Book Award Travel For Your Whole Family to the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent.. Using Skypesos!

Here are some propositions that are true:

  • Getting several business class award seats on the same flight is hard, much harder than two (which is much harder than one).
  • It’s often tough to find award space during major holidays.
  • Using Delta Skymiles for premium cabin award travel at the low level is highly frustrating.

And yet I’ve written in the past that if you want to fly non-stop from the US to Australia, Delta Skymiles are actually your best bet — not that you’ll find much ‘low’ level award space on Delta’s Los Angeles – Sydney flight. Instead, Delta partners with Virgin Australia which has by far the best award space on the route, even multiple seats during high season on their Los Angeles – Sydney, Los – Angeles – Melbourne, and especially Los Angeles – Brisbane flights.

One of the requests I get quite frequently through my award booking service is travel to India or other countries in that region — especially around Christmastime and often for a family rather than just a couple. It turns out this can be very doable – using Delta miles – flying on their Skyteam partner Saudia.

I first interalized just how good award space on Sauda was last year after helping to book someone one-stop award space to and from Lahore, Pakistan for Christmas and New Years.

Just How Good is Award Space on Saudia?

Award Nexus will run a search for up to 29 days at a time. I could have added in the 30th and 31st of the month but decided against, their simple map with two parameters seemed to illustrate well just how good availability is.

Here’s a search for Washington Dulles – Riyadh and Washington Dulles – Jeddah looking for 4 business class award seats from December 1 through December 29.

I also ran a search for New York JFK to the dual Saudi Arabian hubs, four business class award seats from December 1 through December 29.

In other words, even though each flight is not daily, you can get 4 business class awards from these two US gateways to Saudia Arabia nearly every single day even during December and leading up to Christmas.

What’s more, Saudia is expected to introduce Toronto service in October. That adds another gateway through which I think we can expect outstanding award availability once schedules are loaded.

How to Use Delta Miles to Book Award Travel on Saudia

Here are the general principles.

  • You cannot book Saudia space online using Delta miles.

  • Saudia business class awards book into ‘D’ inventory. You can search for award space at AirFrance.us and also using the free FlightStats.com.

  • Delta agents may not have even heard of Saudia, even though they are a member of Skyteam. I am frequently told things like “Air France is the only member of Skyteam” by Delta agents. Be persistent, hang up call back.

  • Even if the Delta agent has heard of Saudia, they may come back and say that awards aren’t available, that they won’t price, or that they can only book coach. Again, hang up, call back.

Sometimes the Long Haul Flight Isn’t the Hardest Part of the Itinerary

Delta miles are a challenge to use, even when they partner with airlines that are as generous with award space as Saudia.

The hardest thing here is not going to be finding space between the US and Saudi Arabia. The real challenges are going to be:

  • Finding award space inside North America to get from your home city to the international departure gateway. Delta award space is tough to get at the low level much of the time. So you may wind up having to buy tickets to get to the start of your trip (always leave plenty of time to connect when traveling on separate tickets, you don’t want to miss the start of your award).

  • Saudia doesn’t offer daily service to each of their two hubs, and they may not have daily service to the city you’re trying to fly to. On the day you can make it to Riyadh, the flight to your connecting city may leave from Jeddah or vice versa.

  • Short haul award space on Saudia isn’t always as good, so if your onward destination is served by narrowbody aircraft and there aren’t as many business class seats as you found for the long haul flight you may wind up putting part of the family in coach for the shorter segment.

Do You Want to Fly Saudia?

There are several important things to understand before traveling on Saudia.

  • Their long haul business product is decent — seats are angled flat for the most part, think Air France. So it’s not antiquated, but it’s hardly world-leading.
  • Saudia is a dry airline.
  • While it’s tough to get a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, it’s generally not necessary to get a transit visa (not open to unaccompanied females in any case!) — connections are permitted up to 18 hours.
  • Largely because of policies of the government of Saudi Arabia, the airline has been controversial.

The Riyadh and Jeddah airports aren’t great to spend tons of time, although reports are the coffee in the lounges is pretty good.

