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Next month, a lot of United MileagePlus members will start feeling the pain of the new revenue-based system program. So today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at some options for getting the most out of your future flights.
Last year, Delta announced that it would stop crediting frequent flyer miles to travelers based on the distance flown, and instead award miles based on a combination of the ticket price and the passenger’s elite status. Shortly afterwards, United announced that it would move to an identical system, beginning with all flights departing on or after March 1, 2015. Under both of these programs, travelers with discounted tickets and/or without elite status earn fewer miles than before. Other travelers who will lose out include those with indirect routing, since the extra time in the air won’t equate to more miles earned.
However, just because you’re flying on United doesn’t mean that you have to credit your miles to United’s MileagePlus program. United is allied with over a dozen other frequent flyer programs that will allow you to earn miles in their programs when you fly United or any of its regional partners. The new earning regimen begins on all flights next week, so you still have time to join a new frequent flyer program and update your existing reservations. First, however, you need to figure out which program will offer you the most value.
The advantages of crediting miles to partners
Choosing where to bank miles is one of the perks of airline alliances and partnerships, and there are a number of reasons why you should direct your miles away from MileagePlus. You can avoid the revenue-based mileage accrual, so you’ll earn more miles from your flights. There are also cases where it’s easier to redeem miles in other programs because of a more favorable award chart or greater award availability.
You can earn elite status with another carrier, and many of those benefits can be used when flying on United or other Star Alliance carriers. Furthermore, other programs don’t have the Premier Qualifying Dollars requirement to achieve elite status, which hinders those who fly on discounted tickets. Finally, by switching programs and choosing not to participate in United’s MileagePlus program, you’re making a statement that you prefer the traditional method of earning miles based on the distance flown.
Making up for not having status
By crediting United flights to other frequent flyer programs, you’ll miss chances to earn elite status with United. However, you can earn many of the same benefits by reaching Star Alliance Silver or Gold Status.
Star Alliance Silver Status Benefits:
- Priority reservations waitlist allows you to book seats that become available on sold out flights.
- Priority airport standby elevates your priority when standing by at the airport for an earlier flight.
Star Alliance Gold Status Benefits:
- Priority Airport Check-in.
- Airport Lounge Access gives you access to United Club lounges (even on domestic flights).
- Priority Boarding.
- Extra Baggage Allowance offers you one additional free checked bag.
- Priority Baggage Handling.
Another way to offset the loss of United elite status is with one of the co-branded MileagePlus credit cards from Chase. The United MileagePlus Explorer card and United MileagePlus Explorer Business card offer priority boarding and one free checked bag for the cardholder and one companion. In addition to lounge access, the United MileagePlus Club card offers priority check-in, security screening, boarding, and baggage handling, as well two free checked bags for the cardholder and a companion.
Nevertheless, travelers will lose out on Premier benefits such as complimentary Economy Plus seating, first class upgrades, fee waivers, and upgrade certificates. For more information about the benefits of United elite status, check out my post What is United Airlines Premier Elite Status Worth?
Where should you credit your miles?
There are plenty of Star Alliance carriers and other United partners to choose from; here are the criteria you should use when deciding where to bank your miles:
- Mileage earning rate: Although other programs will credit miles based on the distance flown, the amount you earn will still vary based on the fare class in most cases.
- Award chart. You want a program that will let you redeem miles for award travel at the same rate (or lower) compared to United.
- Fuel surcharges. Unfortunately, most foreign programs impose fuel surcharges on award travel, so this must be a consideration.
- Ease of earning elite status. Since Star Alliance Silver benefits are pretty slim, you should see how quickly you can earn Star Alliance Gold status in whichever programs you consider.
- Access to additional miles. Few of us still earn the bulk of our miles from actual travel, so it’s vital to find ways to supplement these miles with earnings from credit card spending and other partners. Some foreign programs offer credit cards to US residents. Thankfully, there are other credit card rewards programs that allow you to transfer points to foreign carriers.
Without further ado, here’s a list of programs you might consider, and my analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of each one.
Aer Lingus Gold Circle
Aer Lingus is a United partner even though it’s not part of the Star Alliance. So while you can credit your United flights to Aer Lingus, you won’t earn Star Alliance status. Furthermore the Aer Lingus website isn’t clear about how many miles you’ll earn, saying only that “The number of points earned will be determined by the route taken and the fare class applicable to your flight.” Furthermore, it seems to restrict earning to certain routes and fare classes, without much clarification. Aer Lingus no longer offers a co-branded credit card to US residents, and is not a transfer partner of any major credit card reward programs at this time. Overall, I’d rate this as a poor option unless you’re already earning miles in this program regularly.
This small Greek carrier is a Star Alliance member, but a poor choice for banking miles for several reasons. First, Aegean offers mileage as low as 25% of the distance flown for discounted economy class tickets, although it can grant as much as 150% for full fare tickets. It also has no US credit card partner, and is not a part of any transferable points programs. This used to be a great program for earning Star Alliance Gold status, since it offered lifetime Gold Status after just 20,000 miles. However, you now have to fly 24,000 miles within 12 months, with at least four flights on Aegean or Olympic Air, or 48,000 miles on any airline. I would only recommend going this route if you have some paid flights planned on Aegean or Olympic, and even then it might not be worthwhile. For more details, see the Aegean website.
