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May 14, 1997, was a landmark day in the history of commercial aviation, as United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Thai Airways and SAS came together to form the Star Alliance. Since then, the original mega-alliance has grown immensely to include 28 member airlines serving over 1,300 destinations worldwide. Wherever you’re trying to go, odds are there’s a Star Alliance flight that will get you there.
While Star Alliance members operate many joint ventures — including codeshare and interline agreements — each member also retains its own individual loyalty program with its own earning structure, award chart and transfer partners. This can make it confusing to figure out which ones provide the best value for your specific trip.
But today we’re going to let the top Star Alliance programs battle it out, testing each one’s strengths and weaknesses over several popular routes to determine which one you should use the next time you’re ready to book an award ticket.
Three Convenient Star Alliance Programs
There are three Star Alliance loyalty programs that are especially useful to US based travelers: United Airlines MileagePlus, Air Canada’s Aeroplan and Singapore Airlines Krisflyer. These miles are some of the easiest to earn, either from crediting Star Alliance flights or by utilizing a transferable points currency.
United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, which means you can transfer points earned on cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve at a 1:1 ratio to United MileagePlus. Similarly, Aeroplan is a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards. Singapore’s Krisflyer program is unique in that you can transfer points from all four major transferable points currencies. Don’t forget that for every 20,000 SPG points you transfer, you’ll get a 5,000 point bonus (on up to 60,000 points a day), making your effective transfer ratio 1-to-1.25.
Before we jump in, there are two important points to note:
- For this analysis, I’m assuming you have a large stash of points with all three of these Star Alliance loyalty programs. That might mean you have Membership Rewards points and Ultimate Rewards points that together can be transferred to any of the three options.
- Most airlines have different award charts for flights on their own metal vs. those operated by alliance partners. I’m using “United” to represent tickets booked through MileagePlus and flown by United, and “United/SA” for MileagePlus award tickets operated by Star Alliance partners. The same goes for Singapore vs. Singapore/SA. If you’d like to check out the individual award charts yourself, you can find United’s here, Aeroplan’s here, Singapore’s here (warning: PDF file), and Singapore’s separate Star Alliance award chart here (warning: PDF file).
And now, on to the fun stuff…
Domestic Awards Within the US
This first example is the simplest by far, as United is the only Star Alliance carrier operating domestically within the US. But of course, you can still book United flights with any of our three programs.
The above comparison is valid on all domestic flights over 700 miles except for United’s transcontinental “premium service” routes, which are Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX), Newark-San Francisco (SFO) and Boston-San Francisco. As you can see, all three programs charge the identical amount in economy, including the same $5.60 in taxes each way.
So which program should you use when redeeming for an economy award in the US? Booking through United MileagePlus is probably your best option here. If weather or mechanical delays interfere with your travel plans, you’ll have an easier time getting accommodated if you booked directly with the airline.
That being said, TPG values Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents each, making it one of the more valuable loyalty currencies. If you’re booking a round-trip and have access to Citi ThankYou Points, you’d “save” $100 worth of points by transferring 25,000 points to Krisflyer vs. transferring the same number of Ultimate Rewards points to United.
Economy Winner: United for convenience, KrisFlyer for value
If you’re flying in first class, the decision is even easier. Assuming you’re booking round-trip, KrisFlyer will save you 5,000 miles each way. So no matter which points program you use to transfer to KrisFlyer (you can even mix and match), you’ll end up saving 10,000 points on a round trip booking.
First Class Winner: KrisFlyer
US to Paris
While there are definitely options for saving money on a trip to Paris (CDG), free flights are the easiest way to pad your budget and leave more room for food and wine.
There are several Star Alliance carriers that can get you from the US to Paris with direct or one-stop routings, including United, Lufthansa, Swiss, SAS, and LOT. While KrisFlyer is the cheapest option in economy from a pure mileage perspective, both KrisFlyer and Aeroplan pass on carrier surcharges for most Star Alliance airlines. This can range from a reasonable amount (I paid just $200 in taxes for an ANA first class award ticket booked through Aeroplan when the cash price of the ticket was over $16,000) to downright painful.
If you’re looking to book Lufthansa award tickets through Aeroplan or Krisflyer, expect to shell out $500+ in taxes and surcharges, even in economy. While United also passes on some carrier surcharges, they’re much smaller, clocking in closer to $115 one-way for Lufthansa awards.
