The 6 best airline award chart sweet spots
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One undeniably important distinction between advanced award travelers and those newer to the points and miles world is how they go about searching for award space. Those with some experience earning and burning will carefully study various partner award charts, looking at where to transfer their flexible points and what sweet spots they can utilize. Beginners, on the other hand, might simply log into their United MileagePlus or American AAdvantage accounts, search for the destination they want to visit and book the first award they see regardless of price or convenience.
While anyone can earn a good amount of points by earning welcome bonuses on top travel rewards credit cards, this difference in redemption strategies is huge. Using the right partner program to book your award could end up saving you as much as 50%, depending on the carrier and route.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, today we’ll take a look at six of the best value sweet spot award redemptions. If you plan to travel to one of these destinations and have the right points at your disposal, these are surefire ways to get an excellent redemption value every time. If you’re new to the world of points and miles and any of these destinations interest you, you can also set your sights on one of these redemptions to have a road map to instant success.
Book ANA premium cabins with Virgin Atlantic miles
The sweet spot: I’m still scratching my head wondering how this is possible, but I consider Virgin Atlantic’s partner award chart for ANA to be the best award sweet spot in the entire world of points and miles. While you can only book round-trip awards, the prices you pay are less than what many other programs would charge you for a one-way award.
Note that the prices are slightly different if you’re flying from the West Coast versus the Central and Eastern U.S. If you can find round-trip award space in first class, the mileage premium over business class is negligible, and ANA’s first class is among the best out there. It’s hard to beat booking a $20,000 ticket for only 110,000 miles — while TPG values Virgin Atlantic miles at 1.5 cents each, this redemption could net you closer to 18 cents per mile. If you’re flying from New York, you can even score a seat on ANA’s refreshed 777, which features one of the best first-class products in the entire world.
As a point of comparison, here’s how much a round-trip ANA first-class award would cost with a few other popular Star Alliance loyalty programs:
- ANA Mileage Club: 150,000 miles
- Avianca LifeMiles: 180,000 miles
- Aeroplan: 210,000 miles
- United MileagePlus: 220,000 miles
- Singapore KrisFlyer: 280,000 miles
As you can see, the savings are massive if you book through Virgin Atlantic, anywhere from 30% to more than 50% off the cost of your round-trip award. ANA isn’t stingy with award space, but it’s not always the most generous either. The good news is that you don’t have to book an exact round-trip; you’re allowed an open-jaw routing as long as you stay within the same region of the U.S. (West or Central/East). This means you can mix and match airports wherever you find award space. For example, flying from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and then returning from Tokyo-Haneda (HND) to New York-JFK would be a valid itinerary, costing only 120,000 miles in first class.
Earning Virgin Atlantic miles: Virgin Atlantic miles are among the easiest to get, as you can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Rewards to the carrier’s Flying Club program. Make sure to keep your eye out for transfer bonuses from Amex or Citi that will drop your costs even further.
Book Cathay Pacific and JAL awards with Alaska
The sweet spot: The Alaska Mileage Plan program is a testament to what an airline can do without being part of one of the three major alliances. Alaska miles are incredibly valuable even to those who never fly Alaska (TPG values them at 1.8 cents each, the highest of any individual airline currency) thanks in large part to the partner award charts for JAL and Cathay Pacific. While these prices aren’t quite as attractive as Virgin Atlantic’s ANA chart, the flexibility to pick between two carriers and include a free stopover (even on one-way award tickets) goes a long way. I still remember the hesitation I felt about spending my hard-earned miles on my first international award redemption. If you can visit two destinations for the price of one, it’s a lot easier to see the amazing deal you’re getting by going this route.
Here’s the award chart for flights from the U.S. to Asia on Cathay Pacific:
Paying 70,000 miles for one of the best first-class products in the world, one that routinely sells for over $30,000 round-trip, is an absolute steal.
Even in business class, 50,000 miles one-way is a phenomenal value, especially as Cathay adds its modern A350 aircraft to more U.S. routes. There aren’t many nonstop flights between Washington DC (IAD) and Asia, and Cathay Pacific’s A350 is one of the best options, both in terms of high-value award redemptions and the quality of the actual onboard product.
Note that these prices are valid for flights from the U.S. to all of Asia, meaning you can enjoy a free stopover in Hong Kong before continuing on to Singapore (SIN), Bangkok (BKK) or a host of other destinations. If you’re willing to pay an extra 10,000 miles (80,000 in first class or 60,000 in business class), you can even fly all the way to Australia, breaking up your long trip with a stop along the way.