Air Canada Aeroplan
As the only other North American airline that you can credit miles to, Air Canada can be a good option. Miles earned are based on the fare and class of service; discounted economy tickets can earn as little as 50% of the mileage flown, but up to 125% for full fare economy tickets. For complete details, see this page on the Air Canada website and click on Eligible Flights at the bottom.
You can reach Star Alliance Silver status after earning Prestige 25K status in the Altitude program (with 25,000 miles or 25 segments), while Star Alliance Gold requires Elite 50k status (50,000 miles or 50 segments). Air Canada’s award chart is very competitive with the United chart, and there are several carriers that you can book award tickets on (such as United), that do not impose fuel surcharges.
Finally, you can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards (earned from The Platinum Card and the Amex Everyday Preferred Credit Card, for example), and there’s now a way for US flyers to earn Aeroplan miles with the Aeroplan Visa Signature from TD Bank.
Discounted economy class tickets earn 50-70% of the mileage flown, but ANA has always had a great award chart. A new zone-based chart goes into effect in April, but there are still some great values here. ANA does have a credit card for US members, and you can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. On the downside, you’ll have to earn 25,000 miles on ANA flights out of the 50,000 miles required to earn ANA Mileage Club Platinum, which translates to Star Alliance Gold status.
Discounted economy class flights earn 50–100% of miles flown, depending on the fare class. Avianca is known for being one of the few foreign carriers that does not impose fuel surcharges, but the airline does have some very quirky award ticketing rules and notoriously bad telephone customer service. Avianca offers a credit card, but doesn’t have any transfer partners. Although it takes only 40,000 miles or 45 segments to reach Star Alliance Gold status, 10,000 miles have to be flown with Avianca, making this a tough hurdle for most. You can learn more here.
Not much to see here. You’ll get mileage credits as low as 25% for discounted economy, with no US credit card or transfer partner opportunities. Star Gold status is earned after flying 30,000 miles within two years of reaching Silver status, which requires a total of 30,000 miles itself, although with no apparent time constraint. You can learn more here.
The best news here is that you can earn 100% of mileage flown, even on discounted economy tickets. In addition, you can earn Star Gold status after 50,000 miles or just 40 segments. Ethiopian’s Star Alliance partner award chart is somewhat competitive (105,000 miles from North America to Europe in business class), but there’s no credit card offered to US residents or any transfer partners.
Some discounted economy flights earn zero miles, but others earn 50-70%. EVA is a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou rewards, but since Star Gold status requires 80,000 miles, this is a poor choice.
Miles and More
This is the frequent flyer program of Adria, Austrian, Brussels, Croatia, LOT, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, and Swiss. It offers just 25–50% of mileage flown, but has other advantages. There is a Miles & More Premier World MasterCard from Barclaycard, and miles can be transferred from American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. The award chart is somewhat competitive, and some premium class award seats are made available to members while only being released two weeks in advance to partners. Unfortunately, it will take 100,000 miles to reach Senator status, which equals Star Alliance Gold.
Singapore Krisflyer is a strong program worth considering. Flights always earn 100% of the miles flown, even in discounted economy, and while Singapore doesn’t offer its own co-branded credit card to US residents, it’s one of only two airlines that are part of all of the major transferable points programs (Virgin Atlantic is the other), so you can effectively earn miles on cards ranging from the Citi Prestige to the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. Singapore also offers discounts and better award availability on awards when you use Krisflyer miles instead of miles from other programs. You can earn Star Alliance Gold elite status after flying 50,000 miles on Singapore or any partner. The award chart has some sweet spots, but Singapore does impose fuel surcharges.
Thai offers 100% mileage credit, but the award chart is so devalued that it’s not even worth considering.
Turkish offers 100% mileage credit and has a few other things going for it. Travelers who currently hold elite status with another carrier can quickly match status to the Miles & Smiles program. Otherwise, it takes 40,000 miles within 12 months to earn Star Alliance Gold status. The Turkish partner award chart is fairly competitive, but there’s no credit card for US residents, and no transfer partners.
If I were a revenue traveler who anticipated drastically reduced mileage earning under the new United MileagePlus system, I would strongly consider Aeroplan, Turkish, Singapore, and Miles and More. Turkish would be perfect if you could supplement your miles with a credit card or transfer program. Singapore is probably the most attractive thanks to the many transfer options.
Aeroplan offers decent ways to earn and redeem miles, although you might not earn much more on discounted flights than you would with United. The ability to book some awards without fuel surcharges is also a major advantage. Finally, Miles and More would work great for those who are flying 100,000 miles a year on Star Alliance carriers and want to go all in on a really great foreign program.
To figure out which program is best for you, consider your typical travel patterns and compare how each one would perform in terms of mileage and status earned, as well as redemption options. While it’s unfortunate that United will no longer be worthwhile for many flyers, at least there are viable alternatives.
Where do you plan to bank your United miles moving forward?