Turkish Miles & Smiles: Why you should care about the hottest frequent flyer program of 2020

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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information needed to make educated decisions about travel and rewards-earning strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route networks. But we are sharing this information to provide value for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.

If you like flying for (much) less, maximizing frequent flyer award chart sweet spots or just being on the cutting edge of the hottest trends in miles and points, you need to pour yourself a nice, hot cup of coffee and dedicate some time to a program we’re pretty sure you’re going to love, but that many have ignored. With it, you can be flying United, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and more for far fewer miles than you thought possible.

Just how good of a deal are we talking?

How about a 7,500-mile award from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii on United? Or a lie-flat seat from the U.S. all the way to Istanbul for under 34,000 miles each way? Perhaps you’d prefer a cross-country lie-flat seat for 12,500 miles? The Turkish Miles & Smiles program makes all that possible and is a transfer partner of the Citi ThankYou cards, but isn’t yet as well known as the U.S.-based frequent flyer programs or even the British Airways Avios program.

But if you want to learn about an international frequent flyer program that’s jam-packed with redemption sweet spots, this is a hot program to choose. At the risk of blowing the secret, recent online technological improvements have made Turkish Miles & Smiles program the next great thing in points and miles.

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In This Post

Best cards for earning Turkish Miles & Smiles

How to earn Miles & Smiles miles

You can transfer Citi ThankYou points to Turkish at a 1:1 ratio using the Citi PrestigeCiti Premier Card and now potentially even the Citi Double Cash Card. These cards make it pretty easy to rack up points at a good pace with bonus categories such as 5x points on the Citi Prestige on air travel and restaurant purchases, along with 3x points on hotel and cruise purchases.

The information for the Citi Prestige and Citi Premier has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

The Citi Premier Card currently awards 3x points per dollar spent on travel (which includes most gas stations and other purchases such as cruises, parking, tolls and more) and 2x on dining out and entertainment. But, beginning on Aug. 23, 2020, that rewards structure is changing to 3x points on air travel, hotels, gas stations, supermarkets and restaurants (including takeout). If you already have the card in your wallet, you’ll retain the additional bonus categories currently on the card, such as 2x on entertainment, through April 10, 2021.

The Citi Double Cash Card keeps things simple by awarding 2% cash back (1% cash back when you buy, plus 1% cash back as you pay) which can be converted to ThankYou points via a linked ThankYou account. If you also have a Premier or Prestige card, those points become transferable to partners, such as Turkish Miles & Smiles.

But there are ways to earn Turkish Miles & Smiles outside of credit cards. First, you can fly Turkish Airlines-operated flights and you’ll earn reward miles based on your fare class, Miles & Smiles elite status level and the distance of the flight:

If you flew Turkish Airlines from Los Angeles to Istanbul (6,865 miles in route) in a discounted ‘U’ economy fare, for example, you would earn 25% of the length of the flight, or only 1,716 redeemable miles. That’s really not great, but it’s something.

Related: Review of flying Turkish Airlines business class on a 777 to Los Angeles

Turkish Airlines is in the Star Alliance and, as a result, you can also earn miles by flying Turkish’s partner airlines and crediting those miles to your Miles & Smiles account. The most likely partner we would fly and perhaps credit to Miles & Smiles would be United. You’ll earn Turkish miles based on the fare class and distance of your United-operated flight:

There are different earning charts for each partner airline, so be sure to check if your fare class is eligible to earn miles and how many miles you’ll earn before deciding to put your Turkish frequent flyer number on a partner reservation.

You could also consider using PointsHound or RocketMiles for a hotel booking if you’re going to book a boutique hotel that otherwise wouldn’t award points or elite status.

Besides flying, Turkish has a lot of partner companies offering miles for repeat business. Unfortunately for those of us here in the U.S., the majority of these businesses are located only in Turkey. You can earn miles for hotel stays and car rentals, but the earning rates are so low and the opportunity cost of not earning hotel points or car rental points is too high, so we can’t recommend earning miles this way the majority of the time.

