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With major changes to Delta and United’s frequent flyer programs in the past year and more to come from the American Airlines/US Airways merger, I asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to look at the current state of airline award routing rules for the US legacy carriers. Each day this week he’ll feature a different carrier (see earlier posts on Delta, United, and American); read on for his analysis of award routing rules on US Airways.
US Airways Dividend Miles is a frequent flyer program in transition as the airline merges with American. In October the two airlines announced they would combine frequent flyer programs by the end of the second quarter of 2015 (June 30), but for now Dividend Miles remains independent, and one of the most useful mileage programs out there. Here are the details on their award rules.
Let’s get pesky fees out of the way first. Here’s how much you can expect to pay for using (or not using) your miles.
Call center award ticketing fee: $30 for domestic US and Canada awards, $40 for other regions. Waived for Chairman’s Preferred elites. This stings because you have to call US Airways to book almost all partner awards; there’s simply no way around it.
Award travel reissue/redeposit fee: $150, waived for Chairman’s Preferred elites.
Quick ticketing fee: This is what they call the close-in booking fee for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. It’s $75, but is waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred members.
Award processing fee: $25 for US (excluding Hawaii) and Canada, $35 for Mexico and the Caribbean, $50 for Hawaii and all other destinations. Waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred elites.
One bright spot here is that you can actually put awards on hold for up to 72 hours if you’re booking more than 4 days in advance, which many other programs won’t let you do. This can be especially useful if you’re waiting for miles to post.
While calling can be frustrating and hold times are often long, you can construct a fairly complicated itinerary if you get the right agent.
US Airways switched from Star Alliance to Oneworld back in March, but it also retained some of its former partners.
Here’s the list of Oneworld partners on which you can accrue and redeem miles (though rules vary, so check the individual airline partner page):
- Air Berlin
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Cathay Pacific
- Royal Jordanian
- Sri Lankan
Here are US Airways’ non-alliance partners, though there are restrictions on how you can earn and redeem miles on many of these airlines, so check the partner page here:
- Aegean Airlines
- Air China
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Jet Airways
- Shenzhen Airlines
- South African Airways
- TAP Portugal
The fact that it has Oneworld, Star Alliance and non-alliance partners makes the Dividend Miles program even more valuable. However, note that you cannot mix and match alliances on awards. For example, you can’t have an award on which you fly both British Airways and South African Airways. If you book an award with Oneworld carriers, you can’t fly any non-Oneworld carriers, and vice versa.
Here is US Airways’ award travel chart for its own aircraft and routes.
Here is its Oneworld partner award chart.
And finally, here is its non-Oneworld partner award chart.
Though Dividend Miles ostensibly has three award charts, it’s still pretty much a unified system. The reason for the multiple charts is that US Airways has a relatively limited international network and also offers some off-peak awards on its own metal. The Oneworld and other partner award charts are identical, so you just have to reference one or the other.
US Airways has changed some of its award levels slightly in the merger process so far, but for the most part its saver level awards have remained the same, and there are some amazing sweet spots that blow the other carriers out of the water (business class to South Africa and first class to North Asia among them). To see how they stack up to other carriers, check out this post on Comparing Saver Level Awards on American, Delta, United and US Airways.
The US Airways award program is probably the least sophisticated of the legacy carriers, and as with the award charts themselves, US Airways’ regions are pretty simple. Here is roughly what falls into each region.
|USA & Canada||Includes Alaska, excludes Hawaii|
|Caribbean||Caribbean including Bahamas|
|Mexico & Central America||Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama|
|South America||All of South America|
|Europe||All of Europe including Turkey|
|North Asia||China, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macau, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan|
|South & Central Asia||Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chagos, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam|
|South Pacific||Australia, New Zealand and all of Oceania|
|Middle East||Bahrain, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates|
|Africa||All of Africa including South Africa|
At this time, US Airways requires you to book round-trip awards, though that should change once Dividend Miles fully combines with the AAdvantage program.