It may not be the most aspirational product, but there are few airlines in the world which offer more award space than Saudia, and fewer still that also serve the United States.

So if you’re looking to travel to the Middle East or to he Indian Subcontinent, Saudia offers an option for how to do that.


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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. @Gary – can you explain whether a “transit” visa permits one to exit the airport, or is this the sort of “transit” visa which Andrew Snowden relied upon to camp out in SVO without exiting?

  2. If it seems to good to be true, perhaps there’s a reason.
    Having lived in the Kingdom and flown their “flagship” carrier I would really need to be in a huge hurry to bother with Saudia.
    No thanks.

  3. @gary

    Saudia is a crappy airline. A couple of options are to fly to IST or DXB and pay for the remainder out of pocket. I took the other option patiently booking and canceling sector by sector every couple of days. Took me a month, but I booked four pax last Dec to Del (100K each).

    Outbound (Coach): IAH-CDG-FCO-Stop-AMS-DEL
    Inbound (Business): DEL-CDG-IAH

    m

  4. As a woman, I am all set with Saudia Arabia… ZERO desire to ever go there. I wonder if I would have to wear the peek a boo outfit on the plane?

  5. Angled flat seats don’t pair well with a dry airline. You will need lots of booze to sleep in those horrible seats!

  6. I’ve flown Saudia business a couple times & it’s not great, but not bad either. Flight crew is almost entirely non-Saudi (if it matters). The Al-Fursan lounges are better than most lounges by U.S. carriers.

  7. The Saudi government and the airline are one and the same. Let’s stop pretending that Saudia Airlines is an innocent bystander in one of the worst human rights records in the world.

  8. I’m interested in your award booking service. I book award tickets regularly (domestic and international) for my family to/from US and have basic understanding on how it works. However, I’m having hard time trying to book C class tickets for two from Japan to Europe for next summer for my parents. Dates are flexible, enough miles in all three alliance, but the availability is so scarce. Only option I see is SAS in the fall. (nobody ever reviews that airline…)

    Do you have experience booking awards between Japan and Europe? Thank you!

  9. No thanks to flying Saudia…I am a somewhat nervous flyer as it is, and don’t think I’d feel safe at all flying them, or for that matter a majority of the airlines in Skyteam…

  10. Gary, this is a very timely topic for me so thank you for writing! How did your Pakistan-bound clients find their treatment by Saudia staff, and can you or anyone else tell me how they treat South Asian passengers?

    I ask because I’m eager to book a US to India business class trip for my parents (YYZ, JFK, or IAD to HYD), but hear awful things about Saudia’s treatment of South Asian passengers, including saying “sorry, business is full so you must sit in Economy” at check-in. A European friend who worked with Saudia in the past strongly advised against booking with them as he felt something like this was bound to happen, or that the layover in RUH or JED would involve similar problems.

    Have you flown them, and observed how they treat business class passengers who aren’t white Americans or Europeans? Or, have any of your clients reported any issues? With parents traveling on their own, my own experience in the Gulf region, and their needing business class seats for health reasons, I really specific experience you or others can share

  11. The 18-hour visa-free transit does not permit travelers to leave the airport. It might work, with much luck, to talk your way in but would not count on success and it would take quite a long time, even entering the country for the first time with a visa is a long process. This is a particular problem on the return because, for instance, their Riyadh-New York flight departs at 5:20 am and Jeddah-New York at 5:35 am, and Washington at 7:30 am and 7:45 am, respectively. Family members in tow may be a whole let less happy about those business class seats after spending the night in the airport.

    FlightStats very inconsistently displays Saudia flights, often need to trick it by searching, say, Dubai-New York to get the Riyadh-New York to show, whereas a Riyadh-New York search does not turn up the nonstop. Why this happens I do not know, but I have had this issue with FlightStats on a number of airlines.

    Riyadh’s airport is pretty nice, Jeddah is more basic.

    You have to really want a transit visa to get one because they are a hassle, consular officers don’t seem to believe people would want to fly Saudia either. I followed UPGRD Matthew’s instructions in getting transit visas for my wife and I.

