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Recently, we took an exhaustive look at the best Starwood Ultimate Rewards airline mileage transfer partners for award trips to Israel. Today I want to look at the best options for using American Express Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
American Express Membership Rewards
This program offers a number of airline transfer partners that feature competitively priced award trips to Israel, so it’s important to choose the best one. Here are some of the best airline transfer options in each class of service:
Flying Blue is the frequent flier program of both Air France and KLM, and is a SkyTeam partner. Since it considers Israel to be part of Europe on its award chart, award flights from North America to Israel in economy class are only 50,000 miles round-trip. Alitalia (another SkyTeam partner) also offers economy class award tickets to Israel for just 50,000 miles.
Better yet, the Flying Blue program offers Promo Awards from a few different cities each quarter that can reduce their price to only 25,000 miles round-trip. One way awards are permitted, but fuel surcharges are imposed. Still, fairly few miles are required, and these awards can be a good value during peak travel periods, when round-trip tickets to Israel normally cost $1,500 to $2,000 each.
Thankfully, taxes and fuel surcharges are not too terrible, at $220 – $261, depending on whether you go through Amsterdam or Paris.
British Airways and Iberia are both transfer partners, and their distance-based award charts are identical. Flights to Israel from most east coast cities are just 65,000 miles, or 75,000 miles from most of the western United States. In fact, BA is currently offering an award “sale” similar to the Flying Blue Promo awards.
Singapore’s KrisFlyer program will also get you to Israel in coach for 75,000 miles. Like the BA program, KrisFlyer is a transfer partner of both Starwood and Chase Ultimate Rewards, so you can pool all of your flexible points in these programs if necessary. Expect fuel surcharges in the $600 – $800 range.
El Al’s Matmid frequent flier program is a transfer partner with the Membership Rewards program, and flights from New York or Toronto cost 1,400 points. Since the transfer ratio is 20 Matmid points for every 1,000 Membership Rewards points, that works out to 70,000 Membership Rewards points, plus about $350 in taxes and fees. If you want to fly non-stop from Los Angeles, El Al awards will set you back 90,000 miles in coach. In either case you can use 300 more Matmid points (15,000 in Membership Rewards) to reduce the fuel surcharge by about $150, but that’s not a good use of your Amex points.
To avoid fuel surcharges altogether, you’ll have to pay more miles, but here are your best options. With Delta, you’ll have to buy a round trip ticket on any awards booked this year, and pay 85,000 SkyMiles. Air Canada Aeroplan coach awards are only 80,000 miles, and there are no fuel surcharges on Brussels, Croatia, SAS, Singapore (which flies from JFK to Frankfurt), Swiss, Turkish, and United. In addition, fuel surcharges on LOT Polish are pretty small, and their award availability is excellent.
For example, I used the Aeroplan web site to price a flight from Chicago to Tel Aviv on Lufthansa via Munich in economy class, and it came out to a whopping $716 in charges. In contrast, choosing LOT flights via Warsaw came out to a mere $248. As much as I like Lufthansa, I would probably opt to save $468 by flying on LOT.
BA and Air France both offer a premium economy class that can make sense if you’re short the number of miles needed for business, or if you’re just looking for a more comfortable alternative to coach travel. Flying Blue premium economy awards are 100,000 miles, while British Airways awards are 95,000 – 100,000 miles from the United States, depending on the actual distance flown. I priced flights on British Airways from Chicago to Tel-Aviv in the $1700 -$2,700 range. Fuel surcharges for the Flying Blue award worked out to $424 -$460, depending on the route flown.
Flying premium economy on BA though London, the taxes and fuel surcharges worked out $665 as well, the same as economy.
Business class flights to Israel can sometimes be found for as low as $4,000 round trip, but they are usually in the $5,000 – $8,000 range. As usual, the lowest mileage award flights are Flying Blue Promo Awards, which can be as much as 50% off their normal price of 125,000 miles round trip. After that, the Alitalia 80,000 mile award (plus fuel surcharges) is a the best option. Singapore, a Star Alliance carrier, prices its business class awards at 115,000 miles, which is competitive, but they do add fuel surcharges. Expect these charges to be in the $900 to $1,000 range, depending on the carrier, with LOT being the lowest.
