Here’s why you need a healthy stash of Avianca LifeMiles
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With all three legacy carriers now utilizing dynamic award pricing, most of the best “sweet spot” awards come from foreign carriers. Learning how to navigate a foreign airline’s frequent flyer program can be daunting, but the payoff is often massive. This holds especially true for Colombian airline Avianca and its LifeMiles frequent flyer program.
LifeMiles has some of the most attractive redemption rates for Star Alliance awards, as well as several other unique features that make this program worth your time. Today we’re going to take a look at everything you need to know about Avianca LifeMiles.
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Avianca LifeMiles used to be a relatively obscure program, but it’s risen into the limelight in the last two or three years. Avianca even offers two credit cards: Avianca Vuela Visa® Card and Avianca Vida Visa® Card.
Avianca also partners with all the major transferable points programs, except for Chase Ultimate Rewards. This means you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio from Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Points, while Capital One miles transfer to Avianca at a 2:1.5 ratio. You can also transfer Marriott Bonvoy points at a 3:1 ratio and you’ll get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Bonvoy points you transfer. If you’re looking to top up your transferable points balances, you can do so by applying for these top offers:
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Aviana also frequently sells LifeMiles at a discount and in the past, we’ve seen prices drop as low as 1.32 cents per mile. This is significantly below TPG’s valuation of LifeMiles at 1.7 cents each. Buying points speculatively is almost always a bad idea, but if you’re just short on the miles you need for an award ticket, this can be a good option to top up your account.
If you frequently fly on paid tickets with Star Alliance carriers, you might also consider crediting your miles to Avianca. This could be a good idea if you find more value in the LifeMiles program than you do in, say, United MileagePlus or Air Canada Aeroplan. This is also a great option if you don’t travel enough to earn elite status but still want to maximize your redemption opportunities.
Further Reading: How to credit miles to a partner airline program
Avianca is a Star Alliance member, meaning you can use your LifeMiles for flights on the Colombian flag carrier or any of its alliance partner airlines, including popular options like United, Lufthansa, ANA, EVA Air and more. Avianca also partners with Aeromexico and Iberia, allowing you to earn and redeem LifeMiles on select flights operated by those two airlines.
LifeMiles uses a standard zone-based award chart, though for the last year or so, flights within the U.S. have been pricing out at variable rates that don’t always match the award chart. While dynamic pricing is usually bad, many of these discrepancies have actually been beneficial to travelers, such as this one-way economy flight from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Newark (EWR) that prices out 1,000 miles cheaper than Avianca’s award chart would suggest.
In most cases, redeeming LifeMiles is as simple as logging on to lifemiles.com and searching for the award you want. While Avianca should have access to the same Star Alliance award space as United and Air Canada, the truth is that Avianca’s IT leaves a lot to be desired. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of phantom award space (i.e., award space that shows up online but isn’t actually bookable) and, on the flip side, plenty of time when Avianca doesn’t show award space that United or Aeroplan do. This is why I recommend double-checking your search with another Star Alliance search engine or ExpertFlyer before transferring points to Avianca.
LifeMiles sweet spots
Generally speaking, you’re often forced to choose between low award rates and high fuel surcharges or spending more miles to save money. LifeMiles is one of the few programs that excel in both areas. Not only does it offer incredibly competitive rates for Star Alliance awards, but it doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges. This means that you’ll seldom pay more than $100 in taxes on an award ticket. Let’s dive in and look at some of the best uses of Avianca LifeMiles.
Lufthansa first class from the U.S. to Europe
Lufthansa’s first class is a bucket list experience for many award travelers, and it holds a special place in my heart because it was my first ever international redemption. United charges sky-high redemption rates for Lufthansa first class awards while Aeroplan tacks on $800 or more in fuel surcharges. Avianca, on the other hand, offers quite the sweet spot. For just 87,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes (for flights departing from the U.S.), you can fly Lufthansa first class from the U.S. to Europe.
