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I’ve been planning on going to South Africa for a while; unfortunately, it’s not so easy to get to. Flights are very long (15 hour flight from JFK) and expensive ($1500+). However, the country itself is very cheap; just a few years ago $1 CAD was equal to about 7 South African Rand (ZAR). Now the ratio is 11:1, meaning our money goes 60% further! Since the oil crashed and the US dollar has risen, there aren’t many places that have become so cheap for Canadians.

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Originally, Michelle and I were planning a last-minute trip to Spain. It could have worked, but we couldn’t get convenient flights on points (always a risk when travelling at the last minute) and paying for them was expensive, it being the high season for travel. Europe is also very crowded and expensive in July/August, when everyone is taking a summer vacation. So the only way to escape the summer crowds was to escape summer itself, and head to the Southern Hemisphere where it’s winter.

To get to South Africa on Aeroplan points, it would be 100k roundtrip in economy or 150k in business, which is a pretty good deal, considering that you are allowed two stopovers in addition to your final destination. But there’s an even better way; if you’re using Alaska Mileage Plan miles, you can get a one-way flight to South Africa in first class (since business class is for peasants, right?) for only 70,000 miles!

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Remarkably, this isn’t a joke. I honestly don’t understand what was going through the minds of the Alaska people when they decided that a halfway around the world first class flight on one of the world’s greatest airlines should only cost 70k, less than Aeroplan charges in business class!

Alaska points are also very easy to earn. The MBNA Alaska credit card gives you 25k points after your first purchase, so you only need to apply for three cards to get this flight. The card has a $75 annual fee, but if you apply through you’ll get a $60 rebate, so the total cost of acquiring the points is 3x$15=$45. The cards are very easy to get; in fact, if you have a good credit score MBNA will allow you to hold multiple Alaska cards at once. At one point I had three Alaska cards at the same time, which I had applied for in the span of two months.

Now, you may be wondering how it is possible to fly Cathay Pacific from North America to Africa. Cathay Pacific is based in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong is not on the way to Africa; it’s pretty much in the opposite direction. But oddly enough, Alaska doesn’t have a problem with that. Even better, Alaska allows stopovers on one-way awards, so we’ll have a five-day stopover in Hong Kong before continuing to South Africa. So we’ll be flying from Boston to Hong Kong (a 15 hour flight!) in First Class, and Hong Kong to Johannesburg (12 hours) in Business Class (unfortunately there is no first-class cabin on this route), for a total of 27 hours of premium-class flying. The cost for each of us is $45 USD in taxes, a $15 USD call-centre booking fee (you can’t book Cathay awards online with Alaska) and a $12.50 USD partner-booking fee, plus the $45 to acquire the points, for a total of $138 CAD eachNot bad, considering that the one-way flight to Hong Kong alone  would cost $14,600, and the second leg would cost $9,300. Almost $24,000 worth of flights for only $138!

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There is a downside. When Cathay can sell the seat for $24,000, they don’t want it to be taken up by someone like me when there’s some Sheikh with oil money to burn that wants to fly to Hong Kong. So first-class award space only becomes available about two weeks in advance, when they’re pretty sure that the seat will go empty otherwise. Hence the crazy last-minute planning I’m currently doing – we booked this flight eight days in advance!
Another downside is that you can only use one partner per direction. So unlike Aeroplan, where you can fly Air Canada from Montreal to New York and then fly a Star Alliance partner like United to Hong Kong or wherever you want to go, you have to hope there’s an airline that flies to both your home and your preferred destination. Cathay Pacific (CX) flies from many North American cities to Johannesburg via Hong Kong, but Montreal isn’t one of them. CX flies to New York JFK, Newark, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver. Newark and Toronto flights don’t have a first class, so for us that narrowed it down to Boston and New York. I found first class award space for both (oddly enough, it’s harder to find business class availability to JNB than first to North America), and I chose Boston because it’s slightly closer.

For the flight back from Cape Town (we’ll be flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town, a $90 one-way flight on a budget airline), the original plan was to fly home on Qatar Airways (9 hours JNB-Doha and 13 hours Doha-JFK), which was offering one-way flights to JFK for $740, or use Aeroplan for the 15-hour nonstop Johannesburg to New York flight for 50k points in economy. But who wants to fly 15-22 hours in economy? Instead, for only 25k more points (get those easily) we could fly in business class. It’s a lot of travelling, but business class is always fun.

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This taxes on this flight were $160 each, plus a $30 call-centre booking fee. So our total costs for first and business class flight to South Africa (15 hour, 12 hour, 11 hour, and 9 hour flights) is only $330 each!

EDIT: Business class availability on the 15 hour direct flight from JNB to JFK opened up at the last minute, so we switched to that flight. Cancelling or changing an Aeroplan award costs $90 per person, which is very reasonable when compared to buying a ticket the normal way, where change fees are often $300 per person. Another reason to book with points! They also recalculate taxes, and since we didn’t have to pay Swiss and German airport taxes anymore we got refunded $60 each, so the change only cost us $30 each in the end.