Maximizing Amex Post 7: Star Alliance Transfer Partners

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Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.

This is another installment in my Maximizing Amex series where I examine the benefits of American Express cards and Amex’s Membership Rewards Program. The articles include; Post 1: Understanding the Card Offering. Post 2: Understanding Membership Rewards. Post 3: Understanding Transfer Bonuses. Post 4: Platinum Card Review. Post 5: SkyTeam Transfer Partners. Post 6: Oneworld Transfer Partners. Post 7: Star Alliance Transfer Partners. Post 8:Understanding Emergency Travel Assistance and Travel Accident Insurance. Post 9: Purchase and Return Protection and Extended Warranty. Post 10: Car Rental Benefits. Post 11: Gold and Premier Rewards Gold Card Comparison.

As I covered in the post on Understanding Membership Rewards, one of the most valuable aspects of having a Membership Rewards or Membership Rewards First Amex card is the ability to transfer points to 17 airline partners. The beauty of airline frequent flyer programs is that they allow you to redeem for flights on their alliance partners, so it is in your best interest to know which programs have the most flexible award rules and cheapest fees so that you can maximize the value of your American Express Membership Reward point transfers.

Today’s focus will be on the Star Alliance transfer partners Continental Onepass, Air Canada Aeroplan, ANA Mileage Club and Singapore Krisflyer.  The Star Alliance also includes United, US Airways, Adria (Ljubljana), Aegean (Athens), Air China (Beijing), Air New Zealand (Auckland), Asiana (Seoul), Austrian (Vienna), Blue1 (Helsinki), bmi (London), Brussels, Croatia (Zagreb), EgyptAir (Cairo), Lot (Warsaw), Lufthansa (Frankfurt), SAS (Copenhagen), Singapore, South African (Johannesburg), Spanair (Madrid), Swiss (Zurich), TAM (Sao Paulo), TAP (Lisbon), Thai (Bangkok) and Turkish (Istanbul).

What this means is that you can transfer Amex points to Continental, Aeroplan, ANA or Singapore and then redeem on any of the above Star Alliance partners, or to other partner airlines of each program. See below for more information on each program.

Continental

New Member Registration link. Membership Rewards -> Continental transfers usually post instantly.

1: The last day to make Amex-> Continental transfers is September 30, 2011.

2: Continental and United are merging, so you can now switch miles in between both programs, using this method. This essentially allows you to transfer Amex to United, which allows one-way Star Alliance awards since Continental currently does not have one-way awards (that changes June 15, 2011).

3: Continental has reasonable fees on awards. Expect $2.50 per domestic leg and $100ish for Europe/Asia (destinations like London and Paris will be more).

4: Continental has been a transfer partner of American Express for years, but they generally don’t run transfer bonuses and I don’t expect one to happen before they leave the program in October.

5: Continental has pretty flexible routing as well as a stopover and an open jaw. For example they allow Asia via Europe (even on partner airline Virgin Atlantic which has good availability).

6: Mixed cabin awards are priced rationally – for example if you fly the trip half in first class and half in coach, it will price as 1/2 first and 1/2 coach (unlike US Airways which would charge you the first class roundtrip price, as shown in the example above)

7: Continental.com does show a lot of partner award availability, but does not show Swiss, Singapore, TAM, Turkish or South African.

8: Continental allows redemptions on non-Star Alliance partners Virgin Atlantic, Eva Air, Copa, Hawaiian, Kingfisher, and Island Air.

9: Continental miles do not expire, however United miles do after 18 months, so once they become United miles be aware of that rule.

Aeroplan

New Member Registration link. Membership Rewards -> Aeroplan transfers are usually instantaneous.

1: Aeroplan historically had very a generous award chart, but most of the redemptions are increasing on July 15, 2011. Still, Aeroplan will be the key Star Alliance transfer partner after Continental leaves the program, so if you have Amex points, you should have an Aeroplan account.

2: Fuel surcharges are high when you redeem for Air Canada flights, so try to avoid that at all costs.

3: There have been no transfer bonuses in recent history, so I don’t expect them to happen.

4: Aeroplan does not allow one-way awards, but they do allow two stopovers on awards and there are extremely flexible routing rules. The routing rules allow both trans-Atlantic and Pacific routings for Asia awards.  So you can build, mini-round the world trips like I highlighted in this post.

5: Aeroplan.com does show a good amount of partner availability. Aeroplan.com -> Use your miles ->Travel. Results sometimes show compressed, so you have to scroll down after all of the economy options and expand the business/first tabs. Additionally, a lot of times partners will show just as “Star Alliance” and you have to click to expand to see which ones. Overall, the information is all there – you just need to know how to find it. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend searching leg by leg for availability and then piecing it all together in the multi-city search engine, which is fairly smart. Otherwise, you will have to call to book the award, which will cost you extra.

