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American Express Membership Rewards points regularly appear as one of the most valuable currencies in TPG’s monthly valuation thanks in large part to the incredible flexibility of these points. Not only can you transfer points to airlines in all three of the major alliances (Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance), but you have multiple transfer options to choose from within each alliance. However, determining which transfer partner to use within a single alliance can be a bit tricky. We’ve already explored this topic for Oneworld and SkyTeam carriers, and today we’ll wrap up this series by taking a look at how to get the most bang for your buck when redeeming Amex points for travel on Star Alliance airlines.
Earning Membership Rewards Points
The best way to quickly rack up a large number of Membership Rewards points is through welcome bonuses on the issuer’s top credit cards. Some of the best current offers include:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months, though note that some readers have been targeted for a 100,000-point bonus by using the CardMatch tool (offer subject to change at anytime).
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express: Earn 50,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $10,000 and an extra 25,000 points after spend an additional $10,000 all on qualifying purchases on the Business Platinum Card within your first three months of card membership.
- American Express® Gold Card: Earn 25,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $2,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first three months. Plus, for new cardmembers who apply by January 9, 2018, receive 20% back as a statement credit at U.S. restaurants with the Gold Card within the first 3 months of your Card Membership, up to $100 back.
These cards (and others like The Blue BusinessSM Plus Credit Card from American Express) also offer lucrative bonuses on different categories of purchases, allowing you to boost your balances even further with your everyday spending.
Redeeming Membership Rewards Points
Although Amex gives you the option to redeem your points directly through the Amex Travel portal, you will almost always get more value by transferring them to a partner airline, especially for awards in premium classes. You’ll also want to keep in mind that not all Membership Rewards transfers are immediate, so make sure you leave yourself enough time to book.
Let’s dive into some of the best ways to book Star Alliance airlines using your Amex points.
Air Canada’s spun-off loyalty program (Aeroplan) has some of the most reasonable prices for booking Star Alliance awards. However, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind to maximize your redemptions. The first is that Aeroplan passes on fuel surcharges for several of its partner airlines. You can check out this guide to get a good idea of the taxes you’ll have to pay, but they can be fairly minimal, like ~$7 for this EVA Air business class flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Taipei (TPE):
However, they can also be exorbitant, like the nearly $800 you’d have to pay on this one-way Lufthansa first class award ticket from New York-JFK to Munich (MUC):
A little bit of research could end up saving you a lot of money. Generally speaking, for the many airlines where Aeroplan does not pass on fuel surcharges, they also offer cheaper mileage rates than their well-known Star Alliance sibling United (which notably is not an Amex transfer partner).
Another quirk of Aeroplan is that its search engine will often show mixed cabin awards, and even if your long-haul flight is in economy, it’ll price at the business or first class redemption rate. Aeroplan doesn’t highlight this on the main results page, but if you click “Details” to expand the flight information, you’ll see a bright yellow box alerting you that one leg of your trip is in a lower cabin.
So with all this in mind, what are the best Aeroplan redemptions to pursue? Domestic awards within the US will cost 12,500 miles in economy and 25,000 in business plus $5.60 in taxes, identical to what United charges. This can be a great value if the cash price of the flight you’re considering is high, especially for last-minute awards (for which United would tack on a $75 close-in booking fee for non-elite members).
Aeroplan’s real edge, however, comes with cheap international premium cabin awards. If you’re able to find an elusive United saver level business award, especially on a plane equipped with the new Polaris seats, Aeroplan will only charge you 55,000 miles one-way to Western and Central Europe (Eastern Europe is just 2,500 miles more each way):
If you book a Star Alliance partner on which Aeroplan doesn’t impose fuel surcharges (like Swiss), you’ll wind up saving 12,500 – 15,000 miles each way compared to booking through United.
The deals somehow get better the further you travel, with a one-way award in EVA’s phenomenal 777 business class only costing 77,500 miles:
For additional details on some potential awards, check out Jason Steele’s post on How to Book Award Flights with Air Canada Aeroplan.
Surprises in the points and miles world are typically bad news, as they often herald a coming devaluation or reduction in benefits. However, Amex’s recent decision to add Avianca LifeMiles as a 1:1 transfer partner with no warning whatsoever falls clearly into the category of “surprise and delight.” While Avianca’s customer service leaves a lot to be desired, its award chart has some hidden gems, including some great Star Alliance options. The program also doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges on award tickets (unlike several other members of this list).
Let’s dive right in with one of the most appealing redemptions: Lufthansa first class from the US to Europe for 87,000 miles and only $30 in taxes!
Of course, these awards are typically only available to partner programs (like LifeMiles) within a couple weeks of departure, but it’s a cost-efficient way to cross the Atlantic in style.
You can also mix and match cash and miles at some very attractive rates through Avianca’s program. If you want to spend the fewest possible miles on this same award ticket, you could spend 35,000 miles and $837. Remember, Aeroplan would charge you that much money and twice as many miles for a Lufthansa first class award.
