The best programs for booking Emirates awards

Feb 11, 2021

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Emirates is among the most sought-after carriers when it comes to award flights — and specifically premium-cabin redemptions. Thanks to great products like the fully enclosed suites available on a handful of 777-300ERs and unique amenities such as the A380’s onboard showers and bars, many points and miles enthusiasts make it a priority to redeem their hard-earned rewards with the Dubai-based carrier.

Fortunately, you have several options for transferring points and locking in these redemptions. It’s also easy to boost your Emirates Skywards miles balance directly with a cobranded Emirates card.

So, buckle up and let’s get to it. Here are the best ways to book Emirates awards.

(Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

In This Post

Top awards to book

The latest first-class suite available on some Emirates 777-300ERs. Photo courtesy of Zach Honig

While Emirates has a reputation for gold-studded opulence, not every seat in their fleet is created equal. It might even surprise you to learn that Emirates really drops the ball with a few of their business class configurations. Many 777s feature either angle-flat seats or a 2-3-2 layout with middle seats in international business class. The horror! This post will include information on awards in every class of travel, but due to Emirates’ renowned premium-cabin service, we’ll focus on first-class redemptions.

However, you may need to act soon if you plan on booking one of these redemptions. On April 1, 2021, Emirates will cut off access to first-class awards to all partner programs. So, you’re only option moving forward will be directly through Skywards. Also, although Emirates is in the process of rolling out a premium economy product, it’ll be a while until we’re able to book it — using miles or cash. Until more of Emirates’ aircraft feature premium economy, the airline will be offering the seats as a complimentary upgrade for Emirates Skywards elites and full-fare economy customers.

Related: Emirates will no longer offer partner first-class awards as of April 2021

Emirates A380 first class

Photo by TPG
Photo by TPG

You can fly this product on more than 30 routes, including New York-JFK to Dubai and a fifth-freedom route between New York-JFK and Milan, as TPG has done before. There are 14 fully enclosed suites in the first-class cabin. Each one includes a mini-bar, a huge screen for enjoying the (very comprehensive) in-flight entertainment, and even a pop-up makeup mirror. One of the main highlights of the A380 is Emirates’ world-famous in-flight shower.

Emirates 777-300ER first class

The first-class cabin on most Emirates 777-300ERs is slightly smaller than that of the A380, with just eight closed suites. While the configuration is different, the suites themselves are very similar and you can expect comparable service on board. You can fly the 777-300ER on various international routes and even shorter fifth freedom flights like Sydney to Christchurch.

However, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a ride on a 777 with the carrier’s newer first-class cabin, which features just six suites in a 1-1-1 configuration and extras like virtual windows for the seats in the middle of the cabin. It’s currently available on flights from Dubai to just a handful of destinations in the Middle East, Europe and Tokyo (HND).

Photo by TPG
Photo by The Points Guy

That’s not to say you couldn’t use miles (and the strategies discussed below) to book business or economy awards on Emirates. But first-class awards will often get you the most value for your points — and obviously the best onboard experience.

For more information, see the following flight reviews and posts:

Best programs to book Emirates awards

Emirates Skywards

For a long time, Emirates Skywards was a bit of an afterthought for many award travelers, even as Emirates continued to partner with more transferable points currencies. In fact, Emirates now partners with all five major transferable points currencies, meaning you can transfer points to Emirates at the following rates:

The reason Emirates was historically overlooked was that the airline tacked on massive fuel surcharges to premium cabin awards, especially those departing from the U.S. A one-way Emirates first class award from JFK to Dubai (DXB) used to come with over $800 in taxes, but in a surprising move, last year, Emirates massively reduced fuel surcharges on all of its award tickets.

That same ticket now only carries a $150 “YQ” (the industry notation for fuel surcharges) and just $162 in total taxes. That’s a reduction of over 80%, and given how easy it is to earn Emirates miles, it makes Skywards a much more compelling booking option. This is especially good news considering that Skywards will soon be the only way to book first-class awards.

This change is also significant because it means you can book Emirates first class with points earned on some of the most popular travel rewards cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Alternatively, you can quickly rack up Skywards miles with one of Emirates’ U.S. credit cards. Barclays’ Emirates Skywards cards offer up to 60,000 bonus Skywards Miles after meeting minimum spend requirements — worth $720 according to TPG valuations — and numerous unique perks like instant elite status for a year, with the ability to hold on to it after hitting a certain spending threshold. The cards also unlock access to Emirates Business Class lounges.

