Book this, not that: Star Alliance award tickets
Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
United's switch to dynamic award pricing for partner awards was a sobering reminder that, more often than not, the "easy" loyalty programs (namely those of the big three U.S. airlines -- American, Delta and United) have become some of the most costly in terms of redeeming miles.
You can save tens of thousands of your hard-earned travel rewards by branching out and learning how to leverage partner programs instead, especially if you've been reading TPG and have learned the value of transferable point programs.
In this edition of our "Book this, not that" series, we'll highlight how you can save miles by booking Star Alliance award flights through less obvious frequent-flyer programs.
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 Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy. Here's how to get started.
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A few quick notes
Before we begin, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- Transfers from credit card points to airline miles don't always process 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 programs transfer at a 1:1 ratio (unless there's a transfer bonus in effect). The one big exception is Marriott, which typically transfers 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 (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) or individual carriers' websites for this. Check out our guide on the best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability for more information.
With all that in mind, let's go over some Star Alliance mileage redemption options where you can get great value by knowing which programs you should book with.
Related: Best programs for booking Star Alliance awards
While United's dynamic award pricing makes it harder to determine how much a one-way domestic award on the airline will cost on any given day, we can use the old one-way prices of 12,500 miles for economy and 25,000 for business class as rough barometers.
In those terms, Turkish Miles&Smiles can offer tremendous value on domestic United awards. One-way domestic economy awards price out at just 7,500 miles, while business-class awards cost a mere 12,500 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 would charge 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 Capital One and Citi ThankYou Rewards. With the sign-up bonus from the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (75,000 miles after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months) or Citi Premier® Card (60,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening; see rates and fees) you'll have enough miles for four round-trip domestic award tickets.
Redeeming through Miles&Smiles can be a bit tricky, so be sure to check out our guide to booking awards with Miles&Smiles.
Business class to Europe
While there's something really special about taking a first-class flight — especially if it's your first time — the truth is that most flights from the U.S. to Europe aren't long enough to fully enjoy the product. Also, many European airlines have some barriers to booking first-class awards or offer subpar products. Hence, business class becomes the sweet spot.
United has typically charged 60,000 miles for one-way saver business-class flights to Europe on its own planes, but that price jumps to 77,000 miles for partners (or more if you're booking close in). Instead of redeeming MileagePlus miles, consider booking your award through All Nippon Airways' ANA Mileage Club. A round-trip business-class award to Europe costs just 88,000 miles with that program.
You'll want to be careful, as ANA does pass on fuel surcharges for several partner airlines that can cost several hundred dollars. 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.
Related: How to fly round-trip to Europe in business class for 88,000 miles
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 Platinum Card® from American Express' current welcome bonus is high enough to cover a business class award ticket to Europe. You'll earn 80,000 Membership Rewards Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases within the first six 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 for economy or 25,000 miles for business class, Turkish has 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 in economy. Turkish Airlines has also made it much easier to find and book Star Alliance partner awards online without having to call in.
Related: The best ways to get to Hawaii using points and miles
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 true 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 LifeMiles, 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 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
You can transfer miles from American Express, Citi, Capital One or Marriott to Lifemiles. 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 off your account.
Related: Here’s why you need a healthy stash of Avianca LifeMiles
Bonus: Flights from the U.S. to Japan
If you aren't familiar with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, now's a great time to learn about it.
Instead of belonging to a major airline alliance, Virgin Atlantic has forged partnerships with individual carriers, which, in some cases, 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.
Below are the award rates you'd pay for one-way, ANA-operated flights from the U.S. booked with Flying Club miles. Historically, ANA only allowed round-trip partner award redemptions, but that changed earlier this year, so you can now book one-ways.
- Economy: 30,000 miles from the West Coast (+2,500 miles for central and eastern U.S.)
- Business class: 45,000 miles from the West Coast (+2,500 miles for central and eastern U.S.)
- First class: 55,000 miles from the West Coast (+5,000 miles for central and eastern U.S.)
For comparison's sake, United would charge at least 35,000, 80,000 or 110,000 miles for the same seats. 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, 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 to Virgin Atlantic.
Related: The ultimate Virgin Atlantic Flying Club guide
The beauty of transferable points currencies is that they give you an array of options. You can select not only which airline to fly but can also then choose how to book your ticket. U.S.-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.
Additional reporting by Benji Stawski.