Cleared for Takeoff: A mini round-the-world trip to Sweden and South Africa
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Cleared for Takeoff is a weekly series showing readers like you the best ways to book adventures using points and miles. If you’d like tips on booking your own trip using miles, please email us with your preferred itinerary and current mileage balance.
Now that many countries are reopening borders for tourism, many travelers are looking to redeem their miles for international trips. One such traveler is reader Matt Perchick, who reached out to us for help booking a trip from St. Louis (STL) to Johannesburg (JNB), with a stop in Sweden along the way.
My home airport is STL and I would like to go to JNB. I have about 650,000 MR and 160,000 AA miles. I want to travel in either first or business class and get to check out some awesome lounges along the way. I also thought it might be possible or even fewer points to try to do an around the world ticket as long as one of my stops is JNB. Perhaps a stop in Sweden as well to visit a few friends. I hope you might be able to help me out and use this in your article. Thanks for your time and consideration.
As you can see, Matt has a healthy stash of American Express Membership Rewards points and American Airlines AAdvantage miles. So, this solo traveler has many options for redeeming his points in first or business class to South Africa and Sweden.
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Current points balance
Matt has all of his points in two programs: American Express Membership Rewards and American Airlines AAdvantage. We usually recommend diversifying points into more programs, so he may want to consider loading up on hotel or Chase Ultimate Rewards points in the future. Thankfully, Amex points transfer to many different airline and hotel partners, so we can use that to help him find an outstanding award.
- 650,000 American Express Membership Rewards points.
- 160,000 American Airlines miles.
Airfare to Sweden and South Africa
Route: STL-ARN-JNB, JNB-STL
Miles needed: 200,000 miles + $120.12 per person
I’d book this award by transferring Amex points to Air Canada Aeroplan to book flights on Star Alliance partner airlines. While you’d get a better points deal when booking with ANA Mileage Club, you have to pay high fuel surcharges if you fly with airlines like Lufthansa or Swiss. Air Canada does not pass on fuel surcharges to customers and includes a free stopover on one-way tickets.
The program prices award tickets based on what region you’re flying to/from and the distance of the flight. Check out our complete guide to redeeming Aeroplan points for more information on how this works. Further, stopovers are very open-ended — you can stopover anywhere you’d like so long as your itinerary isn’t more than double the distance of a direct flight to your final destination.
This stopover rule is excellent because Matt can add a stopover in Sweden on his way to Johannesburg and a stopover on his way home to check out another great airport lounge and see a new city. If he wants to maximize lounge time, he can customize his routing and add a handful of 24-hour layovers on his way to and from Johannesburg. Read our complete guide to Aeroplan’s award routing and stopover rules for more info.
Here’s an example itinerary I came up with:
- St. Louis (STL) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD): United Airlines domestic first class, layover.
- Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA): Lufthansa business class, layover.
- Frankfurt to Stockholm (ARN): Lufthansa business class, stopover.
- Stockholm to Istanbul (IST): Turkish Airlines business class, layover.
- Istanbul to Johannesburg (JNB) – Turkish Airlines business class, destination.
Cost: 100,000 points plus low taxes and fees
- Johannesburg to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD): Ethiopian Airlines business class, stopover.
- Addis Ababa to Chicago: Ethiopian Airlines business class, layover.
- Chicago to St. Louis: United Airlines domestic first class, destination.
Cost: 100,000 points plus low taxes and fees
So while this award isn’t cheap, Matt can experience some of Star Alliance’s best business-class products. Most notably, he’ll fly in Turkish Airlines business class, which is well known for its great food and service. Turkish Airlines’ lounge at its Istanbul hub is stellar and housed in Istanbul’s new airport.
Lufthansa recently started flying its Boeing 747-8 aircraft between Chicago and Frankfurt, which has a solid business-class product. The airline also has a great business-class lounge at its Frankfurt hub, and Matt can access the posh United Polaris lounge in Chicago with his business-class ticket if it reopens by his travel date.
How to book this award with points
Unfortunately, you cannot book Air Canada flights with stopovers online. Instead, you need to use your favorite Star Alliance search tool to find award space and then call Air Canada to book the ticket. This might sound daunting on paper but isn’t too hard to do. Here’s a quick step-by-step.
For this example, I’m searching for award space on the Air Canada website. Simply navigate to the Air Canada website and search for your desired award ticket. If adding a stopover and/or multiple layovers, search for each leg separately. For example, if you want to book Chicago to Stockholm with a stopover in Frankfurt, search Chicago to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Stockholm separately.
Do this for all your desired flight segments and note everything in one place. A flight is available if it shows a points price under your preferred class of service. Make sure to note the flight number and date for each flight you’d like to book.
Once you pick your flights, call Air Canada and say you’d like to book an award ticket with a stopover. Give the agent the flights you found and they will build your itinerary for you. Once all flights are confirmed to have award space, transfer your points from Amex to Air Canada and ask the agent to finalize your ticket.