If Asia is your final destination, Japan Airlines is another worthy option to consider. A first-class ticket will cost the same 70,000 miles (75,000 for flights to Southeast Asia), while business class costs either 60,000 or 65,000 miles depending on your destination. While JAL’s first class gets the same high marks as Cathay Pacific, it has a much more limited U.S. route network both in terms of the number of destinations it serves with a first-class cabin and the number of frequencies it flies on those routes.
At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either of these options, even if you end up paying a premium to fly JAL over Cathay. JAL awards are bookable directly on the Alaska website, but for Cathay Pacific you’ll need to find award space on another Oneworld search engine (like British Airways, American Airlines or Qantas) and then call Alaska to book. When you mix a free stopover with low taxes and a world-class product, this sweet spot alone makes it worth your while to start collecting Alaska miles.
Earning Alaska miles: In addition to transferring points from Marriott, you can earn Alaska miles quickly by signing up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card that is currently offering a welcome bonus of 40,000 miles after you make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account. Alaska also regularly sells miles at an attractive discount, which can be another way to quickly top up your balance.
Use Asiana for the cheapest Lufthansa first class awards
The sweet spot: Booking a Lufthansa first-class award is a badge of honor in the award travel community, as it requires you to jump through a number of hurdles. First, Lufthansa only releases first class award space to partners 15 days before departure, so there’s a good amount of last-minute gambling involved. Second, picking which loyalty program to book with is a headache in its own right. Some (like Aeroplan) offer low mileage rates but pass on sky-high fuel surcharges, while others (like Avianca LifeMiles) offer slightly higher mileage rates but no surcharges.
Further Reading: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first class awards
One program that often gets overlooked, likely because of how hard it is to earn these miles, is Asiana Mileage Club. However, that would be a mistake. Take a look at this round-trip Star Alliance partner award chart:
You’re not seeing things: a round-trip, first-class award ticket on Lufthansa from the U.S. to Europe would only set you back 100,000 miles. Other programs charge more than that for business class, making this a simply phenomenal rate.
You can also book one-way awards for half the price, which can be especially valuable given the way Lufthansa releases award inventory. That puts a one-way first-class ticket from the U.S. to Europe for 50,000 miles, or you could continue onto Africa (still in Lufthansa first class) for only 80,000 miles.
The one drawback is that these awards will carry sky-high fuel surcharges, likely approaching about $1,000, but these prices are simply unbeatable. Another great option would be to fly EVA’s business class to Southeast Asia for only 67,500 miles each way, but the best value here by far is found in Lufthansa first class.
Earning Asiana miles: Asiana miles are challenging to earn. Your best option other than crediting Star Alliance flights to Asiana Club is to transfer points from Marriott.
Fly to Hawaii with British Airways Avios
The sweet spot: A sweet spot redemption on paper is meaningless if no one can ever find the award space to book it. That shouldn’t be the case when using British Airways Avios for flights to Hawaii, since you have a wide set of options. The carrier uses a distance-based award chart, but you’ll be charged separately for each segment, so you’ll want to stick to nonstop routings whenever possible. Flights from the West Coast to Hawaii that cover less than 3,000 miles in distance can be booked for only 13,000 Avios each way in economy.
If you’re thinking that British Airways doesn’t fly to Hawaii, you’d be correct. However, this is where the power of airline partnerships comes into play, as the carrier allows you to book awards on two airlines that do: American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. While you’ll need to search for Alaska award space on the Alaska website and call British Airways to book, you can pick from a handful of different West Coast gateway cities, including Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), Oakland (OAK), San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA) and Portland (PDX) along with smaller airports like Sacramento (SMF) and Bellingham (BLI). For American, you can fly from Los Angeles (LAX) or Phoenix (PHX), and these awards can be booked online. Hawaiian destinations for both carriers include Honolulu (HNL), Kauai (LIH), Maui (OGG) and more.
Even during peak season, you should be able to find a decent amount of saver economy space, and the British Airways website will often show you exactly how many award seats are left on a given flight.
Earning British Airways Avios: British Airways Avios can be earned rather easily by transferring points from Chase, Amex or Marriott. Similar to Virgin Atlantic, Amex frequently runs transfer bonuses for British Airways.
