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Low fees, stopovers and open jaws: The best airline miles for flexible travelers

Dec. 15, 2020
18 min read
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Airline award tickets can provide excellent value, especially for travelers who have flexibility in their travels. For example, did you know that it's possible to visit ten different cities with just one award ticket? While this type of trip may take much longer than your vacation time will allow, now it might be possible if you can work from anywhere.

The shift toward remote work has created a demand for work from hotel packages. It has also opened the door for remote workers and students to take full advantage of airline programs that allow stopovers and open jaws on awards.

However, after traveling as a digital nomad for more than three years, I also know the importance of changing or canceling award flights with low fees. After all, plans can change when you're on an extended trip. And, booking flexible travel is more important than ever as the coronavirus pandemic continues to be an issue.

So, today I'll take a closer look at four airline mileage programs that are good for flexible travelers. All of the programs covered in this guide have relatively low change and cancellation fees. And each of the programs allows stopovers and open jaws that you can leverage for creative trip planning. You may not have any miles with the programs discussed below, so I'll also discuss how to get the miles you need to book awards with each of the programs.

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ANA Mileage Club

ANA's The Room business class seat (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

ANA Mileage Club provides the opportunity to book awards on Star Alliance partners and some non-Star Alliance partners such as Etihad Airways. Although all partner awards must be round-trip and only one stopover is allowed per round-trip, there's still value to be found when combining the stopover with allowed open jaws. Plus, there's no cost to change your departure date or flight number.

Award policies to know

ANA Mileage Club has separate policies and award charts for ANA domestic awards, ANA international awards and partner awards. ANA defines partner awards as awards that include any flights operated by ANA's partner airlines.

Partner awards are the most useful for U.S.-based travelers, so I'll only consider ANA partner awards in this guide. For partner awards:

  • Only round-trip awards are offered
  • Mixed cabin awards are available
  • Premium economy awards aren't bookable
  • Itineraries can have up to two transfers on both the outbound and return journeys
  • Itineraries utilizing non-Star Alliance partners, such as Etihad Airways or Virgin Atlantic, may only use that partner

Finally, note that ANA eliminated the bulk of fuel surcharges on awards earlier this year.

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Related: 10 ways to redeem ANA Mileage Club miles for maximum value

Change and cancellation policies

ANA Mileage Plan allows you to change the departure date and flight on partner awards free of charge until the ticket's expiration date. Specifically, you can make changes before the departure of the initially reserved flight and at least 96 hours before the new flight's departure. Luckily, you can make changes online until 96 hours before departure of the itinerary's first flight.

If you cancel an ANA Mileage Plan partner award, ANA will charge you 3,000 miles per person to refund the miles. Based on TPG's latest valuations, these miles are worth about $42. However, you must call ANA to cancel. And ANA will only provide a refund if you cancel before the departure of the reserved flight, you haven't used any flight segments on your award and the miles aren't expired.

Related: Why you should wait to change or cancel your flight if you want your money back

Stopovers and open jaws

On partner awards, ANA Mileage Plan allows one stopover per round-trip award. Partner awards permit open jaws at both the origin and destination, but there are some nuanced restrictions. So, be sure to read all the exclusions and terms to understand what itineraries should be allowable.

Related: Maximizing stopovers and open jaws on award tickets

How to earn miles

The easiest way to get ANA Mileage Plan miles is by transferring rewards from one of the following programs:

You can also earn ANA miles with the ANA Card U.S.A. But, this card only earns one ANA Mileage Club mile per dollar spent on all purchases. So, you'll generally be better off with a card that earns Amex Membership Rewards points.

Related: Which is the best American Express credit card for you?

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/The Points Guy)

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles isn't a simple program. However, the program's Oneworld multi-carrier awards allow up to five stopovers and two open jaws. So, if you value stopovers and open jaws on awards — and are willing to put some time into understanding the Asia Miles program — there's certainly value to be found.

Award policies to know

There are three types of award charts in the Cathay Pacific Asia Miles program:

  • Asia Miles chart applies to Cathay Pacific flight awards when Cathay Pacific is the only carrier or one of two carriers
  • Partner charts apply to awards on Asia Miles partners
  • Oneworld multi-carrier chart applies to round-trip award tickets that include:
  • Two Oneworld airlines, when Cathay Pacific doesn't operate any of the flights
  • Three or more Oneworld airlines, where Cathay Pacific operates at least one flight

There are nuanced rules that cover all three types of rewards. However, you'll notice that some of these rules -- such as the complicated rules defining the turn-around point on round-trip awards -- don't apply to Oneworld multi-carrier awards. Oneworld multi-carrier awards have an additional set of rules, though.

