I find the single most difficult award to get from North America is flying to Australia and New Zealand. It used to be easy, fortunately for me, because I have family there. For the past couple of years it’s been truly the needle in a haystack exercise.
Not that many years ago United offered a brief period where every flight had the full first class cabin available on points, but that was a glitch. More often than not there’ll be seats opening on United when the schedule loads, perhaps a single first class award and a couple of business seats, and those go quickly. Randomly across the schedule as time progresses more seats will open, but any given flight may be very tough to get. Expertflyer automatic searches and email alerts are very useful here. But thinking you can just grab a United flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Sydney on your preferred dates when you want to book is simply not realistic.
Air New Zealand business class – a wonderful product – can be very easy to get during the Northern summer months. But more often than not folks want to go during high season, and getting those seats in advance from late October through mid-March can be an incredible challenge. In my experience Air New Zealand tends to open business class award space 60 days out from travel.
Qantas offers quite a bit of service from the US to Australia and even flights to Auckland. But their availability is awful. Now, they load their schedules almost a year out, and there’s sometimes award space when the schedules load. American Airlines miles can’t be used until 330 days prior to departure, and that’s a bit of a challenge because those early seats may be gone in the three week period between when they first become available and when American AAdvantage can book them. Certainly more seats open later, but it’s still an incredible hunt and peck exercise.
One option for grabbing Qantas seats before American AAdvantage has access to them is Alaska Airlines. Alaska partners with Qantas and can access Qantas seats as soon as the schedule loads. Alaska won’t load it’s own flights into the system until 330 days out (and then I also find premium cabin seats on Alaska usually load a few days later). But they’ll let you book their partner seats immediately, and then call back to add the Alaska segments, and in my experience they won’t even charge a change fee for adding on the Alaska segments later.
Meanwhile another option is American Express points which transfer to British Airways Executive Club or just using BA miles, they can book those Qantas seats when the schedule loads, but their award chart to Australia is Very expensive.
In general the best way to get Australia and New Zealand award seats, especially during high season, is to have tremendous flexibility. Don’t start with when you want to go. Use a tool like Award Nexus to search broad swaths of dates, find the needle in a haystack, and then plan your travels accordingly.
But if you must fly on particular dates, or at least with flexibility of only a few days, things to consider are:
- Be willing to take less desirable routings. American miles can be used on Air Pacific, Los Angeles to Fiji to Sydney. Their business class is pretty ancient, but it’s not coach. It’s a connection in the middle of the South Pacific, but it gets you there. There’s also Air Tahiti Nui via Papeete (Tahiti) to Auckland, it’s another routing but note that Tahiti is one of the more difficult routes on its own and then Tahiti to Auckland isn’t daily service.
- Be willing to take less desirable and obscure routings. Air New Zealand island hops out of Los Angeles with their less than modern 767 aircraft, for instance, once-weekly to Raratonga and from there you can fly to Auckland.
- Be willing to fly via Asia. Many programs will permit an Asia routing, which often means 50% more flying, make it a larger trip and stop in Asia to break up the trip. Bangkok – Sydney is hugely available on Thai, for instance. And the Auckland flight is doable as well. Special bonus, Thai offers three-cabin first class service to Sydney. United won’t allow members to fly via Asia, however, so the only ‘creative’ routing is really via Honolulu to Auckland.
- Don’t forget flying out of Canada. Air Canada offers Vancouver to Sydney flights. Air New Zealand flies from Vancouver as well. Air Canada’s flight can be hard to get, Air New Zealand’s Vancouver flight is often more available than their others though it’s not a daily offering.
The craziest thing, though? The single most available way to get an award to Australia in a premium cabin is on V Australia. And their frequent flyer partner in the US is Delta. So while it may cost you 350,000 Delta Skymiles to fly business class on Delta to Sydney more often than not, it’s often possible to get a better inflight product on V Australia for 150,000 Skymiles. Not a fan of Skymiles generally, but when it comes to this most difficult of awards folks often have marginally better success with those Delta miles than miles in other programs.
The second most difficult award, I find, is Tahiti. That’s just because there’s so little flying there.
Air Tahiti Nui flies from Los Angeles. Those seats used to be easy to get, I’ve had a couple of first class award seats headed down there myself. In more recent times they started offering only a single first class award on most flights instead of two, and even more recently the reports I’ve seen have been that American AAdvantage hasn’t been able to access those first class award seats even when available (seats open in the “A” bucket). There aren’t a ton of flights, business class awards are often even harder than first class, but the do exist. The only miles that can be used to upgrade on Air Tahiti Nui are miles from their own program, upgrades are generally quite available but go try to find anyone with miles in that program.
Air France flies Los Angeles – Tahiti, but not daily. They do offer business class awards, though they’re especially tough to get in high season months of Northern summer and around peak holiday periods.
Ironically again, Delta miles are especially well-positioned here. They partner with both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui. American partners with Air Tahiti Nui. But have miles with a Star Alliance airline such as United or US Airways? Your only way to Tahiti is going to be via Auckland. So you have to get to New Zealand first (hard enough on its own) and then fly to Tahiti, so tons of extra flying to get there.
There are other routes, American miles can be used to fly LAN to South America and then to Easter Island and on to Tahiti. Hawaiian Airlines flies from Honolulu once-weekly on Saturdays. Not very helpful in most cases. If you’re in Asia there are other Tahiti options, but for a North American-centric flyer this is quite the challenge.
And don’t forget that most people don’t actually want to go to Tahiti. They want to go to Bora Bora, to Moorea, or to further out islands. And you can’t use your airline miles to get to those islands, you’re buying domestic flights separately (or to Moorea, a ferry option exists).
A special bonus third most difficult award is Male, in the Maldives. For North Americans it’s on the other side of the world. So you have to get yourself to Asia to begin with, though that’s usually not particularly challenging. But there just aren’t that many airlines flying to Male that are part of the major alliances, just not that many flights, and those that exist can be difficult to get seats on.
You can get yourself to Dubai, and Emirates has quite a decent amount of lift into Male. But those seats aren’t easy to get as awards in premium cabins, and it’s a long enough flight that you tend to want those premium cabins.
You can fly to Singapore, and Singapore Airlines flies to Male. So Star Alliance miles are pretty well-situated to accomplish this. But Singapore isn’t exactly generous releasing award seats, especially to their partners. And most people flying to the Maldives are looking for two seats. Singapore usually releases no more than a single premium class seat at a time on each flight to their partners, this isn’t always true with some intra-Asian routes but seems to be the case with Male. My advice here is to book one economy and one business class award seat, that’s something which is frequently available, and then just keep checking for a second business class seat to open up. There’s always the risk of sitting in coach on this nearly 2000 mile flight, but at least you can include the flying as part of the award.
Another approach is just to get to a ‘nearby’ location such as Bangkok, ‘only’ a couple thousand miles away, and buy a ticket on an unaffiliated airline, in the case of Bangkok there’s Bangkok Airways.
When committed to destinatios like Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Maldives some creativity, some flexibility, and some compromise are the order of the day.
Tell me about your successes and failures securing awards to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Maldives..?