The 5 best high-end international flights you can book with miles this winter
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The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been friendly to travelers.
The U.S. passport was once one of the world’s most powerful, but Americans have been largely excluded from international travel since the start of the pandemic. Most of Asia and Europe, for example, remain off-limits for Americans except for special circumstances or for travelers lucky enough to have dual citizenship.
Thankfully, there are still destinations welcoming American tourists. Some require a negative COVID test on arrival and others require travel insurance. But you can still travel internationally during these strange times if you know where to look. In some cases, you can take some pretty awesome flights using your miles to get there, too.
Of course, you should only travel right now if you understand and are comfortable with the risks and necessary safety precautions.
Sound good? Great! These are the five best redemptions you can book for international travel during COVID-19 — and how to book them.
Visit Istanbul with Turkish Airlines
Turkey is admitting tourists from the U.S. with nothing more than a health check at the border.
A couple of TPGers have made the trip and reported that the border crossing was business as usual. Turkish Airlines — the nation’s flag carrier — has restarted flights to many U.S. cities, too. Some operating routes include New York-JFK, Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA), among others.
Even better? Turkish Airlines has an excellent business-class product. Its newer product features all-new seats and excellent service. In a recent review, editor-at-large Zach Honig said the seat was great, the food and beverage program was solid and there was free Wi-Fi in business class. Travelers can expect a great trip to Turkey’s cultural capital, Istanbul (IST), to relax or work remotely.
How to book Turkish Airlines business class with miles
There are a couple of great ways to book the flight with points and miles. If you have American Express Membership Rewards points and don’t mind paying higher taxes and fees, transfer to ANA Mileage Club. You can book a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Turkey for 88,000 miles and $415.60 in taxes and fees. This redemption also includes a stopover, so you can add a visit to Antalya (AYT) — a Turkish resort town — for the cost of taxes and fees.
Beyond high fees, the major downside to ANA Mileage Club is that you can’t book one-way tickets.
You can avoid both downsides (but pay significantly more miles) by booking with Avianca LifeMiles. This program charges 63,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes and fees for a one-way ticket departing the U.S. This is significantly more points on a round-trip booking than via ANA but can be a good way to skirt higher fees.
Travelers with Chase Ultimate Rewards points can transfer points to United MileagePlus to book Turkish Airlines award tickets. The airline no longer has an official partner award chart, but you can expect to pay 77,000 miles for a one-way business class ticket from the U.S. to Turkey on Turkish Airlines. Thankfully, the program doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges or other high fees.
Available award space to Istanbul (IST)
There’s plenty of open award space from the U.S. to Istanbul this winter. Here’s a look at December and January award space departing from three major U.S. cities. All dates noted are for nonstop, business-class tickets. You can connect to these hubs with partner United Airlines from smaller U.S. cities. There may also be open award space from other Turkish Airlines U.S. gateways.
Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to/from Istanbul (IST):
- Outbound: Dec. 1 to 9 and 27 to 30; Jan. 1 to 5 and 7 to 31.
- Inbound: Dec. 1 to 28; Jan 11 to 31.
New York-JFK and Newark (EWR) to/from Istanbul (IST):
- Outbound: Dec. 1, 4 to 8 and 27 to 30; Jan. 1 to 31.
- Inbound: Dec. 1 to 9, 11 to 16, 18 to 23 and 25 to 28; Jan 11 to 31.
Los Angeles (LAX) to/from Istanbul (IST):
- Outbound: Dec. 1 to 4, 6, 9 and 29 to 30; Jan. 1, 6, and 13 to 28.
- Inbound: Dec. 1 to 4, 6, 8 to 10 and 24 to 25; Jan. 11 to 13 and 18 to 31.
Jet to Croatia with Star Alliance partners
Croatia is one of the few European countries admitting American tourists during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Points Guy founder and CEO, Brian Kelly, recently flew to Croatia and had an excellent experience on the ground. Just note that you’re required to take a COVID PCR test within 48 hours of arrival to Croatia to avoid quarantine.
