Australia awards are among the most desired and difficult for US travelers.
Delta SkyMiles is underappreciated for Australia because most travelers assume you are limited to the results shown on delta.com: exorbitant Delta flights and increasingly scarce Virgin Australia flights.
Delta SkyMiles Via Asia to Australia:
With Delta as with United (and not American) you can route through Asia on the way from North America to Australia for no extra miles. You simply need to search segment by segment online, then call Delta to piece it together. With the current Delta website I have not gotten a single one of these to work, so you do need to call.
SkyMiles North America to Australia at Low/Partner level*:
- Business: 95,000 miles (one-way)
- Economy: 45,000 miles (one-way)
*as of 12/24/16, you never know when Delta will make unannounced price changes.
You can easily add Virgin Australia domestic connections to the ticket. Domestic and regional Virgin Australia flights generally have good availability, certainly better than Qantas.
This year we went to Australia twice, once in July, once over Thanksgiving. Both were booked less than 6 weeks in advance. Both got low (partner level) awards in our desired cabins of service (business for her, economy for me).
Using SkyMiles via Asia you can mix:
- Korean Air**
- China Eastern
- China Southern**
- Shanghai Airlines
- Xiamen Airlines
- China Airlines**
- Virgin Australia
**subject to blackout dates, though you can often use Korean Air SkyPass or Air France KLM Flying Blue to redeem for these flights when Delta blacks them out.
The downside for many of these is that the flight times do not line up well transiting between North America and Australia. Some flights get in to Asia just as others depart with insufficient time for a connection. If the next flight is under 24 hours away you can enjoy the layover. If it is over 24 hours, the award pricing breaks and you are charged two separate awards. Look for routes that have 2 daily flights instead of 1.
The most reliable award inventory of these for US to Asia and Asia to Australia is on China Eastern. Single seats are easier than multiple. China Eastern does not seem to release last-minute inventory, so if something is not available a few weeks out, don’t expect it to appear later.
The China Eastern Experience:
China Eastern is not the best airline in the world and Shanghai Pudong is not an optimal transit with its frequent air traffic delays. It is a distinct cultural experience and very chaotic pre-departure, with flight attendants running up and down the aisles and passengers jostling luggage and seats. Once in the air, passengers tend to sleep much of the flight, except the older generation doing their exercises up and down the aisles.
Chinese are legendarily skilled at sleeping in public. In my years living there I never learned the skill. On the daytime run up to Melbourne the guy next to me in coach had beers with each meal between naps and did not get up for the entire flight. I was in the presence of a master.
That said, the new China Eastern planes are solid and business and economy class are both passable. Avoid the old A340; I don’t know where they are flying that clunker anymore, it used to be on the JFK route.
Some Australia flights are operated by Shanghai Airlines, which is a step down. The day we flew out of Melbourne last month the midday departure was Shanghai Airlines while the midnight was China Eastern.
Put in perspective, if you live in a China Eastern gateway, you have a good shot at single-connection US to Australia at the dates you want for a reasonable award price, without needing to book a year in advance.
Fuel surcharges are medium-high: expect around $200 each way in either class of service.
China Eastern partners with Qantas and generally uses Qantas Lounges. Qantas domestic lounges seem better than international business class lounges. In Brisbane, you may prefer the newly opened, Priority Pass-accessible Plaza Premium Lounge.
China Eastern to Australia:
China Eastern has launched 4x weekly service Shanghai to Brisbane. Brisbane joins Sydney and Melbourne. Points from the Pacific was at the inaugural event, check out his great pics and the honorary koala delegation.
If you want to spend July in Brisbane when the city cools down, business class is available every day of service:
Brisbane saves a lot of time to reach many of Australia’s top destinations.
Brisbane itself is much closer to North America than Sydney and Melbourne, and is a convenient gateway to:
- Brisbane City (including cool bridges, botanical gardens and MacArthur’s office; we like the Hilton Brisbane for its frequent sales)
- Sunshine Coast (including UNESCO-listed Fraser Island , also see my videos)
- Gold Coast (including beaches and UNESCO-listed Lamington National Park; Intercontinental Sanctuary Cove is a bit below the level you expect of Intercontinental though has some great off-peak rates and award nights, and resident kangaroos; try the waffles)
- The Whitsundays via short flight to Hamilton Island
- The Great Barrier Reef via flight up to Cairns
- Nonstop Virgin Australia flights to Australia’s major cities
- Pacific Island routes on Virgin Australia and other airlines, little served from other major airports (Norfolk, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa)
Most importantly, my wife insists I highlight the wonderful Australian animals you can see at spots such as Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and Australia Zoo. She asks, “Why do all the cute animals choose Australia?”