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Colombia-based Star Alliance airline Avianca, the third-biggest in South America by passengers carried, offers one of the most unique airline loyalty programs, called LifeMiles. In the past, this program provided hours of entertainment and intrigue to points and miles enthusiasts due to a one-of-a-kind award search engine and lax region definitions that allowed superb and unorthodox award itineraries. While those days are over, LifeMiles are still a currency that should be in your loyalty portfolio. Today, I’ll cover all the basics you need to know about Avianca’s LifeMiles program.
While the LifeMiles program has long been viewed as an undervalued program, its profile has jumped to the limelight in recent weeks. Avianca became a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards in early November, followed shortly thereafter by Capital One’s big announcement of transfer partners on the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Capital One Spark Miles for Business. This means that you can now transfer credit card points from three major programs:
This makes it incredibly easy to quickly have enough LifeMiles to book plenty of Star Alliance flights.
The next way to earn miles is by using the program’s cobranded credit cards. In 2016, Puerto Rico-based Banco Popular introduced two LifeMiles credit cards for the American market. Since the cards debuted, however, there are many data points suggesting Banco Popular is particular with whom it approves for the card.
One TPG reader was told because he has a DC address, he is not eligible for the card. Other readers with excellent credit (like me) were denied and could not get a specific reason for the denial. Conversely, there have also been reports of credit scores over 700 with more than 5 inquiries in the last two years receiving instant approval. The bank will pull your FICO score from the Equifax bureau.
Here are the two cards and a rundown of their features:
- 40,000 Bonus LifeMiles after first use
- 3 LifeMiles for every dollar spent on Avianca products and services
- 2 LifeMiles for every dollar spent at grocery stores and gas stations
- 1 LifeMiles for every dollar spent
- For travel to Central America or Colombia, there are two 50% discounts on award tickets: one after $12,000 and one after $24,000 in spending on the card each year, respectively
- No foreign transaction fees, which is very useful for regular travelers
- Extra piece of luggage for travelers between the United States and Central America
- 15% discount on purchases of miles with Multiply Your Miles
- $149 annual fee
- 20,000 Bonus LifeMiles after first card use
- Earn 2 LifeMiles per dollar spent on Avianca purchases
- Earn 1 LifeMile per dollar spent on all other purchases
- 15% discount on purchases of miles with Multiply Your Miles
- $59 annual fee
In my opinion, the Vuela card is a no-brainer. The 2x multiplier on gas and groceries is a nice boost, and 50% off an award flight to Central America or Colombia is stellar.
Moving on from credit card spend, you may be familiar with the LifeMiles program due to its routine bonuses on purchased miles that can sometimes get you up 200% bonus miles. The bonus offers are typically tiered based on how many miles you decide to buy. The regular purchase price is $33 per 1,000, but during the best bonus periods, you can buy miles for less than 1.45 cents per mile. Just keep in mind that you’re limited to buying 200,000 miles in a calendar year (bonus miles received are not included in the limit).
In addition to the buy miles bonuses, you can use the Multiply Your Miles function to boost the number of miles earned either through flights, credit cards or travel partners. The discount to double or triple your miles is from 45% to 48% roughly, and you can get the additional 15% discount if you’re an Avianca Visa cardholder. This means if you’ve had previous earnings in your account, you can buy miles any time for about 1.45 cents per mile.
Similar to buy bonuses, LifeMiles also often does 100% transfer bonuses if you want to move your miles to a friend or family member. Pay $15 for every 1,000 miles you want to transfer, and your friend or family member will receive 2,000 miles in their account during the promos. You can share 75,000 LifeMiles per calendar year. If you’re looking for the absolute cheapest mileage cost, Avianca’s “Club LifeMiles” monthly subscription plan still gives members a chance to buy miles as cheap as 1.39 cents per mile.
Unlike with most airlines or hotels that sell miles, these buy and transfer transactions are all processed directly by Avianca — meaning your miles or transfer purchase will qualify for the travel or airfare bonus categories on the credit card you use to pay.
You can also use a variety of travel partners to earn LifeMiles. You can book through several online travel agencies like Booking.com and and earn between 1 and 25 LifeMiles per dollar spent. Otherwise, you can tie your LifeMiles number to several worldwide hotel chains like Hilton, Best Western, Marriott and IHG and earn either a set amount of LifeMiles per stay or 1-2 LifeMiles per dollar spent. Additionally, you can book experiences and car rentals through the LifeMiles Things to Do Portal and earn miles based on your spend.
