Making Sense of Each Award Program

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A reader called me last week looking for help booking three award tickets between Baltimore and Dallas. With his store of American and Ultimate Rewards miles, he knew that he had two main options: Use American miles for a ticket on American, or transfer Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways and book with Avios.

Because British Airways’ award prices are based on the distance flown, a ticket with Avios would save 5,000 miles a piece, if he could find availability. He needed help thinking through what would be the best use of his miles for this trip.

But, as we were talking, he pointed out just how complicated it can be to figure out the best currency to use on any given award. How do I know the best option? He asked. How did you choose to use Alaska miles to fly Emirates, and American miles to fly Etihad?

One major reason why airlines are able to offer such generous awards is because most traveller are woefully unable to maximize the full scale of opportunities available to them. So people get excited by a sign up bonus of 50,000 miles, feel rich, then consolidate their travel on a given airline to earn another measly 10,000 or 20,000 miles after a year or two of travel. Then they blow that cash load on a single domestic itinerary which would have cost a few hundred dollars out of pocket.

That’s a lot of work and loyalty for very little payoff.

To maximize travel hacking, you need to know all the programs out there, how to earn their miles, where they can get you, and where they are most valuable. Let me try to lay everything out.

First, let’s look at the domestic airlines.

American

American Airlines AAdvantage miles can be earned from Citi (Gold, Platinum and World Executive) and Barclay Aviator (Red and Silver) credit cards, in addition to travel accumulated on the airline and its partners. American is unique in having credit cards issued by multiple banks, a holdover of its merger with US Airways.

Miles can be used for flights on American metal, as well as OneWorld members (British Air, Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Japan Air and Qatar to name a few) as well as non-OneWorld partners (Alaska, Air Tahiti Nui and Etihad, among others).

Making AAdvantage a particularly easy program to navigate is the fact that tickets cost the same amount of miles, whether on American planes or partners.

American Airlines AAdvantage Award Chart

While American’s award chart was recently gutted, significantly increasing the prices of some of the best awards, great value remains. Some of the sweet spots for AAdvantage is premium awards on Etihad or Qatar to the Middle East or India, American and Iberia to Europe, or Cathay Pacific to Asia. Be forewarned: while BritishAir is a key partner of American – and offers the most abundant inventory of award tickets – huge taxes are charged on award tickets, as much as $1,000 each-way.

United

United MileagePlus Miles can be earned through a suite of credit cards issued by Chase, as well as travel on United and partner airlines through Star Alliance.

United gutted it’s award chart in 2014 (about a week before I booked my honeymoon flights using United miles… d’oh!) and set up a structure for charging different amounts for flights on United planes rather than its partners. The pricing set up is massive, and can be viewed here.

Some of the greatest value for MileagePlus miles is on partner airlines (despite the increased cost), including Asiana (which I loved) and EVA to Asia, Lufthansa, SWISS and Brussels to Europe, and Turkish Air to the Middle East. In particular, Lufthansa’s First Class is about as nice as it gets. Snagging a seat normally requires waiting until two weeks before departure, but the product is super high on my to-do list.

Delta

Delta SkyMiles are often begrudgingly referred to as SkyPesos because, as the name suggests, their value is incredibly small. In fact, Delta no longer even publishes an award chart! Pricing is dynamic and can vary wildly. I’m not going to say all that much more at this point.

SkyMiles can be earned through many American Express credit cards, as well as travel on Delta, SkyTeam partners (Air France, KLM, Korean Air, etc.).

Alaska

Alaska is the sole remaining major airline in the US that awards miles based on the mileage flown on a flight (rather than based on the cost of the ticket), so Alaska miles are now one of the easiest to accumulate quickly through actual travel on Alaska flights (and, now, Virgin America, as the two airlines have merged), as well as those of its partners, a broadly diverse group not partial to a specific alliance (American, Fiji, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airways, AirFrance and more). Alaska miles can also be earned through Bank of America Credit Cards, which are incredibly easy to churn.

