Getting To Ghana & Other West African Countries With Airline Miles

I will be using Accra’s Kotoka International Airport as an example because that is where I went and also because Ghana is in my opinion the best country in West Africa to go birding.

The first step is to identify which airlines that participate in one of the 3 alliances serve the airport in question.  You can do this by looking the airport up in Wikipedia and making a note of which airlines fly there and cross referencing with my guides on Star Alliance, OneWorld Alliance and SkyTeam.  The main airports of interest to birders will be Accra, Dakar, Banjul, Abidjan & Freetown (if ebola crisis is over).  Lagos, Nigeria and Douala, Cameroun could also open up to birders if the security situation improves.

This is what you are looking for and I have highlighted all alliance members in yellow.

KotokaSTAR ALLIANCE

Star Alliance rules Africa in general and for most people, these are the miles you want if you are going anywhere in West Africa.  Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines, Lufthansa, TAP Portugal, Turkish (which the Wiki forgot) and South African Airways all fly here.  Most people will be using United Airlines miles for their trip although Australians may be using Singapore Krisflyer miles.  I advise using United or possibly Avianca Lifemiles to avoid YQ fuel surcharges.  Here are some typical routes and costs with United, all are quoted as one-ways so double it for a round trip.

Traveling from the USA or Canada will cost 40k economy or 80k business class.

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From the UK or Europe you will pay 30k economy or 55k business class.  Watch the high airport tax from the UK!

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From Australia or New Zealand you will pay 50k economy or 85k business class.

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If you need intra-Africa flights, these are a bargain at  17.5k economy and 35k business class.

UA Ghana4If you are using Singapore Krisflyer, the miles are reasonable but the YQ surcharge is insane!

SQ Africa

Seriously?  Over $500 AUD for the YQ surcharge!!!

SQ Africa1ONEWORLD

Only 2 OneWorld Airlines serve Accra – British Airways and Iberia.  Both attract YQ surcharges (BA is higher than IB) so these routes will not be most people’s first choice.  Due to routing restrictions, you will need to redeem 2 awards if you are coming from Australia/New Zealand – Singapore/Bangkok – West Africa.

AA Ghana

If you are flush with Avios from a credit card bonus, they are an option but please note the YQ surcharges!

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Accra is served by 4 Skyteam partners – Delta, Kenya Airways, KLM and Middle East Airlines.

Delta has surprisingly good availability.  They no longer publish an award chart so I did a few examples.  From the USA/Canada mileage starts at 40k economy & 90k business class and goes up depending on saver availability.

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Notice how much higher the YQ surcharges are for these examples for Sydney and London!

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Using Flying Blue miles on Kenya Airways can be good for hopping around Africa and they do add certain destinations like Madagascar that Star Alliance can’t provide.  For more information on using Kenya Airways, see my Madagascar post.

BOTTOM LINE

If you want to go to West Africa, collect United Mileage Plus!  Chase is your friend!

Antananarivo Airport & Kenya Airways TNR-NBO-ACC

Antananarivo’s Ivato Int’l Airport is probably not going to top anyone’s list of favourite airports but it gets the job done.  There aren’t a lot of airlines serving this airport but I have already done a guide on how to get here using airline miles.

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The biggest tip is to beware of security guards weighing carry-on bags.  Even backpacks, which normally slide through at other airports if they look small.  If you have more than 7kgs, they will send you back, ostensibly to check your bag.  This is a case where Scottevest saved the day for us as we simply went out of sight, stuffed the heaviest items into our very deep pockets and returned to security.  Backpacks were weighed and passed, jackets were ignored except for the usual x-rays and we were inside and awaiting our flight.  We didn’t have any checked luggage so it wasn’t a money issue, it was more a concern with a tight connection and fear of the bags arriving at all.

We were in economy booked with Flying Blue miles so had no access to lounges.  There are a few shops but otherwise not much to do except read.  No wifi outside the lounge.

Kenya Airways was about half an hour late and I was getting nervous as we only had one hour to connect in NBO.  Luckily, the same aircraft that brought us to NBO remained at the gate and also took us to ACC.   The first flight wasn’t full and we had an empty middle seat to spread out in.  We weren’t so lucky on the NBO-ACC segment, the plane was completely full.

