Australia is a major draw card for birders and should be on most eco-travelers dream trip list. Unfortunately, being so far from everywhere else, it can be very expensive to get there whether you use miles or cash. Let’s look at a few options.
ONE WORLD ALLIANCE
For most people, joining American Airline’s AAdvantage will be the best option. They have quite a few credit card options to quickly build your miles stash and a few partners such as E-Rewards and various hotels where you can transfer points in. This is my first choice for travel to/from Australia as you can book your award to anywhere Qantas flies domestically and not be dependent on gateway cities only. Example: Dallas-Los Angeles-Honolulu-Sydney-Alice Springs.
These figures are one-way so double if you want a round trip. The nice thing about AAdvantage is the flexibility, you may choose to go one way in economy and one way in business, or do an open jaw where you fly into Brisbane (BNE) for example and out of Perth (PER). Australia is in the South Pacific region so you can see the miles required for most departing cities.
USA and Canada: Each way is 37,000 economy; 62,500 business; 72,000 first. You can use Qantas, Hawaiian Airlines, Air Tahiti Nui or Air Pacific but there are no stopovers allowed.
UK and Europe: Each way is 45,000 economy; 60,000 business; 80,000 first. You can use British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Etihad or (coming soon) Malaysian Airlines and SriLankan Airlines; or use Finnair, Air Berlin or Iberia to get to Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong or anywhere Qantas flies.
STAR ALLIANCE AIRLINES
No matter where you live, the two best programs to use in Star Alliance are United and US Airways. Both have their pros and cons. With United, you can book partner awards online, book one-way awards and get lots of miles via several Chase credit cards; but if you can’t get these cards it can be hard to get miles in United Mileage Plus. With US Airways, the major drawbacks are you have to book round-trips and you can’t book online, you have to call them. The advantage with US Airways is that they offer frequent “Buy miles, get 100% bonus free” promos and in the past, they had the wonderful Grand Slam promos where it was possible to do partner transactions and with careful planning you could get about 120,000 miles for $400-600 incremental cost. The US Airways Grand Slam hasn’t been seen since Sept-Nov 2011, unfortunately they didn’t do it in 2012. Depending on where you live, Avianca/Taca Lifemiles could be useful too, but it is hard to use their booking engine for complicated routings so I suggest saving them for USA-Central/South America where they offer better value and ease of booking.
US AIRWAYS (round-trip only)
USA and Canada: Economy 80,000; Business 110,000; First 140,000. You can use United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand (hard to get) or sometimes take the “scenic route” via Asia using Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana or ANA (All Nippon Airlines). US has recently started enforcing MPM (maximum permitted miles) so some Asian routings may not be acceptable.
UK and Europe: Economy 100,000, Business 120,000; First 150,000. Most people try to get routings using Singapore, Thai, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines. Some airlines do not give US Airways business or first class awards such as Singapore, Lufthansa and Swiss.
UNITED AIRLINES (can book one-way or round trip.
The award chart is too big to copy paste here so please follow this link to see the whole chart.
USA and Canada: (each way) Economy 40,000; Business 62,500; First 80,000. You can use United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand (hard to get) or sometimes take the “scenic route” via Asia using Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana or ANA (All Nippon Airlines). You can easily see the routings via their online award booking engine.
UK and Europe: (each way) Economy 55,000, Business 75,000; First 90,000. Most people try to get routings using Singapore, Thai, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines. You can easily see the routings on their online award booking engine but be careful if you are looking at business or first class awards as sometimes they offer mixed class awards and the long-haul section could be in economy with a short sector in business or first.
Here’s an example of London to Perth, as you can see they quote both the miles and taxes and the business class award are “mixed class” and if you hover over the fare, you can see which flight is in which class.
You can see how much cheaper it is to fly from Brussels due to the very high UK departure taxes.
These are just a few examples, please feel free to ask questions in the comments.