LifeMiles can also be a great way to book domestic United awards. Avianca splits the US into three separate award zones, with one-way economy flights ranging from 7,500 to 12,500 miles. The cheapest flights are those that stay within a single “zone.” While US 1 and US 3 primarily cover the east and west coasts, respectively, the US 2 zone is an interesting mix of destinations. For example, you can fly from Chicago (ORD) to Miami (MIA) for only 7,500 LifeMiles, instead of the 12,500 United would charge on the same route.
There are also some sweet spots for slightly less common routings as well. One that I’m very excited about (as an ex-pat based in Asia) is the ability to fly from Hawaii to North Asia in first class for only 66,000 miles. While there aren’t currently any Star Alliance carriers operating a first class cabin on these routes, that will change when ANA takes delivery of its beautiful new A380s in 2019, as these planes will fly exclusively between Honolulu (HNL) and Tokyo-Narita (NRT).
Keep in mind too that if you’re short on the Amex points you need to transfer to LifeMiles, you could always boost your account through the Club LifeMiles program or utilize one of the program’s regular bonuses on purchased miles.
The Singapore KrisFlyer program has undergone a number of changes in the last year. While these were mostly devaluations, the program did add a few minor improvements (like the ability to book some partner awards online). You should definitely take some time to understand the KrisFlyer program; in addition to Amex Membership Rewards, it’s a direct transfer partner of the other major transferable points currencies as well (Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards), and as you’re about to see, the program has access to awards that other Star Alliance programs typically do not.
Singapore uses a separate award chart for flights on its own metal and for flights on Star Alliance partners. If you’re looking to travel in Singapore’s exceptional new suites class, the only way to do so is to book directly through KrisFlyer, as the program don’t release premium cabin award space to partners. This is one of the most difficult and coveted first class awards, and unfortunately you can’t find it flying to the US yet. Of the routes that currently feature the new suites, the short five-hour hop from Singapore (SIN) to Shanghai (PVG) seems to have the most frequent award availability at 50,000 miles each way.
Of course, much of the attention surrounding Singapore recently has to do with the resumption of the world’s longest flight between Singapore and Newark (EWR). This route is operated by a specially configured A350-900ULR with only premium economy and business class cabins. If you’re wondering what it feels like to spend a full 18 hours in the air, you can check out these reviews:
- 18 Hours in Nonstop Style: Singapore Business Class on the World’s Longest Flight
- I Survived 18 Hours on the World’s Longest Flight, and Here’s What It Was Like
- Watch What It’s Like to Be on the World’s Longest Flight (Video)
Award space in premium economy seems to be readily available at 70,000 miles each way, but finding business class awards is much harder to do, even with 67 seats in the cabin. If you find saver level award space, a business class ticket will cost 92,00 miles each way. Paying a ~30% mileage premium to sit in business class doesn’t sound all that bad, especially since business class fares can easily be more than double the cost of premium economy.
Redeeming 92,000 miles for a $4,862 ticket would give you a value of 5.28 cents per point, well above TPG’s valuation of KrisFlyer miles at 1.4 cents each.
Even if you can’t find an elusive saver level business award, you still have two options to consider. You could pay 135,000 miles for a standard level award, which is available on most days (and would still net you 3.6 cents per point). Alternatively, you could try to waitlist for the lower-priced award and hope that a saver level seat opens up before departure:
You can check out this guide for more details on how to waitlist a Singapore award, but one important thing to note is that you must have all the miles in your account to proceed. This means that if you transfer points to KrisFlyer and your waitlist request doesn’t clear, the miles will be stuck there for a future redemption.
KrisFlyer can also be a great program for redeeming Star Alliance partner awards, especially those that can now be booked online. Here’s a few examples:
- Domestic United first class awards: Singapore will only charge 20,000 miles each way as opposed to 25,000 with Aeroplan or United.
- Business class awards to Southern South America: For flights to countries like Argentina and Chile, KrisFlyer only charges 50,000 miles each way in business class (compared to 55,000 miles for Aeroplan and 60,000 miles for United). TPG Senior Editor Nick Ewen recently booked a flight home from Chile for his family and used this exact sweet spot.
- Economy awards to Hawaii: If you can find saver award space on United flights from the US to Hawaii, you can book these through KrisFlyer for just 35,000 miles round-trip. Aeroplan and United both charge 45,000 miles for these exact same itineraries.
- Economy awards to Europe: Singapore requires 27,500 miles each way for these awards, while Aeroplan and United start at 30,000 miles.
However, it’s worth noting that the KrisFlyer search engine doesn’t show all Star Alliance availability. For example, when you search for the above example from Los Angeles to Bangkok in EVA business class, a flight that was clearly offered through Aeroplan, Singapore will instead try to route you on one of its many fifth freedom routes:
This is why I’d recommend using another site to search for Star Alliance availability first (ExpertFlyer could also be a big help here), and be prepared to call KrisFlyer to ticket the award if Singapore’s search engine doesn’t display the desired itinerary.
