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When Marriott and SPG were finally integrated in August, it took on a unique distinction. One of the largest hotel loyalty programs in the world now has more airline partners than any other transferable points currency (including Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards). These credit card programs typically deliver most of their value from airline transfers, but hotel programs generally don’t offer good value for transferring points.
Marriott is the exception to that rule, as the program’s dozens of partners cover all three major airline alliances as well as plenty of non-alliance carriers. Today we’ll take a look at the best way to redeem your Marriott points for Star Alliance awards. As a reminder, Marriott points transfer to most of the below airlines at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred (up to 240,000 points a day). This essentially mirrors the old SPG 25% transfer bonus, and allows you to convert up to 240,000 Marriott points to at least 100,000 partner airline miles each day.
Before we get started there are three important points I’d like to make:
- Since Marriott gives you your pick of Star Alliance loyalty program, it’s important to choose the best one for your specific routing to minimize both award costs and fuel surcharges. You can check out this guide for a comparison of which Star Alliance program to book with in different situations.
- Several of the programs on this list (Aeroplan, Singapore, Avianca) are among the easiest airline miles to earn as they have multiple different transfer partners. As a result, you might be better off saving your Marriott points for high-end hotel stays or transferring your miles to a program with harder-to-earn miles like Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
- Not all airline transfers will post to your airline accounts in the same time frame. Be sure to check out our tests of Marriott transfer times for complete details so you’re prepared for any delays.
2018 saw Avianca LifeMiles, an under-the-radar program mostly used by points pros, thrust into the spotlight. It was hardly surprising to see the program that’s most aggressive about selling its miles at a discount was added as a transfer partner by two different card issuers (American Express and Capital One), giving many readers some great excuses to learn its quirks and sweet spots.
While Avianca’s customer service leaves a lot to be desired if you need to change or cancel a ticket, the LifeMiles program combines two of the most important things you want out of a loyalty program, as it charges low award rates and imposes no partner fuel surcharges. Let’s take one of the most extreme examples in both of those categories: Lufthansa first class awards between the US and Europe.
You’re not going a find a better rate than 87,000 LifeMiles for a one-way first class award, and I love that it shows you exactly how many seats are left so you decide if you need to book ASAP or if you can afford to wait.
With Lufthansa awards through other programs, the problem is often the $500+ fuel surcharges that get passed on to you. The taxes on this award? $30. Avianca even lets you mix and match miles and money, dropping your cost as low as 35,000 miles and $837. Note that this isn’t necessarily the best value as you’re essentially “buying” 52,000 LifeMiles for ~$800, or 1.5 cents each, and Avianca often sells LifeMiles for slightly under 1.5 cents each.
Bear in mind too that Lufthansa typically only releases first class award space to partners within two weeks of departure, so this redemption option is best for those with last-minute, flexible plans.
For less-nimble travelers, there are plenty of other well-priced premium cabin redemptions from the US, including business class to Europe for 63,000 miles each way, business class to North Asia for 75,000 miles, and first class to North Asia for 90,000 miles. The real kicker is the broad way “North Asia” is defined, as it includes most of the continent. While many airlines have cheaper award rates for flights from the US to Japan or Korea, it’s rare for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines to get the same special treatment.
Last but not least, LifeMiles can be a great option for domestic flights on United thanks again to the interesting way it breaks up its award regions. The US is split into three different zones that roughly map to the East Coast, Midwest and West Coast. Flights within a single zone only cost 7,500 miles one-way in economy; United charges 12,500 for most one-way domestic flights. And while Avianca prices transcontinental business class awards the same as United (25,000 miles each way), it doesn’t add a surcharge for routes featuring United’s “premium transcontinental service,” allowing you to save 10,000 miles on some of the longest domestic flights.
ANA Mileage Club
While there are cheaper ways to book ANA premium cabin awards (especially by taking advantage of the Virgin Atlantic sweet spot), ANA’s Mileage Club program can be a great option as well. While the Japanese carrier requires you to book round-trip tickets and does pass on fuel surcharges for many flights, including those on its own metal, award rates are very reasonable. You can fly from the US to Japan for only 150,000 miles round-trip in first class, 85,000 miles in business class or 50,000 in economy.
Just make sure to pay attention to whether your travel dates are in low (L), regular (R) or high (H) season. Depending on what cabin you’re booking, this could result in a difference of up to 15,000 miles for a round-trip award.
You can also get good award rates on ANA-operated flights from Asia 2 (China, Hong Kong, Taipei and Manilla) to the US, though you will pay a slight premium for traveling beyond Tokyo. This deal gets even better because ANA is one of the few airlines to allow stopovers on almost all international award tickets, though this is not available on wholly ANA itineraries that depart from Japan.
For 100,000 miles during low season you could fly in business class from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT), stop for a few days, continue on to Hong Kong (HKG) and then return to Chicago via Tokyo.
ANA’s Star Alliance partner award chart also has some great values to note. Flights from the US to Japan price out the same as regular season awards on ANA, though if you have the choice, you’d probably be much happier flying ANA to Japan than flying United. However, if you’re continuing on to another destination in China or North Asia, you should seriously consider the partner award chart. You can book a round-trip business class award from Chicago to Taipei (TPE) on EVA Air, one of the most underrated five-star airlines, for only 95,000 miles. As a point of comparison, if you booked through United it would cost you 80,000 miles each way.
