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How to Avoid the World’s Most Expensive Award Tickets

Aug. 21, 2019
11 min read
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An award chart devaluation (by definition) can never be positive, but there are some that at least make sense. A perfect example of this would be British Airways' changes to its partner award chart earlier this year. With the exception of flights under 1,152 miles in length — where the carrier still offers some of the best award rates in the industry — no bands went up in cost by more than 10%, and many increased by just 3%. To put it another way, this change isn't going to make many travelers reconsider using another frequent flyer program instead of Avios to book most awards.

Far too often — especially in the era of dynamic award pricing — we see the exact opposite. Airlines will frequently try and spin new, elevated pricing tiers as "more choice for the consumer," but every now and then, you come across an award ticket priced so astronomically high that you're not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Today we're going to take a look at a few of those tickets and some strategies for bringing the cost down.

Dynamic Delta

Dynamic pricing has spread like wildfire around the aviation industry, but Delta gets credit for being the first major airline to go in this direction. Back in 2015, Delta removed its award chart and moved to more variable award pricing. Since then, we've seen some truly absurd prices pop up. A TPG reader was kind enough to share this screenshot of a one-way, Delta One, business-class award from Atlanta (ATL) to Johannesburg (JNB), one of Delta's longest flights.

That's not a typo; the round-trip award ticket costs 930,000 Delta SkyMiles, which are worth a little over $11,000 based on TPG's valuations.

Ignoring the sheer amount of time it would take you to earn a million miles with Delta, this is one of the rare instances where the value of the miles is worth more than the cost of the ticket, which routinely sells for about $10,000. So what options do you have to avoid this absurd pricing? Often times you can score a better deal booking Delta awards through Virgin Atlantic instead, but that trick might not work on this particular flight — when Delta is defaulting to its highest tier of pricing. 465,000 miles for a one-way flight from ATL-JNB isn't an anomaly. At the time of writing, literally every, single day is showing that pricing for the nonstop flight on this route.

Of course, this flight is popular because it's a nonstop option, but if you're willing to break up your journey with a quick flight to New York-JFK, you can enjoy a one-stop routing courtesy of South African Airways. Availability isn't fantastic, but since saver-level awards can be booked through any Star Alliance loyalty program, you're looking at significantly fewer miles to get there.

Alternatively, you could break your flight up with a stop in Europe, greatly increasing the number of airlines you can pick from. Make sure to check out this guide for getting to South Africa on points and miles, and remember that flexibility — especially as it pertains to using a transferable point program — is your friend.

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Alitalia's Millionaire Club

A reader shared the following screenshot in the Travel Grumps 101 Facebook group showing an Alitalia business class award from Los Angeles (LAX) to London (LHR) pricing out at over 3 million miles each way. If you transferred Membership Rewards points to the Italian carrier, you're talking about $60,000 worth of miles for a single business class ticket. Even Cathay Pacific first class tickets can be bought for less than that, and you really have to wonder who Alitalia is targeting with at this price point.

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TPG readers were quick to point out that if you can find saver award space, Alitalia can actually be an incredible program through which to book, offering one-way, business-class awards from the US to Europe for only 48,000 miles and ~$165 in taxes. In fact, if you were able to find round-trip award availability, you could redeem just 80,000 miles for the flights:

You can transfer points from Amex Membership Rewards points to Alitalia at a 1:1 ratio, so this is easily within your reach if you apply for The Platinum Card® from American Express and take home the welcome bonus of 100,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

You can also check out our guide to getting to Italy using points and miles for some additional suggestions.

Residential Living at 38,000 Feet

Many travelers use points and miles to enjoy luxury travel experiences they would never otherwise book, which is why you'll often see them paying for short-haul flights in cash and saving points for longer trips. It's no secret that TPG is a huge fan of the Airbus A380, as the super-jumbo jet gives airlines the ability to offer spacious premium cabins with unique amenities like in-flight showers. When we talk about the world's best A380 first class cabins, most people can agree that Emirates, Etihad and Singapore take the top spots. However, there's one product that's so spectacularly over the top that simply calling it "first class" would be misleading. I'm referring, of course, to Etihad's "The Residence," a three-room cabin which you'll find on the carrier's flagship A380s.