6: Aeroplan does not have many non-Star Alliance partners, but there are a number of regional Canadian partners like Air Creebec and Bearskin Airlines.

7: Aeroplan miles expire if the account has no activity for 12 months.

ANA

Since ANA is a Japanese airline, many people get discouraged with their website, which I admit can be tricky to navigate. However, they actually have a decent US customer service line and the website isn’t hard to use once you bookmark the award booking engine (which is this link). ANA mandates that you have points in your account to search for awards, so the easiest thing to do is to transfer 1,000 points. There are other workarounds, like first searching ANA availability and then searching Star Alliance, but I find the easiest thing is to do is transfer the 1,000 miles (the minimum amount allowed).

New Member Registration link. Membership Rewards -> ANA transfers usually take about 48 hours.

1: ANA’s award chart is distance based, so you need to know how many miles your trip is to figure out how many ANA miles are required for the award. I personally use gcmap.com to figure out distances between city pairs, like JFK-LHR-JFK is 6,903 miles so it comes in just under the 7,000 mile threshold so business class awards are only 63,000 miles, which is great because Virgin Atlantic is a partner airline and they have a lot of availability.

Award Chart

2: Fuel surcharges are high- I once paid $450 for a business class JFK-Germany trip on Singapore and Lufthansa. Considering I only used 68,000 Amex points, I didn’t mind paying that fee, but it’s something to take into consideration. Another annoying thing is that you can’t tell how much fees will be until you have the miles in your account.

3: There have been no transfer bonuses in recent history, so I don’t expect them to happen.

4: ANA does not allow one-way awards, but they do allow up to four stopovers. Per their award rules:
“Your entire itinerary may have no more than 4 stopovers (a stay exceeding 24 hours). (Only 1 stopover in Japan is permitted for itineraries departing from overseas. Stopovers in Japan are not allowed for itineraries departing from Japan. 2 stopovers are permitted within Europe.) Only 1 stopover is permitted for each city. Ground transportation during an itinerary is regarded as a stopover.

No stopovers or ground transportation within the country of origin are permitted on international routes (itineraries that include 2 or more countries).

In the case of Round-the-World tickets only, up to 8 stopovers are permitted between the origin and final destination. However, only 3 stopovers are permitted within Europe.”

While ANA allows flexibility with routing and stopovers, a major thing to take into consideration is that you cannot make any changes to an award after departure.
Also, with mixed cabin awards, you need to redeem the amount of the higher class of service.

5: ANA’s search engine shows near perfect Star Alliance availability, so you should familiarize yourself with the engine even if you never intend to use ANA miles. While it is extremely accurate, it is not “smart” at piecing together itineraries and thinking up connections. You need to manually tell it to search leg by leg, which can be time-consuming. There is no calendar feature, so you need to click day by day, but in the end it has the best picture of actual Star Alliance availability.

6: ANA also partners with Air Macau, Etihad, Eva, Jet, Malaysia, Qatar, Shenzhen and Virgin Atlantic.

7: ANA miles expire 3 years after they are earned.

Singapore

New Member Registration link. Membership Rewards -> Krisflyer transfers usually take about 24 hours.

1: Singapore generally charges a lot for awards, though some are reasonable, like US domestic business class roundtrip for 40,000 miles. Note: Only Standard and Full awards are available for redemption in First and Business Class on B777-300ER flights. On B777-300 flights with the same First Class seats that are fitted on B777-300ER flights, only Standard and Full awards are available for redemption in First Class. Only Standard and Full awards are available for redemption of flights on the all-Business Class A340-500.
On the A380, only Standard and Full awards are available for redemption in Business Class.
To redeem your miles for an award flight in the Singapore Airlines Suites, please contact KrisFlyer Membership Services.
Go here to use their award calculator or reference their award charts.

2: Fuel surcharges can be expensive. US to Europe awards on Star Alliance partners can be $500+. The good thing is that you can price out awards at singaporeair.com and it will show you how much taxes/fees are before you transfer miles. For JFK-FRA in Economy, total charges were $504

3: There have been no transfer bonuses in recent history, so I don’t expect them to happen.

4: Krisflyer does allow one-way awards for half the price of a roundtrip

5: Singaporeair.com has decent functionality, but does not have full access to Star Alliance inventory, like ANA.

6: Krisflyer also allows redemptions on Virgin Atlantic and Air India.

7: Krisflyer miles expire 3 years after they are earned. Simply triggering account activity will not extend miles, so you need to use or lose them (or pay a fee to extend for 6 months.)

If you don’t have an American Express card that earns Membership Rewards points, you can currently get the Platinum card, which has a 25,000 points bonus after $1,000 points in spend and a ton of other benefits. Amex is also waiving the $175 annual fee on the Premier Rewards Gold card for the first year and offering 15,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $1,000 in three months. I’ll be writing a full review of that card as part of this series.

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