Related: How to use 60,000 Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

Change and cancellation policies

The Cathay Pacific Asia Miles program lists its service fees in a table. Based on this table, you'll need to pay $120 to cancel and refund a fully-unused ticket before its expiration date.

You can pay $25 per flight sector per passenger to change your award's flight date or flight number online. However, you'll need to pay $40 per flight sector per passenger if you request this change through other channels.

Finally, you can pay $100 to change the routing, cabin class or flight award type on an unused award. However, the ticket expiration date and airline must remain the same.

You can also use Asia Miles to pay these fees. However, the redemption rate to do so is just one cent per mile compared to TPG's valuation of 1.3 cents per mile.

Related: Complete guide to changing and canceling award tickets

Stopovers and open jaws

In the Cathay Pacific Asia Miles program, the stopover and open-jaw rules are different for Oneworld multi-carrier awards. Specifically, the rules are as follows for Oneworld multi-carrier awards:

  • A maximum of two segments are allowed on one-way awards, but the connection time on a two-segment award must be 24 hours or less (excluding Oneworld multi-carrier awards)
  • A maximum of four segments, one stopover and one open jaw are allowed on round-trip awards (excluding Oneworld multi-carrier awards)
  • The turn-around point must be the stopover though
  • Up to five stopovers, two connections and two open jaws are allowed on Oneworld multi-carrier awards

Asia Miles prices Oneworld multi-carrier awards according to a distance-based chart that tops out at 50,000 miles. However, piecing together a Oneworld multi-carrier award that maximizes the allowable stopovers, connections and open jaws isn't trivial.

Related: Good news: Cathay Pacific gets rid of fuel surcharges for most regions

How to earn miles

Most U.S.-based travelers will need to depend on transferrable points when they want Cathay Pacific Asia Miles for a redemption. Luckily, Asia Miles is a transfer partner for the following programs:

You can also earn Asia Miles through various other methods. One option for U.S. residents is the Cathay Pacific Visa Signature Card. This card often offers a sign-up bonus. Plus, cardholders earn 2x Asia Miles on eligible Cathay Pacific travel and in-flight purchases, 1.5x Asia Miles on dining and purchases made outside the U.S. and 1x on all other purchases.

Related: Is Citi ThankYou Rewards the most underappreciated and misunderstood program?

Japan Airlines Mileage Bank

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank provides very generous award ticket change and cancellation policies. So if you're booking a Oneworld award that needs to be flexible, this might be the way to go. Plus, it's possible to build multiple stopovers and at least one open jaw into most award itineraries.

Award policies to know

JAL Mileage Bank has many different sets of award charts: JAL domestic, JAL international, partner awards (excluding Jetstar Japan), Oneworld awards and Jetstar Japan. Unfortunately, awards booked using each of these charts have their own rules.

For example, JAL domestic awards require non-stop or direct flights. And JAL international awards must originate or terminate in Japan with no more than one international flight and one Japan domestic flight each way. But, partner awards allow up to six flights and three stopovers on some partners. And Oneworld awards allow for even more flights and stopovers than partner awards.

Related: Airline miles that are hardest to earn — and why you want them anyway

Change and cancellation policies

You can change the flight number and flight date for free online up to 48 hours before departure of the new or old itinerary, whichever is earlier. You can also make these changes by phone until departure for $50 per ticket. However, you can only make these changes if the new flight date is still within one year from when JAL issued the ticket.

If you decide to cancel your JAL Mileage Bank award, you can redeposit your miles for a ¥3,100 ($30) fee before departure of the first flight and within a year of when JAL issued the ticket.

Related: How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees

Stopovers and open jaws

The stopover and open-jaw rules vary depending on your award type. Specifically:

  • JAL domestic awards: Only non-stop or direct flights. But, since one sector is half the price of two sectors, you can book multiple one-way awards to create an open jaw.
  • JAL international awards:
  • An open jaw is allowed at the origin or destination, but some itineraries may not be allowed (for example, if the distance of the open jaw is excessive)
  • Each way, you can have at most one international flight sector and one Japan domestic flight sector
  • Stopovers aren't permitted
  • Partner awards:
  • At most, six flight sectors are permitted for most partners, although some partners limit the number of flight sectors to two or four
  • Each award can have up to three stopovers, including no more than one open jaw (some open jaws may not be allowed)
  • Your itinerary can't include any specific city more than three times, and you may only stopover in a city once
  • Oneworld awards:
  • Each award can have at most eight flight sectors, including at most two Japan domestic flight sectors
  • You can include at most seven stopovers in an award, but stopovers in Japan aren't allowed for itineraries originating in Japan
  • At most one stopover can be an open jaw, although some open jaws may not be allowed
  • Your itinerary can't include any specific city more than three times, and you may only stopover in a city once

There's certainly value in the stopover and open-jaw rules of the partner awards and Oneworld awards. However, the program's backtracking rules can complicate these awards.