    All that said, the airline is pretty good, a real slice of life from the passenger mix to the prayer area. The service is indifferent, your feet won’t be washed in rose water in business class, but the economy experience is quite good compared to alternatives.

    In the end we are talking Delta and SkyTeam and we Delta flyers have to make do.

  12. I have a more general question, one that occurs to me every time I see a post mentioning a Middle Eastern airline based in an Arab country.

    Would I, as a Jewish-American white woman, be able to fly on these airlines, assuming I wanted to? Someone over on Flyertalk suggested a while back that I might try to get to Eilat, Israel by flying via Jordan. I have been to Jordan (to see Petra) and had no trouble, but relations between Jordan and Israel are pretty good. Still, I did not feel comfortable booking through Jordan and for my first award trip, I will instead fly to Israel via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, courtesy of US Airways miles.

    Besides Turkish, are there other airlines that you would feel comfortable booking a Jewish American woman – with a passport full of Israeli stamps – onto? I do not necessarily mean on a ticket to TLV; rather another routing to someplace in Asia or elsewhere? Does this kind of question come up when you make bookings for clients?

    Thanks for any light you can shed on this question.

  13. @Rahul BR – I have not flown Saudia. The woman who flew them to Lahore is a work colleague, and she was well-treated especially by the lounge staff. LHE airport was closed due to weather and she wound up stuck in transit for much longer than anticipated. The folks in the lounge looked after her well. He Parkistan passport meant that transit through many airports would have required a visa, so this (despite long connection times) was truly the best option other than PIA in coach I suppose!

  14. First and foremost I will never fly Saudi or to Saudi Arabia because of the way they treat women. I rarely take a political stance but these guys are beyond the pale.

    Second dry airline no good for me, I need my booze (guess that makes me a functional alcoholic lol)

    Third the product looks terrible

    The only positive is it’s SkyMiles, but frankly I’d rather pay 40k to go pretty much anywhere domestically pretty much anytime and use other mile balances to fly the more useful gulf carriers.

  15. @Elaine – I will share a little of my wife’s experience on our trip to Dubai via Saudi Arabia, which included overnight stops in Riyadh and Jeddah on transit visas. She is not white or Jewish. She had no prior experience of Muslim countries outside Southeast Asia.

    The thing that surprised her most was how women are doted on. There is an oddly chivalrous aspect to the repression and controls imposed on women. So she is ushered to the front of the line, yet cannot use the hotel swimming pool. It is rather disorienting. She wore an abaya as required by law and a head scarf to keep a low profile.

    In the travel experience, she was treated with respect and no hassle. She felt there is a significant difference in treatment in being a foreign women and a local/Muslim women.

    Just flying Saudia and transiting a Saudi airport, the majority of people you encounter are Filipino or South Asian. Unlike the formal transit visa process, for an 18-hour transit within the airport there is no point in the booking or transit at which you are asked to disclose your religion.

    Entering the country is where there is all kinds of scrutiny of outsiders, any outsiders. I cannot personally speak to challenges faced by Jews. In my research few have tried, out of understandable concern or preference.

    This is where you need to think about your comfort level, because in any transit there is a possibility that a flight can be canceled, bad weather, etc., where you could either be stuck in the airport for a significant time or be accommodated outside under special permission. In that case would be you be willing to go out to an airport hotel? If you are not comfortable with this possibility, which would be quite legitimate, then it does not make sense to spend a long flight being apprehensive. Travel and visiting new countries is already stressful and tiring enough. Even for Delta flyers, there are alternatives.

    I personally try to have my travel drive the award, not the reverse. I don’t go on awards just because it is a good deal if it is not the travel experience I want.

  16. @Elaine: There’s a huge difference between Jordan and Saudi Arabia – and, by extension, between Royal Jordanian and Saudia. If you’re Jewish and have Israeli stamps in your passport (actually, if you’re Jewish and don’t have Israeli stamps in your passport too!), then stay away from the Desert Kingdom. That goes for its airline too. Not. Worth. It.

