6 awards to book for 2021 before travel demand returns
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The coronavirus pandemic has been tough on the travel industry. While demand is slowly recovering, TSA numbers show less than half as many people are flying this year than in 2019. This is extremely unfortunate for the travel industry, but it has resulted in one small positive for travelers: wide-open award space.
We’ve seen record numbers of open award space on premium routes since the start of the pandemic. Things like Emirates first class, Qatar Qsuites and even transcontinental business class are generally tough to book but currently have open award space through the end of 2021.
What does this mean for you? Simple: you can lock in your dream post-pandemic vacation before travel demand picks up. But act quick – the award space you’re hoping to book may soon be scooped up by travelers eager to get back on the road.
In this article, I’ll show you a handful of award tickets that currently have wide-open award space. I’ll focus on high-end first- and business-class flights that are generally hard to find, like Qsuites and Emirates first.
One quick thing before we start: there are risks involved with booking travel during the pandemic. There’s no guarantee that your destination of choice will reopen its borders by the time you’re set to fly, so you may have to cancel or change your ticket.
That said, we’ve seen countries start to reopen over the past couple of months, and we expect to see more reopen as the coronavirus vaccine becomes more widespread.
Sound good? Let’s get started.
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Emirates first class to Dubai and beyond
Emirates first class is the award traveler’s dream cabin.
The new 777 first-class product is outfitted with an over-the-top suite that sports virtual windows, a mini-bar and even the ability to video chat with the cabin crew. Plus, there’s excellent service and food onboard, which is great for long flights to and from Dubai (DXB) and beyond.
It’s also worth noting that Dubai is currently open to American tourists.
During a normal travel year, it’s really hard to find open Emirates first class award space. But this year is far from normal, and we’re seeing open award space from some of Emirates’ U.S. gateways to its hub in Dubai (DXB) scattered throughout the year. These include Boston (BOS), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Newark (EWR), among others.
Out of Boston, you’ll find a ton of award space in October 2021. There are other dates with open award space scattered throughout the year as well.
Dallas (DFW) has scattered first class award space throughout the year too. I’m seeing space in September, October and November.
New Yorkers can fly to Dubai from Newark (EWR) on a handful of dates through the end of the year. Here’s a look at round-trip award space in November:
How to book Emirates award tickets
You have two great options for booking Emirates first class with points and miles.
The first is using Emirates Skywards — these points transfer from all the major transferable points programs, including American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One and Citi ThankYou.
Emirates has two tiers of first-class award tickets: Flex and Saver.
Saver tickets are less expensive, but award space is harder to come by. Further, you need to book Saver tickets as a part of a round-trip award ticket. Pricing varies, but you can expect to pay 217,500 miles round-trip departing from the East Coast and 247,500 from the Midwest.
You can book these tickets on the Emirates website — just make sure to select the “Classic Rewards” option when you search. Further, you can click the “+/- 3 days” button on the Advanced Search page to see a week’s worth of award space at once.
Booking Emirates awards with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Alternatively, some awards can be booked with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. One perk of booking with Alaska is the ability to add a stopover for free, so you could fly Dallas (DFW) to Hong Kong (HKG) and stopover in Dubai (DXB) for as long as you’d like. You’d only pay the one-way price from Dallas to Hong Kong in doing this.
Like Emirates, you can book Alaska award tickets online. To add a stopover, set up a multi-city award that includes a flight to Dubai and your final destination. You’ll pay 150,000 miles and $19.50 in taxes and fees when flying to Dubai.
Stopover tickets will cost marginally more miles, depending on the destination. In the case of Hong Kong, you’d pay 180,000 miles and $52.50.
Act quickly if you want to book Emirates first class with Alaska miles. Emirates will no longer allow partner airlines to book first-class awards beginning April 1, 2021.
American transcontinental first and business class
American Airlines offers an excellent transcontinental experience. In normal travel times, the New York-JFK to San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX) routes are operated by its specially configured A321T aircraft, which offers true first and business class, complete with international-like service and lie-flat seats.
Currently, the plane is only flying the New York to San Francisco route once per day, with other transcontinental routes being operated by a 777-200 product. That said, the airline hopes to bring the A321T back to regular service in 2021 as travel demand resumes.