Related: Emirates unveils elevated offers on its new card lineup

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best awards you can book directly with Emirates. Emirates’ fifth-freedom flight from New York to Milan (MXP) is a popular option, as the Middle Eastern carrier offers a level of service miles above anything else you’ll find on that route. You can book a one-way first-class award for just 85,000 miles and $60 in taxes, a steal for a flight that normally sells for $7,500 or more.

Emirates JFK-MXP
(Photo courtesy of Emirates)

Of course, the eight-hour overnight flight to Europe goes by all too fast, and it might not leave you enough time to eat, shower, and enjoy the onboard bar. If you’re looking for a longer flight, you can fly from JFK to Dubai for 136,250 miles and $181 in taxes. Emirates uses a distance-based award chart, meaning that flights from the central U.S. or West Coast will be slightly more expensive.

Related: Best ways to redeem Emirates Skywards miles for maximum value

Emirates JFK-DXB
(Photo courtesy of Emirates)

Here’s Emirates’ full award chart for flights from the East Coast to Dubai (prices are one-way):

Class Saver Flex (only available for round-trip bookings) Flex Plus
Economy 36,250 n/a 62,750
Business class 72,500 n/a 100,000
First class n/a 108,750 136,250

Meanwhile, here’s the award chart for when you’re departing from the central U.S. or West Coast:

Class Saver Flex (only available for round-trip bookings) Flex Plus
Economy 41,250 n/a 71,250
Business class 82,500 n/a 113,750
First class n/a 123,750 155,000

JAL Mileage Bank

Japan Airlines Mileage Bank used to be a relatively well-kept secret until a surprise devaluation of Alaska’s Emirates award chart thrust it into the spotlight. It lost a lot of luster when it began passing on fuel surcharges of up to $1,700 on Emirates award tickets and when it devalued its partner award chart in Nov. 2018. But if you can earn JAL miles, the program can still offer a compelling value proposition. This is especially true now that Emirates has slashed fuel surcharges across the board.

Before we dive into specific redemptions, it’s necessary to mention that JAL miles are incredibly difficult to earn. Short of crediting paid Oneworld flights to your JAL Mileage Bank account, your only option is to transfer points from Marriott. JAL follows the same transfer ratio as most of Marriott’s other partners, where points transfer at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred.

Related: When does it make sense to transfer Marriott points to airlines?

Marriott points are relatively easy to earn, either by staying at Marriott hotels or signing up for one of Marriott’s many cobranded credit cards. Marriott has several different cards issued by both Chase and Amex. Except for the no-annual-fee Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card, all are offering a welcome bonus of 75,000 Marriott points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. This means you can pick between the premium and highly valuable Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card, among others.

JAL uses distance-based award charts and charges you based on the total distance of all your segments. Here’s the first-class award chart (no longer applicable beginning April 1, 2021):

JAL Emirates first class award chart
(Photo courtesy of JAL)

Business class award chart:

JAL Emirates chart business class
(Photo courtesy of JAL)

And economy class award chart:

JAL Emirates economy award chart
(Photo courtesy of JAL)

Speaking of segments, JAL allows a maximum of six on award bookings, as well as two stopovers. So you could book Emirates business class from New York-JFK – Dubai (stopover) – Bangkok (destination) – Dubai – Milan (stopover) – New York-JFK. That’s a lot of premium cabin flying time for just 130,000 JAL miles.

Meanwhile, the flight from JFK to Dubai covers just under 7,000 miles, meaning you could book a first-class award for only 120,000 JAL miles. This would require you to transfer about 300,000 Marriott points, making it less attractive. The shorter JFK-Milan route would only cost 65,000 JAL miles or 165,000 Marriott points when you account for the transfer bonus.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

In 2016, Alaska increased Emirates award prices by up to 100%. One of the biggest examples of sticker shock was the new rate for Emirates first class awards from the U.S. to Europe: 360,000 miles round-trip, up from the previous rate of 200,000 miles. Due to negative changes like these, transferring Marriott points to Alaska or using an existing stash of Mileage Plan miles is now much less attractive.

Alaska’s biggest advantage over JAL and Emirates Skywards was that it didn’t pass on fuel surcharges. However, now that Emirates has slashed those insidious taxes to manageable levels, there’s little saving grace for Alaska’s sky-high prices.

Take this one-way first class award between Los Angeles (LAX) and Dubai. Not only is 150,000 miles significantly more than you’d pay with either Emirates or JAL, but Alaska miles are both incredibly valuable and difficult to earn. You’d be better off saving those miles to fly Cathay Pacific first class round-trip to Asia and still have miles left over.

Alaska Emirates award
(Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines)

TPG values Alaska miles at 1.8 cents each, so this large stash of miles is worth $2,700. Despite the high rate, with Emirates charging nearly $16,000 for a one-way ticket, you’ll still end up getting a stellar redemption value of over 10 cents per mile.

