TPG contributor Jason Steele takes us through some of the unique transfer partners of the Starwood Preferred Guest program. The sign-up bonus on both the personal and business American Express Starwood Preferred Guest cards is currently 30,000 points after $5,000 spent within 6 months, with the $65 annual fee waived the first year.
Of the 32 different frequent flier programs that you can transfer Starpoints to, 13 of them are also transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or both. That leaves 19 programs that are unique to the Starwood program.
Gol Smiles . Brazilian airline Gol took over the Smiles frequent flier program when it acquired the operations of Varig, Brazil’s legacy carrier. Travel on Gol within South America is just 10,000 miles each way and travel between South America and North America is just 25,000 miles. These are prices for coach and their “comfort class,” which is just coach but with an empty middle seat, and requiring 50% more miles.
The Smiles program is also partners with Delta, Air France/KLM, Iberia, Qatar, and Aerolineas Argentinas. You can see from their partner award charts that there are some great deals here right now. For example, business class flights from the North America to Europe are just 30,000 miles each way on on Air France/KLM, Delta, and Iberia. First class on Aerolineas Argentinas between North and South America is only 50,000 miles each way, and business class is just 37,500 miles.
Other city pairs show similarly good values too. That said, their award chart will change on July 30th 2014, and rates will go much higher. It is unclear from (the Google translation of) this page whether these changes will take effect for travel booked after July 30th or travel beginning after July 30th. They do claim that “this is the first adjustment of international tables of Smiles in over ten years. And toalways be transparent to you, disclose this change with 90 days notice.” So you have nearly two months to party like its 2004!
Hainan Airlines. This Chinese carrier has some exotic redemption partners such as Grand China Airlines, Lucky Air, Tianjin Airlines, West Air, Hong Kong Airlines, Capital Airlines, as well as Air Berlin. Nevertheless, their award charts do not seem particularly competitive. Therefore, this transfer partner is best used only as a way to top off existing balances.
Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank. Japan Airlines is part of the OneWorld Alliance, and its distance based chart is actually pretty good in some circumstances. The trick is to fly carriers that do not charge huge fuel surcharges such as American, LAN, Air Berlin, TAM, Qatar, and Iberia. Thankfully JAL is one of the only airlines that actually publishes a partner award chart that includes the maximum fuel surcharges for flights from the United States.
There are some good deals for award flights from Miami to northern Brazil, which are 21,000 miles in economy and 42,000 miles in business, each way, versus 30,000 and 50,000 respectively with American. The miles required are the same for flights on Iberia between Madrid and either Boston or JFK. As with all distance based award charts, the values are the greatest when you travel across the zones of traditional airline charts, yet when the mileage flown is just below the next level.
Emirates is also a partner with a maximum fuel surcharge of $78.20 for the U.S. to U.A.E round-trip.
LAN Airlines LANPASS. This carrier has a distance based chart as well, but it has its own quirks. First, LAN uses kilometers, not miles. Also, Starpoints transfer at a rate of 1:1.5, not including bonus miles for transferring 20,000 Starpoints at once. Next, their partner award chart is very generous for short flights. Flights under 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) are a mere 6,000 LANPass kilometers, which require just 4,000 Starpoints. For flights between 501 and about 1,000 kilometers, you are better off using British Airways Avios points, which require a mere 4,500 miles. Yet when you fly 1,000 – 1,300 kilometers in distance, you only need 10,000 LANPass kilometers, the equivalent of 6,666 Starpoints. Basically, there can be many times that LANPass distance awards are superior to British Airways, and they are usually better than American or US Airways awards on short haul flights.
Miles and More. This is the frequent flier program for Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss, Brussels, LOT, Croatia Airlines, Adria, and Condor. This program is also part of the Star Alliance, so members have access to awards on those carriers as well as a few others (Air Astana anyone?). Lufthansa only makes first class award seats available to partners within 15 days of departure, so having miles in this program is the only way to secure these seats any earlier, although you will have to pay considerable fuel surcharges.
Another bargain on their partner award chart is the 34,000 mile, first class, transcontinental round-trip flights on United’s three-class aircraft. Miles and more charges 17,500 miles each way, and rounds down to the nearest thousand. In contrast, United charges 25,000 miles each way.
Qatar Airways. This OneWorld carrier has a distance based partner award chart, but their prices are much higher than other OneWorld carriers. Therefore, think of this transfer partner as an option only if you need to top off an existing account balance.
Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan. It is difficult to find much value in this SkyTeam award chart, and it would be hard to recommend transferring miles there instead of other SkyTeam partners. So like some of the more exotic Starwood transfer partners, this option is probably best used just to top off an existing account.
Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus. Again, not a whole lot of value in their partner award chart compared to other Star Alliance carriers, so use this option just to top off existing balances.
US Airways Dividend Miles. This program remains one of the most valuable point transfer options, despite the most recent devaluation of its award charts for both OneWorld carriers and other partners, most of which are former Star Alliance partners. Their great “North Asia” award went from 90,000 miles to 110,000 miles, but it is still a fantastic deal, especially with a stopover in Europe on the way. Business class awards to Africa are also just 110,000 miles, versus 150,000 on American. There are no fuel surcharges on partner awards except on flights operated by British Airways (and even then it is occasionally omitted). No one expects the best deals on this award chart to survive its merger with American, so get them while you can!
Virgin Australia. There can be a few good deals with their distance based award chart. For example, flights from New York to London are just below the 3,600 mile cutoff, so awards are 23,900 each way in economy and 47,800 in business on either Delta or Virgin Atlantic. Like other distance based award charts, these are best used when traveling shorter distances, but across the award zones of traditional frequent flier programs.
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