If you’re interested in flying coast-to-coast next year, consider booking your tickets now. There’s wide-open award space from New York-JFK to both San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX) throughout the bulk of the 2021 calendar.
Check out this screengrab of business class award space from New York to San Francisco in September. All of the dates highlighted in green have MileSAAver space that can be booked with AAdvantage miles or with a partner program.
There’s also plenty of first-class award space available in September and through the rest of 2021. These tickets cost 50,000 miles when MileSAAver space is available, so you’re booking a Web Special award at the following rates. These cannot be booked with partner miles.
How to book American Airlines award flights
You can book your flights with AAdvantage miles and pay 25,000 (20,000 off-peak) and 50,000 miles for a one-way business and first-class ticket, respectively. This is an incredible deal in business class, so don’t pass up if you’re looking for a transcontinental flight next year.
Booking American Airlines awards with Etihad Guest
Alternatively, you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One and Citi ThankYou points to Etihad Guest to book the same tickets. Etihad charges 25,000 miles for a business class ticket and 32,500 miles for a first-class ticket, making first-class the better deal.
Booking with Etihad is a little more difficult than booking with American. You have to find award space using your favorite Oneworld search tool and then call Etihad to book. If you use American’s website, look for flights with MileSAAver award space.
Qatar Airways Qsuites to Doha
Qatar Airways’ Qsuite business class product is often seen as the gold standard of international business class.
Each Qsuite in the business cabin is housed in a fully enclosed suite, giving you a ton of privacy. Plus, you’ll enjoy excellent onboard dining and service while you travel to the airline’s hub in Doha (DOH).
There’s a ton of open Qsuites award space through the end of 2021. In fact, you’ll find space from nearly all of Qatar’s U.S. gateways, including West Coast gateways like Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO) and Seattle (SEA).
Here’s a look at award space from Los Angeles to Doha in August 2021:
There’s great award space from the East Coast too — here’s a look at award space from Philadelphia (PHL) in October:
You can also use this award space to connect to other destinations in the Middle East, Africa and India. For example, you can connect to South Africa by flying into Cape Town (CPT) or Johannesburg (JNB). South Africa just reopened for tourism, so you can take this flight whenever you’d like.
How to book Qatar Airways award tickets
Your best bet for booking Qatar Airways award tickets is using American Airlines AAdvantage miles.
You’ll pay 70,000 miles one-way when flying from the U.S. to Doha or elsewhere in the Middle East or India. You can also book flights to Africa for 75,000 miles, which is an excellent deal for 20+ hours in Qsuites.
Thankfully, you can book Qatar award tickets on the American Airlines website.
Note that Oneworld programs like British Airways Avios and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles add huge fuel surcharges to Qatar award tickets. These can be over $1,000 on a round-trip ticket depending on your destination, significantly reducing the value of your miles.
Cathay Pacific first and business class to Asia
Cathay Pacific is one of my favorite carriers. The Hong Kong-based airline is well known for its top-notch business and first-class products and — in my experience — offers the best onboard service in the sky.
The carrier has a ton of open award space from the U.S. to Hong Kong (HKG) from its various U.S. gateways. This includes cities like New York-JFK, Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and San Francisco (SFO), among others.
You can fly from these cities to Hong Kong or connect to other cities like Singapore (SIN) and Taipei (TPE) with ease. Of course, traveling to any of these cities is dependent on the country opening its borders to American tourists.
I found the best first-class award space out of Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). Each has scattered partner-bookable award space in October and November 2021.
On the other hand, business class award space is wide-open through 2021 from almost all of Cathay Pacific’s U.S. gateways. For example, most days in October have business class award space from San Francisco to Hong Kong:
The same goes for Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) in August:
How to book Cathay Pacific award tickets
You can book Cathay Pacific award tickets with American miles for 70,000 and 110,000 miles one-way in first and business class, respectively. Like Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific awards can be booked online.
Booking Cathay Pacific awards with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
Alternatively, you can book with Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. You may find more award space if you go this route since Cathay Pacific tends to offer more saver space to its own members.
You can book a business or first-class ticket from the U.S. for as low as 70,000 and 110,000 miles, respectively. Asia Miles transfer from American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One and Citi ThankYou.