Another great sweet spot to be aware of covers flights to Hawaii on United metal. If you can find saver level economy award space, you can book these awards for only 40,000 miles round-trip from anywhere in North America.
Like many Star Alliance airlines, Singapore significantly restricts premium cabin award bookings on its own flights. Generally speaking, Singapore won’t release any long-haul premium cabin award space to partners. Unlike Lufthansa, there’s no magic trick where if you wait long enough you might find an award seat with a partner program. The good new is KrisFlyer miles are incredibly easy to earn, so all hope isn’t lost.
Singapore has a pretty funky US route network that includes a number of fifth-freedom flights as well as the world’s longest flight between Singapore (SIN) and Newark (EWR). This ultra-ultra-long-haul flight is operated by a specially-configured A350-900ULR that features only business class and premium economy seats. You can book a one-way premium economy award for 70,000 miles or enjoy business class for 92,000 miles. Business class award space can be tricky to find at the saver level, so you might have to either waitlist an award or pay up 135,000 miles to lock in a standard level award seat on this route.
Other than its record-setting flight distances, Singapore is perhaps best known for the industry-leading Suites Class it offers on its flagship A380s. Singapore recently introduced a new-and-improved suite on select aircraft that absolutely set the bar for what first class should look like. You can read TPG’s full review here, though unfortunately this product isn’t flying to the US just yet.
The only US route that Singapore currently operates with an A380 is from New York-JFK to Frankfurt (FRA), a flight that then continues on to Singapore. This A380 features the “old” suites design, though it’s still one of the best products in the sky. Award space is very tough to come by on this route, with Suites awards starting at 76,000 miles one-way at the saver level and going up to 130,000 at the standard level.
Singapore’s Star Alliance award chart has a number of sweet spots as well, though like ANA, it passes on fuel surcharges on some partner awards. Speaking of ANA, Singapore will let you book that same United award to Hawaii for only 35,000 miles round-trip, which is about as good as it gets. Singapore also doesn’t split South America into separate award regions, meaning that you can book flights all the way to southern South America for only 50,000 miles each way in business class (as opposed to 60,000 if you booked through United).
United Airlines MileagePlus
While United MileagePlus isn’t the world’s most rewarding loyalty program, it does get a nod for familiarity, ease of use and lack of partner fuel surcharges. It’s also a slightly better value proposition than other carriers for Marriott transfers. Thanks to the RewardsPlus partnership, you’ll enjoy a 10% bonus for converting Marriott points to MileagePlus miles, essentially boosting the transfer ratio to 3:1.1 (with the same 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer). As a result, transferring 60,000 Marriott points will get you 27,000 United miles, while you’d only get 25,000 miles in the above currencies.
United’s online award chart is easy to use, and its award search functionality is one of the best for Star Alliance flights. However, if you’re searching for long-haul business or first class award space, United will charge a small premium for partner flights in comparison to United-operated flights.
For example, one-way award tickets from the US to Europe cost 30,000 miles in economy and 60,000 miles in United Polaris business class. However, if the transatlantic business class segment is operated by a Star Alliance partner, the award rate jumps to 70,000 miles each way.
As a general statement, United’s award chart is fairly average. For flights departing the US, there aren’t really any sweet spots to get excited, about but the pricing isn’t egregious either. In many ways United’s award rates are right in line with the industry average, so transferring Marriott points to United tends to work best to supplement your existing account, especially if you’re a frequent United flyer crediting revenue flights to the program already. It can also be a great option for United credit cardholders. If you hold a card like the United Explorer Card in your wallet, you’ll enjoy access to increased saver award space, a perk that can help get you to your destination for fewer miles than non-cardholders would need to pay.
Air Canada’s independently run loyalty program (Aeroplan) used to be a primary Star Alliance booking tool, though with Avianca LifeMiles becoming easier to earn, it’s lost some of its luster. You can still find some great value through Aeroplan, but make sure to check out this guide to avoid booking with partner airlines that pass on fuel surcharges.
Lufthansa first class for 70,000 miles is a steal, but the $700 in taxes really hurts the value of your “free” ticket.
You’d be much better off sticking to partners like EVA that keep your taxes under $10.
Even if you don’t use Aeroplan to book, it can still be a powerful Star Alliance search engine. I’ve always appreciated how clearly the Aeroplan website displays mixed cabin itineraries, with a bright yellow warning so there are no unpleasant surprises when you check in for your flight.
Bonus: Asiana Club
If you’re looking to book Star Alliance awards at the absolute lowest rates possible, Asiana is the hidden gem you’ve been waiting for. Because Asiana miles are so hard to earn (Marriott is the only transfer partner), this program has flown under the radar for a long time.
If you can stomach the fuel surcharges, Lufthansa first class awards from the US to Europe will only cost you 50,000 miles each way. Business class to southern South America only costs 35,000 miles each way, and even long-haul, first class awards to Africa or the Middle East only cost 80,000 miles each way. Again, in most cases the fuel surcharges will add up quickly, but you won’t find better prices anywhere else.
Once you’ve picked your Star Alliance itinerary and found the award space you need, Marriott gives you a seemingly endless options of programs through which to book. A little research goes a long way, as booking with the right loyalty program could save you tens of thousands of miles, hundreds of dollars or even help you enjoy a free stopover on your vacation. Again though, be sure to crunch the numbers to make sure you don’t want to save those Marriott points for a luxurious Category 8 property.
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