  17. @Gary thanks for sharing your colleague’s experience. It’s definitely reassuring, and I’ll have to do a bit more research on my own. Appreciate any other experience anyone could share of flying Saudia to the subcontinent, or of their business class service in general.

  18. @Rahul,
    Here is my recent trip details from India to USA on SAUDIA.

    When my flight started from India we were only 4 passengers in the J cabin which can seat 14. About 1 hour after take off different cabin crew members got about 7 people from economy which apparently were friends or relatives to them.
    Suddenly the entire cabin was noisy as these new J passengers and the cabin crew members chatted non stop. These new passengers got all the food service before me even though I am a paid J passenger. My choice of dessert was finished by the time I was served.
    My entertainment system crashed midway but I could not be moved to another seat as these new passengers took some seats and the remaining seats were taken by male Saudi staff. One gentleman apparently a cabin crew member from serving the economy section slept the entire flight and only got up to eat.
    The main cabin crew supervisor occupied another J seat and did not even get up the entire flight. All he did was just eat and give instruction to the girls who were working in the cabin all from his seat.
    At RUH the lounge has no restroom or shower facility and dont even bother to use the public restroom. It is so smelly and unclean. It is worse than the railway station toilets in India.
    On my connection to the USA from RUH I noticed the exact same thing as in the first flight. People who were known to the cabin crew were moved from economy to J and F constantly. This flight has more J and F cabin seats I guess about 60 collectively between J and F. When the flight started it was about 60% full but by the end of the flight it was totally packed. Again these new guests were fed the same meals like the rest of the cabin and even in this flight the food fell short. Also by the end of the flight the restrooms were a mess with no one cleaning them.
    The Saudi male staff do not work but just sit or sleep in the cabin and are fed before the rest of the cabin. Only saving grace were the filipino girls who were working real hard trying to serve the cabin.
    My opinion about this airline was very negative and I would avoid this airline in future. I have flown the Asia-USA sector on many different airlines but never have seen such a mess.

  19. @rahul @gary I would be very careful.. Maybe i am showing my bias, however, flying Saudia to India is different from flying Saudia to Pakistan. Pakistan is an Islamic Nation and India is not. There are significant cultural differences and there is no love lost between Saudis and Indians. I would take Aeroflot with SVO airport in a heartbeat before i took Saudia. When i was searching for my december tix, i was easily able to find two Business class from SVO to DEL on any given day.

  20. @rahul you should be able expand your options to include both Del and Bom, it will easily yield good results. The India – EU segment is the harder one. EU – US is easy.

  21. @RTC and @Carl – Thanks so much for your thoughtful replies. My gut tells me to avoid most airlines of Arab countries, but then I wonder if I should be more open to the possibility.

    My dad worked for TWA, and a number of times the airline wanted to send him to the Middle East on business. He always said that if they could get him in, he’d go, but in the end his religion kept him out. I imagine that is probably still the case in the majority of these countries. Still, when I read about the destinations and the airlines, I begin to wonder….

    Thanks again for your replies. Happy weekend!

  22. @Elaine, I don’t think you would have any problem getting into and being treated well in several of the countries in the region. The UAE consulate, for example, specifically states that travel to Israel is not a problem. When I visited Dubai last week as a tourist, the passport control agent did not inspect my American passport at all. He opened it to a blank page and stamped it – took about 10 seconds. There are still several nations for which previous travel to Israel is a problem, but also quite a few in the area for which it is not. I wouldn’t rule out a whole region because of a few bad actors.

    Dubai, along with some of the other gulf states, is mostly inhabited by guest workers – the people you deal with as a tourist (hotels, restaurants, cabs, etc.) will be Indian, Filipino, and so on, and the large majority of people are in Western dress (or perhaps an Indian sari).

    Obviously they have conservative views on alcohol (you can get it with a meal at international hotels though) and personal morality (avoid sex except with a spouse), but they are focused on being a major tourist destination. This is quite in contrast with Saudi Arabia, of course.

  23. @paul @m thank you for further feedback and sharing your experience. I think BOM or DEL or BA/QR/CY to HYD is best, really don’t want them to have such trouble with Saudia. I might try it for fun, but that’s too much hassle for them.

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