Booking Cathay Pacific awards with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
The best deal for booking Cathay Pacific award tickets, however, is with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
The program charges 55,000 and 70,000 miles for first and business class one-way Cathay Pacific tickets from the U.S. to Asia, and you can add a free stopover on one-way tickets. This means New York-JFK to Hong Kong (HKG) to Taipei (TPE) is just 55,000 miles in business class.
Unfortunately, you can’t book Cathay Pacific awards on the Alaska website, so find award space with a Oneworld search tool and call Alaska to book. Thankfully, Alaska has excellent phone representatives, so this should be a quick and easy process.
ANA first class and business class on the cheap
ANA — short for All Nippon Airways — is the largest airline in Japan.
Not only does it have a huge international route network, but its long-haul fleet is equipped with excellent business and first-class products. Better yet, you can use transferable points to book flights in these cabins for relatively few points.
The airline has opened a ton of award space to its hubs in Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and Tokyo-Haneda (HND) in 2021. On the business class side, we’re finding the bulk of this space out of West Coast gateways like Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), and San Jose (SJC).
If you’re looking for first-class award space, you’ll have the best luck departing Los Angeles. There are a handful of dates in October with round-trip award space from Los Angeles to both Tokyo-Narita and -Haneda airports. For example, this date-pair has space on multiple daily flights:
How to book ANA award tickets
You have two great options for booking ANA awards. The first is with ANA Mileage Club, the airline’s in-house loyalty program.
The carrier prices awards on a round-trip basis (one-way’s aren’t bookable) based on zone and whether you’re traveling during the high, low or regular season. Here’s a look at pricing from the U.S.:
A business class from the U.S. to Tokyo costs just 85,000 miles round-trip during the regular season. Better yet, you can add a stopover to your ticket for free, meaning that you can fly something like Los Angeles to Tokyo, Tokyo to Osaka and Osaka to Los Angeles for the same price.
Note that flights with a destination in a different destination zone may cost more miles. So if you fly San Francisco (SFO) to Taipei (TPE), Taipei to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) and back, you’ll spend 90,00 miles. This is what’s required to fly ANA metal to the “Asia 1” zone regardless of if you add a stopover.
You can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards to ANA Mileage Club.
Booking ANA awards with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Alternatively, you can use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points to book ANA award tickets. This non-alliance partnership offers great rates on round-trip ANA redemptions, including 110,000-point round-trip from the U.S. West Coast to Japan in first class.
Here’s the award chart — note that all prices are shown as round-trip itineraries:
You have to book these award tickets over the phone with Virgin Atlantic, so find award space with your favorite Star Alliance search tool first.
Additionally, all flights must be booked as part of a round-trip itinerary and stopovers are not allowed. You can, however, book an open-jaw ticket that returns to a different city in a different region.
Fly Fiji Airways business class to paradise
Fiji has been on my travel bucket list for years now, and if all goes well in 2021, I plan on finally traveling to the country.
Fiji Airways is the flag carrier of Fiji and has flights from Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) to the airline’s hub in Nadi (NAN). Better yet, the Los Angeles route is operated by the carrier’s new Airbus A350 aircraft, which is outfitted with a new business class product.
Both routes have scattered award space throughout the summer and into the fall of 2021, giving Americans an easy connection to the country once its borders reopen.
Here’s a look at award space from San Francisco in September:
How to book Fiji Airways award tickets
Fiji Airways is a Oneworld Connect partner, so you can use American miles to book.
You’ll pay 80,000 miles to book a one-way ticket from the U.S. to Fij — a solid deal since cash flights can be expensive. You can also use your American miles to book connecting tickets to other Fiji Airways destinations like Auckland (AKL).
Booking Fiji Airways awards with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Alaska Airlines also has a partnership with Fiji Airways. It offers great award rates to Fiji, with a one-way business class ticket costing just 55,000 miles. Plus, you can use your free stopover to explore Fiji on your way to Australia and New Zealand for no additional miles.
As the coronavirus vaccine rolls out around the world, the future is looking bright for travel. We expect borders to reopen gradually and — at the same time — travel demand to increase. With that in mind, lock in your 2021 travel plans now while there’s open award space on these traditionally hard to book routes.
Just remember: there’s no guarantee that your destination’s borders will reopen by the time you’re set to travel. Thankfully, more and more airlines are removing their change and cancellation fees, so you may be able to cancel or modify your flights without paying a fee.
Feature photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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