Outside of transfers from Citi, the best way for most of us to earn Turkish miles is by transferring your Marriott Bonvoy points to Turkish at what works out to be a 2.4 to 1 ratio. Marriott points transfer to more than 40 airline partners at a 3 to 1 ratio and for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer, you’ll earn a 5,000-mile bonus.

This means 60,000 Marriott points can become 25,000 Turkish Miles & Smiles miles. That math won’t always work out as there are ways to get solid value out of 60,000 Marriott points for actual hotel stays, but it’s one of the few Miles & Smiles earning options available.

Related: Best cards for earning Marriott points

On a final note, Turkish miles expire three years from the time they’re earned. You can pay a rather expensive fee of $10 for every 1,000 miles that are about to expire to extend them for another three years, but you should really plan on using your Turkish miles long before they expire. 

Things to know about Turkish Miles & Smiles

The Miles & Smiles program has evolved rather quickly over the last few years, and even more within the last few months.

In 2017, it was a program full of cumbersome idiosyncrasies (like having to e-mail to book partner award tickets) and had a very limited online award search engine. That made it a potential gem for hardcore points and miles nerds, but less useful for the everyday award traveler. Today, the online search engine includes Star Alliance flights and is much more user friendly with multi-day award space displays. It’s still not perfect, but it’s finally useable.

The best way to redeem Turkish miles is for award flights. While other options may exist in the program, look to book Turkish- or Star Alliance-operated flights for maximum value.

With that in mind, here are a few of the most important rules and nuances of Miles & Smiles:

  • Miles & Smiles prices award flights on region-based award charts.
  • There are two levels of award availability for Turkish-operated flights: regular and promotional. Regular doesn’t technically have a name, it is just “award ticket” when you see it in award flight search results. Promo space (still referred to as “limited space capacity” in the terms and conditions) simply means fewer seats are available at a much lower mileage cost than the regular “award ticket” space.
  • Award ticket prices for flights within the same region cost 15,000, 25,000 and 40,000 miles round-trip for economy, business and first class, respectively.
  • You can book one-way awards for half the price of a round-trip.
  • You can redeem miles for anyone besides yourself, but you need to first register them in your Miles & Smiles account online.
  • If you need 10,000 additional miles or less to issue an award ticket, you can buy them at a rate of 25 euros (about $27) per 1,000 miles.
  • Fuel surcharges are not charged on United flights and are somewhat reasonable on Turkish flights, but can be problematic on some Star Alliance carriers.
  • Award tickets can be canceled or changed for a fee of $25.
  • One open-jaw is allowed on a round-trip ticket. (An open-jaw is an itinerary when you fly into one city and out of another. An example would be New York to London, then Paris to New York.)
  • One stopover is allowed in Istanbul on the outbound or return of a Turkish Airlines-operated award itinerary. (A stopover is when you stay in a city along the path of your itinerary for a period of time. An example would be Houston to Istanbul to Male and back to Houston, where you spend days in both Istanbul and Male, in the Maldives, even though Male is actually your ultimate destination, not Istanbul.)
  • Award tickets can can have a maximum of eight segments: four on the inbound and four on the outbound. (A segment is an actual take-off and touch-down. So, Los Angeles to Houston to Istanbul to Athens would be three segments for that portion of the ticket. If the same flights were repeated on the return, that’d be a total of six segments.)
  • You can put award tickets on hold for 72 hours, even with zero miles in your account. This is helpful if you’re waiting on Citi transfers to show up in your account. Typically, transfers from Citi take about a day to reach your Miles & Smiles account.

If this is your first entry into redeeming Turkish miles, I recommend reviewing the program FAQs. The award ticket terms and conditions can also be very helpful. With the nitty gritty details out of the way, let’s look at booking award tickets online.

