Best Strategy for an American Airlines Flyer to Get to Africa

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Reader Mo asked,

I’d really like to get to South Africa on one of the American Airlines carriers (preferably somewhere near the front of the plane) . What is your best strategy? Citi thank you points are my biggest bounty, and I have a smattering of [Starwood] and [American] miles. I’m an [American AAdvantage Platinum], working toward [top tier Executive Platinum] next year, but still new to the game… Seems like the rules to Africa get messy on [American]. Thanks in advance!

American Airlines doesn’t fly to Africa. American Airlines doesn’t have a lot of partners flying to Africa. As a general matter, American and their partners aren’t ideal for most Africa flying although their Qatar Airways partnership does help here.

Using Citibank Points to Get to Africa

Mo’s biggest stash of points are with Citi ThankYou Rewards. That’s interesting because folks with the Citi Prestige Card can redeem those points for American (and US Airways) tickets at 1.6 cents apiece towards paid airfare.

Citi Prestige is a great card, it offers 50,000 points as a signup bonus after $3000 spend within 3 months. It’s a $450 card that comes with American Airlines lounge access as well as Priority Pass Select for lounge access. And in the first annual fee year you can get the $250 airfare credit (buy airline tickets — no messing around with gift cards or baggage fees) twice — if you get the card now you can still get the $250 in 2015 and then again in 2016 before the card renews.

I like the card best for points transfers to airlines, like Singapore Airlines (for Suites redemptions) and Etihad (for their first class product).

But since you earn triple points on air and hotels and double points on dining and entertainment, and then can redeem those points towards airfare on American as though they were cash, you get rebates up to 4.8% on some spend. That’s pretty strong.

And despite the fact that American doesn’t fly to Africa, they do codeshare with British Airways to Africa. You can buy paid American Airlines tickets to Africa as a result. You could even use American miles, then, to upgrade the transatlantic portion that’s actually flying American.

Unfortunately Citi points aren’t ideal for premium cabin tickets using this technique. Here’s a calendar showing lowest American Airline fares New York – Johannesburg roundtrip next month:

At 1.6 cents apiece it’ll cost about 400,000 points for a paid business class roundtrip (which does earn miles and credit towards status).

Citi points are a fantastic option for paid American domestic and economy travel, less good for premium cabin international travel.

Upgrading a Paid Ticket to Africa

American Airlines Executive Platinum members get 8 confirmed upgrades valid on just about any American Airlines fares for travel on American Airlines flights. But that only gets you to Europe, and a Platinum member doesn’t get these.

American AAdvantage will allow you to upgrade American flights with miles (and a cash co-pay, waived only for Concierge Key members).

There actually is an ability to upgrade using American miles on British Airways. The sweet spot is buying premium economy and using miles to upgrade to business (an economy ticket on British Airways would only be upgradable to premium economy).

However you can only use American miles to upgrade full fare tickets. For British Airways Premium Economy that means W fares only.

In contrast you can use British Airways points to upgrade W, E, and T premium economy fares to business class provided upgrade space is available.

So it may be a better option to buy a British Airways ticket to Africa, and use British Airways points for the upgrade as expensive in points as that will be since it obviates the need to purchase full fare.

Getting to Africa Using AAdvantage Miles

When you’re using American miles for an award ticket to Africa, your options are limited. If you’re an American Airlines flyer, or just someone with lots of American Airlines miles, it’s worth reviewing my Ultimate Guide to Booking Award Tickets Using American Miles.

The first thing to know is that American has a rule that when flying between two regions (in this case, US/Canada and Africa) you cannot connect in a third, different region outside of those unless a specific exception is provided for.

The long-standing exception is that you are permitted to connect in Europe. British Airways flies from London to several destinations in Africa. British Airways award space to Africa can be sparse especially in premium cabins, and those awards entail paying fuel surcharges in addition to taxes.

The more recent exception is that you are permitted to connect in Doha, Qatar provided you arrive and depart there on Qatar Airways. Qatar is a recent addition to the oneworld alliance partnering with American. (Although American partners with Etihad based in Abu Dhabi, you cannot fly Etihad to and from Africa on a single award — you’d be charged for an award from the US to Middle East and separately for an award Middle East to Africa.)