ANA Mileage Club
The ANA Mileage Club program uses a zone-based award chart and offers a few sweet spot redemptions worth evaluating. However, there are a couple of important limitations to keep in mind: only round trip awards are permitted, and ANA does impose fuel surcharges on many award tickets. That being said, there are still some great values to be had. Let’s start with a simple one: round-trip flights between the US and Japan on ANA metal. Prices vary by season, as shown below:
|Low Season||40,000 miles||75,000 miles||150,000 miles|
|Regular Season||50,000 miles||85,000 miles||150,000 miles|
|High Season||55,000 miles||90,000 miles||165,000 miles|
These are steals pretty much across the board, especially round-trip first class for as little as 150,000 miles (though it’s possibly to do even better on these flights, as we’ll see a little bit later).
The prices only go up marginally if you’re flying between the US and Southeast Asia, with economy flights ranging from 55,000 – 70,000 miles, business class ranging from 100,000 – 115,000 miles, and first class ranging from 195,000 – 210,000 miles (all for round-trip pricing). In each case, these numbers aren’t that much more than what United would charge you for a one-way award ticket on the same flight.
ANA’s partner award chart uses the same zone classifications at different price levels, and depending on the routing, you may be able to get some terrific value. For example, round trip awards from the US to Europe clock in at just 55,000 miles in economy or 88,000 miles in business. Unfortunately, the round-trip restriction and hefty surcharges on many partners may make this tough to swing, but if you can make it work, it’s a terrific redemption.
For the ultimate adventurers among us, ANA is one of the few airlines to still offer a “round the world” redemption option, and even better, it uses a lucrative distance-based award chart. The rules are relatively simple:
- Travel must continue in an east or west direction.
- A maximum of 8 stopovers is permitted (maximum 3 in Europe and 4 in Japan).
- Travel must touch all 3 ANA mileage zones.
- Travel must originate and end in the same zone.
The mileage zones for the purpose of this redemption are as follows: 1) North America, Central America, South America and Hawaii; 2) Europe, Middle East and Africa; and 3) Japan, South Korea, China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Southwest Pacific. Round the world awards cost the following amounts:
You can get pretty creative with this, building an all business class journey from Los Angeles to Tokyo-Narita (NRT), on to Singapore, Addis Ababa (ADD), Frankfurt (FRA) and then ending in New York-JFK for only 125,000 miles plus taxes and fees.
That’s a lot of time in business class for a comparably small number of miles!
The hidden value of the Etihad Guest loyalty program is very similar to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: since neither airline is a member of a major alliance, they’ve instead struck up partnerships with individual airlines that range from not worth mentioning to very lucrative. In the case of Etihad, there are two specific partners worth highlighting: ANA and Asiana. Etihad uses a distance-based award chart for both of these airlines, and stopovers are permitted.
If you were to take the shortest route from the US to Japan and fly San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo on ANA, a one-way ticket would cost 37,000 miles in economy or 63,000 in business class. If you built in a stopover in Tokyo before continuing on to somewhere like Shanghai (PVG), you’d only pay 43,000 miles in economy or 78,000 miles in business class.
With Asiana, only round trip awards are permitted. Any round-trip from Seoul (ICN) to the US would fall into the highest pricing bracket of 10,000 or more flight miles, and would price as follows:
- economy: 83,000 miles round trip
- business: 138,000 miles round trip
- first: 276,000 miles round trip (yikes!)
Etihad also offers very competitively priced short-haul awards for both ANA and Asiana, similar to British Airways’ distance based award chart. The real sweet spot is for flights that are under 1,000 miles in distance, as they’ll cost less than 10,000 miles for an economy redemption.
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles are some of the most underrated out there, but they can be a great value for Star Alliance partner redemptions. Virgin Atlantic has redemption agreements with several Star Alliance airlines, including Singapore, Air New Zealand, South African Airways, ANA and Air China (its agreement with SAS only allows you to earn miles, not redeem them).
The specific redemption prices and eligible routes vary by partner. Let’s start with Air China, the simplest of them all. You can only redeem for flights between Beijing (PEK) and London-Heathrow (LHR). The table below shows the cost of a round trip award, with one way awards available for half the price.
The only other partner with reasonable pricing is ANA, and it might be one of the greatest deals a travel hacker can possibly score. While one-way redemptions aren’t allowed, the chart below shows the cost for round-trip awards on ANA:
That’s right; a round-trip first class award from the US to Japan will only cost 110,000 – 120,000 miles, depending on your departure city. And business class awards will be either 90,000 or 95,000 miles round-trip. This is an easy way to score cheap flights on five-star airline that puts a laughably high sticker price on it’s premium cabins, and when you factor in frequent Amex transfer bonuses, the deal just gets better.
When we talk about the flexibility that makes transferable points so valuable, it’s more than just the ability to pick an alternate routing if you can’t find award space on your desired itinerary. This also extends to programs you can use to book an award on the exact same flight(s). By being strategic, you can realize some significant savings in terms of money (taxes and fees), miles or both. American Express’ Membership Rewards program offers several solid ways to book just about any Star Alliance award you can find, and taking the time to pick your transfer partner carefully can result in a much less costly trip.
The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Enjoy Uber VIP status and free rides in the U.S. up to $15 each month, plus a bonus $20 in December. That can be up to $200 in annual Uber savings.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
- 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
- Enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
- Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
- $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
- Get up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
- $550 annual fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees