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.
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!
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 gcr.ca 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 each. Not 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!
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.
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.
August 18, 2016 at 11:19 am
Where was your original departure point? Montreal? Because I am from Toronto and what you paid for to fly down to South Africa is amazing!
August 18, 2016 at 1:06 pm
We departed from Boston (I rented a car to get there). My flights to HK and South Africa were booked using Alaska miles for Cathay Pacific flights. Unlike Aeroplan, Alaska only lets you fly one partner airline each direction. Since Cathay doesn’t fly to Montreal, I had to make my way to a city they do serve. They do fly to Toronto, but there’s no first class on that route (only business).
Aeroplan is much easier! 150k (appling for the Amex Business Platinum, Business Gold, and Gold will earn you 140k bonus points) points gets you a roundtrip in business class. South African Airlines, United, Swiss, Turkish, Ethiopian, and Egyptair all fly to South Africa with no fuel surcharges. You can combine all these airlines, so it’s very easy to find a routing to South Africa without high fees. Remember that if you call in, you can add two stopover for free, so you can visit Europe on the way to and/or from South Africa. See my Aeroplan guide for more info.
August 20, 2016 at 7:11 am
You say that Cathay only open First Class 14 days before flight time. Is Business Class the same? Or is Business Class open much earlier? Your itinerary intrigues me because my wife and I love both Hong Kong and South Africa and could easily fly Business Class YYZ-HKG-JNB but we’re not so keen on waiting until the last minute to see if it will work.
August 20, 2016 at 9:17 am
Hi Jim! Business Class is available in advance (I think starting at 330 days in advance). There’s not so much availability, so it’s best if you’re very flexible with dates – the reason we had a five day stopover in HK was not so much to see HK, but that there were no business class flights to JNB available before the 5th day.
If by any chance you’re using Alaska miles and you do wait until the last minute, then I would try to fly to JFK and get a first class flight from there. For only 7500 more points it’s worth it!
September 28, 2016 at 11:51 pm
Hi, quick question. When you open these credit card for miles, do you open for you and Michelle? I am wondering if the award miles lets you buy a free ticket for spouse? Thanks.
September 29, 2016 at 7:31 am
I do open cards for both of us; double the points! But anyways, yes, you can use your miles to book tickets for anyone.
February 28, 2017 at 7:46 am
You convinced me a few months back to visit JNB via CX, so I’ll provide a few datapoints/comments on my experience booking the same ticket but roundtrip:
1) Alaska MileagePlan waived the call centre fee (they always do so for CX for me and I have no status)
2) I was able to book F flights 200 days out. According to FT, there is some availability T-330, and then it increases T-
14. Usually only 1 F seat at the T-330 mark, so if you’re travelling with someone, you need to wait to the last minute.
3) It’s funny how NA-HKG is priced the same as NA-HKG-JNB. Unless you are time-constrained or on a one-way, it seems like a waste to ever do just NA-HKG. 10 hours of CX J for free!
4) Evidently you can add an Alaska connection from the NA start/end to position closer to your home city. That’s nice if you’re on the West Coast and need to get to LAX or SFO from YVR or YYC.
5) The best way to search for availability is to search BA Avios, and then confirm the same flight can be seen through JAL. Phantom seats exist that cannot be booked (e.g. they’re visible on Avios but not JAL).
6) Booking CX with Alaska MileagePlan on the phone can be very hard depending on the agent. Even if you have every segment ready to feed them, AS staff are not well trained regarding CX. They will tell you incorrect information, they will not know basic info (“What’s the Hong Kong airport code?”), nor will they accurately know routing rules. I suggest reading the FlyerTalk FAQ on this in-depth before calling. My agent tried to make me pay for NA-HKG and HKG-JNB as two separate tickets because he didn’t realize NA-JNB is part of the Mileage chart, and he refused to check it himself… And waiting for a supervisor can take 60 minutes. So do your homework before calling and have time in case you are on hold for an hour.
7) I paid 210 USD and 140 AS for a roundtrip NA-HKG-JNB-HKG-NA in F (NA-HKG-NA) and J (HKG-JNB-HKG) with two different NA cities and a stopover in HKG on both ways. The ticket is sold on Cathay’s website for 52,000 CAD. That comes out to around 37 cents per point value. My cost per point is roughly a third of a cent, so it’s approximately 125X return on investment. That’s roughly 420 CAD for points and 260 CAD for taxes/fees, for a total of 680 CAD. Certainly not even going to find a roundtrip in economy to South Africa for that price, let alone with two stopovers in Asia!
8) I’ve been using AS points like crazy so I had a low balance. Transferred the 120k points from Marriott Nights and Flights redemption to AS plus 20k SPG for 145k AS (5k extra). If I had churned the MBNA card like some people do, my cost would have been substantially lower.
Hope this info helps someone else 🙂