In several prior posts, I mentioned my desire to book business class award flights to Cape Town, South Africa, for my family of three. I started by looking at award prices through a variety of tools and then I looked to see if there were any 1-stop options for our flights. You can catch up on this series here:
- The best award price finder. Case study part 1.
- The best award price finder. Case study part 1B (added Milez.biz).
- The best award price finder. Case study part 2. Other key info
- Destination Cape Town. My one stop options.
While I did find a couple of potential 1-stop routes (via Amsterdam or Paris), neither has good award availability. I’ll keep on eye on those routes, but first I’ll look to see if there are any good multi-stop options.
In the previous post, I found all possible one stop routes and examined them for feasibility. In this case, there are far too many 2 stop options to do the same thing. Instead, I’ll simply look to see what pops up. My high level strategy is to look for Star Alliance availability first, and then to check specifically with a few airlines that might be available for more luxurious flights such as Qatar business class, Emirates first class, and Etihad first class. If I fail with those searches, I can then open the field further to additional SkyTeam, OneWorld, or other options.
There are several reasons I’m starting the multi-stop search with Star Alliance. First, Star Alliance is the largest alliance and, as a result, it is usually easier to find award availability. Second, some of the best award prices are available on Star Alliance (such as 104K round trip business class with ANA miles). Third, United.com has an excellent built-in award search engine. It doesn’t cover every possible Star Alliance carrier, but it does have most. So, my plan for searching Star Alliance award space is to start with United.com and then move to ANA and Aeroplan’s websites if necessary.
United Award Search
When searching for awards, I often search not just from my city of departure and to my destination, but also from/to airports that are readily accessible at either end of the trip. For example, there are tons of short, and usually cheap, flights between Detroit (my origin) and Chicago. So, I don’t mind booking awards that originate in Chicago even if the award doesn’t cover the initial Detroit to Chicago leg of the trip. Similarly, while my intended destination is Cape Town, I don’t mind flying into Johannesburg. I could then take a cheap flight to Cape Town, as needed.
So, my plan was to search United.com for business class award availability across the following routes:
- Detroit – Cape Town
- Detroit – Johannesburg
- Chicago – Cape Town
- Chicago – Johannesburg
- DC – Cape Town
- DC– Johannesburg
Before beginning my search, I logged into United.com. I have Silver status thanks to my Marriott Platinum status (see: Shortcuts to earning and renewing Marriott elite status) and it is possible that United will show me more award space on their own flights, due to my status, than they would otherwise.
To keep things simple, I began by searching only for outbound one-way flights…
United.com Outbound Flights
Detroit to Cape Town (DTW-CPT)
I began by searching for award space for just one adult. I immediately found multiple saver level options for flights on South African Airlines or Ethiopian Airlines. In both cases, United flights were available (often in economy) to position me to the international flights. One intriguing option included a non-stop flight between JFK and Johannesburg on South African Airlines.
Unfortunately, when I changed the search to include 3 adults, all available business class options disappeared for my dates of interest.
Detroit to Johannesburg (DTW-JNB)
This seemed to be the “sweet spot” search. I found plenty of availability for 3 people, in business class. Most available routes were as follows:
- Detroit to either Chicago, DC, or Newark (often in economy)
- Chicago, DC, or Newark to Sao Paulo on United BusinessFirst
- Sao Paulo to Johannesburg on South African Airlines business class
Other outbound searches (ORD-CPT, ORD-JNB, WAS-CPT, WAS-JNB)
None of the other searches revealed new options besides the ones already found in the DTW-JNB search.
United.com Inbound Flights
Cape Town (CPT) to Detroit (DTW)
While a one person search did reveal an available option, it wasn’t a good one. The trip would begin with a 6 hour flight on Ethiopian Airlines in economy, followed by a business class flight on Ethiopian Airlines which stops in Dublin before arriving in DC. Then, I would change airports in DC to return home. Ugh.
Johannesburg (JNB) to Detroit (DTW)
The one available result here was similar to the one above except that the first leg would be in Ethiopian Airlines business class. A stop in Dublin and then an airport change in DC make this an unattractive option.
