Tips for Booking Award Tickets to Africa
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Africa can be a very tough destination to get to on miles, given how far from the US it is and that there’s very limited nonstop service from the US. As a result, an award ticket to South Africa often requires award availability for two longhaul flights to match up, which can be really tough to do. To keep things simple I'll leave some Northern Africa destinations, like Egypt and Morocco, out of this post (in terms of tips they align more closely with the Middle East, which I'll save for a future post). That’s why I figured I’d offer some tips for the best airlines and products for getting to Africa, broken down by alliance:

 

Star Alliance

South African Airways Direct from New York and Washington

South African Airways is one of only two airlines flying direct between the US and South Africa. Delta also flies to Johannesburg out of Atlanta, though finding “low” level award space is virtually impossible. South African is fairly good about releasing award space, but the seats tend to go quickly, so be sure to book as close to 11 months out as possible, especially if you’re traveling during their high season. The flight does have a fuel stop in Dakar, though to the best of my knowledge passengers can stay on the plane, so it’s not too much of an inconvenience.

South African has an excellent fully flat business class product.


Ethiopian Airlines from Washington to Addis Ababa

Ethiopian Airlines recently joined the Star Alliance, which I believe was a very nice addition. They are based in Addis Ababa and fly to Washington Dulles, and have plenty of award space in both business class (which is angled flat) and coach. They operate the route with one of their new 777 aircraft, and the business class product actually seems to be decent. From there you can make easy connections to the rest of Africa.


Continental Airlines from Houston to Lagos

Continental flies to Lagos using one of their 777s that features fully flat beds, and there’s a ton of award space. Now, perhaps Lagos isn’t your top choice for an African vacation destination, though South African Airways has convenient connections from there to Johannesburg. I mention it because the amount of business class award space on this flight is unreal.


United Airlines from Washington to Accra

United’s route to Accra is operated by one of their 767-300 aircraft featuring fully flat business and first class seats, and award space is plentiful in both cabins. There are convenient connections from Accra to Johannesburg on South African Airways.


Turkish Airlines through Istanbul to Nairobi

Nairobi is a popular safari starting point, and unfortunately one of the tougher airports to get to on miles. That being said, Turkish has a nonstop flight from Istanbul to Nairobi that usually has plenty of award space, so if you can make your way to Istanbul you’re set. This can be done a couple of ways. Either you can fly a Turkish flight nonstop from one of their North American gateways, including Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Alternatively, you can connect through Western Europe on Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss, etc., and time permitting, even have a stopover there (which most airlines will allow for free).

 

OneWorld

British Airways through London to Africa

British Airways has plenty of service to Africa, including to Accra, Cape Town, Dar Es Salaam, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and more. Award space is generally quite good, and they have an excellent fully flat first and business class product.

The major downside is that British Airways imposes fuel surcharges on award tickets, so if you’re flying from the US to Africa via London, expect to pay over $1,000 in taxes and fuel surcharges, even if booking through American AAdvantage. It goes without saying that for most of us, the ticket doesn’t feel like all that much of a “reward” at that point.

One trick to keep down the cost of the surcharges at least somewhat is to fly American as far as London, since fuel surcharges wouldn’t be imposed for those segments.


Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong to Johannesburg

I mention this simply because OneWorld options to South Africa are very limited. Cathay Pacific is very good about releasing award space in first and business class, both from their North American gateways (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Vancouver) to Hong Kong, as well as from Hong Kong to Johannesburg.

The major downside is that American won’t let you legally route this way unless you want to book it as two separate awards. So you’d be stuck paying for an award from the US to Asia, and then an award from Asia to South Africa. The one exception is when booking through Alaska Mileage Plan, which allows routings from the US to South Africa via Hong Kong on Cathy Pacific, which I also consider to be one of the 10 best value premium cabin award tickets.


