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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 US 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 The Points Guy and have learned the value of transferable point programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards.
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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.
A few quick notes before we begin:
- 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.
Short-Haul Domestic Flights
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. Avianca LifeMiles offers a superb value either way, whether you go off the published award chart for Star Alliance partner flights or leverage some of the discounts that have popped up recently. Avianca is rather unique in that it’s one of the only loyalty programs to split the US into multiple different award zones — three to be exact. The zones roughly map as East Coast (US 1), Southeast/Midwest/Great Plains (US 2) and West Coast (US 3), but it’s not a perfect split.
The reason this is important is because flights wholly within a single zone only cost 7,500 LifeMiles each way. Unless you’re booking one of United’s inexpensive award deals, this can save you a decent number of 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 the exact same flight through LifeMiles instead.
However, the savings have gotten even more aggressive lately. While Avianca did announce upcoming changes to some domestic flights, those won’t take effect until July 15, and we’re seeing domestic awards that don’t even match those updated levels (in some cases as low as 3,500 miles each way).
This isn’t phantom award space either; these awards are actually bookable, and availability matches the United website.
What’s odd is that this new pricing doesn’t appear to be dynamic, as it’s consistent from one day to the next. It doesn’t appear to be distance-based either, as some routes cost different amounts depending on which direction you fly (but hey we’re not complaining about 4,500 mile domestic flights).
It also doesn’t appear to be zone-based. If anything, Avianca is picking these prices based on the city of origin, though there’s no telling what’s going on with LifeMiles partner award pricing.
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.
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 US to Europe aren’t long enough to fully enjoy the product. Add in the fact that 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 Aeroplan, the spun-off loyalty program of Air Canada. One-way business class awards will be as low as 55,000 miles if you fly from the US to Europe 1, though they’re just a bit higher (57,500 miles) to Europe 2.
You’ll want to be careful though, as Aeroplan does pass on fuel surcharges for a number of partner airlines. For flights to Europe you’ll want to pick partners like SAS, Swiss, TAP Portugal, Turkish or United where fuel surcharges are low …
And avoid partners like Lufthansa where they climb steeply.
How to earn Aeroplan miles: Aeroplan is a transfer partner of Amex and Capital One, and you can also credit Star Alliance flights to this program.
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: Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer. Even though Singapore devalued both its own award chart and its award chart for Star Alliance partner flights in the last several months, it still holds one of the best sweet spots for flights from the US to Hawaii. The caveat is that you’ll have to find saver-level award space on United to take advantage of this deal. That was always a daunting task, but dynamic pricing has made it much harder.
If you can find space, you can book round-trip economy awards from the US to Hawaii for only 35,000 miles. Compare that to booking directly with United, which has typically charged 22,500 miles each way.
Singapore has also made it much easier to find and book Star Alliance partner awards online without having to call in, though it’s still not the best interface for doing so.
How to earn KrisFlyer miles: Singapore is one of just two programs that partners with every major transferable points currency, meaning you can top up your balance by transferring from Chase, Amex, Citi, Capital One or Marriott.
International, Mixed-Cabin Awards
The worst part about a first class class flight to a far away 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 first class award from the US to Japan should cost 90,000 LifeMiles, but if you add an economy connection to Okinawa (OKA), the cost drops to 83,210 miles.
The same strategy works on the front end on a positioning flight within the US. In this case, it drops the cost of a business class award from 75,000 miles down to 70,140.
Avianca already has competitive award pricing and doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges, but 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. LifeMiles also frequently sells miles at a discount, making it easy to top up your account.
BONUS: Flights From the US to Japan
This final option is categories as a “bonus” due to the fact that it isn’t actually booked through a Star Alliance program. 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. US-based travelers can reap some significant value from booking nonstop Delta flights with Flying Club miles, but 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 US booked with Flying Club miles:
- Economy: 60,000 miles from the West Coast (+5,000 miles for Central and Eastern US)
- Business class: 90,000 miles from the West Coast (+5,000 miles for Central and Eastern US)
- First class: 110,000 miles from the West Coast (+10,000 miles for Central and Eastern US)
For comparison’s sake, Aeroplan would charge 75,000/150,000/210,000 miles for these flights, while 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 Star Alliance.
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