30% American Express Transfer Bonus to Virgin Atlantic and Why Go for It: Part 2 – One Unicorn Redemption on South African Airways



South African Airways

Johannesburg, South Africa. That’s what you should do when you score a 39,000-point Business Class seat to Africa

Part 1: 30% American Express Transfer Bonus to Virgin Atlantic and Why Go for It: Amazing Values on Delta

Update 8.27.18: According to reader Brian, Virgin now adds YQ for the South African flights (north of $600). 

Update 8.4.18: I’m updating this post because the 30% American Express transfer bonus is available again.

Update: The Bonus is Dead

If you have one of the American Express Membership Award cards that allow you to transfer points to airline programs, you should seriously consider this promotion. The 30% American Express transfer bonus is a cool thing. It turns almost every redemption into a steal. Or it would if South African Airways didn’t give us such a hard time to find an award seat, especially in Business Class.

Update 8.4.18: I was pleasantly surprised that Business Class award space on South African Airways from New York to Johannesburg has become much better in the last year (you can look for it by searching United or LifeMiles). And you’ll only pay 58,000/116,000 AMEX points for a Business Class seat. Find your seat first, then transfer the points and book over the phone.

Let’s compare availability from New York to Johannesburg  “then” and “now.”

This is how it looked in the fall of 2017 (I was checking the spring of 2018)

South African Airways

And this is how the spring 2019 availability looks now. Ok, not ideal, but much better than last year.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. The award space is even better in winter, although it dries up in May. You should (theoretically) be able to book the inventory you see on the United or LifeMiles websites.

So what’s that South African Airways unicorn redemption, you ask?

I’ve almost refrained from posting it, because good things do get killed when too many people are talking about it. But then I remembered that amazing Brussels Airways JFK-BRU redemption on Etihad. People, including big-name bloggers, touted it for years and, sure enough, at one point it did get killed. Was it killed because of the bloggers, though? I don’t believe that. For one thing, it was a fringe redemption. And it was hard to get. And Etihad was probably doing its own maintenance thing and decided enough is enough. Bottom line is: my Africa find (not claiming the authorship, but I’ve never found a single mention of it in Google search) is even more “fringy” than the Brussels Airways thing.

Let’s take a look.

Here is the Virgin Atlantic South African chart. See anything curious?

South African Airways

50,000 miles for a roundtrip flight in Business Class between the U.S. and Africa

So, a nonstop South African roundtrip Business Class flight between the U.S. and South Africa costs 150,000 Virgin Atlantic miles. In the meantime, a South African fifth freedom flight between IAD and Senegal (DKR) costs only 50,000 miles, while the next leg (on the same plane) that connects DKR and JNB costs another 50,000 miles. Give it a moment to sink in:

  • IAD to DKR RT: 50,000 miles.
  • IAD to DKR to JNB RT 100,000 miles.
  • JFK to JNB RT: 150,000 miles

Fellows, you can get a Business Class seat from the U.S. to West Africa for 50,000 miles. Yes, roundtrip! And a Business Class seat from West Africa to South Africa for 50,000 miles, for a total of 100,000 miles!

UPDATE 01.06.18: The new airport is now open in (near) Dakar. When you’re looking for flights, look for DSS – Blaise Diagne. Availability seems to be excellent, so far.

Remember, that’s BEFORE the bonus!

The flights are reasonably convenient, too. You arrive at DKR at 5:35 AM and depart at 6:35 AM. And don’t worry about the short connecting time – you will normally be traveling on the same plane. Or you can take an improvised stopover for as long as you want. I’ve never been to Senegal, but I hear it’s a fascinating country.

Update 8.4.18: Look at this beauty! This is a flight from Washington to Dakar. South African flies this route 3 times a week, and Business Class awards are almost always available. 

Here is award space between Dakar and Johannesburg. You’ll fly on the same plane (and for about the same amount of time).

Again, we’re talking about the cost for a Business Class seat on a roundtrip flight. To Africa!

Even without the 30% American Express transfer bonus to Virgin Atlantic, this is quite insane. With the bonus, this redemption is out-of-this-worldish (in full compliance with the title of this piece)!

  • IAD to DKR: 39,000 Amex points RT.
  • IAD-DKR-JNB: 78,000 Amex points RT.

Must be some kind of a price mistake, right? Nope. I called Virgin Atlantic and was able to put the award on hold for 24 hours. A one-way IAD to DKR flight for 25,000 miles, and the whole thing took about 5 minutes!

If you want to explore this option to see more places in Africa, check the Dakar airport Wiki.

Can you use Virgin Atlantic miles on South African Airways within Africa?

South African Airways

Madagascar: Avenue of the Baobabs

Absolutely! As you can see in the first table, you can fly anywhere in South Africa, as well as Victoria Falls (or Livingston), Madagascar, and Mauritius for 20,000 miles RT in economy (16,000 Amex points) or 30,000 miles RT in business (24,000 Amex points). A flight on United to one of those destinations would cost you 35,000 and 60,000 miles respectively.

Let’s Recap

You can fly roundtrip in Business Class between the U.S. and:

  • Senegal (IAD to DKR) for 39,000 Amex points.
  • South Africa (IAD to DKR to JNB) with or without a stopover for 78,000 Amex points.
  • South Africa (JFK to JNB) nonstop for 116,000 Amex points per round trip.

Also, keep in mind that you can fly between Johannesburg and other African destinations, such as Victoria Falls, Madagascar, or Mauritius for 16,000 / 24,000 Amex points in economy / business per round trip.

Not too shabby, I say.

This post was written in November 2017 and was thoroughly updated on August 4 2018 due to the return of the AMEX 30% transfer bonus.

Read Part 3 here: Air New Zealand, Jet Airways, ANA

Photo Credits:

Johannesburg: by Keenan Constance on Unsplash

Madagascar: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4522320



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Wow! Amazing writeup Andy.. did you end up bookin the reservation?
Always looking forward to your posts. Lots of insightful info.

Boris Minevich

Andy, any fuel surcharges for these redemptions? Thanks


So can I fly from Washington to Senegal to Tanzanai for the 50K RT rate?

[…] By using a sweet spot on the Virgin Atlantic partner award chart you can get from the US to Africa and back in business class for only 50,000 miles and $131 in taxes and fees. This is about 70% cheaper than most other awards between the US and Africa and represents one of the best values for getting to Africa in a premium cabin. If you wish to continue your journey beyond Senegal or South Africa then you should look into ANA partner awards as a cheap and flexible option for intra-Africa travel. Virgin Atlantic is a transfer partner… Read more »


Andy, Great Post and good to see you posting in my box again…


Any suggestions for getting to IAD from the west coast (or really any other US airport)? Do you have to fly Delta domestically?


Yeah, I thought it wouldn’t cost additional miles to start on the west coast (where I live). But that’s good to know that you have to get there separately, Thank you.


Thanks Andy. Good to see you back online.

We were in South Africa a few months ago and just loved it. Also made it to Mauritius for 5 days towards the end of our trip and really enjoyed our time on the island.


I think your wiki link for Dakar was meant to be for the new airport but instead links to the old airport


Do you have to position to a hub to get this flight? I’m curious for us folks that live in Kansas City, Omaha, etc and the likes

silver springer

Great info, thanks. If we did IAD-DSS RT and then DSS-JNB RT we would need to collect luggage, go through immigration and recheck–correct?


I found luck booking from IAD, but GEESH! They want $637 in taxes and fees. Any thoughts of how to avoid this?


Yep. They can’t explain the breakdown, just giving me the cost. I tried two different bookings and each are well over $600. This must be the way it is now.

Still not a terrible deal, but yea. Thanks for your posts!


I just booked 2 seats on the one way IAD>DSS, 25k plus 218.50 GBP per person. The fees are a little high but I think this is still a great deal for business class. I chose the only date I could find next year that had more than 2 seats in business. Haven’t decided how we’re getting back yet. Of note, they asked me if I wanted to pay in USD or GBP. I wasn’t prepared for the question and went with GBP since I was worried they would do that awful conversion trick and give me a horrible rate,… Read more »

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