IMG_5813 IMG_5814 IMG_5816On arrival at Accra, we had the usual temperature security to pass, then we ran over to the immigration “other nationals” line which went smoothly since we already had the necessary visa obtained from their consulate in Canberra.  They do not give visas on arrival.

Our next birding adventure in Ghana was about to begin!

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A Nostalgic Look Back At US Airways Dividend Miles

Today is the day the programs merge.  It’s the 28th of March in Australia and now also in around half of the USA.  Soon we will wake up with increased AAdvantage balances and the US Airways Dividend Miles (USDM) program will be history.   I can’t help but think back fondly on all the opportunities we never would have had without it.  USDM was the game-changer that put extravagant premium class awards within reach of the ordinary person who had little money but was willing to put in some time and effort.

I never was a big player in the miles and points games until 2008.  It always seemed to me that the best benefits were always for those who traveled a lot – actual FREQUENT flyers and were elites.  I booked our trips on the cheapest routes although trying to use Star Alliance programs as much as possible as we were collecting United Miles.  If we managed a free trip from BNE to RAR or PPT every 2 or 3 years we were happy.

GAMING THE GAME-CHANGER

Then United started blocking partner awards – Starnet – and I had to look for an alternative.  Right around this time, one of the best ways for people to earn miles without spending money was playing Live Search Club games.  I was already playing for our AAdvantage accounts so it was a natural step to add a few more accounts and start playing for US Dividend Miles.  Anyone remember Chicktionary?

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LSC was a great little earner while it lasted.  An anagram-solver and a desk in front of the tv was all I needed to rake in around 4000 miles in 4 accounts (mine & husbands – US & AA) roughly every 2 weeks. It was a pretty hot topic on FlyerTalk while it lasted.  LSC later morphed into Club Bing and by using a never ending supply of new accounts I was able to keep the miles rolling in for around 18 months until they finally shut down in 2010.  But the best was yet to come!

GRAND SLAM PROMO

I was too late for the 2008 Grand Slam but ready and waiting for the 2009 version.  There was a whole thread in FlyerTalk dedicated to this killer promo where you could earn 50,000 miles by using USDM’s partners.  The game was to use as many free hits as possible or to use purchases you were already making at certain hotels or car rentals to create hits.  Then find the cheapest item to buy from partners such as Biscoff spread (yummy!), batteries from SkyMall, screen-wipes from some telephone company, sandwiches from dining partners, GAIAM trees from the mall, churned Netflix accounts and stickers from Track-it-Back.  We opened brokerage accounts for $5 with Sharebuilder, bought the cheapest Lifelock packages, swapped miles for magazines.  Since I live in Australia, my Mom in California was the lucky recipient for several bouquets of flowers and assorted junk.

In 2010, the Grand Slam upped their game to 100,000 miles and in 2011 they upped it again to 110,000 though the last 4 hits were too hard for me so I had to settle for 100,000.

Grand Slam 2011In the latter years, I would prep for the upcoming Grand Slam by getting hotel points for free by doing Foursquare check-ins, Facebook promos and E-Rewards.  The Daily Getaways promos which used to be so much better were also a source for cheap hotel points and Grand Slam hits.  I estimate that I paid around $600 between both our accounts that I wouldn’t have spent otherwise to get 200,000 miles between us those last 2 years.

TRACK-IT-BACK TAKES IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Remember those Track-it-back (TIB) stickers I mentioned?  They became another game-changer in the 2009 Holiday promo.  You had to spend a certain amount with various shopping partners and there were tiers to multiplying the bonus.

TIB promoIn a nutshell, you made the cheapest possible purchases for the first 4 transactions, then the 5th you bought as many TIB stickers as possible and got 100 miles per $!  I don’t remember how much I spent, I got as many as I could manage the cash flow for.  Some people on FlyerTalk spent $1000’s and got LOTS of miles!

CHURNING THE CREDIT CARD

I only managed to do this twice – once in 2011 and once in 2013.  Each time I got 40,000 miles and on the 2nd one it comes with a 10,000 miles anniversary bonus so I’ve kept it.  Barclays Bank has since cracked down on churners.