In general I find that American’s awards to Africa are difficult to get and overpriced. Here’s American’s award chart to/from the US. Africa is 150,000 miles roundtrip in business class, 200,000 miles in first. Again, you’ll need to either connect in London (and pay fuel surcharges) or in Doha.

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, 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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  1. Gary, you wrote that “American’s awards to Africa are overpriced”. Whose awards to Africa are fairly priced in business class? Thanks.

  2. this doesn’t really help the traveler, but Africa is one of the places where Star Alliance really shines. Egyptair, Ethiopian, and South African basically have the entire continent covered, and South African is a pretty decent carrier. Throw in Turkish or Lufthansa and you’re all set essentially. Even Skyteam has better coverage, with Air France/KLM and Kenya. This is my biggest gripe with Oneworld. As great as the alliance is and as wonderful as American is to its elites, they don’t fly to nearly as many places as the other two alliances.

  3. In general, for flights to southern Africa on OneWorld miles, the most direct routing is via Europe. British Airways has a number of intra-Africa flights to Namibia, Victoria Falls, Mauritius and South African destinations out of Johannesburg. Flying via Middle East on Qatar is another option, but their route network isn’t as good in southern Africa and you can’t then connect (on same mileage ticket) to a BA flight, menaing it’s an additional ticket (though just 10k in coach).

    For a trip from San Diego to Namibia (Windhoek) last year, I was on a rev ticket (for the upgrades and miles!) via LHR on AA and BA. My husband and I planned to use miles for his ticket, but the cheapest seats up front on AA/BA via LHR came to 75 or 100k miles and almost $1000 EACH WAY after taxes and fuel surcharges. We didn’t have enough miles for business on any one Star Alliance or Sky Team partner, but we did have some, so I started plotting a way to get him there with a combination of carriers.

    But for the return flight, I found it was possible to send him from Windhoek to JNB on BA, to Hong Kong and Tokyo on Cathay, and back to San Diego on JAL (2 tickets, one First, the other Business). Seats up front weren’t hard to snag 2 months in advance (120k miles; taxes were minimal), and here’s the kicker: The door-to-door time, while long, was just a few minutes shorter than the fastest routing I could get back through LHR. He spent more time in the air, but because he was going against the spin of the globe, he flew faster than I (my connections weren’t great, so in spent more time on the ground).

    The outbound was the other trick. The only options I could find from SAN through Doha required an overnight there and a long layover in JNB, meaning he’d leave almost 24 hours ahead of me to land Windhoek on the same flight I did. But I noticed that South African flies to Sao Paulo daily; business class seats were easy to obtain. So I flew him on AA from SAN to LAX and on to GRU, then on SA to JNB and on to WDH. I was never able to find business on the AA segments, but the flight in business on SA was just 40k — a steal. Again, he left 2 hours ahead of me and landed 2 hours ahead of me.

    This crazy routing would technically work out of most US cities, but probably wouldn’t make as much sense as it does out of a west coast city — from the midwest and east coast it’s almost always going to be faster to route through Europe (or possibly Doha) than via South America or Asia. But it worked for us like a dream.

  4. Another option is to purchase a (cheap) coach class ticket departing USA to Europe (usually LHR) on AA, then use the award points to book a premium BA flight from LHR to JNB or CPT. The LHR>South Africa flight is the longer of the two segments, and where comfort is most appreciated.. Also, that premium award entitles use of the lounge(s) at LHR for the usual long layover, as most ex USA flights arrive in the UK during morning, and the flights to South Africa depart at night. (There is also a rent-a-room-by-the-hour option at LHR which comes in handy for resting). The flyer can then link the 2 (*A) flights and send the baggage through, if necessary, and have the protections that come with flying partner flights. This may not be the cheapest way to go, but if your reader wants to fly some kind of premium service and doesn’t mind paying the BA surcharges, then it is a viable option.

  5. I get that the question was how to get to South Africa on AA and partners, however, the person asking has a load of Thank You points which don’t work efficiently on AA. I read through the answer expecting to see another option put forward through transferring to other TYP partners, but it never came. The fact that other alliances offer better options was mentioned, but there was no connection to the Mo’s biggest stash of points, TYP. Is there no better option with any of the TYP transfer partners for this trip to South Africa?

  6. I was trying to answer the question the person asking had, they want to earn AA status and I took the question to be AA focused.

    I’d focus otherwise on Star Alliance for awards with Citi points, and Singapore is the best Star partner that Citi has.

  7. Sad to say, I need something like this on how to fly to Europe from LAX on AA in business or first without paying BA fees. Seems like the only option is IB, but availability from LAX is rare, and when I find IB space, I can’t find the domestic portion from IBs gateway to LAX.

  8. For the question that was not asked and for anyone who would be doing a fair amount of traveling to, from and within Africa, the best answer/comment is unquestionably @Bobby’s on September 6, 2015 at 9:04 am.

    Star Alliance does indeed shine in Africa because of the continent’s own *A carriers and Turkish Airlines that @Bobby mentioned. In addition, I am right now in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I got to flying with another *A carrier that serves Central Africa and was not mentioned by @Bobby: Brussels Airlines, which used to be known as SABENA and thus maintained the IATA call code of ‘SN’ after they restructured and joined LH’s Miles & More FF program.

    For those living in the Eastern US, there is direct flight from EWR to BRU on UA, and then another semi-direct flight from BRU to FIH (Kinshasa) on SN, with an hour stop in Angola.

    So, with these carriers:
    South African Airways
    Brussels Airlines
    not to mention recent United flights to West Africa, *A reigns supreme for air travel to, from and within Africa. In fact, I am off to JNB tomorrow and then, after 3 days, directly to JFK on SA.

    Africa is a cinch with *A… (I was not paid to say that) 🙂

  9. @losingtrader — Kobe Alexander does not ring a bell. But we sure met a lot of great Namibians during our 2-1/2 week visit.

    @DCS is right, *A is far and away the leading alliance with options to North, Central, East and South Africa. I looked at options on Egyptair, Ethiopian, Turkish, and Brussels Airlines but, either due to lousy connections or mileage requirements that surpassed what we had in our United accounts, none worked as well for us as the unexpected routing through GRU.

    I should note that we had a last-minute scare when, upon checkin at the American Eagle counter in SAN, we were told that a visa was required for GRU, which we hadn’t arranged. I never thought to check into it, since he’d be in-transit, but since it was a separate ticket on a non OneWorld carrier it apparently mattered during checkin. The Eagle staff had never dealt with this before, but fortunately an AA agent (at the other terminal) was able to explain to the Eagle agent how to check him in and there were no other problems. But it was a nerve-racking 20 minutes or so…

  10. Beachfan—-Besides IB, fly to Europe on Air Berlin or FInnair using AA miles. Also, Jet Airways from EWR or Toronto To BRUssells is a code share with AA.

  11. Why not purchase a business class ticket from Toronto.

    Most of the month of November fares are $2138 including tax from Toronto to Johannesburg. Flights are operated by Lufthansa or Air Canada or a variety of others at the two thousand dollar price.

    Then use Avios points 4.5K each way to position yourself to Toronto from New York.

  12. Yikes!! Glad I visited the Seychelles in ’98 on an AA First Class award using British Airways. Waaaay back then BA flew non-stop to Victoria, Mahe and the service was great. No fuel surcharges in the ‘good ole days’… at least the memories last. 🙂

  13. Another plug for Star Alliance–wanted to add Swiss to the list of *A airlines flying regularly to Africa. If you’ll be doing most of your long-hauls to/from Africa, *A is the way to go, with SkyTeam in second.

  14. For using AA miles to Africa, never consider British Airways with the ripoff surcharges. Consider Iberia to North Africa and Qatar and Etihad to South and East Africa. Possible using two tickets on Cathay Pacific.
    I doubt Air Berlin, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Malaysia, and Finnair offer much but you could look at them.

  15. I’m not sure I am clear about this. I have 400,00 miles on American Airlines and I am a platinum member of AA. I want to go to South Africa next year. How do I do this.? Help

  16. Using AA miles, you are limited to Qatar and BA but BA will rip you off with their fees. I don’t know if Cathay CX or Japan JL will work

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