[Update United Airlines has change the way multi-city itineraries price out, so many parts of this redemption are not possible]
OUTBOUND FLIGHTS TO CAPE TOWN
United Airlines announced changes to their award chart, but gave members time to redeem miles at current rates before the higher redemption rates kicked in. This impending deadline instilled me with motivation to book something speculatively so I can lock in the lower redemption rates because some of the new rates were drastically higher.
What I ended up booking was Newark, NJ to Cape Town, South Africa via Dulles and Johannesburg in business class for 60k United miles one-way nearly 10 months advance. Had I booked after the devaluation, I would have needed 80k miles versus 60k – a 33% increase.
Africa is one of the toughest regions of the world to book an award trip to especially on direct flights in business class. South African Airways does release some business class inventory, but to secure these seats, one needs to book at least 8 to 10 months in advance, which is how I secured a seat. I didn’t give much thought about the return trip until about 7 months later.
One of my bucket list items was to take a shower at 38,000 feet in the air and at the time I booked my return flight, the only way to accomplish this was to fly first class on Emirates in their A380 aircrafts. I had built up a bank of Alaska Miles mostly from flying Delta Airlines and crediting them to Alaska Airlines.
I accumulated enough Alaska miles to book one-way on Emirates for 100,000 Alaska miles and $77.10 in taxes/fees. It’s a good thing I booked this because the availability to book first or business class on Emirates had disappeared using Alaska miles.
I found first class availability on Emirates from Mauritius to San Francisco via Dubai on for roughly my desired travel dates. Part of my success stems from fact that I was flexible with both my dates and cities in North America. I ended up in San Francisco versus the East Coast, which has its ups and downs as far as my personal travel logistics go. The advantage was that I spent a little more time flying first class, the disadvantage is that ended up on the opposite coast from where I live.
With my outbound and return flights booked, I put off the rest of my Africa trip planning until I was three months from my departure date.
INTERNAL AFRICA FLIGHTS
I found an overland tour originating in Johannesburg and ending in Victoria Falls, which included game drives and camping in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It seemed like a good variety of things so I booked it. Since I was arriving in Cape Town on my outbound flight, I needed to reposition to Johannesburg to meet up with my tour group.
My options to get to Johannesburg were:
- Redeem my British Airways Avios for 4.5k miles and $44 USD for a one-way economy ticket on British Airways(operated by Comair). The trouble I had with this option was that the lack of availability.
- Pay out of pocket for a revenue flight costing $183. This is what I did because it was a fairly cheap flight and the flight times were convenient.
OUTBOUND FROM VICTORIA FALLS
Climbing Kilimanjaro was on my bucket list. A friend who I met on The Mongol Rally showed interest and we arranged a guided trip to work with his holiday time.
To fly to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, I redeemed 35k and $84.20 United miles for business class seats on South African and Ethiopian Airways via Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Addis Abba. A 3 three-stop itinerary was ridiculous, but it was the only way to get the redemption to work with United miles. I had checked luggage and miraculously it made it without a hitch. I recall at each stop, I was constantly asking the gate agent to track my checked bags to ensure it was loaded on the aircraft because it contained all my gear for climbing Kilimanjaro and not having any of my gear would have been disastrous.
I was contemplating whether it was worth cashing in 35k miles for business class. All the flight segments with the exception of one flight segment were on narrow body planes and the business class seats versus economy seats were marginally more comfortable. The longest flight segment was 4.5 hours and I could have sat in an economy seat given the relatively short flight. The only advantage of sitting up front was being the first one off the plane, which meant I was the first one in line for the Visa on Arrival for any countries requiring a visa on arrival.
KILIMANJARO TO ZANZIBAR
The plan after climbing Kilimanjaro was to spend sometime in Zanzibar to relax from all the camping and trekking. I booked a paid flight on Precision Air from JRO to ZNZ for $148 USD to match what my friend booked with his travel agent.
ZANZIBAR TO NAIROBI
My friend who I climbed Kilimanjaro with departed Zanzibar to return home. I met up with Melissa at the Hilton in Nairobi. I took the ferry from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam one-way in business class and paid $35 USD. I read reviews on the ferry and for the incremental $5 USD over economy, it was well worth it to sit in the air-conditioned cabin. The ride was bumpy at times and the woman of the couple sitting next to me had her mouth to the barf bag.
I spent a night in Dar Es Salaam at the Holiday Inn where the next morning I flew to Nairobi on Kenya Airways by redeeming 7.5k Air France Flying Blue miles and paying $55 in taxes/fees. The Air France miles were obtained by transferring Amex Membership Rewards points at 1:1 ratio. A paid flight was about $255 USD. So I was saving about $200 by cashing 8k MR points(transfers can only be in increments of 1 thousand).
NAIROBI TO MASAI MARA
Melissa and I booked a round trip flight to the nearest airport to the Fairmont Safari Club for $316 round trip per person. The flight duration was about an hour. The internal bush flight departed from the Wilson Airport in Nairobi.
NAIROBI TO MAURITIUS
After landing in Nairobi Wilson Airport from the Masai Mara Safari Club, we went directly to the Nairobi International Airport where we had flights to Mauritius via Johannesburg on South African Airways. I ended up using 35k United miles and paying $75.20 in taxes/fees for the one-way in business class. Melissa redeemed half as much miles because she was flying economy. She did get an entire row to herself, which she dubs the “ghetto” lay flat. In the end, I think she ended up sleeping better than me because the South African Airways Business Class seats are recliners and couldn’t lie on my side comfortable.
The break down of the miles used is as follows:
- 60k United miles and $20.20 for the outbound to Cape Town
- 35k United miles and $84.20 for VFA to JRO
- 35k united miles and $75.20 for NBO to MRU
- 7.5k Air France Flying Blue miles and $55 in taxes/fees
- 100k Alaska miles and $70.43
- CPT-JNB: $183
- JRO-ZNZ: $149
- WIL-Mara Ngerende: $316
Total cash out of pocket for taxes/fees and paid flights was $953.03.