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Despite scrutiny from domestic carriers over unfair subsidies, Emirates (along with Etihad and Qatar) is succeeding at least partly due to the quality of its in-flight product. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr looks at how you can book one of the most luxurious award tickets out there — Emirates First Class.
One of the things I love most about award travel is being able to take flights and stay in hotel rooms that I otherwise couldn’t afford. From Park Hyatt suites to St. Regis butler service to Singapore Airlines’ First Class Suites, these so-called aspirational awards leave a lasting impression.
Emirates just announced a second daily service from Boston to Dubai, which made me eager to fly again in the airline’s impressive First Class product. The good news is that thanks to transfer opportunities and airline partners, the Skywards program is fairly accessible with the right points and miles. In this post I’ll cover a few different strategies for booking Emirates award flights — including Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, American Express Membership Rewards, and Japan Airlines Mileage Bank — to help you learn how to get ahold of these awards yourself.
Using Alaska Mileage Plan to Book Emirates
Alaska miles are the preferred method for booking award flights on Emirates, as the prices are reasonable and there are no fuel surcharges. Alaska has three separate region-based award charts for travel on Emirates:
While economy and business prices are comparable to other programs, the gem here is 90,000 miles for almost 16 hours of Emirates First Class from Los Angeles to Dubai. It gets even better for premium classes on Alaska’s next award chart:
For 100,000 miles you can fly 12 hours from Tokyo to Dubai and then 15.5 hours from Dubai to Los Angeles. Now that should get your fill of First Class! Unfathomably, it gets even better, as Alaska is a rare breed of airline that allows stopovers on one-way bookings. That means you can fly First Class to Dubai, enjoy the UAE for a few days, and then continue to Los Angeles at no added cost. That’s a long way to fly in Economy (and not a particularly good price compared to 35,000 United miles or 25,000 American miles during off-peak times across the Pacific), but the value in First Class is astounding.
For 100,000 miles and $52, you get what would normally be an $8,800 flight, giving you a very nice redemption value of 8.8 cents/mile:
The final chart is for flights to Europe:
There are several programs that can beat 75,000 miles in business class to Europe, though the quality of service may not be on par with Emirates. Economy is also quite expensive at 47,500 one-way, especially considering that you can fly American to Europe for 40,000 miles round-trip during off-peak times. 100,000 miles in First Class to Europe is less expensive than using United miles to fly Star Alliance partners, but is much more than the 62,500 miles you’ll need to fly American in First.
How to Find and Book Awards
Booking Emirates awards online at Alaskaair.com is fairly simple. There’s a handy calendar view that lets you filter results by class. It’s easy to see Emirates availability because it doesn’t involve high fuel surcharges (in contrast to the British Airways space that Alaska shows).
All you really need to focus your effort on is getting enough Alaska Mileage Plan miles. You can credit flights from 12 different airlines to your Alaska account when flying revenue fares:
However, note that not all of these partners earn at the same rate. For example, Alaska only awards 25-75% of actual flight miles on Delta discounted economy fares. Check the earning rates for each partner to see how many miles you can expect to get from your flights.
Besides flying, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card currently comes with a sign-up bonus of 25,000 miles upon approval. That helps offset the $75 annual fee. This card is nice because there’s no minimum spending requirement to earn the miles, and you can earn the sign-up bonus multiple times.
Another good strategy is to transfer SPG Starpoints to Alaska, since you’ll earn a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer. You can earn Starpoints with the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, which is one of the best cards for everyday spending. It currently offers a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. However, Amex periodically offers a better 30,000 point bonus in the summer, so you should hold out for that if you don’t need points urgently.
Alaska has its own shopping portal, which routinely has nice earning rates. This week the portal offered 8 miles per dollar at Staples.com, where you can also earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar by using your Chase Ink Plus Business Card.
Finally, Alaska routinely offers bonuses for purchased miles, which won’t get you free flights, but can save you significant money when you’re looking to fly in premium cabins.
One downside to Emirates redemptions with Alaska miles is that Emirates seems to be taking all the ground benefits away from premium class award ticket holders. You won’t be eligible for Emirates Chauffeur service, and you won’t be invited to enter Emirates’ First Class lounge in Dubai. At least, that’s the policy; several travelers have reported still being able to at least access the lounge, but pre-booked chauffeur service is a no-go.
Transferring American Express to Emirates Skywards
Emirates is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, so you can book awards directly with the airline if you prefer. The problem with using Emirates’ own program is the exorbitant “carrier imposed surcharges.” While there are some good deals for the number of miles required, the taxes and fees really wipe out any value you may receive.
For example, a round-trip economy award between New York JFK and Milan is only 45,000 miles, but you’ll have to cough up $648 in taxes and fees. Airfare to Europe in peak season can be well over $1,000, so if you have a huge stash of Amex points, you could look at it as a 50% discount. The same goes for business class, which costs 90,000 miles round-trip, but adds over $1,000 in surcharges. With round-trip business class flights between New York and Milan currently selling for around $2,800, you could view using Membership Rewards points as a sort of 63% off coupon.
The only instance where I see good value in using the Skywards program is to upgrade an existing flight. Without Emirates status, this is apparently an impossible task. Conveniently, Emirates routinely offers status matches. With status you may have a chance to upgrade one class. Depending on your fare class, you could upgrade from the US to Dubai starting at 54,000 miles.
Using Japan Airlines Mileage Bank to Book Emirates
Another great option for booking Emirates award flights is to use Japan Airlines Mileage Bank. Sadly, it can’t be done online, but JAL doesn’t impose fuel surcharges for Emirates bookings. Taxes and fees are capped at $78.20 for a round-trip award ticket. Japan Airlines uses a distance-based award chart for partner airline flights:
The final cost of your ticket is based on the sum distance of all your segments added together. JAL allow two stopovers on award tickets, but you can only have a maximum of six segments. This means you could fly Emirates business class from JFK-Dubai (stopover) – Bangkok (destination) – Dubai – Milan (stopover) – JFK for 100,000 JAL miles. That’s 19,873 miles in the air (plus a sweet business class amenity kit), and I think it would make for a pretty amazing trip!
Your best bet to earn JAL miles is to transfer Starwood points to your account with the 5,000 mile bonus. If you have a particular award in mind and will be flying a lot of Oneworld airlines, you can always credit your flights to JAL. Make sure you check the earning rate with JAL based on your fare class with the partner airline.
Why Emirates has devalued its own program so much is anyone’s guess. My thought is enough people must be using Skywards in its current form, or the airline would have changed it by now. If there’s no availability through partners, transferring Amex Membership Rewards points to Skywards might work out for you (especially for business class flights to/from Europe).
The main message is clear: if you want to fly Emirates, you should begin accruing Alaska Airlines miles. The ease of booking online cannot be beat. Maximize your travel on Emirates beyond Dubai by enjoying a stopover on a one-way Alaska award.
Have you booked an Emirates award recently?
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