BUY/SHARE MILES PROMOS – UP TO 100% SHARE

The last great way to get USDM relatively cheaply (although not as cheap as Grand Slam & TIB) was to share miles back and forth between two accounts.  Obviously this works better for couples than single people unless they knew someone very trustworthy.  When the Grand Slam promo didn’t return in 2012 much to everyone’s disappointment, this became the best way to get USDM and on the bright side it worked equally well for people all over the world.  You shared miles to your partner, they got double, then they shared back to you and you got double.  USDM kept this promo up until last year, then they scaled it back to 50% bonuses.

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The best seat I ever got for free from USDM – Turkish Airline’s wetleased Jet Airways plane used the first class suites as business class so if you were clever with your seating assignments you could sit in a suite for the price of a J award!

SO WHAT DID I DO WITH ALL THOSE MILES?

USDM’s fantastic promos allowed us to go places we otherwise had no chance of affording – usually in business class (bolded)!

2011 – BNE-BKK-ICN-LAX-PHX-MEX /-LAX-ICN-BKK-BNE

2011 – BNE-SIN-KTM /-BOM-SIN-BNE

2012 – BNE-AKL-RAR-AKL-BNE

2013 – BNE-BKK-ICN-YVR-IAH-BZE /-HNL-ICN-BKK-BNE

2013 – BNE-BKK-BLR /- CMB-SIN-BNE

2014 – BNE-BKK-IST-TLV /-BCN-ZRH-FCO-PEK-SIN-BNE

And I still have some USDM left to transfer to AA!

In no alternate universe could someone of my economic level even dream of trips like those!  USDM and their crazy promos made it all possible!  We visited some of the world’s finest eco-tourism locations and saw some amazing birds that we could only dream about before.

IMG_2462So here’s to you, US Airways!  It’s been a wild ride the past few years and I am sad that it’s over but really happy and grateful that it happened it all.  From the bottom of my heart (and my champagne glass) thanks for the memories!

 

 

Hotel Review: Hotel Brajas, Antananarivo, Madagascar

We only spent one night in Tana just before our flight to Accra via Nairobi.  We had very simple requirements – WIFI, centrally located and accepts credit cards.  Hotel Brajas delivered on all 3 accounts.  It’s a small hotel with very attractive decor and an Indian Restaurant on the premises.

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Our room was at the end of the hall.

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It is a small room but at that point, all I wanted was wifi as we had been offline for 6 days!

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There’s a mini-bar and tv, I don’t recall any English channels.

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The bathroom is one of those glass enclosed rooms, thankfully with blinds for those who prefer privacy.

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Decor and merchandise in the lobby

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The bar

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The Indian Restaurant, portions were huge, not even my husband could finish his.  We both had the biryani which was delicious.  I was more interested in catching up with emails.

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The street where Hotel Brajas is located.

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Why We Need To Protect These Birds

As we were driving to the airport on the last day, I was dismayed to see a man sitting in the street median selling endemic birds, obviously wild-caught.  I was sitting in a taxi and trying to take pics through the traffic so these aren’t great shots but you can clearly see the little green birds on the left which are Grey-headed Lovebirds and there is at least one Vasa Parrot on the right.  I don’t know what the laws are in Madagascar are, I tend to think it must be illegal otherwise I would have seen more such sellers.  It’s so heartbreaking to see them like this when I just got back from seeing their cousins in the wild.  These birds are probably being captured outside of parks that cater to birders that don’t have park rangers and tourists tramping through each day.

If anyone knows what authority I can send these pics to to help catch these people, please comment below.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get the seller in the pics but a local Malagasy may recognize this location.

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Shopping In Antananarivo – Souvenirs Of Madagascar

The one disappointing thing was that there weren’t many handicrafts being sold at any of the places we visited and I always like to bring souvenirs home.  Preferably ones that are made by locals and contribute to the local economy so they benefit from eco-tourism.

Since I live in Australia where the quarantine laws are very strict about bringing in anything that is of plant (such as wood carvings) or animal origin, I try to avoid such things unless the item is a rare find and of course not made out of any endangered species.  I really like paintings, embroideries, batiks and jewelry depicting birds.  And no trip to Madagascar is complete without a few t-shirts to proclaim to all your friends back home you have been here!