Related: Your guide to round-the-world award tickets

How to earn miles

One downside of the Japan Airlines Mileage Bank program is that it can be difficult to accrue miles. After all, the only transferrable currency that transfers to JAL Mileage Bank is Marriott Bonvoy. You can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to JAL at a 3:1 ratio plus a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred. But, the transfer usually takes 48 hours. And, I generally have other ways I'd prefer to redeem Marriott Bonvoy points.

Related: 11 places to get more than $1,000 in value from 100,000 Marriott points

Singapore Airlines Krisflyer

(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer is one of the only airline loyalty programs that is a partner of all the major transferable currencies. So, it's easy to gather enough miles for your next redemption. Although change and cancellation fees are moderate for most awards, there's some great value to be found in the program's stopover and open-jaw policies for Star Alliance awards.

Award policies to know

Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer program offers three types of awards: awards on Singapore Airlines / SilkAir (Saver and Advantage levels), Star Alliance awards and awards on partner airlines. One-way awards generally require half as many miles as round-trip awards.

Change and cancellation policies

Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer service fees are easily viewable in a chart. Specifically, there's no cost to change the date or time on Advantage award tickets. But, you'll need to pay $25 to change the date or time on Saver award tickets. And you'll need to pay $25 to change the route, cabin class, award type or add a stopover on Advantage and Saver award tickets. Finally, there's a $50 fee to change the date, route, flight or carrier on Star Alliance and partner awards.

If you want to cancel your award, you'll need to pay $75 to redeposit miles for Saver, partner and Star Alliance award tickets. But, the fee is only $50 to cancel and redeposit miles for Advantage award tickets. In both cases, the award must be unused and canceled before the flight. And, if you fail to show up for a flight and then request to cancel the award and redeposit the miles, you'll need to pay an additional no-show fee.

Related: Maximizing Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer partner awards

Stopovers and open jaws

On Singapore Airlines / SilkAir awards, round-trip Advantage awards include two complimentary stopovers. Meanwhile, one-way Advantage awards and round-trip Saver awards include one complimentary stopover. And one-way Saver awards include no complimentary stopovers. However, you can pay $100 per stopover to include additional stopovers.

One complimentary en route stopover is allowed on most Star Alliance round-trip awards. Plus, customers can usually opt to add up to three additional en route stopovers to their round-trip award for $100 per stopover. However, stopovers aren't allowed in some cases.

Each round-trip Star Alliance award may have one origin or destination open jaw. The program rules permit open jaws across different award zones, but the higher award level will apply.

A Star Alliance round the world award is also offered with up to seven complimentary stopovers and 16 segments. This option costs 180,000 miles in economy, 240,000 in business class or 360,000 in first class.

Related: How to waitlist for better award flights on Singapore Airlines

How to earn miles

As I mentioned above, Singapore KrisFlyer is a transfer partner of five transferable currencies:

My first choice would be to transfer Citi ThankYou Rewards. After all, the transfer should occur in less than a day. And, based on TPG's valuations of each of these transferrable currencies, transferring Citi ThankYou Rewards points will also provide the best value.

Related: The easiest airline miles to get and why you want them

Other programs to note

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

I almost included Alaska MileagePlan in this guide. After all, you can book free stopovers with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. And there are ample ways to maximize Alaska Airlines’ award routing rules. The $125 fee for any change or cancellation made more than 24 hours after booking is too high to be considered flexible.

Likewise, I also considered including the new Aeroplan in this guide. After all, the new Aeroplan routing and stopover rules are appealing. But, with fees of up to $100 per direction per ticket for changes and up to $175 per ticket for cancellations, you'll want to be relatively sure you'll take the award as booked.

Finally, I also considered the United MileagePlus program and its Excursionist perk. There are many ways to maximize United’s award routing rules. But, general MileagePlus members must pay a $75 fee to change or cancel with redeposit 61 or more days before departure or a $125 fee to do so 60 or fewer days before departure. These fees are too high to fit with the premise of this guide.

Related: The ultimate guide to airline stopover programs

Bottom Line

The coronavirus vaccine will soon be widely available. But, since all of the programs discussed in this guide offer low change and cancellation fees, you can go ahead and plan the perfect trip even if you aren't entirely sure you'll want to (or be able to) take it.

And, a newly-found ability to work remotely may allow you to travel with more flexibility than before. This flexibility may let you fully use the stopovers and open jaws offered by the four programs discussed above. Although it's challenging to master these program rules to design an ideal itinerary, it can be highly rewarding.

Featured image by Getty Images/Westend61