000 miles and, best of all, the surcharges can be roughly 50% less when using Asia Miles compared to booking with any other program. Pro tip: Although flying aboard a 747 holds a certain allure, if you have a choice in aircraft, you’ll probably want to fly on a 787 or A380 for a more spacious seat.

Another option is premium economy on Virgin Atlantic, which is best booked through the airline’s own Flying Club mileage program. The program is a 1:1 transfer partner of all of the major transferable currencies so it’s easy to stockpile a ton of miles and it’s not uncommon for Amex and Citi to offer lucrative transfer bonuses. Awards from the US cost between 80,000-100,000 miles round-trip, but unfortunately there’s no way around the ~$600 you’ll need to cough up in surcharges.

Where to Stay

A popular but more business-oriented neighborhood in which you could stay is Sandton. Between the Sandton City Shopping Mall and Nelson Mandela Square (a European-style piazza), this area is considered the fashion capital of the continent. As you’d expect from a business district, Sandton is home to many of the city’s major chain hotels.

IHG Rewards members can redeem 30,000 points per night to stay at the highly acclaimed InterContinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers. Unlike some other hotels in the area which only cater to business travelers, leisure travelers will enjoy the hotel’s full spa, restaurant with nightly live jazz music and skybridge walkway to the Sandton City Shopping Mall.

Photo courtesy of the InterContinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers.

Located just a few steps away is the Hilton Sandton. Rooms here go for 21,000-40,000 points per night, which is reasonable, but they feel like they could be at any Hilton in the world — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for some people.

If you have some Radisson Rewards points to burn, consider staying at the Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton or Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel which are each 44,000 points per night. Although the two hotels are just down the street from each other, they offer two very different experiences. The Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton is on the more traditional side and has a South African flair; meanwhile, the Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel is much newer and sports a modern W-like design (which I know isn’t for everyone).

Luxury

While Johannesburg isn’t known for being the most aspirational destination for your points and miles, you can still use them for a lavish experience in the city. The best part is that you don’t need to break the bank to stay in some of Jo’burg’s best hotels, so once again, the biggest difference a few more points will get you is a more comfortable ride there and back.

Getting There

While premium economy is a big step up from economy, in most cases, you’ll be spending at least 20 hours traveling to get to Johannesburg from the US, so it’s an ideal time to splurge for business or first class.

In the glory day, Emirates first class booked through Alaska’s Mileage Plan was hands-down the best way to get to Africa on points. However, Alaska jacked-up the number of miles an award will cost you by 100% in early 2016, so that isn’t really the case anymore. That said, Lufthansa first class isn’t a bad alternative, and the carrier does tend to release this space to partners within two weeks of departure. Lufthansa’s first class doesn’t feature onboard showers or bars, but it’s consistently great and definitely ranks up there with some of the best in the world. Pro tip: During your layover in Frankfurt (FRA), you’ll want check out the famous First Class Terminal as opposed to the First Class Lounge.

If you know the trick, Lufthansa first class is surprisingly easy to book with miles. Air Canada’s Aeroplan and Avianca’s Life Miles programs both charge 210,000 miles for a round-trip award, which is fantastic considering that cash rates often top $10,000. Aeroplan is a transfer partner of Membership Rewards and Life Miles is a transfer partner Citi ThankYou Rewards so racking up the miles you need for either program is a breeze if you have a card like the Amex Platinum Card or Citi Premier Card. Plus, you’ll regularly see lucrative bonuses for purchasing Life Miles. Something important to take note of is that Lufthansa only releases first class award space to partner programs 15 days before departure, but within that time frame availability becomes plentiful.

If you recently opened a Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard or have simply been stocking up on miles all these years, one alternative might be to book a Qatar Airways business class award through the American Airlines AAdvantage program. Regardless which long-haul aircraft you fly, you can expect a comfortable lie-flat seat, top-notch amenities and restaurant-quality food. You’re in for an extra special treat if you’re flying out of Chicago (ORD), New York (JFK) or Washington-Dulles (IAD) as you may land yourself on a Qsuite-equipped aircraft and get to experience the world’s best business class product. A round-trip award will set you back 150,000 miles, but you’ll need to call American at 1-800-882-8880 (or using your elite status number, if applicable) to book. As Qatar award availability doesn’t show on ExpertFlyer or American Airlines’ website, the best way of searching Qatar award availability is through British Airways’ website or through Asia Miles’ award search engine.

Where to Stay

If you’ve got Hyatt points to burn, stay at the Hyatt Regency Johannesburg. As with many of Jo’burg’s higher-end hotels, the Hyatt Regency isn’t overly luxurious, but it’s comfortable, offers great amenities and is conveniently located in the upscale Rosebank suburb. At a mere 8,000 points per night, you should have no trouble squeezing value from your points at this hotel.

For a more distinctive stay, the Ten Bompas Hotel is the perfect choice, especially if you’ve got a stash of Marriott points or the SPG Luxury Card to earn 6x points per dollar spent on your stay. The secluded all-suite hotel has just ten rooms, each decorated by different Jozi designers. It’s also home to Winehouse, an intimate French restaurant with an extensive wine cellar. Rooms cost 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night.

Photo courtesy of the Ten Bompas Hotel.
Photo courtesy of the Ten Bompas Hotel.

Other Considerations

If you don’t want to stay at a major chain property and are willing to pay outright for part of your trip, you could save considerable cash by leveraging Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts collection or Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection program. By booking through these programs, cardholders of premium Amex credit cards (like the Amex Platinum and The Business Platinum® Card from American Express) and premium Chase cards (like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and United Club Card) can score valuable on-property perks like room upgrades, free daily breakfast, late check-out, credits for spa and dining and more. If you’re looking to stay at a hotel that participates in both programs, such as the Saxon Hotel, you’ll typically want to book through FHR because it guarantees 4:00pm check-out (as opposed to being subject to availability).

Photo courtesy of the Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa.
Photo courtesy of the Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa.

Finally, if you do intend on paying cash for your hotel stay, you’ll also want to consider using your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to get 10x miles by booking and paying for your hotel through Hotels.com Venture (ends Jan. 31, 2020). The Venture card gives you an effective 20% rebate when you combine the earning rate with the Hotels.com Rewards program.

Bottom Line

South Africa is probably high on many award travelers’ bucket lists, and while Cape Town and the country’s numerous safaris get most of the attention, Johannesburg is still well worth a visit. Whether you’re planning a bare bones trip, splurging for a luxury vacation or wanting something in the middle, the city has something for all budgets using your hard-earned points and miles.

Featured photo by THEGIFT777 / Getty Images.

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