How to book Turkish Miles & Smiles award tickets

Redeeming Turkish miles online is now relatively simple, but you need to be aware of a few oddities of the Turkish website.

How to book a Turkish Airlines-operated award flight

First, if you want to book an award ticket operated only by Turkish Airlines, you can get to the award booking engine from the Turkish home page by clicking the “Award ticket” checkbox on the booking engine:

This will require you to log in to your Miles & Smiles account and then bring you to the award ticket booking engine. Pro tip: Don’t include the leading TK portion of your account number when you log in. Also remember, this first search screen is only for Turkish-operated flight itineraries:

If you complete a simple search, say from Atlanta (ATL) to Istanbul (IST), the search results give you the ability to view an entire week of space for economy class and toggle between economy- and business-award flight options:

After you select a flight option, you’ll see the flight details, aircraft type and the award space labeled as promotional pricing or regular pricing, which will match the published award charts:

The following page will give you the total cost of your flight, including taxes and fees, even if you don’t have the required mileage in your account.

How to book a Star Alliance partner award flight

If you want to search for Star Alliance-operated award flights (such as those operated by United, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and others), you need to find the Star Alliance award search engine.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to navigate here and find on your own — but we’ll show you how. To access Star Alliance award searches, log in to your Turkish Miles & Smiles account and, on the drop down menu (below your name), select “Miles Transactions” as shown below:

On the next page, you’ll see the link that will take you to the Star Alliance award ticket booking engine:

The engine looks identical to the Turkish-operated award search engine, except it says “Star Award Ticket” at the top:

If you’re searching in the wrong booking engine, it won’t tell you that … it just won’t ever find what you’re looking for. So, be sure and follow these instructions. Note that the functionality on the Star Alliance search engine is a bit different as it does not have the week-long view and does not allow you to select economy- or business-class award searches, and instead shows the different cabins on the results screen.

After searching for your intended route, select the flights that best suit your schedule (and hopefully avoid fuel surcharges).

From this screen, you’ll be able to book Star Alliance partner flights, or itineraries with a mix of partners and Turkish-operated award flights.

While it’s vastly improved from the days of yesteryear, the Turkish’s Star Alliance award search engine clearly isn’t perfect.

It can’t always see all the flights other Star Alliance engines such as United and ANA display. If this happens, you can call Turkish at 800-874-8875 (we’ve also had great luck using Skype and calling the Turkish center at +90 0850 333 0 849) and an agent can potentially book an award ticket for you over the phone.

The good news is that, in the last three or four months, we haven’t had to use the email system or contact a Turkish ticketing office to book an award ticket, which is something we couldn’t say this time last year.  

Related: The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability

Best uses of Turkish Miles & Smiles

Look for Turkish award sales

Turkish regularly has sales on their award prices, which are updated on the campaigns page of its site.

In March 2020, a sale featured 25% off award bookings in both economy and business for most destinations in the U.S. I was able to book business class-awards on the Atlanta to Istanbul nonstop flight for 33,800 miles and $170.50 in taxes and fees.

For comparison’s sake, United MileagePlus would want at least 70,000 United miles for that same flight on Turkish — though with a smaller amount of taxes and fees.

Hawaii for 7,500 miles one-way, 15,000 miles round-trip

Flights within the same region as defined by the Turkish region chart cost 15,000 miles round-trip.

Honolulu (HNL) is specifically included in the North America region (though all other Hawaii destinations I searched were also included) along with the rest of the U.S., making one-way flights to the Aloha State a microscopic 7,500 miles each way. These awards are bookable online and carry no fuel surcharges:

Even one-stop itineraries from the East Coast price at only 7,500 miles, including this Atlanta to Honolulu search routing via San Francisco (SFO):

Theoretically, you can do these flights in business class for just 12,500 miles each way (a tiny fraction of the more than 40,000 miles United would want if you booked award flights directly with them), but know that business-class awards to Hawaii booked this way are extremely hard to find.