Johannesburg (JNB) to Frankfurt (FRA)
I looked at this option because I know that there’s a Lufthansa non-stop flight from Frankfurt to Detroit. And, this route (JNB-FRA) was wide open for business class for 3 people on Egypt Air, with a stop in Cairo. Unfortunately, this flight arrives in Frankfurt at 2:10pm whereas the Lufthansa flight departs at 10:55 am. If we want to do a stop-over in Frankfurt, this could work. Otherwise, we’ll have to look for availability on the Lufthansa flight from JNB to FRA since that flight arrives at 5:25 am and can easily connect to the flight to Detroit.
Cape Town (CPT) to Sao Paulo (GRU)
Since Sao Paulo was a commonly found layover city for the outbound flights, I decided to check to see if I could cobble together return flights through GRU. And, indeed, South African Airlines showed good availability for 3 people with a stop in Johannesburg.
Sao Paulo (GRU) to Detroit (DTW)
Following a flight from South Africa, which would arrive at 5pm in GRU, I found availability for 3 on United Airlines to DC. That flight departs at 12:05 am, so we would have a long 7-hour layover unless we decide to stop-over for a couple of days on the return.
United.com Options Summarized
The good: It looks like I could piece together a 3 person Star Alliance award, most likely with a layover in Sao Paulo Brazil in each direction. We might throw in a stop-over in Sao Paulo since we would be there anyway. Unfortunately, that would mean paying for Visas for the three of us unless Brazil extends the waived Visa policy that they’ve put in place for the summer Olympics.
The bad: All of the currently available options involve 3 stops in each direction. I was hoping for just 2 stops. And, based on reviews I’ve read, I won’t expect extreme luxury in business class on either United or South African Airlines, but both should be comfortable enough.
Qatar Airways runs quite a few Routes between the United States and Doha. And, from Doha they fly non-stop to both Cape Town and Johannesburg. After looking at their route map, I identified the following US airports that would be reasonable candidates for me to position to (I excluded west coast airports since they are too far out of the way):
- New York
Using BA.com to search for award space on Qatar, I found business class from Philadelphia to Doha readily available:
Qatar flies their new A350 on this route (read a review here). I’m excited to try it out!
Doha to South Africa was more difficult, but I finally found a flight to Durban (with a stop in Johannesburg) with 3 business class seats available. Between Doha and South Africa, Qatar flies the 787 Dreamliner. One Mile at a Time describes Qatar’s 787 business class seat as “simply amazing” and rated their food “10/10… Absolutely perfect”.
For the return, I found flights to Doha:
But, I couldn’t find available awards from Doha to any of the the US airports listed above.
Qatar Options Summarized
The good: Business class award flights were available for all 3 of us from Philadelphia to Doha to Duban. And, I love the idea of flying both the A350 and the 787 Dreamliner in one trip. In fact, I went ahead and used my AA miles to book the outbound flight. Since I have Executive Platinum status with AA, I can always cancel and get my miles back with no fee if I find a better option. Luckily, despite AA’s recent devaluation, the business class award rates to South Africa remained at just 75K miles each way. Another positive: While I visited both Johannesburg and Cape Town many years ago, I’ve never been to Durban. This route will make it easy for us to stop-over in Durban before going onward to Cape Town.
The bad: We’ll have 3 stops on the way to Durban: Philadelphia, Doha, and Johannesburg. That said, I don’t think we’ll even have to deplane at Joburg, so that stop shouldn’t be a big deal. Another concern is that the layover in Doha is short: 65 minutes. If we miss the connection, the next Qatar flight from Doha to South Africa is about 20 hours later. Now that would be a painful stop.
Qatar business class looks pretty nice, so I’ll continue to look for Qatar award space to open up for our return flight. I’ll also look at other Star Alliance websites (ANA and Aeroplan) to see if they can help me find options that United.com failed to show. And, I’ll also explore higher end options such as Emirates and Etihad first class. I may even look into longer distance luxury options such as Singapore Airlines from South Africa to Singapore, and then perhaps Cathay Pacific to Chicago. Stay tuned.