Finally, you can fly any Star Alliance airline and earn LifeMiles by crediting paid partner flights to Avianca. There’s a simple partner page that shows you the earnings for each airline partner. Crediting discount United economy tickets to LifeMiles will earn you 50% of the miles flown, for example. You can also credit paid Iberia and Aeromexico flights to LifeMiles, even though those airlines are not Star Alliance members.
Redeeming LifeMiles for Avianca or partner-operated flights is pretty straightforward. There’s no chart for flights on Avianca metal, but there is a calculator which will give you the range of miles required for a specified route (though this doesn’t always match what the search results show). When you use the award engine to look for seat availability, you will see the multiple levels of award costs like the calculator range shows, with certain seats allocated to each option:
Prices are fairly reasonable for award flights on Avianca metal if you find availability in the first half of the displayed required mileage range. 75,000 miles for business class on Avianca’s new 787 from South America to London-Heathrow (LHR) would be a decent bargain.
A region-based chart for Star Alliance-operated flights determines how many LifeMiles you’ll need for award tickets with partner airlines. Using miles for these flights online is also relatively easy thanks to a comprehensive — but not perfect — online award search engine. I like it because it automatically gives you a week of availability if the date you want does not have an open award seat, and it also shows all classes of availability for a specific route:
You can also select to search a single airline’s availability, which is nice if you want to fly a particular product or try and force the engine to give you a specific route you have in mind.
A few points about redeeming miles for flights via Avianca’s program:
- LifeMiles doesn’t pass on any fuel surcharges, no matter which airline you fly, but a $25 booking fee applies to all award tickets.
- LifeMiles often does not see the same Lufthansa first class availability that other Star Alliance programs see.
- You can redeem miles and cash to cover an award flight if you don’t have enough miles, though you do need at least 40% of the required miles.
- Calling Avianca for anything is extremely painful, so always try and book online first. The call center employees’ English isn’t always great, hold times are long and agents are typically ill-trained in partner bookings.
- No stopovers are allowed.
- You can also redeem LifeMiles for non-alliance partner Iberia, but you must call to book these tickets.
As with other Star Alliance partners, you can generally only book Lufthansa first class within 14 days prior to departure. First class from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA) is 87,000 LifeMiles:
With LifeMiles plus money redemptions, you can redeem 60,000 miles and $519.80 for the same Lufthansa first class flight:
Mixed cabin redemptions are also now shown as an option, but there is little use in trying to make sense how they are priced. Here is an example of Atlanta (ATL) to Frankfurt (FRA) with an Air Canada mixed-class itinerary:
By paying 2,370 additional miles, you can fly the first leg from ATL to Toronto (YYZ) in Air Canada business class. Not a bad use of 2,000 additional miles, but to first time users this online interface for mixed cabin redemptions can be a little confusing. Make sure you pick each leg carefully.
In addition to free flights, you can also use LifeMiles to upgrade Avianca-operated flights based on the following chart:
There must be I class business fare availability in order to upgrade (TIP: Use ExpertFlyer to search for these awards), and you can use your miles to upgrade anyone. You can use LifeMiles to upgrade Star Alliance-operated flights, but you must be in a full-fare Y or B class economy ticket or a C or D fare business class ticket.
Besides air travel, you can use LifeMiles for the typical things like car rentals, hotels, baggage, experiences and donations. None of these options offer anything close to the value you’d receive by booking flights, so I recommend avoiding them. However, it’s worth mentioning the ability to use miles for airport lounge access around the world, buying one lounge pass at a time.
The LifeMiles VIP lounge website allows you to select a lounge from hundreds around the world and pay for access with your LifeMiles. Most lounges I searched charge between 4,500 and 8,000 LifeMiles for entrance. This isn’t a good value by any means, but if I happen to get stuck somewhere where I don’t already have lounge access through a credit card or a family member is stuck somewhere for an entire day and needs a place to catch a nap, shower and WiFi, I might be willing to part with 5,000 LifeMiles (worth $87 based on TPG’s most recent valuations) to save the day.
With the consistent buy miles bonuses and mix of points and cash allowed for an award ticket, the math for showing some of the best redemptions is a bit extensive, and I’ve laid it out in a separate post. That article also includes some additional hidden gems of the current award chart and what routings you should focus on for the best value of your LifeMiles.
Avianca’s LifeMiles program became significantly more “mainstream” in November 2018, as it was added as a transfer partner for both Membership Rewards and Capital One. The program also regularly runs promotions on both the earning and redeeming sides, so make sure to keep an eye on the special offers page. Due to the ability to earn a ton of LifeMiles from transferable point programs on top of cobranded cards — in addition to the (relative) ease of redeeming miles online at fair prices — this program should definitely be on your radar.
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