Economy Winner: United
Business class is a similar story, even though the mileage costs vary a bit more. United flies nonstop between Paris and its hubs in Newark, Washington, DC (IAD), Chicago (ORD) and San Francisco. While you won’t get the new Polaris seats on these routes, all United-operated flights feature the same Polaris food and service in business class and can be booked for a reasonable 60,000 miles and less than $100 in taxes.
Even if you book a Star Alliance partner through United MileagePlus for 70,000 miles, you can still get a good deal if you’re avoiding surcharges. But how good of a deal? TPG values Membership Rewards points at 1.9 cents each versus 2.1 cents for Ultimate Rewards. This means if you’re spending an extra 15,000 miles booking through United, you’d need to save $425 in fuel surcharges to make it worth it.
Business Class Winner: It depends on your ticket and the taxes associated with it, but either United MileagePlus or Aeroplan.
United began retiring their outdated Global First cabin when they introduced Polaris, leaving Lufthansa as the only Star Alliance carrier operating a first class cabin to Europe. Lufthansa doesn’t release first class award space to partner programs until about 15 days before departure, but if you can snag a seat, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Singapore is not a great option here, as it charges more miles than Aeroplan and still passes on those hefty carrier surcharges. But United and Aeroplan each have their own pros and cons, and ultimately you’ll have to decide what’s more important to you.
United charges 110,000 miles and about ~$100 for Lufthansa first class awards. Assuming you transfer those points from Chase, that adds up to about $2,300 in points based on TPG’s latest valuations. Aeroplan only charges 70,000 miles, but when you add in the $500+ carrier surcharges, your total cost in points plus cash is closer to $1,800. From a pure value perspective, this is the best deal, but if saving cash is a priority to you, then United is potentially a better option.
First Class Winner: It comes down to United or Aeroplan, and whether you’d rather spend more miles or more money.
West Coast (LAX or SFO) to Bangkok
Bangkok (BKK) is at the top of nearly every travel bucket list, and with a large number of one-stop routings through Asia, it’s an easy city to get to with miles. In this case, I’m considering flights from the US west coast (LAX or SFO) to Bangkok since Singapore KrisFlyer has different prices for flights from the east coast (and Houston) than from the west. United and Aeroplan awards to Bangkok cost the same no matter where in the US you originate.
Since United doesn’t fly non-stop from the US to Bangkok, all flights will include a Star Alliance partner. Routing options include a connection in Taipei (TPE) on EVA Air, Tokyo on ANA or potentially eastbound flights that route through Europe.
Either way, MileagePlus is just about the cheapest option for economy flights, and any carrier surcharges you pay will be the same or less than on Aeroplan or KrisFlyer. For round-trip awards on airlines that don’t incur carrier surcharges, you can save 2,000 miles booking through KrisFlyer, but MileagePlus gives you the most flexibility.
Economy Winner: United. Despite not flying all the way to Bangkok itself, United’s MileagePlus award program is the best redemption value for economy fliers.
Premium cabin travelers have an easy choice here, as Aeroplan is at least 10,000 miles cheaper than its competitors in both business and first class. In the most extreme case — transferring 140,000 Ultimate Rewards to United vs. transferring 107,500 Membership Rewards points to Aeroplan — this results in a savings of almost $900 based on TPG’s latest valuations. To sweeten the deal, carrier surcharges on Asian carriers tend to not be as egregious as those on, say, Lufthansa.
Business and First Class Winner: Aeroplan, for the low mileage costs.
You may have noticed that Singapore’s KrisFlyer program didn’t get a lot of love in this analysis. While the program used to be full of sweet spots, a series of devaluations to both the Singapore and Star Alliance award charts has made it less competitive.
But one area where the program does shine is for premium cabin flights on Singapore metal. Unfortunately, these award seats are incredibly hard to come by, and routing options are limited. To fly from the west coast to Bangkok in Singapore first class would require a 2-stop routing through either Hong Kong (HKG) or Tokyo and Singapore (SIN).
Featured image by Getty Images.
This story has been updated to correct an error regarding one-way award redemptions on Star Alliance partners with the Singapore KrisFlyer program. All partner flights can now be booked both one-way and round-trip.
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