How to earn enough miles for this award
Are you interested in boosting your American Express Membership Rewards balance? Consider opening a new American Express card to earn the welcome bonus. The issuer has a handful of different cards that earn these points, and each has its own benefits and bonus categories.
- American Express® Green Card: Earn 30,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. Earn 3x points on dining at restaurants, travel and transit (including flights, hotels, cruises, taxis, tours and more), and 1x points on other purchases ($150 annual fee; see rates and fees).
- American Express® Gold Card: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first six months of account opening. Earn 4x points on dining at restaurants, 4x points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year, then 1x points), 3x points on airfare purchased directly from airlines or American Express Travel, and 1x points on all other eligible purchases ($250 annual fee; see rates and fees).
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $6,000 on purchases in your first six months of card membership. Earn 5x points on airfare purchased directly from airlines or with American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), 5x points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel and Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts, and 1x points on other purchases ($695 annual fee; see rates and fees).
The information for the Amex Green card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Hotels in Sweden and South Africa
Matt doesn’t have any hotel points, which makes booking hotels in Sweden and South Africa difficult. Matt can transfer his Amex points to Choice Privileges, Hilton Honors or Marriott Bonvoy, but this usually yields a poor value compared to award flights.
If Matt wanted to go down this route, he could transfer to Choice Privileges to book his hotels in Stockholm. The Choice brand has a large footprint in Northern Europe.
For example, he can use 20,000 points to book a free night at the Nordic Light Hote this August. The same nights cost roughly $140 per night after taxes and fees, so it isn’t a great deal if you transfer Amex points. Don’t worry — I’ll discuss other ways to earn Choice points later in the article.
Other interesting Choice hotels in the Stockholm area include:
- At Six, Ascend Hotel Collection: 20,000 points per night.
- Hotel C Stockholm, Ascend Hotel Collection: 16,000 points per night.
- Quality Hotel Globe: 16,000 points per night.
For Johannesburg, Matt can use Marriott Bonvoy points to book several different hotels. The hotel group has a ton of options in the city and surrounding areas, many of which are under 30,000 points per night. The African Pride Melrose Arch is an intriguing new property that costs just 17,500 per night on standard dates. Paid rates are roughly $210 per night in August, making it a solid use of Marriott points.
Here are a few other Marriott properties in Johannesburg:
- Johannesburg Marriott Hotel Melrose Arch: 12,500 points per night.
- Protea Hotel Fire & Ice! Johannesburg Melrose Arch: 12,500 points per night.
- Ten Bompas Hotel, Johannesburg, a Member of Design Hotels: 30,000 points per night.
Matt can maximize his Marriott stays by booking five nights at once to take advantage of the program’s fifth-night free benefit. This benefit essentially gives you a free night on reservations of five nights or longer. Again, Matt can transfer Amex points to Marriott Bonvoy, but I don’t recommend it. Instead, he should look into other ways to earn Marriott points, like opening a Marriott cobranded credit card.
How to book hotels with points
You can book Choice hotel stays with points by heading to the Choice website, logging in and entering your desired dates and destination at the center of the homepage. Then, click the “Special Rate” dropdown and select “Reward Points” so you can see points pricing.
Hotel options are shown at the center of the screen. If you see one you’d like to book, click the “Check Availability” button underneath the points price and follow the on-screen prompts to book your nights.
To book Marriott award nights, simply head to Marriott’s website and log in. Then, enter your search criteria at the center of the screen, select the “Use Points / Certificates” checkbox and click the “Find Hotels” button.
All hotel options will appear at the center of the screen. To book, click the “View Rates” button and select the type of room you’d like to book. Then, follow the on-screen prompts to finalize your booking.
How to earn hotel points
Again, it doesn’t usually make sense to transfer Amex points to hotels. If Matt wants to redeem points for Choice and Marriott stays on his trip, he should consider other ways to earn points.
There are a handful of ways to earn Choice Privileges points. The fastest way is to open a Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card and earn the welcome bonus. The card currently offers up to 75,000 bonus points: 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days, and an additional 25,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 180 days. Plus, you can earn 8,000 bonus points every year you spend $10,000 or more on purchases using your card. The information for the Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Marriott points are among the easiest hotel points to earn. The hotel group has partnerships with Chase and American Express, so there are multiple credit card options to choose from. Here’s a look at all the cards and their respective welcome offers:
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: Earn three free night awards after spending $3,000 in the first three months from account opening. Each free night award has a redemption value of up to 50,000 points per night for up to 150,000 points in total value.
- Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card: Earn 30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points after you spend $1,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership.
- Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 bonus Marriott Bonvoy points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $150 back in statement credits on eligible purchases made on the card in the first three months of card membership.
Related: Best hotel credit cards of 2021
Armed with a stash of Amex points, Matt is in a good place to book his mini round-the-world trip to Sweden and South Africa. He will experience some of the best Star Alliance business-class products and hang out at great lounges along the way. The only thing for him to do now is secure enough hotel points to book his accomodations.
Have a destination in mind and need help figuring out your points strategy? Send us an email to be featured in the next installment of Cleared for Takeoff.
Featured photo by leoks/Shutterstock.com.
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