SkyTeam

Air France through Paris

Air France serves several destinations in Africa, including Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Lagos. They actually have fairly good award availability, though it’s worth keeping in mind that their business class product is angled flat, meaning it’s slightly less comfortable than most of the competition. Keep in mind that Air France flies the A380 to Johannesburg, so if you’re flying out of Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, it’s possible to fly all the way to Johannesburg on the A380.

 

Most SkyTeam airlines will allow you a free stopover, so if you want you could even spend a few nights in Paris on either the outbound or return to split up the journey a bit.

 

Kenya Airways through London, Paris, or Amsterdam

If you’re trying to get to Nairobi on SkyTeam, Kenya Airways is by far your best bet, as they’re excellent about releasing award space. They fly to London, Paris, and Amsterdam in Europe, gateways that can easily be reached from the US on Delta, Air France, and KLM. That being said, they have recliner seats in business class, so the product isn't quite as comfortable as the competition.

 

Kenya Airways award space can be searched through Air France’s Flying Blue website, where you’ll find there’s a ton of award space on these airlines to Nairobi.

There you have it. While award availability trends are constantly changing, as of now the above are the best options for travel to Africa. Historically Lufthansa and Swiss were great about releasing award space to Johannesburg, though in the past several months award availability has really dried up on them. Update: Note that Lufthansa First Class can be booked with United miles only 15 days in advance or fewer. And Swiss no longer releases any first class award seats to partners; you would need to use Miles & More miles, for example from the 50,000 mile bonus for the Lufthansa Premier Miles & More Credit Card plus additional Miles & More miles.

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Comments
Picture?type=large Kevin H. commented 14 Feb 2012
Don't forget EgyptAir... Lots of ways to get to Cairo. And from Cairo, you can access a lot of Africa. Good option for Star Alliance.
Picture?type=large James K. commented 14 Feb 2012
Nice write-up, but it feels like you left Skyteam a bit short. Doesn't DL fly to Accra, Abuja, and Lagos? And what about KLM?
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 14 Feb 2012
@ Kevin -- You're definitely right. I was going to keep Egypt as a destination for a future post (for practical purposes I think of it more as the Middle East than Africa), though they do have connection options as well. @ James -- True, though I find they don't have nearly as much "low" level award space as the other options.
Picture?type=large Ken P. commented 14 Feb 2012
Good summary...often you can get IAD/IAH-SAO on UA/CO and then SA from SAO-JNB using Star Alliance. It's too bad VS got taken away (but lucky enough to snag VS from LAX-LHR-CPT with a four hour layover in the VS lounge and then SA on the way back through IAD
Picture?type=large Jason S. commented 15 Feb 2012
You left out a couple SkyTeam options. I just returned on an award flight via Rome on Kenyan and Delta. Finally, Delta connects through a couple west African cities, where it is possible to pick up Kenyan flights onwards.
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 15 Feb 2012
@ Jason -- There are plenty of other options, I was just trying to highlight some of the better ones. Saver award space on Delta to Rome is virtually non-existent in my experience, which is one reason I left it out.
Picture?type=large Graham W. commented 15 Feb 2012
Great post, Ben, lots of useful info Many thanks - enjoyed reading.
Picture?type=large Callie W. commented 15 Feb 2012
Thanks for the post. What engine do you search the Ethiopian flights on? ANA? KVS?
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 16 Feb 2012
@ Graham -- Thanks! @ Callie -- I use the ANA tool.
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 17 Feb 2012
@ Nabeel -- Unfortunately in the meantime Swiss availability isn't very good to South Africa. While it is good to Nairobi, availability isn't good nonstop from the US to Zurich, so I left it out. So while it's a possibility (like many other choices), it's not really the most direct option anymore.
Picture?type=large Jesse S. commented 22 Feb 2012
I tried booking a business star alliance award ticket LAX into Dakar return Accra. I looked at every date from Sept 1 to Oct 31 departure. It was impossible to book. Turkish had flights and seats but mileage was more that allowed for award to Africa, SA had only economy and all the european partners had zero availabilty. Finally got a United to Accra via Washington with an Accra return on Lufthansa ACC/FRA/ORD/LAX.
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