Emirates Google Flights
(Photo courtesy of Google Flights)

There are a few other reasons to consider Alaska despite the devaluation. First of all, it allows a free stopover on international partner award tickets. Second, for simple trips from the U.S. to Dubai, you can book online without having to waste time on the phone. Finally, the program regularly runs promotions for purchasing miles, allowing you to top off your account or straight-up “purchase” a premium class seat by buying the required number of miles. For instance, Alaska was recently selling miles for as low as 1.85 cents per mile, meaning this ticket would’ve cost $2,775 if you were to book it entirely on purchased miles.

Related: 5 things to know about Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

That being said, there are a couple of added drawbacks to redeeming Mileage Plan miles. First, Alaska doesn’t allow you to combine partners on award tickets. You can add Alaska-operated connecting flights within the U.S. to an Emirates award, but you can’t include another partner. In addition, Alaska only publishes Emirates award charts for flights that either start or end in North America (including Canada and Mexico). All other Emirates flights are not bookable using Alaska miles. Keep these two restrictions in mind as you’re planning out the best program through which to book.

Qantas Frequent Flyer

Australian flag carrier Qantas is an interesting option for booking Emirates awards. Now that Skywards partners with all the transferable points currencies, it isn’t quite as compelling (not that it was ever a shining star), but if you already have miles with Qantas from flying with Oneworld airlines, this may be worth considering.

Qantas also has a distance-based award chart, and unfortunately, it was slightly devalued in September 2020. Here’s the chart for one-way partner redemptions:

Qantas partner award chart
(Photo courtesy of Qantas)

Here are some sample redemption rates for booking Emirates awards using the Qantas award chart:

  • One-way business-class ticket from New York to Milan: 68,400 miles
  • One-way first-class ticket from Washington, D.C. to Dubai: 162,800 miles
  • Round-trip business-class ticket from Dubai to Bangkok: 114,000 miles

Putting those redemption rates in perspective, though, it’s often cheaper to book awards directly through Emirates if you have any other transferable points in your wallet.

On the other hand, Qantas could be a good option for booking Emirates itineraries that don’t originate or terminate in North America (such as Dubai to Rome or Dubai to Bangkok), since these aren’t bookable through Alaska.

Related: Complete guide to maximizing the Qantas Frequent Flyer program

Comparing the options

These various programs and transfer options are a lot to decipher. To make things easier, here’s a chart comparing round-trip redemption rates across all programs for flights between New York-JFK and Milan, one of Emirates’ fifth freedom routes. Note that taxes and fees should be roughly comparable between programs, or at least close enough that they wouldn’t’ sway you to book with one airline over the other.

Program

Economy

Business

First

Transfer Partners
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 95,000 210,000 360,000 Marriott Rewards (3:1)
Emirates Skywards 77,500 125,000 170,000 American Express Membership Rewards (1:1)

Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1)

Citi ThankYou Points (1:1)

Capital One Miles (2:1)
Marriott Rewards (3:1)

JAL Mileage Bank

47,000

85,000

135,000

Marriott Rewards (3:1)
Qantas Frequent Flyer 50,400 136,800 205,200 American Express Membership Rewards (1:1)

Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1)

And here’s a chart comparing round-trip redemption rates for flights between New York-JFK and Dubai:

Program Economy Business First Transfer Partners
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 85,000 165,000 300,000 Marriott Rewards (3:1)
Emirates Skywards 125,000 200,000 272,500 American Express Membership Rewards (1:1)

Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1)

Citi ThankYou Points (1:1)

Capital One Miles (2:1)
Marriott Rewards (3:1)

JAL Mileage Bank

55,000

110,000

165,000

Marriott Rewards (3:1)
Qantas Frequent Flyer 75,200 189,800 284,600 American Express Membership Rewards (1:1)

Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1)

Bottom line

There are various ways to redeem your points and miles for Emirates award flights, and the best option for you depends on your situation. Often, when airlines make changes to their frequent flyer programs, it’s bad news. However, Emirates’ decision to massively reduce fuel surcharges on nearly all award tickets is one of the best things they could have possibly done. This move, combined with how easy it is to transfer points to Emirates, makes Skywards a much more compelling choice for those looking to book an Emirates award. Meanwhile, Qantas’ recent award chart changes were mostly negative.

One thing is for sure: if you really have your heart set on a once-in-a-lifetime trip in the Jennifer Aniston cabin, you might just have to pay up to make it happen. Beginning April 1, the only way to book Emirates first-class awards will be directly through Skywards.

Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg

Featured image by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy

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