One-way transcontinental flights in business class for 12,500 miles

Want to fly six hours across the U.S. in a United lie-flat seat? If you can find the availability, you can book that for just 12,500 Turkish miles. Economy would only set you back 7,500 miles, but our vote is the extra space is worth the additional 5,000 miles if you can find it!

Alaska, Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands for 7,500 miles in economy or 12,500 in first class

We’re starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but hang in there: Alaska, San Juan, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are also grouped in with the rest of the U.S., which means award flights are 7,500 miles in economy or 12,500 in first class.

Caribbean, St Thomas US Virgin Islands. Panoramic view. (Photo by sorincolac / Getty Images)
Caribbean, St Thomas US Virgin Islands. Panoramic view. (Photo by sorincolac/Getty Images.)

While United usually doesn’t fly many fancy lie-flat seats to these destinations, the flight can be long enough that doing it in domestic first class is still a bargain for just 12,500 miles, if you can snag it.

US to Mexico for 10,000 miles one-way in economy or 15,000 miles in business class

When it’s safe to travel again, you can book that beach getaway from the U.S. down to Mexico for just 10,000 miles in economy or 15,000 in business class. Whether you want Cancun (CUN), Puerto Vallarta (PVR) or Mexico City (MEX), the award price from Turkish to fly on United is the same awesome deal. Again, for comparison, United would usually want at least 17,500 miles in economy or 30,000 miles to sit up front in each direction.

US to Europe for 45,000 miles one-way in business class

From North America to both Europe Zone 1 and Europe Zone 2, you can fly for the same amount of miles. Economy is 30,000 miles one-way and business is a fantastic 45,000 miles. This mixed-partner award in business on United and Lufthansa from Newark (EWR) to Frankfurt (FRA) via London (LHR) is only 45,000 miles and $75.20:

North America to India for 52,500 miles in business class

One of the most common award routings we’re asked to find is flying to India and back on award tickets. Turkish, I believe, has one of the best prices with 34,000 miles one-way for economy and 52,500 miles one-way for business. India is included in the Central Asia zone on the Turkish chart.

Intra-Oceania for 15,000 to 25,000 miles one-way in economy or business class

Intra-Oceania is a big zone, as it stretches from French Polynesia to Australia, New Zealand and beyond. And it’s available for 25,000 miles one-way in business class. These can be tough awards to score, often on Air New Zealand, but when you can book one, it’s a steal. The catch? We haven’t been able to get the online search site to recognize the gateway to French Polynesia, Papeete (PPT), so you may have to call to book those awards.

French Polynesia (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
French Polynesia (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

Europe 2 to Oceania for 37,500 to 52,500 miles one-way in business class

If you want to fly a long way for a few miles, you can go all the way from Eastern and Central Europe to Australia or New Zealand for very few miles. This is quite a sweet spot in the award chart with economy coming in at 37,500 miles one-way and business requiring only 52,500 miles.

You can also fly from the U.S. to Australia and New Zealand in business class for just 75,000 miles each way which is, again, an absolute steal on the rare occasion you can find the availability.

There are almost too many sweet spots to show when you start looking around the globe at other region to region and intra-region combinations.

First class to Europe from the U.S. will only cost 67,500 miles one way. Intra-Far East region flights, stretching from Japan to the Maldives, cost as little as 20,000 miles one way. There are gold mines hiding in plain site within the zone definitions. Study the Star Alliance and Turkish award charts to find your own sweet spots and the best use of these miles for your next award trip.

Bottom line

The game of chasing the best frequent flyer programs and redemptions is always changing. No one program is the best at everything, but right now the Turkish Miles & Smiles program is pretty spectacular for those who have access to Citi ThankYou points and like to fly on Star Alliance airlines. At the risk of extinguishing the flame, we’d say it’s one of the hottest frequent flyer programs of 2020.

Featured photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

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