Book This, Not That: Star Alliance award tickets
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United’s announcement of its plan to switch to dynamic award pricing comes as a sobering reminder that, more often than not, the “easy” loyalty programs (namely the big three U.S. airlines) are frequently the most expensive ones to use. While they might be comfortable and familiar, you can save tens of thousands of your hard-earned miles by branching out and learning how to use a partner program instead, especially if you’ve been reading TPG and have learned the value of transferable point programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Today, we’ll kick off our new series called “Book This, Not That,” where we highlight how you can save miles by booking Star Alliance award flights through a less obvious airline. The good news is that you probably have access to many (or all) of the below currencies — thanks to a vast web of transfer options through Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy.
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A few quick notes
Before we begin, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- Transferring points to airline loyalty programs doesn’t always happen instantly. Before finalizing a transfer, be sure to review our tests for American Express, Capital One, Chase, Citi and Marriott to ensure you know how long it should take for your miles to arrive.
- Under most circumstances, points from these five programs transfer at the following rates (unless there’s a transfer bonus in effect):
- Amex, Chase and Citi at a 1:1 ratio
- Capital One at a 2:1.5 ratio
- Marriott at a 3:1 ratio plus a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred
- When booking flights on one airline with a partner airline’s miles, you must find saver-level award inventory. You can use ExpertFlyer or individual carriers’ websites for this. Check out our guide on Best Websites for Searching Star Alliance Award Availability for more information.
While United’s new dynamic award pricing makes it harder to determine how much a one-way domestic award will cost on any given day, we can use the old price of 12,500 miles as a rough barometer.
Turkish Miles & Smiles offers tremendous value on domestic United awards. Round-trip economy awards price out at just 15,000 miles.
One of my favorite uses of this pricing scheme is for the three-hour flight between Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and Miami (MIA). While United wants 12,000 miles for the one-way saver economy award (which is a decent deal by itself), you can save 37.5% by booking with Turkish instead.
How to earn Turkish miles
Turkish Miles & Smiles is a 1:1 transfer partner of the Citi ThankYou program. You can also also transfer Capital One miles at a 2:1.5 ratio. With the sign-up bonus from the Citi Premier® Card, you’ll have enough miles for four round-trip domestic award tickets.
Business Class to Europe
While there’s something really special about taking a first-class flight — especially if it’s your first one — the truth is that most flights from the U.S. to Europe aren’t long enough to fully enjoy the product. Also, all the European airlines have some barrier to booking first-class awards (or offer subpar products) and business class becomes the sweet spot.
United has typically charged 60,000 miles for one-way business class flights to Europe on its own planes, but that price jumps to 70,000 miles for partners. Instead of redeeming MileagePlus miles, consider booking your award through ANA Mileage Club. A round-trip business class award to Europe cost just 88,000 miles.
You’ll want to be careful, as ANA does pass on fuel surcharges for several partner airlines. For flights to Europe, you’ll want to pick partners like SAS, Swiss, TAP Portugal, Turkish or United. Avoid partners like Lufthansa, which has much higher fuel surcharges.
How to earn ANA miles
ANA is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, and you can also credit Star Alliance flights to this program. The Business Platinum Card® from American Express high enough to cover a business class award ticket to Europe. You’ll earn 125,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership. Just be aware of the Amex once-per-lifetime rule before applying for this card.
Flights to Hawaii
Getting to Hawaii using points and miles is a dream of many award travelers, and for Star Alliance, there’s an unlikely program to help minimize your costs: Turkish Miles & Smiles. At 15,000 miles round-trip, Turkish hast one of the best sweet spots for flights from the U.S. to Hawaii.
Compare that to booking directly with United, which charges at least 45,000 miles round-trip. Turkish Airlines has also made it much easier to find and book Star Alliance partner awards online without having to call in.
International, Mixed-Cabin Awards
The worst part about a first-class class flight to a faraway destination is stepping off the plane and realizing you still have to catch a connection in business class or (even worse) economy. These “mixed-cabin” awards are an unfortunate necessity, as most airlines don’t operate first class on shorter routes.
In addition, there might not be business class award space on the connection you need. At the end of the day, spending three hours in economy is a small price to pay to spend 15 hours in first or business class, but it’s disappointing to feel like you’re overpaying for that flight.
Enter Avianca, which will actually discount these mixed-cabin itineraries. A business-class award from the U.S. to Frankfurt should cost 63,000 LifeMiles, but if you opt for an economy connection to in Munich, the cost drops to 61,700 miles.
Avianca already has competitive award pricing and doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges. Still, this honest and accurate pricing — where you really only pay for what you actually fly — has to rank as one of the most consumer-friendly approaches in the world of loyalty programs.
How to earn Avianca LifeMiles
Transfer miles from American Express, Citi, Capital One or Marriott. All but Marriott points should transfer instantly, though our tests found that even Marriott points posted in less than 24 hours. LifeMiles also frequently sells miles at a discount, making it easy to top up your account.
BONUS: Flights From the U.S. to Japan
If you aren’t familiar with the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, now’s a great time to learn. Instead of belonging to a major airline alliance, Virgin Atlantic has forged partnerships with individual carriers, and in some cases, it can result in some spectacular award options.
For Star Alliance, one of the best sweet spots in the frequent flyer universe is to book ANA flights to Japan through Virgin Atlantic.
Here are the award rates you’d pay for round-trip, ANA-operated flights from the U.S. booked with Flying Club miles:
- Economy: 60,000 miles from the West Coast (+5,000 miles for Central and Eastern U.S.)
- Business class: 90,000 miles from the West Coast (+5,000 miles for Central and Eastern U.S.)
- First class: 110,000 miles from the West Coast (+10,000 miles for Central and Eastern U.S.)
For comparison’s sake, United would charge 70,000/160,000/220,000 miles. This is an incredible value.
However, there are a few drawbacks. First, these awards can’t be booked online, so you’ll need to call Flying Club customer service to book them, and you must do so at least 48 hours before departure. In addition, you can only book round-trip flights; one-ways are not available (though you should be able to book an open jaw). Finally, these prices are only valid for nonstop flights. Adding a connection within Japan would increase the price.
How to earn Virgin Atlantic miles
Transfer miles from American Express, Chase, Citi, or Marriott. You can also credit paid flights on partners (like Delta).
The beauty of transferable points currencies is that they give you an array of options. You can select not just which airline to fly but can also then choose how to book your ticket. US-based programs like UnitedMileage Plus may be comfortable, but learning to leverage a few unfamiliar foreign programs can give you a huge leg up and save you tens of thousands of miles (or thousands of dollars in fuel surcharges) on the same flights you already planned to take.
Of course, these are just a few examples of “Book This, Not That” when it comes to Star Alliance flights, so feel free to share others in the comments section below.
Featured photo courtesy of Zach Honig / The Points Guy
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