There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Croatia right now, but you can connect via another European country with Star Alliance airlines. In most cases, Americans can transit through European nations without issue.
Some of the Star Alliance carriers you can fly to the Croatian capital of Zagreb (ZAG) include Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa, LOT Polish Airlines, Swiss, Turkish Airlines and United Airlines. That said, you may connect to a Croatian Airlines flight for the connecting leg of your journey.
I personally flew both Austrian Airlines and Swiss business class during the pandemic. These airlines offered full meals, great service and solid hard products. Any of the Star Alliance carriers offering service to the U.S. are an excellent option, but I recommend booking the long-haul leg on an international partner instead of United if you have that option for an even better experience.
How to book flights to Croatia with miles
You can book flights to Croatia with the same partners mentioned in the Turkish Airlines section above. You can expect the same pricing as most Star Alliance partners consider both Croatia and Turkey as Europan destinations.
Available Star Alliance award space to Zagreb (ZAG)
There is plenty of Star Alliance award space available into Zagreb (ZAG) from major U.S. cities. Here’s a look at award space departing from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles in January and February. Each of these dates has a one-stop flight available on a Star Alliance carrier in business class. Again, there may be open award space from other cities too, so run your own searches with your favorite Star Alliance search tool.
Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to/from Zagreb (ZAG):
- Outbound: Jan. 1 to 31; Feb. 1 to 28.
- Inbound: Jan. 1 and 4 to 31; Feb. 1 to 28.
New York-JFK and/from Newark (EWR) to Zagreb (ZAG):
- Outbound: Jan. 1 to 31; Feb. 1 to 28.
- Inbound: Jan. 1 and 4 to 31; Feb. 1 to 28.
Los Angeles (LAX) to/from Zagreb (ZAG):
- Outbound: Jan. 20, 22 and 27; Feb. 3, 5, 10, 12, 17, 19, 24 and 26.
- Inbound: Jan. 6, 12 to 13, 19 to 20, 23, 26 to 27 and 30; Feb. 2 to 3, 6, 9 to 11, 13, 16 to 18, 20, 23 to 24 and 27.
Related: A first-timer’s guide to Croatia
Book JetBlue Mint to the Caribbean
Want to stay a bit closer to home? Take a JetBlue flight in Mint business class to a Caribbean country that’s admitting American tourists.
Some of the standout routes from the New York area include New York-JFK to Aruba (AUA), Barbados (BGI), Grenada (GND) and St. Lucia (UVF). Each of these destinations offers a much-needed slice of paradise in the Americas, so do your research to find which is the best fit for your travel plans. Most of these destinations require a negative COVID test taken close to arrival for entry.
You can expect a great experience in Mint, even during the pandemic. The product has a top-notch seat, great food and impeccable service. TPG writer Zach Griff recently flew Mint on a transcontinental domestic flight and said the experience was still excellent, despite minor changes. Mint business class will undoubtedly make your hop to the Caribbean enjoyable and truly luxurious.
How to book JetBlue Mint with miles
JetBlue isn’t a member of a major airline alliance, so you’ll have to book with its TrueBlue program or using fixed-value credit card points. TrueBlue awards are priced based on the cost of a cash ticket, so more expensive flights cost more points. We’ve found that JetBlue points are worth roughly 1.3 cents per point, but can be slightly lower on Mint flights. On Mint flights, you’ll get closer to 1.0 cents per point.
So, while you can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Citi ThankYou and Chase Ultimate Rewards to JetBlue, we don’t recommend it. Instead, you’re better off covering a cash ticket with your transferrable points. This way, you’ll get the same or better redemption rate and earn TrueBlue points on your flight.
If you have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, you can book JetBlue Mint flights through Amex Travel and cover the cost of your flight at a value of 1 cent per point. Plus, you’ll get a 35% points rebate after booking (up to 500,000 points back per calendar year), giving you a total redemption value of 1.54 cents per point. This is a great deal, especially when you consider the miles you’ll earn in the process.