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There are a few souvenir shops in downtown Tana, some of which accept credit cards.

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There is also a market out near the airport with about 50 small shops selling all kinds of handicrafts.  Cash only but bargaining is expected!

IMG_5804 IMG_5805 IMG_5810 IMG_5806 IMG_5807 IMG_5808 IMG_5809I ended up buying a table cloth with embroidered birds, a few fridge magnets and a couple embroidered wallets.  Word quickly got out that I liked birds espececially and a few stall holders came running up to me clutching any merchandise with a bird on it!

Back at the airport, after we paid the taxi, checked in and had no further use for Ariary, I spent the last few notes on an embroidered doily at one of the kiosks in the lobby.

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Volunteer At The Ara Project, Costa Rica

Do you love working with parrots? If so, we need your help! Join us for a rewarding experience working with large macaws in Costa Rica.

At the Ara Project’s breeding and release center you will see wildlife, visit a beautiful country and learn about a different culture, and meet new people. Best of all, you will make a difference in the lives of endangered macaws.

Full details are on their website.

Read about my visit to the Ara Project (prior to relocation).

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Use miles to get to Costa Rica for free and hotel points just after you arrive to get your bearing, then transfer to the project.

Schlegel’s Asity (Philepitta schlegeli)

The Schlegel’s asity (Philepitta schlegeli) is a species of bird in the Philepittidae family. It is endemic to Madagascar. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical dry forests and subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests. It is threatened by habitat loss.

I was lucky enough to see one in Ankarafantsika NP. This little guy just knew he was cooler than cool and sat there for several minutes showing off to a thrilled group of birders!

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I am not 100% sure of the name of the circuit but all the guides know where to find this bird as it is very highly sought after!  Don’t let the wide range fool you, every reference I could find online to sightings of Schelgel’s Asity are in Ankarafantsika.

SA rangeLEARN MORE ABOUT THE SCHELGEL’S ASITY

Wikipedia

Birdlife

Encyclopedia Britannica

Xeno-Canto

VIDEOS

Sadly there aren’t many videos of this little beauty.  From what I hear, they are very hard to find and very few people get good photos even, never mind video!  Makes me feel extra lucky!  There are a few on IBC.

Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata)

The sickle-billed vanga (Falculea palliata) is a species of bird in the vanga family Vangidae. It is monotypic within the genus Falculea. It is endemic to Madagascar. Its natural habitats are tropical dry forests and tropical dry shrubland.

I took these photos in the car park at Ankarafantsika NP.

IMG_5344 IMG_5375 IMG_5376 IMG_5768Sickle-billed Vangas can be found in western Madagascar and if you want to get them easily, there is at least one nesting pair in the car park of Ankarafantsika.  They are there throughout the day.  They can also be seen in Ifaty and Andohahela NPs.

SBV rangeLEARN MORE ABOUT SICKLE-BILLED VANGAS

Wikipedia

Birdlife

Xeno-Canto

VIDEOS

The only embeddable clip I could find appears to be at a bird park but at least you can see the bird close up and hear his call.  For wild Vangas, there are some clips on IBC.

 

The Ankoririka Circuit, Ankarafantsika

I’m going to qualify this post with a caution that I think this is the circuit we did the 2nd morning.  It could also have been the Retendrika Circuit as that one seems to be in the same area.   I am going from the description of the birds we saw there and the one from the website.  If you tell them you want to see the Schlegel’s Asity, they will take you to this place.

Duration : 3h
Distance : 9 km  (Don’t panic, you won’t have to walk that far if you are only after the Schlegel’s Asity)!

Guidance :
Ar 25,000 for 1 to 5 persons/day
Ar 37,000 for more than 7 persons / day

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Another birding group was also looking for the bird.  That was a good thing as their guide found the Asity first and alerted our guide.  It’s nice how they work together!

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The nest of the Schlegel’s Asity

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And there he is, in all his glory!  This Schlegel’s Asity was super-cool and he knew it!  He posed for the whole group, turning his profile both ways and just showing off!

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The group moved off through the bush, the next target would be a White-breasted Mesite.

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We did eventually find one in the bush but he scurried off before I could get a decent shot.  You can’t win ‘em all!

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Malagasy Bulbul

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Malagasy Coucal

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