Just beware that, unlike some other airlines that only offer round-trip awards, once award travel commences, you cannot make any changes to your flights – including the origin, destination, class of service, award level, dates or times. That makes it much harder to book a dummy return date only to change it later when you can actually fly that leg. If you’re actually going to travel, you have to commit.
Maximum Permitted Mileage
Per US Airways’ Dividend Miles membership guide, the airline’s policy on maximum permitted mileage (MPM) for award travel is:
“Award travel is permitted when the distance in one direction does not exceed the maximum mileage allowed between the origin and destination. Certain itineraries are subject to mileage restrictions.”
So in theory there are MPM limitations, but in practice these are rarely enforced, and one of the best known tricks in the frequent-flyer world is to fly a round-the-world itinerary for the same amount of miles as a round-trip. This gives Dividend Miles an extra level of flexibility that can make US Airways miles among the most versatile of mileage currencies. Especially given the airline’s other routing rules.
These are also fairly straightforward. Per US Airways’ member guide:
“Travel to/from Europe, the Middle East and Africa must operate via the Atlantic.” So no flying to Doha via Hong Kong, for example.
“Travel from North America to Europe is not allowed via Asia, and travel between Europe and Japan/North Asia/South Asia/Australia/New Zealand is not permitted via North America.”
While these rules seem pretty clear-cut, they are actually enforced unevenly, and by traveling in one direction or another they become rather malleable.
For instance, when I booked my round-the-world itinerary last winter (when US Airways was still in Star Alliance), I was able to fly from New York to Taipei and on to Hong Kong as my destination. On the return I traveled from Hong Kong to Stockholm (as a stopover) via Singapore and Copenhagen before returning to the US.
While I effectively traveled to Europe via Asia, I was still following the letter of the law when it comes to US Airways’ rules, because my destination was in a non-hub city (Hong Kong) and I picked a Star Alliance hub city (Stockholm) as a stopover. The way US Airways saw it, I was traveling back from Asia via Europe and not vice versa. More on that in the next section.
Beware that it might be trickier to book awards like this now. After the transition to Oneworld, agents were sending many complicated international awards to be priced out manually at the “rates desk,” where another agent inputs the cities, tabulates the mileage and taxes, etc., so that complicates the booking process. However, complex routings and those that take advantage of these blurry rules are still possible.
You might also want to limit the number of segments you include, since that has seemed to raise red flags with some US Airways agents.
Open Jaws and Stopovers
US Airways allows you to include either a stopover or an open jaw on an award ticket. While that might seem more limited than similar programs like Delta SkyMiles (which allows you to include a stopover and an open jaw), given US Airways’ lack of MPM rules and the fact that the award desk prices out each award manually, US Airways awards can actually be a lot more extensive.
First, we have to define what qualifies as a stopover. On an international itinerary, a stopover is defined as a stay of 24 hours or more in a city that is not your final destination. An open jaw is when you fly back from a different city than you originally flew to as your destination.
If you want to book a stopover, it must be in a Oneworld or non-alliance partner hub city, or in one of US Airways’ international transatlantic gateway cities. However, you don’t actually have to be flying the airline whose hub it is. Still, it’s good to reference the Oneworld hubs:
- Air Berlin: Berlin, Dusseldorf
- American: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York
- British Airways: London
- Cathay Pacific: Hong Kong
- Finnair: Helsinki
- Iberia: Madrid, Barcelona
- JAL: Tokyo
- LAN: Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima
- Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur
- Qantas: Sydney, Melbourne
- Qatar Airways: Doha
- Royal Jordanian: Amman
- S7: Moscow
- TAM: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro
- US Airways: Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Washington DC
Here are US Airways’ international transatlantic gateway cities:
- Tel Aviv
For instance, if you want a stopover in North Asia, it has to be in Tokyo or Hong Kong. If you want a stopover in South America, it has to be one of the LAN or TAM hubs.
Though this might seem to make things more complicated, it actually means that you can maximize your awards and even save miles in some cases by strategically picking your stopovers.