Even more high end than The Apartment is The Residence, located at the front of first class.
Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

With a separate living room, bedroom and private bathroom/shower (not to mention a personal butler and a highly customizable dining experience), there's simply nothing else like it in commercial aviation. TPG reviewed The Residence a few years back, and while he opted to pay cash for his ticket, you can also book this once-in-a-lifetime flying experience for just over 3 million Etihad Guest miles. Based on TPG's valuations, that works out to about $42,000, which still eclipses the ~$35,000 cash price of the ticket. Etihad Guest is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards, and it's also a 2:1.5 transfer partner of Capital One miles.

If you're looking to travel in luxury at a slightly lower price tag, Etihad's first class apartments on the A380 still offer almost 40 square feet of space per passenger, an in-flight shower and a world-class dining experience. You can book these awards through American Airlines AAdvantage as long as Etihad has Guest First space available — and they're even available on American's website. Etihad is getting stingier with premium-cabin award space on its US routes, but there is some good news. The carrier recently began flying its A380 between Seoul (ICN) and Abu Dhabi (AUH), and you can book this ~10 hour flight in first class for only 50,000 AAdvantage miles each way.

The Suite Life

Keeping with the theme of aspirational first class redemptions, it doesn't get much better than Singapore Suites. Whether you're flying on the older configuration or in the refreshed cabin (which TPG called the world's best first class product), you'll experience the same industry-leading service and incredible dining experience. While the new suites are stunning — and worth flying even on a shorter daytime flight — the downside is that the new configuration only has six seats instead of 12. Singapore was already stingy with its saver-level awards, so if you want to fly Suites to or from the US, you should be prepared to pay up for the more expensive advantage awards.

Singapore charges 237,000 miles to fly from Singapore (SIN) to New York-JFK via Frankfurt (FRA) in Suites class, and this route currently features the older Suites cabin. That's a ton of miles to pay for a one-way flight, worth about $3,000 based on TPG's valuations, but in exchange for that you get two long flights in Suites, giving you plenty of time to enjoy every part of the onboard experience. If you're booking an advantage award you can also build in a free stopover, meaning you can spend a few days exploring Frankfurt instead of continuing on directly to the US.

However, there might be an avenue to avoid this entirely: leverage Singapore's waitlist feature. This allows you to request an award itinerary at a level not available at the time of booking. If it then opens up, you can cancel and rebook your award ticket, potentially getting a mileage refund if the price has dropped. Just be sure to submit your waitlist request for saver awards before you book another flight, since you need to have enough miles in your account to cover the waitlisted trip — and be prepared for it not to clear with such an in-demand cabin.

The Power of Transferable Points

All of the above examples refer to premium-cabin awards at high mileage rates, and in some cases, they just can't be avoided. That being said, the most important tool in your arsenal for combating these expensive award tickets is to have transferable points at your disposal. The power of these currencies is their flexibility: Instead of being forced into a 465,000-mile, one-way award flight to South Africa because you've only accrued Delta SkyMiles, you can shop around through other carriers. Once you've found an itinerary that works well, only then do you need to commit to a specific program — one that offers the best combination of mileage rates and out-of-pocket costs for taxes and fees.

If you don't currently have a card that earns transferable points, here are some guides to get you started:

Bottom Line

High-priced award tickets are becoming an increasing reality as more airlines adopt dynamic award pricing, but it's important to distinguish between outrageous prices and spending more miles to experience highly-exclusive products. While you should balk at any airline charging half a million or more miles for a one-way flight, remember to always compare TPG's valuations to the cash cost of the ticket and read up on some flight reviews before making a decision. If your only opportunity to fly Singapore Suites requires you to burn 237,000 miles, then you might just have to suck it up and drown your sorrows in Dom Perignon for the 24-hour journey.

Featured image by Delta One Suites on a refurbished Boeing 777 (Photo by Nick Ellis / The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.