Using Airline Geography to Find Award Chart Sweet Spots
When it comes to airline award charts, not all regions are defined the same. As TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele explains, airlines have different ways of categorizing a variety of destinations, and knowing the sweet spots can help you score some particularly good redemption values.
Is Israel part of Europe, Asia, Africa or the Middle East? Depending on which airline award chart you look at, it could be in any one of those regions! While this may be confusing in a geographical sense, you can leverage different airlines' unique takes on world geography by finding loopholes that allow you to spend fewer miles on your trip. In today's post, I want to take a deep dive into the zone-based award charts and region definitions to show you how you can stretch your miles further.
AWART CHART LOOPHOLES BY COUNTRY AND REGION
Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao
While these islands are normally considered part of the Caribbean, the Flying Blue program (used by Air France, KLM and others) groups them as the Netherlands Antilles in the same category as North America. This means that award tickets to these islands on partner carrier Delta are a mere 12,500 Flying Blue miles each way in economy. If Flying Blue had placed these three islands in the Caribbean, it would cost 15,000 miles in economy each way. Strangely, though, it charges 30,000 miles each way for a business-class ticket to the Caribbean, but 31,250 in business class to Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. You can get Flying Blue miles by transferring points from American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
The Canary Islands are a Spanish territory off the coast of Morocco, hundreds of miles southwest of Spain. However, many award charts — such as those from American Airlines, ANA and Flying Blue — consider these islands to be part of Europe. American awards are a particular bargain at 10,000 miles each way in economy and 20,000 in business from anywhere in Europe. Note that those rates will increase to 12,500 miles in economy and 22,500 in business once the latest AAdvantage program changes go into effect on March 22. Still, if the carrier considered the Canary Islands part of Africa, it would charge 30,000 miles one-way in economy and a whopping 80,000 miles each way in first class following the upcoming award-chart changes.
Unfortunately, other carriers, such as Air Canada and United, classify the Canary Islands as part of Africa. In fact, North Africa is a particularly "sour spot" on Aeroplan's award chart, as it costs 165,000 in business class from North America — more than awards to any other part of the world, including Australia! Yet if you were to travel to the rest of Spain, including the Balearic Islands, you'd be within Aeroplan's Europe Zone 1 and it would only cost you 110,000 round-trip in business class from North America.
The nations of the Caribbean are typically given their own region on most airline award charts, so it costs extra miles to visit them from either North or South America. The exception is ANA's award chart, which includes the Caribbean along with both Central and South America as a single zone called "South, Latin America." For 30,000 miles round-trip in economy or 55,000 in business, you can travel from anywhere in the Caribbean to Central America and even the furthest reaches of South America on Star Alliance partners Avianca/TACA and Copa Airlines. Unfortunately, this designation also makes ANA a poor choice for flights to the Caribbean from the US. ANA is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
In addition, Aegean considers the Caribbean to be part of North America, and award flights from the United States are only 25,000 miles round-trip in economy or 42,000 in business class. Aegean is the latest transfer partner of the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
Like the Caribbean islands, Central America often is given its own zone, but there is an exception. The previously mentioned ANA chart lumps Central America into a single zone with the Caribbean and all of South America, creating some bargains when flying between Central and South America on Star Alliance partners Avianca, TACA and Copa. But as with the Caribbean, you would be better off using other miles to fly to Central America from the US and Canada.
This South Pacific island is a Chilean territory, and the only regular air service is on LAN from Santiago or from Pape'ete in French Polynesia. American Airlines makes it pretty expensive to fly there, as it categorizes the island in the South Pacific zone. An interesting exception is Air Berlin, which lists Easter Island as part of South America. Air Berlin partner awards from the US to South America are just 35,000 each way in economy and 70,000 each way in business class. In contrast, Air Berlin partner awards to the Australia, New Zealand and Pacific region are 90,000 miles each way in economy and 180,000 miles in business. And thankfully, Air Berlin does allow a stopover along the way. You can acquire Air Berlin miles by transferring points from the Starwood Preferred Guest program at a 1:1 rate.
Europe is pretty large, so some programs split it up. Notably, Air Canada's Aeroplan divides Europe into two zones, Europe 1 and 2. Europe 1 is the less expensive zone, with round-trip awards from North America costing 15,000 miles less (60k vs. 75k) in economy, 5,000 miles less in business (110k vs 115k) and 20,000 points less in first (140k vs 160k). Still, the Europe 1 zone does contain a few southern European countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal that are actually a bit farther from North America than Europe 2 countries such as Poland and Finland.
Plus, Aeroplan lets you transit Europe 2 countries like Turkey and Poland en route to Europe 1 countries, for the lower price of a Europe 1 ticket. Aeroplan is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program. For more information, read my post, How To Book Award Flights with Air Canada Aeroplan.
The Hawaiian islands are more than 2,500 miles from the west coast of North America, and nearly every airline places it in its own award zone. The exception is the Korean Airlines SKYPASS program that includes Hawaii as part of North America, but just for its SkyTeam awards, not for those on non-alliance partners Alaska and Hawaiian. This means that you can use SKYPASS miles to book a Delta award flight from North America to Hawaii for 25,000 miles round-trip in economy and just 45,000 miles round-trip in first. But for an award trip to Hawaii on non-SkyTeam partners Alaska and Hawaiian, and you're looking at 30,000 miles round-trip in economy and 60,000 miles round-trip in first class. Nevertheless, you will first have to find scarce Delta award space, and then navigate SKYPASS' bizarre bureaucracy to receive such a bargain. Thankfully, Korean Air is a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program and Starwood Preferred Guest.