Alternatively, those with a Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card can redeem Ultimate Rewards points through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal at 1.5 and 1.25 cents per point, respectively. In most cases, this is still a better deal than transferring points to JetBlue.
If you already have JetBlue TrueBlue miles, you can redeem them for Mint flights on JetBlue.com. The airline doesn’t impose blackout dates on award tickets so there’s no need to worry about open award space.
Fly far away to French Polynesia
If a far-flung tropical paradise is more your thing, consider flying to French Polynesia.
You can spend your time on beautiful islands like Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti. These islands offer miles of beaches, excellent resorts and French Polynesian culture. The overseas collectivity of France is welcoming tourists from the U.S. so long as travelers pack a qualified negative COVID test and self-test again within four days of arrival.
A number of airlines are flying to the region, including Air France’s nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Papeete (PPT). Once you’re there, you can take a ferry to Moorea or hopper flight to your island of choice. Air France’s business class offers nice lie-flat seats and meals. Plus, the airline recently brought back its wine and Champagne service.
You can also use your points to stay at resorts on all of French Polynesia’s major islands. Some of the best include the St. Regis Bora Boa, the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso and the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa. Each of these properties offer great rooms and on-site amenities including restaurants, pools and beaches.
How to book Air France to French Polynesia with miles
Book Air France business class by transferring points to Air France and KLM’s Flying Blue loyalty program. Unfortunately, the program employs dynamic award pricing, so different days will have different pricing on the same flight. That said, you can still find great deals. I was able to find one-way, business-class flights for 64,000 miles and $221.77 on a handful of dates in January and February of next year.
You can find pricing for your dates of travel by running a search on Air France or KLM’s website. I recommend selecting the “Looking for flights around this date” option to see a month’s worth of award pricing at once. This will help you find the best deal without running multiple searches.
Lowest-priced award space to Papeete (PPT)
You can find 64,000-mile flights on a number of dates this winter. Here’s a look at all of the lowest fare dates between December 2020 and February 2021. Note that many of these tickets have over $200 in taxes and fees.
Los Angeles (LAX) to/from Papeete (PPT):
- Outbound: Dec. 1, 10, 12, 15; Jan. 12, 14, 16, 26 and 30; Feb. 2, 9, 13, 20, and 23.
- Inbound: Dec. 4, 11, 18, 23 and 25; Jan. 1, 10, 15, 17, 22, 24, 27 and 29; Feb. 5, 7, 10, 12, 17, 19, 24, 26 and 28.
Head to The Emirates on … Emirates
Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, reopened to American tourists in July. As of writing this article, you must take a COVID PCR test no more than 96 hours before your flight and bring a printed copy of your results to the check-in counter. When you land, you’ll likely be subject to another test to avoid a mandatory quarantine. These tests are offered at Dubai (DXB) airport.
Once you’re in the country, you can experience all the superlative Middle Eastern city has to offer. Think: dining at the Burj Khalifa, visiting penguins at the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and zooming along the world’s largest zip line. Plus, there are a ton of awesome hotels you can book with your hotel points.
The best way to get to Dubai is on Emirates, the UAE’s largest airline. The airline is known for its top-notch business- and first-class service. Both cabins provide exemplary cuisine. Unfortunately, the airline’s flagship A380 aircraft isn’t flying to the U.S. right now, but its 777-300ER first-class product isn’t half bad either.
How to book Emirates first and business class with miles
You should consider booking Emirates award tickets using Emirates Skywards or Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Here’s a quick look at both methods.
Booking Emirates awards with Emirates Skywards
Emirates Skywards is the more flexible option. You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One (2 to 1 transfer ratio), Citi ThankYou and Chase Ultimate Rewards points to the airline. So, if you have a stockpile of any transferrable points, you can probably book an Emirates award ticket.
Plus, the airline recently reduced fuel surcharges on award tickets.