The Asia Miles program (part of the OneWorld Alliance) has a distance based chart that features business class flights from parts of the eastern United States for 115,000 miles. These fuel surcharges should mirror those found for BA awards.
El Al’s business class awards are less competitive at 165,000 Membership Rewards points from New York or Toronto, and 215,000 from Los Angeles. To avoid fuel surcharges, you can try to book Delta awards using SkyMiles for 120,000 miles (if you can find the award space). Otherwise, you’ll have to move up to 165,000 mile awards on Air Canada, using their select partner carriers without fuel surcharges. I found taxes fuel surcharges to be in the $900 – $1,000 range for round-trip flights in business class on Air Canada and Austrian flights.
First class tickets to Israel can cost well over $10,000 round trip. When it comes to award travel, Singapore has the best offer for just 150,000 miles (plus fuel surcharges) from anywhere in the United States. Close behind are BA and Air Asia awards from the east coast at 155,000 and 170,000 miles, respectively. Air Asia awards from the western U.S. are 190,000 miles, and you’re looking at well beyond 200,000 miles for El Al and other carriers that offer first class awards. Expect to pay about $1,000 in taxes and fuel surcharges for these awards, depending on the carrier and the route.
Chase Ultimate Rewards
This program has the fewest options of the three major transfer programs, but since these points are the easiest to acquire, it remains very competitive.
British Airways awards are only 65,000 to 75,000 miles, depending on where you depart from. Singapore is right there at 75,000 miles, and Virgin Atlantic awards on Delta are right behind at 80,000 miles. Korean (a SkyTeam partner) also offers awards for 80,000 miles. Finally, awards are 85,000 miles on flights operated by United as well as its Star Alliance partners, but without fuel surcharges.
With Chase Ultimate Rewards, your only premium economy option is British Airways awards for 95,000 – 100,000 miles from the United States, depending on the actual distance flown. Thankfully, BA appears to price the fuel surcharges the same as economy class.
Again, Singapore edges out the competition with 115,000 mile awards on its Star Alliance partners, followed closely by 120,000 mile awards from Korean on SkyTeam partners, which is the price for Virgin award flights on Delta.
If your goal is to avoid fuel surcharges, United charges 140,000 miles, but only on the flights it operates. The price goes up to 160,000 miles round-trip for partner awards. You could make the case that it’s worth paying just 20,000 miles more in order to choose from all the Star Alliance options and avoid fuel surcharges. The question then becomes, are the fuel surcharges imposed by a 115,000 mile Singapore award worth paying the additional 45,000 miles? If you valued your Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, the break even point would be at $900 worth of fuel surcharges, round-trip. You’re unlikely to find fuel surcharges exceeding that price, but it’s possible.
Singapore first class is 150,000 miles, followed by BA at 170,000 -200,000 depending on the distance flown. Finally, the worst aspect of the United award chart devaluation might have been its first class partner awards to the middle east, which skyrocketed from 135,000 miles to 280,000 miles.
Tips for minimizing fuel surcharges
Most of these point transfer options will impose fuel surcharges. No, its not fair, but it is the reality we have to deal with.
Iberia has pretty good award availability to Tel Aviv via Madrid, probably because they don’t display award space on American’s web site. You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points directly to Iberia, but if you’re using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can transfer to BA and then transfer points to Iberia, and enjoy reduced fuel surcharges on Iberia flights. For example, the BA taxes and fuel surcharges on Iberia flights from Chicago to Tel-Aviv are $665 round trip in economy class, but if you transfer your points to Iberia, the charges plummet to $321 round trip.
Another option is flying Delta, but using points in the Flying Blue program. In this way you avoid fuel surcharges, while taking advantage of the fact that the Flying Blue program prices Israel as part of Europe. Unfortunately, finding business class awards on their single daily flight from JFK to Tel Aviv can be a challenge, to say the least. But if you can find award space on one of Delta’s numerous flights to Amsterdam or Paris, and then connect to Tel Aviv, you can save some money on fuel surcharges.
Finally, always look for LOT awards, which have fuel surcharges that are about a quarter of those of other carriers. LOT flies 787s to JFK and Chicago, and has great award availability, possibly because their long haul flights don’t always appear on United.com.