Out of the countries classified as “Central Asia”, the ones that offer the best birding are India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is one area you have to carefully check how your airline’s program defines Central Asia, sometimes Sri Lanka is put into South-East Asia. If you are married to or involved with a non-birding partner, this is a great region to plan a trip to as they will find plenty to do while you are off chasing birds. Unfortunately, being so far from everywhere it can be very expensive to get there whether you use miles or cash. Let’s look at a few options using the top 8 frequent flyer programs for eco-tourists.
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. The region is called "Indian Subcontinent and Middle East" on this chart and includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan.
Please note that Sri Lanka is in South-East Asia for award purposes so you would do better to use Avios for routes between India and Sri Lanka.
Airlines which serve this area include British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas with Malaysian Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines and Qatar Airways joining very soon.
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 Kathmandu (KTM) for example and out of Mumbai (BOM).
USA and Canada: Each way is 45,000 economy; 67,500 business; 90,000 first. You can use British Airways, Air Berlin, Finnair, Iberia and Etihad but there are no stopovers allowed.
UK and Europe: Each way is 20,000 economy; 30,000 business; 40,000 first. You can use British Airways, Etihad or (coming soon) SriLankan Airlines; or use Finnair, Air Berlin or Iberia to get to Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong or anywhere Qantas flies.
Australia and New Zealand: Each way is 30,000 economy; 45,000 business; 60,000 first. You can use Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian.
For Aussies who have easy access to Qantas points via their employer or Everyday Rewards, it's worth checking out QF's awards to Central Asia. Use their points calculator as the awards are distance based, not by country. The awards look expensive compared to AA, UA and US but if you got your points for free, might as well enjoy them! Here is an example of what you could expect from one way in economy from Sydney to Mumbai.
AVIOS (BRITISH AIRWAYS AND IBERIA)
Later this year, Sri Lankan Airlines will join One World, which opens up bargain redemptions for local short routes. In the examples below, the awards will range from 4500 Avios to 10,000 Avios. Compare the distance traveled with the screenshot of the Avios distance chart below.
- AVIOS AWARD CHART
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 Chart
US AIRWAYS (round-trip only) Region is South & Central Asia which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chagos, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.
USA and Canada: Economy 80,000; Business 120,000; First 160,000. 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 70,000, Business 90,000; First 110,000. 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.
Australia and New Zealand: Economy 70,000, Business 90,000; First 120,000. You can fly on Singapore, Thai and Air New Zealand.
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 60,000; First 80,000. You can use United, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Turkish, LOT, Egypt Air 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 30,000, Business 50,000; First 60,000. 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.
Australia and New Zealand: Economy 30,000, Business 45,000; First 60,000. You can fly on Singapore, Thai and Air New Zealand.
Here's an example of London to Mumbai, 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.