In addition, the Singapore KrisFlyer program considers Hawaii and Central America to be within the same zone, which also includes Bermuda, the Caribbean, Mexico and Puerto Rico. So in theory, you could book awards on United that stretch from the Caribbean to Hawaii for just 35,000 miles for economy and 60,000 miles for business. For more information on this loophole, see my post, Maximizing Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Partner Awards.
India is typically part of its own award zone, but it's sometimes included with the Middle East, as it is with American Airlines. This can make award travel there a little less expensive than on other carriers. Another exception is ANA, which places India as part of its Asia 2 zone, which includes Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, among other southern Asian countries. So travel to India from North America with ANA miles is 80,000 miles round-trip in economy and 136,000 in business class. Travel within the Asia 2 zone is just 30,000 miles round-trip in economy and 55,000 in business class.
Israel sits at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa, and travelers to and from Israel can leverage its geographic ambiguity to save plenty of miles. The most commonly cited loophole for travel to Israel is with Flying Blue, which considers Israel part of Europe. This allows you to fly from North America for just 25,000 miles each way in economy versus 40,000 miles each way to countries in the program's Middle East zone. Less well known is that the Miles & More program (of Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss, LOT and others) also considers Israel to be part of Europe, but only for residents (not citizens) of Israel. So flights between Israel and North America are 60,000 miles round-trip in economy and 105,000 in business, but if Israel were part of its Middle East zone, it would be 80,000 and 135,000 miles respectively.
ANA offers us yet another interesting option, as it includes Israel as part of its Middle East/Africa region. This means that you can travel from Israel to anywhere in Africa for a mere 30,000 miles round-trip in economy and 55,000 in business. This is doable with Ethiopian Airlines, a Star Alliance partner with a hub in Addis Ababa that serves destinations all over Africa.
Finally, Aegean considers Israel to be part of North Africa, but it's still a bargain at only 60,000 miles for a round-trip flight in economy and 90,000 in business, rather than 80,000 and 110,000 miles respectively for flights to the carrier's Middle East zone.
Mexico is usually considered to be its own zone, requiring additional miles for travelers from the United States and Canada. But as is the case with Hawaii, the Korean Airlines SKYPASS program considers Mexico to be part of North America, which makes awards on its partner Delta more affordable. Aegean also considers Mexico to be part of North America and award flights from the US are only 25,000 miles round-trip in economy and 42,000 in first class.
Morocco is just about 9 miles from Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar, yet many airlines will charge tens of thousands of additional miles to reach it. Two exceptions are ANA (once again), and Flying Blue, both of which consider it to be part of their European award zone.
Once again, Korean Airlines' SKYPASS inclusive definition of North America allows you to redeem fewer miles for this award than you might to other nearby Caribbean islands that SKYPASS labels as part of Central America. Flights to Puerto Rico are 25,000 miles round-trip in economy and 45,000 miles in first class, while Central America awards are 35,000 and 75,000 miles, respectively.
When booking awards to the northern countries of South America, you should stick with award charts that split the continent in two. For example, United and American both include Columbia, Ecuador and Peru in Northern South America, which requires fewer miles than Southern South America. With United, an economy class ticket to these countries costs 20,000 miles each way, while business class is 35,000 miles each way.
With American's current award chart, northern South America is 20,000 miles each way in economy, and 30,000 miles in business, which will be unchanged following the next devaluation. However, American's award chart has one interesting geographic exception. Flights to Manaus in the north of Brazil are included in the South America Region 1 while every other award chart classifies all of Brazil as being in southern South America.
Finally, when booking flights from North America to Southern South America, it once again helps to use the ANA award chart, which includes all of South America, Central America and the Caribbean in one zone. It offers round-trip awards to this region for 30,000 miles in economy class and just 55,000 in business. This compares favorably to United's prices for the same awards which are 60,000 miles and 110,000 miles in economy and business class respectively.
Here's a particularly fascinating exception: Sri Lanka is an island nation just south of India, but American Airlines includes it as part of its Asia Region 2 rather than its Middle East/Indian Subcontinent zone. So if you would prefer to travel to or from India via the Pacific, you can first transit Sri Lanka with a separate award. For example, it costs a mere 10,000 British Airways Avios to fly from New Delhi to Colombo, Sri Lanka in economy, and then just 55,000 AAdvantage miles to fly from Colombo to North America in business class, or 67,500 in first.
In contrast, the current prices to/from India are 67,500 miles each way in business and 90,000 miles in first. But if you want to do this, hurry, as AAdvantage is moving Sri Lanka to the India region on March 22, in which case rates from the US will jump to 70,000 miles in business and 115,000 in first — each way.
Interestingly, ANA considers Tunisia to be part of Europe. This means that it's 55,000 miles round-trip in economy from North America versus 65,000 for the rest of Africa. In business, it's 88,000 miles to Tunisia (Europe) versus 104,000 to Africa.
US Virgin Islands
Once again, Korean Airlines offers us a nice loophole by taking these islands out of the Caribbean and placing them in North America, for the purpose of booking SkyTeam awards on Delta. Flights to the USVI are 25,000 miles round-trip in economy and 45,000 miles in first class. The carrier places nearby islands in the Central America category, where awards are 35,000 and 75,000 miles respectively.
There is little logic to how airlines divide the world into award zones, and their arbitrary decisions can lead to inflated prices — or outstanding bargains. By looking for these geographic loopholes, you might be able to reach your favorite destination for fewer miles than you ever thought possible.
Have you used any of these geographic loopholes to get a great award flight? Are you aware of any others that I missed?