It can be tough to redeem points to regions that don’t have a lot of nonstop service from the US, and that sums up the Middle East and Africa pretty well. Generally I far prefer United or US Airways miles for award redemptions to these regions, simply because of the variety of partners they have and lack of fuel surcharges they impose. That being said, we can still try to make the best of Membership Rewards points.
The top programs to consider are as follows:
- Air Canada Aeroplan (Star Alliance)
- All Nippon Airways Mileage Club (Star Alliance)
- Delta SkyMiles (SkyTeam)
Air Canada Aeroplan (Star Alliance)
Aeroplan’s award chart for travel between the US and the Middle East/Africa looks as follows:
The prices are pretty high to begin with. 135,000 miles for business class to the MIddle East and North Africa is high, though 150,000 miles for business class to India and East, West, and South Africa is excessive. And let’s not even talk about their rates of 200,000+ miles for first class.
To add insult to injury, they impose fuel surcharges on a majority of their partner airlines, which can add up to $1,000 for a roundtrip itinerary to these regions. That being said, you can minimize fuel surcharges by traveling on Brussels, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, Scandinavian, Singapore, Swiss, Turkish, United, US Airways.
Generally speaking United and US Airways have decent award availability between the US and Europe, so if you want to route via Europe those would be your best options. EgyptAir has excellent business class award availability between New York and Cairo and a fully flat seat, though for obvious reasons a lot of people are hesitant to fly them.
Ethiopian serves Washington Dulles and Toronto and even flies the 787 Dreamliner most dates, so if you’re up for a bit of an adventure they’re definitely worth considering. They don’t have amazing award availability like EgyptAir, though.
Turkish also has excellent award availability between Istanbul and the Middle East/Africa, and Istanbul is a great city for a stopover.
South African Airways also belongs to the Star Alliance and has decent award availability between Washington/New York and Johannesburg, though you’ll pay dearly in terms of fuel surcharges. But if you value the convenience, they do have nonstop service to South African and an excellent fully flat business class product.
The nice thing about Aeroplan is that they allow two stopovers or one stopover and one open jaw, so that’s quite generous. Furthermore, points transfer instantly from Membership Rewards, and their booking interface is quite easy to use.
All Nippon Airways Mileage Club (Star Alliance)
Update: apparently ANA is now imposing fuel surcharges on Etihad redemptions, so this option may not be as lucrative anymore.
ANA has a distance based award chart which is generally quite lucrative, though the issue is that they impose fuel surcharges equal to those charged by their partner airlines on paid tickets, with no exceptions (unlike Aeroplan).
One of their better partners is Etihad, which doesn’t impose any fuel surcharges even on revenue tickets, as luck would have it (as you can see below in the fare breakdown, there are no fuel surcharges).
That means flying 11,001-14,000 miles would cost you 90,000 miles in business class or 140,000 miles in first class. This would cover a roundtrip between New York and Abu Dhabi, for example, and is a spectacular deal (okay, I admit it, I’m just screwing with you guys in the below graphic). I even used exactly this award to fly Etihad first class between New York and Abu Dhabi last year.
14,001-18,000 flown miles would cost you 105,000 miles in business class or 160,000 miles in first class. That would get you to most places in the Middle East, India, and Northern Africa.
Lastly, 18,001-20,000 flown miles would cost you 115,000 miles in business class and 180,000 miles in first class. That’s enough for travel to most of Africa, with the exception of South Africa.
The key is that you’re not allowed to mix airlines on a partner award ticket booked through ANA, so all your travel would have to be on Etihad OR on the Star Alliance. That being said, Etihad has a fully flat beds in business class and enclosed suites in first class, so it’s a great use of miles.
ANA’s only other partner (at least that I know of) that doesn’t impose fuel surcharges is US Airways, and they do fly to Tel Aviv using one of their Airbus 330s equipped with Envoy Suites (similar to the business class seat on this Cathay Pacific flight). Roundtrip travel between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv would cost just 60,000 miles in coach or 90000 miles in business class.
As you can see in most cases ANA is cheaper than Aeroplan. The “catch” is that Membership Rewards points transfer instantly to Aeroplan, while a transfer to ANA takes 1-2 days. Furthermore, I find the process of booking/changing an Aeroplan award to be much easier.
Delta SkyMiles (SkyTeam)
Delta charges 120,000 SkyMiles for business class between the US and the Middle East/Africa, and has quite a few partners, none of which are especially exciting.
The most direct option, and also the one with the most award space, is Saudi. They fly to New York and Washington out of Jeddah and Riyadh, and release plenty of business class award space, typically at least seven seats per flight. I can’t say they’re my first choice of airlines, though they will get you to a lot of places that are otherwise tough to get to.
Then there’s Air France through Paris, which has plenty of service to both the Middle East and Africa. Unfortunately nowadays it can be pretty complicated to use Delta SkyMiles for travel on Air France, as Air France only makes a subset of their Flying Blue award space available to SkyMiles members. The only place to accurately see what space Delta has access to is on delta.com, and that can be quite a cumbersome process.
Then there’s Kenya Airways, which serves several destinations in Europe including Frankfurt, London, and Paris. You can search their award space on the Air France Flying Blue website, and they release a ton of award space (as you can see below, there’s availability every day for an entire month next year).
The challenge is getting to that European gateway city, though between Delta and Air France it shouldn’t be too tough to find transatlantic award space with a bit of advance planning.
Membership Rewards points really aren’t that great for travel to the Middle East and Africa, though of the above options I’d say using ANA miles for Etihad is the best option. Nonetheless if your miles are diversified, I’d generally use a different currency for travel to these regions.