Further Reading: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards
ANA first class from the U.S. to Asia
Even before it stunned the aviation industry by introducing its redesigned first-class cabin, “The Suite,” on a limited number of 777-300ER aircraft, ANA first class was already considered one of the best in the skies. Again, Aeroplan and United charge significantly higher award rates, but Avianca will let you book this luxury long-haul ticket for just 90,000.
Business class from the U.S. to Asia
Many frequent flyer programs separate “Asia” into several different regions with significantly different pricing. Avianca does this, too but in a much more generous way. For example, the “North Asia” region includes traditional countries like Japan and South Korea, along with China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and as far south as the Philippines.
One-way business class awards from the U.S. to North Asia cost just 75,000 miles each way. If you continue on to South Asia, you’ll only pay a 3,000-mile premium, or 78,000 miles total. You have plenty of routing options to consider here, including some combination of United, ANA, EVA Air, Air China, or Singapore Airlines. Even if you were to fly all the way to Australia or New Zealand, business class awards top out at 80,000 miles, which is an absolute steal.
Avianca appears to be using a primarily distance-based award chart in the U.S., though some routes don’t quite follow that logic. Still, pricing on domestic United-operated flights is normally quite low, with most flights pricing out below the industry average of 12,500 miles each way. In the past, I’ve found flights between LAX-EWR for 10,000 miles or less one-way. Availability and rates may differ during the pandemic, but those rates are what you’ll typically need.
Quirks of the LifeMiles program
Before getting into a few of my favorite aspects of the LifeMiles program, it’s important to level with you about the abysmal IT and customer service Avianca offers. I had to cancel an award flight at the end of February, before the coronavirus pandemic really hit full swing. Avianca kept me on hold for 4 hours and transferred me between three different departments that could not cancel my award.
I was told that the award could only be canceled during business hours, which is the most absurd limitation I’ve ever heard of. I wish I could say this was a one-off experience, but this has happened to me several times over the years. While you may save thousands of miles booking with Avianca, just be aware that canceling your ticket could end up being very tedious.
Mixed cabin awards
Mixed cabin awards are relatively common when traveling in long-haul first or business class. Most airlines don’t operate first class on shorter routes, forcing you to connect in business or economy. Or there simply might not be premium cabin award space on the flight you need. With most airlines, your award rate is based on the highest cabin of service you travel in. LifeMiles, on the other hand, prices each leg separately based on the class of service you book into, meaning that you’ll often get a discount for booking a mixed cabin ticket.
What does this look like in practice? Instead of just booking a first-class award from the U.S. to Tokyo for 90,000 miles, if you tack on a connection in economy class to Okinawa (OKA), your total price drops to just 83,210 miles, a savings of 6,790 miles. The flight from Tokyo to Okinawa is barely three hours, but it’s a very customer-friendly gesture on Avianca’s part to give you a discount for dropping to a lower class of service.
As if its already low award rates weren’t good enough, Avianca occasionally runs additional award sales on select routes. These sales are only valid between certain city pairs (and sometimes certain airlines), but the good news is they’re easily bookable online. You might even stumble upon one by accident.
For example, last year I reviewed Air China’s 747-8 first class from Beijing (PEK) to JFK. That award would normally cost 90,000 miles (already a great deal for a $10,000 ticket), but Avianca ran a 10% off sale on that route. This meant that we only had to pay 81,000 miles – or just 6,000 miles more than the price of business class. People often complain that first class awards are so expensive that it’s hard to justify the premium over flying business class. In this case, it was a no brainer.
Avianca LifeMiles has become one of the most important tools in my award travel arsenal. If you’re not familiar with the program, I encourage you to spend some time studying its quirks (both the good and the bad). There’s a good chance you already have access to LifeMiles through one of its many transfer partners. Whether you’re looking for long-haul premium cabin awards on some of the world’s top airlines or surprisingly cheap domestic tickets, LifeMiles has something for everyone.
Featured image by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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