Alaska miles can be redeemed on all of their partners. Until recently, Alaska’s best mileage-use was for first class tickets on Emirates, which I booked for only 90,000 miles each way. That was doubled overnight in 2016. Great value still exists for American to Europe, Cathay Pacific (especially First Class) to Asia, Emirates Business Class and more.

Alaska’s ticket prices vary depending on the airline and the region you’re flying to, so you’ll need to consult Alaska’s website for specifics.

As I’ve discussed before, the most valuable miles are those that can be transferred from on place to another. Let’s look at those.

Starwood Preferred Guest

SPG points are extremely valuable because they can be transferred easily, and near-instantly, to almost every airline on the planet, at a ratio of 1-1 (except United, 1-2), with a bonus of 5,000 additional miles for every 20,000 transferred.

SPG points can be earned through stays at SPG properties, can be transferred from Marriott at a rate of 1-3, and can be earned through American Express credit cards, both of which offer fantastic 35,000 point sign-up bonuses for the time being.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

Chase points are super easy to accumulate, including a 50,000 point sign-up bonus for the Sapphire Preferred, my go-to credit card. Chase points can be transferred instantaneously to many airlines including United (read more, above), British Airways Avios, Singapore and Korean Air.

Korean Air is my favorite sweet spot use for Chase miles, because Korean Air offers fantastic award availability in First and Business Class to Asia, and because Korean Air miles can be used to purchase tickets (online now) on SkyTeam partners. One great use of Korean Air miles on other airlines is for tickets to Hawaii (in economy or business) from the Continental US. While American carriers will charge you 35,000++ miles for this ticket in economy, Korean Air considers Hawaii as part of the Continental US zone, and only charges 25,000.

The value in transferring miles to Singapore comes in the fact that Singapore’s pricing is significantly lower through its own program than through United, and offers a further discount for booking online. Also, Singapore has one of the nicest Business Class and First Class products in the world. Keep in mind that Singapore flies from the US to many other countries besides Singapore. You can transfer Chase UR miles to Singapore and then fly Singapore from New York to Frankfurt in Suites Class (think full-sized bed in the sky) for only 57,375 miles each way, or Los Angeles to Tokyo in First Class for 74,375 each way.

The best use of Avios is for short-distance flights within the US on American metal, as these price significantly cheaper than through AAdvantage miles. Gone are the days when you can book a roundtrip ticket using Avios for 8,000 miles (as I did for a trip to Santa Fe a few years back), but there is still great value for flights under 2,000 miles.

American Express Membership Rewards

American Express points can be transferred to a ton of airlines, including Singapore (see above), Aeroplan, Etihad, AirFrance/KLM, and more.

Aeroplan (Air Canada’s award program) offers a convenient way to book award tickets on StarAlliance partners for prices significantly cheaper than what you’ll get through United. However, be prepared to pay taxes on Aeroplan tickets – there’s pro’s and con’s in everything, in this case, cheaper mileage redemptions but additional fees.

Etihad miles are a fantastic way to book Business Class travel from New York to Europe for only 36,620 miles each way on Brussels Air. That’s HUGE!

Citi ThankYou Rewards

Citi ThankYou Rewards can be transferred to many of the same partners referenced above, including Singapore, AirFrance/KLM and Etihad.

As you probably picked up by now, often the best use of credit card points comes through transferring them to foreign carriers’ reward programs.

But, at the end of the day, the value of a particular redemption is also highly dependent on your personal needs and values. A living room in the sky with flowing champagne is nice, but if that gets you from Abu Dhabi to New York, and you need to get your family of three from Baltimore to Dallas, it’s not a particularly valuable redemption for you right now.

So while my personal interest is in using points to get the most ridiculously aspirational awards (I can’t help it, I just love showers in the sky), I have one rule that I like to stick by – I always try to ensure that I’m getting at least 1.5¢ value for every point I redeem, but, ideally, closer to 2¢ or 3¢ (my ticket on Emirates was 22¢!). Anything less than that, and it’s a waste.

Good luck!