The US Airways award chart has plenty of sweet spots. Here are a few to keep in mind in terms of routing from North America:
North Asia (which includes China, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macau, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan):
- 60,000 miles in Economy
- 110,000 miles in Business Class
- 120,000 miles in First Class
The best part is that you can fly to North Asia or back via Europe (despite what those rules above say). For instance, you could fly from JFK-Helsinki on Finnair for a stopover (since it’s a hub) and then take Finnair to another European destination and catch a Cathay Pacific flight over to Hong Kong as your destination before returning to the US.
This gets really interesting in comparison to flying North America simply to Europe, which would cost:
- 60,000 miles in Economy
- 100,000 miles in Business Class
- 125,000 miles in First Class
So for the same number of miles in economy, and just 10,000 more in business, you can get a whole second trip out of your award redemption. This gets a little more complicated if you want to book a first class award, since Finnair doesn’t offer a first class cabin on its long-haul international flights. In that case you’d really only be getting Cathay first class (which is among the best), but by booking your award as North Asia instead of Europe, you’d save 5,000 miles.
Another great routing loophole is flying to or from Australia via North Asia. That’s even more the case now that Qantas is a US Airways partner. The mileage numbers are:
- 80,000 miles in Economy
- 110,000 miles in Business Class
- 140,000 miles in First Class
You could book a flight from your US departure city to one of the Qantas gateways in the US (like Los Angeles or Dallas) and fly down to Australia. On the return, you could route through a Oneworld Asia hub (such as Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific or Tokyo on JAL) and have a stopover there before you return to the US. In business class, you would spend the same number of miles it would take just to fly from North America to North Asia and back, while in first class, you’d spend just 20,000 miles more to add Australia into the mix. Not a bad deal!
North Asia awards are among the greatest values in the US Airways chart, and flying there via Doha on Qatar is another good new option now that both Qatar and US Airways are in Oneworld. You could fly from your departure city to one of Qatar’s US gateways (like Dallas, Chicago, Washington or New York) and catch a Qatar flight to Doha. You could have a stopover there and continue on to one of Qatar’s destinations in Asia (like Tokyo or Beijing in North Asia, and Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City in South Asia) before returning home .
Instead of paying 80,000/120,000/180,000 miles to fly economy/business/first just from North America to the Middle East, you’d get a second destination in North Asia for 60,000/110,000/120,000 (a significant discount), or in South Asia for 80,000/120,000/160,000 – the same number of miles for economy and business, and fewer miles in first class!
While I would generally avoid flying American/US or British Airways via London due to high fuel surcharges and taxes on award tickets, London is still an enormously useful hub, so if you don’t mind shelling out some more money, that could open up your options even more.
Though there are some routing rules in place on US Airways awards, it’s kind of like the Wild West. You can make your own rules in many cases, and you can score some amazing deals by playing around with routing a bit and being flexible.
Like American Airlines, US Airways has off-peak awards at surprisingly low levels to various other regions. American’s off-peak awards are much more widely available and for longer periods, but the US Airways off-peak awards do have some redeeming qualities, including the fact that you can get to Europe for 35,000 miles round-trip from North America and Hawaii. Here are the mileage numbers and dates for round-trip off-peak awards:
- Between the continental US or Canada and the Caribbean: 25,000 in coach, 50,000 in first (ranges from 35,000-80,000 for coach and 60,000-140,000 for first at other times). Off-peak dates are September 1-30 (just one month).
- Between North America or Hawaii and South America: 35,000 coach, 60,000 business (ranges from 60,000-125,000 coach, and 100,000-350,000 business otherwise). Off-peak dates for 2014 were February 3-13 and March 17-April 3, but they are not listed as of now on the US Airways award page.
- Between North America or Hawaii and Europe: 35,000 coach (ranges from 60,000-125,000 coach). Off-peak dates are January 15-February 28, 2015.
While it remains to be seen whether these off-peak awards will persist after the merger, or whether (hopefully!) US will take on AA’s off-peak awards (assuming those stick around too), they’re worth keeping in mind.
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The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.