In a few weeks I’ll be traveling to South Africa and Namibia, which will be my first trip to the mainland of Africa. (Back in 2014, I went to the Seychelles with layovers in Ethiopia.) At this point, South Africa, China, India, and Japan are pretty much the only major global destinations I haven’t been, and South Africa seemed like the best to travel to alone – particularly in light of the favorable exchange rate.
I booked this trip back in August. I had miles I could use on any number of programs, but getting to South Africa on miles basically comes down to the following options:
(1) Nonstop to Africa: Two carriers fly to South Africa from the US – Delta from Atlanta and South African from JFK and Washington-Dulles. The South African flight to and from Dulles, though, stops in either Dakar, Senegal or Accra, Ghana both ways. Ethiopian also flies from Dulles (via Dublin on the return), Newark (via Lome), LAX (via Dublin), and Toronto (via Dublin on the return), but Addis Ababa isn’t really on the way, as you can see from the map below. (Delta also flies to Lagos, Accra, and Dakar, but it doesn’t have a partner to carry you onward to South Africa.) Of these options, the Delta flights had no business availability (they rarely do at reasonable rates), and the Ethiopian travel times were long. South African had availability on the day before I wanted to return to JFK – but since United left JFK, getting back to DC is would be annoying – and then on the day after I wanted to return to Dulles via Dakar. From reading reports online, it seems the Dulles flight is pretty unpleasant. Its operated using SAA’s A340 with older-style lie flat seats in business class, and the one hour stop in Dakar is halfway through the flight in the middle of the night. No thanks.
(2) Connecting in Europe: Most award programs allow routing through Europe to get to Southern Africa. Air France, British Airways, Iberia, KLM, Lufthansa, and Swiss fly to Johannesburg, and South African flies to Frankfurt, London, and Munich. Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa fly to Cape Town. The problem with a lot of these are the long layovers – particularly on the eastbound journey. Most flights from the East Coast to Europe arrive early in the morning, and the flights onward to Africa are not until that evening – requiring two red-eye flights. On the return, it tends not to be as bad, but many connections still have 7 hour layovers. Lucky for me, Air France happens to have a daytime flight from Paris to Cape Town, and there was award availability on both that flight and the Dulles to Paris flight using Delta miles. It was 95,000 miles, but only $35 in taxes and fees – a really solid use of Delta miles. My layover in Paris will be only a little over two hours which is close to optimal layover time. The only downside is that I will only have Air France’s new business class product on the shorter IAD-CDG leg, and have their older NEV4 angled seat on the eleven hour CDG-CPT leg. But given the latter is a daytime flight, and the fact that I’ve flown those seats before, I think I’ll deal. (Oh, the other downside of this routing is probably that it’s 21 hours of travel time gate to gate as opposed to 17 on the South African flight via Accra.) There were no good options available through Europe on the way home, though.
(3) Connecting in the Middle East: Lots of programs allow you to route via the Middle East to Africa. I prefer not giving money to the oppressive governments of the Gulf States, plus the travel and connection times weren’t great, for the most part. It’s more out of the way than Europe or Ethiopia. Note, this is the only sensible way of using American miles, though, and you can fly on Etihad or Qatar. (The other option, flying British Airways, is silly given the high fees.)
(4) Other: There are two random other routings I looked at. One would have been to use Alaska miles to route US to Africa via Hong Kong. Yes, that is long, but for 70,000 miles to fly Cathay Pacific First Class, it could be worth it. The downside is that Cathay’s HKG-JNB service does not have First Class. Cathay’s Business Class is still awesome, but one of the negative quirks of Alaska’s redemptions made it ultimately not worth it: you can only fly on one partner airline per ticket. To get from HKG to the DC area using only Alaska and Cathay is actually pretty hard. The only way to do it in two flights is via LAX, and there was no availability on either the Cathay HKG-LAX or Alaska LAX-DCA flight.
And that leaves one other random routing, which actually isn’t that random when you think about it: via South America. South African flies from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo, and both Aeroplan and United allow you to combine that with a flight from Sao Paulo up to North America for the same price as a direct route or connecting through Europe – which makes sense as it’s only about 100 miles more than connecting through Paris, and 100 miles less than connecting through Frankfurt. No tricks are required, and if you put in, for example, JNB-IAD on United.com, the routing will show up if there’s availability. And sure enough, on the date I wanted, there was. The only downside is a 5 hour and 45 minute layover in Sao Paulo, which is on the long side but definitely not long enough to head into the city. The Star Alliance lounge at GRU is pretty nice, though, and it’ll be nice to break up the two ten hour flights. I used 75,000 Aeroplan miles, and the taxes and fees were only $77. This was a particularly good use of miles for me because I transferred 40,000 Starwood points when Aeroplan was running a bonus promotion. 40,000 SPG points typically transfer to 50,000 Aeroplan miles, and with the promo, I got another 10,000 miles. I topped off the rest with some Amex Membership Rewards points and my existing Aeroplan balance.
After I booked, there were two additional developments which make me excited for this routing. First, South African has just started flying its new A330-300s, which have new true lie-flat business class seating, with direct aisle access for every seat. You can check out some pictures here, and it looks stunning. And JNB-GRU is one of its launch routes. Huzzah.
Less exciting, United announced its new “Polaris” Business Class product. I say less exciting because the rollout is really deceptive. The marketing materials all feature a new seat and reference the new Polaris lounges – though the new seat won’t be placed on existing planes for years, and the Polaris lounges will have a similarly lengthy rollout. So although my reservation now shows “Polaris” instead of United Business, the only difference will be on some of the “soft” product – which will be good to try but isn’t as consequential. Thankfully, I’ll be flying a pre-merger Continental 767 in a 2-1-2 layout in business class, as opposed to the outdated 2-4-2 on its 777s.
So here’s my final flight plan: