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