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Best U.S. Programs for Business and First Class Travel to Africa

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Best U.S. Programs for Business and First Class Travel to Africa

Choosing the best airline program to fly in business or first to Africa isn’t easy. Awards are expensive, there are not as many options as there are to Europe or Asia, and some business class cabins are simply better than others. Having said that, no matter how much you’ve dreamed of visiting Africa, your plans probably don’t include arriving exhausted after a very long journey in a cramped economy seat. Let’s see how much style and comfort our miles can afford to travel to the cradle of humankind.

According to Trip Advisor, the best travel destinations in Africa are in Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. And, of course, Victoria Falls, which is located on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia and is very easy to get to from South Africa using Avios on a British Airways’ subsidiary Comair.

Delta is not the part of this discussion for two reasons. First, its availability to Africa is quite poor, and second, it has increased the redemption rates to South Africa from 160,000 to 180,000 miles after October 1, and even these levels are hard to find.

As to Alaska Airlines, it has incredible redemption rates on Cathay Pacific, 125,000 miles in business and 140,000 in first. But availability is hit or miss. Other Alaska partners don’t have good award space either (Flying Blue), or cost too much in miles (Emirates) or cash for fuel surcharges (British Airways).

Logistics of an Award: Availability, Mile Cost, Cash Outlay, Routing Rules

AAVery good.
unitedVery good.

WINNER: United


American doesn’t fly to Africa – however, its oneworld partner Qatar has an extensive African network, and terrific award space. Business class availability between the U.S. and Doha and between Doha and other African nations is great for up to four people if you can plan in advance.

However, due to the AA routing rules, Qatar is the only Middle Eastern carrier you can use to connect to Africa. If a nonstop flight between the U.S. and Doha is unavailable for your travel dates, you’ll have to connect in Europe, and this routing is dominated by British Airways which has high fuel surcharges. That’s why you’ll have to connect via AA or its other partners, like Air Berlin, or Iberia, and finding premium class availability for these flights can be difficult.

Qatar is the only Middle Eastern carrier you can use to connect to Africa due to the AA routing rules

United, on the other hand, has quite a few partners to take you to Africa, from South African Airways (although getting a business class seat on this carrier is super hard) which flies nonstop to Johannesburg from New York and Washington to Turkish that has excellent business class and one of the best lounges in the world at its hub, Ataturk Airport. And, unlike American, United allows you to connect anywhere, within reason. There are also two Africa-based airlines, Egypt Air and Ethiopian, although they feature angle-flat seats.

United wins this duel due to a better choice, but only barely.

Mile Cost (round-trip)

 Mile Cost (roundtrip)
AA150,000 in business, 240,000 in first.
united140,000-170,000 in business, 160,000-260,000 in first.

WINNER: American


While United’s 140,000 miles in business and 160,000 miles in first don’t look too bad, the reality is that in order to get them, you would have to fly your first transatlantic or transpacific flight on United metal. That availability is hard to find, and when you can find it, it often comes with a convoluted connection or two that you might want to avoid. So in all likelihood, you would be flying on partners and pay more, anyway.

Using American miles on Qatar, on the other hand, ensures that not only will you spend less miles, but you’re getting great business class with food and service to match and a simple connection to your final destination.

Cash Cost:

 Cash Cost
AAFuel surcharges are added for British Airways and Iberia.
unitedNo surcharges.

WINNER: United


The main culprit here is that British Airways can add up to $1,500 to the cost of your “free” ticket in form of fuel/carrier surcharges. Iberia also adds some moderate surcharges, but they are not nearly as bad. If you avoid these two airlines, you won’t be paying any surcharges at all, but with United you don’t have to pay any surcharges under any circumstances.

Routing Rules:

 Routing Rules
AAOneway travel is allowed, can’t cross the third region (with an exception of Europe and Middle East on Qatar), the shortest routing possible, no free stopovers.
unitedOneway travel is allowed, connect anywhere, one free stopover, up to two open jaws.

WINNER: United


American normally doesn’t allow you to cross the third region when you fly between other two, but it has eased some restrictions for Africa by allowing you to connect in Europe or the Middle East on Qatar. However, the exception is for Qatar only – you can’t fly to Africa on other partners, such as Etihad or Royal Jordanian.

United, on the other hand, is not only very liberal with connections, but you can also have a free stopover and up to two open jaws on a round-trip ticket. It means, you can stop in Lisbon, Istanbul, Cairo or other cities along the way without paying extra.

RUNNER UP: American

United has a slight edge over American due to the better routing rules and better choices of airlines that can fly you to Africa on an award ticket.

However, great American availability on Qatar, and cheaper business class redemption rates make American a very powerful contender. If you are not interested in a free stopover on United, you might want to seriously consider collecting American miles for Africa.

How to Get United Airlines MileagePlus Miles

See our post on getting premium seats to Europe for more details.

How to Get American Airlines AAdvantage Miles

The following credit cards can help you get AAdvantage miles. Annual fees are waived for the first year.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard

  • Sign up bonus: 50,000 miles
  • Spending requirement: $3,000 in three months.
  • Earning rate: Two miles per dollar spent on AA purchases, one mile for everything else.

CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard

  • Sign-up bonus: 50,000 miles
  • Spending requirement: $3,000 in three months.
  • Earning rate: Two miles per dollar spent on select business purchases including gas, two miles per dollar spent on AA purchases, one mile for everything else.

You can also get American miles by applying for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card and Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express. You can transfer SPG points to AA miles at 1:1.25 ratio when you transfer more than 20,000 points (1:1 otherwise). Annual fees are waived for the first year.

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card:

  • Sign up bonus: 75,000 points (90 000 miles when transferred)
  • Spending requirement: $3,000 in three months
  • Earning rate: Six points for each dollar at SPG hotels and  two points for all other purchases

Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card:

  • Sign up bonus: 100,000 points (125 000 miles when transferred)
  • Spending requirement: $5,000 in three months
  • Earning rate: Six points for each dollar at SPG hotels and two points for all other purchases

Using American miles for business class flights to Africa might become a more valuable proposition in the future. Qatar has recently announced a plan of retrofitting all its planes with new “super business” class semi-enclosed seats with double beds. If that dream-like seat comes true one day, you’ll be glad to have enough American miles to snatch it up.

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