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How to book a round-trip business-class award to Europe for just 88,000 miles

Jan. 07, 2021
10 min read
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It's safe to say that, for most people, the holiday season didn't exactly go as planned.

My family visited with Santa on Zoom, barely saw anyone in person and we canceled all our trips planned for December and January.

So next holiday season, we plan to make up for it.

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While there are no guarantees about what the world will look like next winter, we're still aiming high -- all the way to Santa Claus Village above the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland.

Coming from Texas, that's going to be a long journey without a magical sleigh to whisk us away. So, we turned to the next-best trick in my bag: airline miles. They aren't flying reindeer, but points and miles can snag us lie-flat seats for our journey across the ocean so we arrived as rested as possible for the real-life reindeer awaiting us.

(Image by Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld / Getty Images)

There are many hurdles to booking business-class award flights to Europe and back for a whole family. One of the biggest is the challenge of securing award availability and being able to afford three, four or more award seats. For availability, I had to rely on checking award availability obsessively (and a bit of luck). But affordability was more within my control by knowing a few award chart sweet spots.

Here's how we booked business-class awards from the U.S. to Europe and back for just 88,000 total miles, plus the cost of taxes and fees.

Leveraging a Star Alliance partner award chart

Maybe you've never heard of All Nippon Airways (ANA), but it's a fantastic Japanese airline that is in the Star Alliance (along with United, Air Canada, Lufthansa and others).

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ANA is also a 1 to 1 transfer partner of the Amex Membership Rewards program, meaning it's entirely possible to earn and redeem points in the ANA frequent flyer program without ever flying an ANA-operated flight.

Photo by Chris Dong / The Points Guy

On the ANA award chart, you can fly from North America (Zone 6) to Europe and what they call "Russia 2" and back again for 88,000 miles in business class. If you want, you can even have a stopover (extra time in a city along the way) or an open-jaw (fly into one European city and depart from another) built into that same award price.

Considering that United MileagePlus wants at least 154,000 United miles for a round-trip partner award in business class from the U.S. to Europe and back, or at least 120,000 United miles for that same round trip award on a United-operated flight, paying just 88,000 miles by booking through ANA is a real bargain for a Star Alliance-operated award.

Still confused? That's OK. It will hopefully all click in a minute.

Related: Guide to the ANA Mileage Club

Booking United Polaris awards

Since we live in Houston (a United hub city) and will be traveling with kids, our goal was to book nonstop flights in lie-flat seats.

The big package to Santa's Village in Finland actually starts and ends with flights from London, so that was my desired destination from the U.S.

United Polaris (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

This means the best option for us was booking United-operated Polaris flights from Houston (IAH) to London (LHR). Luckily, United business-class award availability is exceedingly good at the moment.

And since it would cost significantly fewer miles to book those award seats on United via ANA, rather than directly through United MileagePlus, that was the obvious plan. All we had to do was transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to my ANA account as soon as we found the availability we wanted. (Though keep in mind that these transfers from Amex Membership Rewards to ANA are not instant, and will take at least a day or two.)

ANA's website is relatively easy to maneuver and you can book partner awards online. You don't need any miles in your account to conduct searches, though you do need to be logged in, so you'll need to set up an account first.

As I mentioned, when booking an award, such as mine from the U.S. to Europe, ANA will allow both a stopover in Europe, as well as an open-jaw on the trip for the same 88,000-mile total.

This means I could have flown Houston to London (with a stopover for a few days) on to Frankfurt (and book transportation to the next city as an open-jaw) then from Amsterdam back to Houston for the same number of miles as just a simple round-trip between Houston and London.

Screenshot courtesy of ANA

That wasn't what I needed for this trip, but keep those tips in mind for a larger itinerary through a region if you want to see more than one city.

Avoiding fees when awards booking with ANA

While we're talking about Europe, keep in mind that the taxes and fees added to the award will vary dramatically based on the countries you visit and where you depart.

For example, the U.K. charges hundreds of dollars in departure fees (but not arrival fees) in a premium cabin. A round-trip award flight from the U.S. to London and back in a premium cabin will cost almost $300 more per person in mandatory U.K. Air Passenger Duty fees than when flying out of many other countries.

Screenshot courtesy of ANA

If you're instead able to travel home from a location with lower taxes and fees, such as nearby Amsterdam, you can save hundreds of dollars per person.

Related: Understanding taxes and fees on award tickets

Screenshot courtesy of ANA

When booking partner awards with ANA, you'll also likely want to avoid booking with carriers that pass along fuel surcharges. United does not have fuel surcharges, so it's a good carrier to fly when booking ANA awards. SAS and Air Canada are other carriers with lower fees to consider when flying on ANA miles to Europe.

But as you can see below, a Lufthansa-operated award from the U.S. to Europe and back in business class comes with a staggering $1,624 in taxes and fees.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award flights

Screenshot courtesy of ANA

Best ways to earn miles for ANA awards

The easiest way to earn miles for ANA awards is by transferring points from American Express Membership Rewards at a 1 to 1 ratio. Here are some of the top cards for earning Amex Membership Rewards points:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $6,000 on purchases within the first six months of account opening. Earn 5x points per dollar spent on flights booked directly or on Amex.com (earn 5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year); 5x points on prepaid hotel bookings with American Express Travel; 1x point per dollar elsewhere. ($695 annual fee; see rates and fees)
  • The Business Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 120,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card within the first three months of card membership. $695 annual fee (see rates and fees)
  • American Express® Gold Card: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards Points after you use your new card to make $4,000 in purchases in your first six months of account opening. Earn 4x points per dollar at restaurants, 4x points (up to $25,000 per calendar year; then 1x) at U.S. supermarkets, 3x points on flights booked directly with the airline or on AmexTravel.com and 1x point per dollar elsewhere. ($250 annual fee; see rates and fees)
  • American Express® Business Gold Card: Earn 70,000 bonus points after you spend $10,000 on eligible purchases in the first three months of card membership. Earn 4x points on the first $150,000 per calendar year in combined eligible purchases from two categories of your choice such as airfare directly from airlines, at U.S. gas stations, at U.S. restaurants and more (then 1x). ($295 annual fee; see rates and fees).
  • American Express® Green Card: Earn 45,000 Membership Rewards Points after you spend $2,000 in purchases in your first six months of card membership. Earn 3x points per dollar spent on travel, transit and restaurant purchases and 1x points elsewhere. ($150 annual fee; see rates and fees)

The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Keep in mind that those are the standard welcome offers, but you may be targeted for a better introductory offer or find a better deal by checking CardMatch.

Related: How to choose the best American Express card for you

Bottom line

There are a few other quirks to booking partner awards via ANA.

You need to book flights at least 96 hours before departure and must book the flight as a round-trip award. You can also only use your miles for certain registered members added to your account. Additionally, miles are only valid until the 36th month after accrual (or transfer into the program), so don't transfer miles into your account without a plan.

But the modest quirks of booking awards on Star Alliance partners via ANA are not insurmountable by any stretch. If you have Amex Membership Rewards points available or decide to start earning those points now for a future award, the ANA program can be one of the most affordable ways to book many awards.

For us, these awards weren't just a good deal on paper -- they were an investment in hope. Hope that, by the time the holidays roll around once again, the world will be a much better place and we'll again have the luxury of international travel. Hope that, by the end of 2021, it will be safe to seek out once-in-a-lifetime family memories with Santa, reindeers, northern lights, and settle into some very comfy seats while crossing the Atlantic for just 88,000 points.

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Business Platinum card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Business Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Green card, click here.

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.

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How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
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  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees