Airline miles that are hardest to earn — and why you want them anyway

Jun 26, 2020

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When we publish our monthly valuation series for airline, hotel and credit card points, we focus on the redemption side of things. For example, Amex Membership Rewards points are valued at 2 cents each, thanks to strong transfer partners like Avianca LifeMiles.

Scarcity is an important and often overlooked element of value though. If everyone had access to an unlimited supply of Membership Rewards points, we would snap up all the best first-class redemptions, forcing airlines to devalue their award charts. In many ways, scarcity helps your miles retain their value over time.

While there are plenty of hard-to-get miles that aren’t worth all that much (you don’t see me crying over the fact that Spirit doesn’t have any transfer partners), a few of the most valuable airline miles happen to also be some of the hardest to get. Today we’ll take a look at these programs, including how to earn miles and the high-value redemption options that make them worth your time. 

In each of these cases, you can earn miles by crediting revenue flights to the specific loyalty program. So I’ll skip over that option and focus instead on credit card bonuses and transfer options.

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In This Post

Alaska Airlines

JAL or Cathay Pacific first class? With Alaska Mileage Plan, the choice is yours
JAL or Cathay Pacific first class? With Alaska Mileage Plan, the choice is yours.

Earning

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 40,000 miles, a $100 statement credit and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account. 

You can also transfer points from Marriott at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred. Alaska miles are the most valuable on this list and the easiest to earn, thanks to the cobranded credit cards and frequent bonuses on purchased miles.

Redeeming

Since Alaska isn’t a member of one of the three major alliances (although it will be joining Oneworld next year), the Mileage Plan program has built individual partnerships with a uniquely valuable collection of airlines. Each partner has its own award chart, and while you can’t combine partners on an award ticket (but you can mix Alaska-operated flights with partner flights), you are allowed a stopover on one-way tickets. This includes domestic flights within the U.S. or stopovers at a partner’s hub airport on international tickets (such as Hong Kong for Cathay Pacific).

Further Reading: Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

One of my favorite Alaska redemptions is using 70,000 Alaska miles for a one-way Cathay Pacific first-class flight between the U.S. and Asia. These flights often cost as much as $20,000, giving you a value of nearly 30 cents per Alaska mile.

Photo courtesy of Google Flights

You can also fly Japan Airlines first class to North Asia for the same cost, though if you’re flying in business class, Cathay Pacific is cheaper (50,000 miles vs. 60,000 miles). Cathay Pacific flights to Southeast Asia require fewer miles than JAL. You can even stop in Hong Kong on your way to India, all for just 70,000 miles one-way in first class. Note that you have to call in to book Cathay Pacific awards, but JAL awards can be booked through the Alaska website.

If you’re looking to stay closer to home, Alaska miles are great for flights to Hawaii – if you can find saver space. Alaska also has an extensive route network from the West Coast to several different Hawaiian destinations.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines

Related: How to book free stopovers with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Japan Airlines Mileage Bank

JAL miles are the easiest way to try out Emirates
JAL miles are one of the cheapest ways to try out Emirates’ A380 onboard shower

Earning

While JAL offers an unappealing credit card, your best bet for racking up Mileage Bank miles quickly is by transferring from Marriott Rewards. Points transfer at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Redeeming

Redeeming for flights operated by JAL is a great option here, but I’ll start with the one flight that dominates most points enthusiasts’ bucket lists: Emirates first class. After a no-notice devaluation of Alaska’s partner award chart for Emirates a few years back, JAL emerged as the easy first choice program for booking Emirates awards

They do pass along fuel surcharges, but the good news is that Emirates just cut these insidious taxes to a very manageable level on most routes (down from $800+ to $150 for flights from the U.S. to Dubai, for example).

Let’s take a look at what I consider to be one of the best routes for Emirates first class redemptions: Hong Kong (HKG) to the East Coast — either Washington DC (IAD) or New York (JFK) — with a stopover in Dubai (DXB).

Both of these routes cover just over 10,000 flight miles and would cost 145,000 JAL miles in first class.

Photo courtesy of JAL
Photo courtesy of JAL

You would need to transfer 360,000 Marriott points (worth $2,880 based on TPG’s latest valuations) to get this many JAL miles. In return, you’d get two long-haul flights in Emirates first class and a free stopover to explore Dubai.

Now that Emirates has cut its fuel surcharges so massively, you can also use JAL miles to fly Emirates first class from the U.S. to Dubai without paying much cash out of pocket. The flight from JFK to Dubai (DXB) covers just over 6,800 flight miles, meaning you’d need 120,000 JAL miles to book it. 

You can also use Mileage Bank miles to get a great rate on JAL premium cabin redemptions. You can access the full award chart here, but some of the highlights include:

  • U.S. to Japan for 50,000 miles each way in business, or 70,000 miles in first class
  • U.S. to China and South Korea for 55,000 miles each way in business, or 80,000 miles in first class
  • U.S. to Oceania for 70,000 miles in business class (or 85,000 miles in first class, but the Tokyo-Oceania leg would be in business)

JAL first class is an incredibly refined and luxurious flight experience. You’ll find it aboard the carrier’s flagship 777-300ER aircraft flying to only a small handful of destinations around the globe, four of which are in the U.S. Redeeming 70,000 miles for 10+ hours in first class is an incredible deal, and puts JAL on par with Alaska Airlines for award tickets to Asia.

Similar to British Airways, JAL uses a distance-based award chart for Oneworld partner flights. You’re charged based on the total distance of your itinerary, with up to seven stopovers allowed.

Photo courtesy of JAL

On the shorter end, flights from much of the East Coast to Europe fall under 4,000 miles. One-way awards, say, from New York-JFK to Paris (CDG) on American Airlines would only cost 25,000 miles one-way in economy or 48,000 in business, which is significantly cheaper than what the competition charges. For example, American Airlines normally requires 30,000 miles in economy and 57,500 in business.

You can use this combination of multiple stopovers and a distance-based award chart to create your own mini round-the-world itinerary. For example, this trip from Chicago to Sydney, with stops in Los Angeles (LAX), Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and Hong Kong (HKG), only covers ~24,400 flight miles.

To fly this whole trip in business class would only cost 150,000 miles, for all five flights. That’s less than most airlines would charge for the simple round-trip ticket from Chicago to Sydney, and you get to enjoy three stopovers free of charge.

Photo courtesy of gcmap.com

Related: The best credit cards from foreign airlines

Korean Air SKYPASS

First class in the nose of Korean Air
First class in the nose of Korean Air’s 747-8 feels like flying in a private jet. Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy

Earning

Korean Air has a number of personal and business co-branded cards issued by U.S. Bank. Sign-up bonuses range from 5,000 to 30,000 miles, and while not the most compelling offers on the market, this could be a good way to earn some elusive miles. Since Chase dropped Korean Air as a transfer partner a few years back, your best option is again to transfer Marriott points at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Redeeming

Cheap award rates, low taxes and a fairly extensive North American route network all mean that one of the best uses of Korean Air SKYPASS miles is for flights actually operated by Korean. Korean flies a mix of Boeing 777-300ERs, 787s, 747-8s and Airbus A380s (most of which feature first class) to about half a dozen U.S. cities.

One-way flights from the U.S. to Korea, Japan, China or North Asia only cost 80,000 miles each way in first class or 62,500 miles in Korean’s Apex Suite business class. Prices are slightly higher during peak season, but this just applies to two months at the beginning of summer and two weeks around New Year’s. You can also build in a free stopover in Seoul (ICN) before continuing on to another destination. 

While not as generous as it used to be, Korean Air is also known for releasing multiple premium cabin award seats on a single flight, making this an ideal way to fly in comfort with your family or friends. I had the chance to try out Korean’s 747-8 first class early last year, and the spacious cabin in the nose felt like a private jet, even though we were flying a double-decker jumbo.

It’s worth noting that these great redemptions have an expiration date on them as SkyPass will be moving to a distance-based award chart and increasing award rates by as much as 110% as of Nov. 2020.