That said, actually booking these tickets is tricky. Emirates offers two different award tiers: Saver, Flex and Flex Plus. On the business-class end of the spectrum, Saver tickets are cheaper but must be booked as part of a round-trip itinerary. For example, a round-trip Saver business class ticket from New York-JFK to Dubai costs 145,000 miles. At the same time, a one-way Flex Plus ticket costs 100,000 miles. Standard Flex tickets aren’t applicable to business-class award flights.
On the other hand, Emirates first class can only be booked in Flex and Flex Plus. Again, Flex tickets are cheaper than Flex Plus but are harder to find and can only be booked as part of a round-trip itinerary. A round-trip flight from New York-JFK to Dubai costs 217,500 and 272,500 miles in Flex and Flex Plus, respectively. You can, however, book a one-way Flex Plus ticket for 136,250 miles.
You can add a free stopover to any round-trip Emirates award ticket, but you’re limited to redemptions with Emirates. This is difficult to take advantage of given most countries are still barring U.S. citizens from entering.
Booking Emirates awards with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Alaska Airlines and Emirates have been partners for years now. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan has long offered good redemption rates on Emirates flights with extremely low taxes and fees. That said, it’s difficult to earn Alaska miles since the airline doesn’t partner with any transferrable credit card point programs.
The easiest ways to quickly earn Alaska miles is by earning with a cobranded credit card or transferring points from Marriott Bonvoy. These transfers process at a 3 to 1 ratio, with a 5,000 mile bonus offered for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred. Check out our full guide to earning Alaska miles for more ways to earn.
Redeeming Alaska miles for Emirates flights is surprisingly straightforward.
Emirates awards show on Alaska’s website, so you can search for and book your flights online. From the U.S. to Dubai, you’ll pay 82,500 or 150,000 miles for a one-way business- or first-class flight, respectively.
Alaska Airlines includes a free stopover on one-way tickets. This stopover can be operated by either the partner operating your flight or Alaska Airlines. This means you can book Dubai to New York and add on a leg from New York to Seattle (SEA) later in the year free of charge.
Available Emirates award space to Dubai (DXB)
Here’s a quick look at first- and business-class award space from New York-JFK and Newark (EWR) to Dubai with Emirates in January and February of 2021. These are considered Saver (for business-class) or Flex (for first-class) fares when booking with Emirates Skywards.
Many of these tickets are bookable with Alaska miles, too. Unfortunately, Emirates restricts some award seats to members of its own program.
New York-JFK to/from Dubai (DXB):
- Outbound: Jan. 11 and 13, 17 to 18, 25; Feb. 8, 22, 24 and 27.
- Inbound: Jan. 28; Feb. 3, 6, 8 to 11, 17, 24 and 28.
- Outbound: Jan. 7, 9, 11 to 20 and 22-29; Feb. 1 to 4, 6 to 10, 12 and 14 to 28.
- Inbound: Jan. 13, 15, 17 to 18, 20 to 22, 25 and 26 to 31; Feb. 1 to 8, 10, 12 to 17, 19 to 22 and 24 to 28.
Newark (EWR) to/from Dubai (DXB):
- Outbound: Jan. 11, 13 and 15; Feb. 12 and 19.
- Inbound: Jan. 11, 13, 15, 17 to 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27 and 29; Feb. 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14 to 15, 17, 19, 21, 24 and 26.
- Outbound: Feb. 12, 19 and 26.
- Inbound: Jan. 11, 13, 17 to 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 29 and 31; Feb. 1, 3, 5, 7 to 8, 10, 12, 14 to 15, 17, 19, 21, 22, 24 and 26 to 28.
While travel may not currently be as easy as it once was, there are still a ton of great places to visit during the coronavirus pandemic. These are five of the excellent airline redemptions you can book this winter so your miles don’t have to go into full hibernation. Just remember that international entry requirements can change at a moment’s notice, so know you may need to cancel or reschedule your trip at the last minute — or be prepared for a two-week quarantine.
Featured photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy
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