Star Alliance Booking Showdown: Which Loyalty Program Should I Use?
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
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.
Four Convenient Star Alliance Programs
There are four Star Alliance loyalty programs that are especially useful to US based travelers: United Airlines MileagePlus, Air Canada's Aeroplan, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer, and Avianca LifeMiles. 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 and was one of the 12 airline partners that Capital One is adding in December (at a 2:1.5 ratio). Singapore's KrisFlyer program is unique in that you can transfer points from four major transferable points currencies. While Avianca LifeMiles had flown under the radar for a long time, Amex recently added them as a 1:1 Membership Rewards transfer partner, and the program is also one of the recently-announced Capital One transfer partners. Finally, all four programs partner with Marriott Rewards, and don't forget that for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer, you'll get a 5,000-mile bonus (on up to 180,000 points a day), making your effective transfer ratio 1-to-1.25 when you transfer in increments of 60,000.
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 four 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), Singapore's separate Star Alliance award chart here (warning: PDF file) and Avianca's Star Alliance award chart here.
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 these four 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, the first three programs charge the identical amount in economy, including the same $5.60 in taxes each way.
Avianca LifeMiles is a bit quirky, as it's one of the only programs to separate the continental US into different award zones. LifeMiles has three US zones which roughly translate to east coast, central, and west coast (but you can find the full region definitions here). Flights within the same zone will only cost 7,500 miles in economy or 15,000 in first, which is the cheapest of any of these Star Alliance programs. Even if you're flying longer routes (including premium service transcontinental flights), Avianca's most expensive pricing for domestic US flights is still in line with what the other three programs charge, making them a competitive option.
So which program should you use when redeeming for an economy award in the US? On a majority of domestic routes, Avianca LifeMiles will be your cheapest option. Now that Avianca is a transfer partner of both Amex and Capital One, LifeMiles are easy to earn. You can also take advantage of one of the frequent sales on purchased miles as an easy way to top up your account.
Economy Winner: Avianca LifeMiles wins easily on cost.
If you're flying in first class you should also pay attention to Singapore KrisFlyer, especially for longer flights. It charges 20,000 miles each way in first class on transcontinental flights, where Avianca (and the other two programs as well) would charge 25,000 miles. That being said, on shorter flights Avianca still has an edge.
First Class Winner: Avianca or KrisFlyer, depending on your route.
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 or Avianca
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.
Avianca also deserves a mention here. While they charge 3,000 more miles than United for a one way business class award to Europe, they don't pass on any fuel surcharges and are a great way to keep your "free" trip from getting drowned in taxes..
Business Class Winner: It depends on your ticket and the taxes associated with it, but either United MileagePlus, Avianca 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.
Lufthansa is also one of the most egregious airline when it comes to passing on fuel surcharges, which generally rules out Aeroplan and Singapore KrisFlyer as viable booking options. Avianca emerges as a clear and uncontested winner here, charging only 87,000 miles and under $100 in taxes for Lufthansa first class awards. While United charges a similarly low amount of taxes, booking your award through MileagePlus will cost you an extra 23,000 miles (110,000 vs. 87,000).
First Class Winner: Since your only option here is to fly on Lufthansa, you'll want to stick to a program like Avianca that won't hit you with $500+ taxes when you go to check out.
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, Aeroplan and Avianca 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, Avianca takes the lead again as 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. Again, you won't be paying any fuel surcharges on these awards which is a nice bonus. Singapore is technically the cheapest option by 1,000 miles, so if you can find a routing that doesn't have high taxes that would be the way to go.
Economy Winner: Singapore or Avianca are the cheapest in terms of miles, just be careful to avoid taxes.
Premium cabin travelers have an easy choice here, as Avianca is almost 10,000 miles cheaper than all of its competitors in both business and first class (except for Aeroplan for business class awards). In the most extreme case — transferring 140,000 Ultimate Rewards to United vs. transferring 99,000 Membership Rewards points to Avianca — this results in a savings of about $900 based on TPG's latest valuations. And with no fuel surcharges to worry about, Avianca is the clear winner again.
Business and First Class Winner: Avianca. When you combine low mileage costs and no fuel surcharges, you're sure to become a favorite of the travel hacking community.
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).
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.