Book the last Reasonably Priced Emirates first-class route with JAL
The sweet spot: While it’s not as easy to book Emirates first class awards as it used to be, these iconic, gold-studded cabins are still high on many travelers’ bucket lists. Thankfully there is still one way left to book this flight at a reasonable cost, but it requires a bit of legwork.
Emirates award redemptions have been hit by the double-edged sword of award chart devaluations and the addition of egregious fuel surcharges. You can minimize these fuel surcharges by picking your departure city carefully, with the best option being Hong Kong. Even though the city recently lifted an outright ban on these additional costs, Emirates hasn’t (as of the time of writing) instituted them to the levels applied out of other airports.
Even after a series of devaluations, I’d consider flying Hong Kong (HKG) to Dubai (DXB) to the east coast of the U.S. booked through Japan Airlines’ Mileage Bank program the single best way to snag an Emirates first class award. These awards now cost 145,000 JAL miles, a far cry from the 180,000 Alaska miles you’d need for the same flight.
What do you get in return for this? With two daily flights out of Hong Kong on the carrier’s flagship double-decker A380, Emirates operates a total of 28 first-class seats on this route each day, making award space relatively easy to find. Thanks to JAL’s generous routing rules, you can enjoy a free stopover in Dubai before continuing on to the East Cost airport of your choice. Washington-Dulles (IAD), New York-JFK and Boston (BOS) all receive A380 service.
The value here, outside of an incredible Emirates flight experience, is that you get it twice. Two meals, two sets of amenity kits and pajamas, two showers (if you’re on an A380), and two flights to cherish and remember forever. The free stopover in Dubai certainly doesn’t hurt, but when you’re flying Emirates first class it might be more about the journey than the destination. Unfortunately, fuel surcharges are based on your departure city, so flying the same route in reverse (East Coast to Hong Kong) would add several hundred dollars to the cost of your ticket.
Earning JAL miles: JAL is a transfer partner of Marriott Rewards, and you can also credit Oneworld flights to JAL Mileage Bank.
Use Korean Air miles for flights to Asia, Europe and the Middle East
The sweet spot: Korean Air’s SKYPASS program is a wildly valuable one that would rank much higher on this list if its miles weren’t so hard to earn these days. For flights on Korean Air itself, 80,000 miles (195,000 Marriott points) will get you a one-way first-class award from the U.S. to Asia with a stopover in Seoul (ICN). I got to try out first-class aboard Korean Air’s 747-8 last year, and the closed-door suites made it feel more like a private jet than a 300+ seat super-jumbo. The nearly perfect food and service didn’t hurt, of course, but this is a flight I’m desperately looking to take again.
Korean Air also offers a generous award chart for SkyTeam partner flights, particularly to Europe and the Middle East. You are required to book round-trip awards, but the prices are very reasonable. Before you get excited about the 100,000-mile round-trip first class award to Europe, there isn’t an airline you can actually book that on. Air France, the only SkyTeam carrier to operate a true first-class cabin on that route, restricts first-class award bookings to elite members of its Flying Blue program.
Still though, 80,000 miles for a round-trip business class award is nearly half what you’d pay if booking through Delta or Flying Blue, and 120,000 miles round-trip for a business class award to Tel Aviv (TLV) is a great deal as well.
Unfortunately, this sweet spot won’t be around forever. Korean Air announced that it will be switching to a distance-based award chart in 2021, raising prices by as much as 110% over current rates. While that gives you plenty of time to plan and book, this is something you’ll want to take advantage of sooner rather than later.
Earning Korean Air miles: Ever since Chase dropped Korean Air as a transfer partner, your best option is to transfer points from Marriott.
When it comes to making award reservations, you need certain stars to align: is there award availability to my desired destination on my preferred dates? A little bit of flexibility is required to make the process run smoothly, and that might mean changing the dates of your trip a bit or opting for a destination with more plentiful award space. If these three things fall into place, you’ll have a solid award flight.
However, there’s a fourth element to the equation: value. If you can score one of the above sweet spots, you’re essentially guaranteed to get incredible value from your redemption. Earning miles is relatively easy to do, but many people struggle when it comes time to redeem. If you want a chance to practice redeeming your miles without ever having to second guess the value you’re getting, any of these sweet spots would be a great place to start. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fantastic award flights, so feel free to share your own favorite sweet spots in the comment section below.
Featured photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
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