The SkyPass program also has a number of great sweet spots for SkyTeam partner awards, but note that only round-trip tickets are allowed. For flights departing the US, the SkyTeam partner award chart is as follows:

Photo courtesy of Korean Air

Before you get too excited about the prospects of flying round-trip first class to Europe for only 100,000 miles, I have to dash your hopes: There isn’t actually a SkyTeam carrier that will let you book that ticket. Air France is the only SkyTeam carrier to operate a true first-class cabin between the U.S. and Europe, but it restricts first class award bookings to elite members of its own Flying Blue program. Still, 80,000 miles for a round-trip business class ticket to Europe is a great deal, whether you choose to fly on Air France, KLM or Delta.

SkyPass is also one of the best programs for booking awards to Israel, a popular destination that’s surprisingly hard to get to on points and miles. You can fly round-trip in business class for only 120,000 miles, or 80,000 miles in economy. Between Delta’s nonstop flight from New York-JFK to Tel Aviv (TLV) and one-stop routings through Paris (CDG) or Amsterdam (AMS) on Air France or KLM, you have plenty of options to choose from here.

Another great redemption option to consider is Delta economy from the US to Hawaii for only 25,000 miles round trip. Saver level award space is very hard to come by, but this ranks as one of the top ways to get to Hawaii on points and miles.

Asiana Club miles

Asiana offers one of the cheapest ways to book Lufthansa first class, but they do pass on massive fuel surcharges. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy
Asiana offers one of the cheapest ways to book Lufthansa first class, but they do pass on massive fuel surcharges. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

Earning

Asiana has a co-branded card issued by Bank of America, which currently has a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days. Like JAL and Korean Air, you can also transfer Marriott points to Asiana at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Redeeming

Asiana offers some of the lowest Star Alliance redemption rates. Unfortunately, it passes on massive fuel surcharges, which can really undermine the value of your “free” ticket. Let’s start with the award chart for flights operated by Asiana itself. Prices shown are round-trip and I’ve highlighted the routes to and from the U.S. You can book a one-way ticket for half the miles, and Asiana Club even allows stopovers on one-way awards!

Photo courtesy of Asiana
Photo courtesy of Asiana

If you’re confused about the difference between a business class ticket and a “Business Smartium” ticket, you’re definitely not alone. Business Smartium refers to Asiana’s flagship product available on its A380s, A350s and 777s, while all other business class seats the airline operates are just regular business class.

Unfortunately last year Asiana discontinued its first-class product which had only been available on the carrier’s fleet of Airbus A380s. Those fully enclosed suites are now being sold and marketed as business class.

Related: The ultimate guide to earning and redeeming Asiana Club miles

(Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy)
Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy

Now let’s turn to Asiana’s Star Alliance partner chart for flights departing the US. The mileage premium to fly from the U.S. to Asia on a partner airline like EVA, ANA or even United is relatively small. You’ll pay 160,000 miles for a round-trip business class award from the U.S. to China on those airlines, while you’d only pay 135,000 if you flew with Asiana directly.

Photo courtesy of Asiana

The best value on this chart though has to be the U.S. to Europe round-trip in Lufthansa first class for only 100,000 miles (plus surcharges, likely around ~$1,000). This is the cheapest way to book Lufthansa first class awards, and while the surcharges are expensive, they aren’t any worse than what you’d pay if you booked through Aeroplan, and the mileage costs are significantly lower here.

Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards

One caveat is that Asiana faces the same restrictions on booking Lufthansa first class awards as other programs: Generally speaking, Lufthansa will only release partner award space about two weeks before departure. Since you have to book round-trip partner awards with Asiana, this can make it tricky to find the space you need in that timeframe.

Bottom Line

While these miles will take a little more effort to earn, they can help you unlock some of the most luxurious and coveted premium cabin redemptions available. And there’s another benefit to scarcity as well: the fewer people who have these miles, the less competition there will be for award space. You can give yourself a real advantage by diversifying your earning strategy to include some of these trickier programs, especially if you have a specific first-class redemption at the top of your wish list.

Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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