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The hardest airline miles to earn — and why you want them anyway

May 19, 2022
15 min read
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Editor's Note

This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

Editor's note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.


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

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While plenty of hard-to-get miles aren't worth all that much (you don't see me crying over the fact that Spirit Airlines doesn't have any transfer partners), a few of the most valuable airline miles happen to 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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Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Japan Airlines first class. (Photo by Samantha Rosen / The Points Guy)

Earning

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is currently offering a limited time offer bonus where you get 50,000 bonus miles plus Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. To qualify, make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.

You can also transfer points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Redeeming

Alaska is a Oneworld member, but its Mileage Plan program maintains partnerships with a uniquely valuable collection of airlines outside of the alliance, such as Singapore Airlines and Korean Airlines. Each partner has its own award chart, and while you can't combine partners on an award ticket (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.

The program has seen its fair share of devaluations over the last few months, including gradually shying away from fixed award charts. However, there still are some great sweet spots in the program for the time being.

Related: Alaska Mileage Plan is making major changes

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 $12,000, giving you a value of nearly 20 cents per Alaska mile.

(Screenshot from google.com/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.

Related: Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

(Screenshot from alaskaair.com)

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' A380 on board shower
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 quickly racking up Mileage Bank miles is by transferring from Marriott Bonvoy. Points transfer at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Redeeming

Redeeming for JAL flights is a great option here, but I'll start with the one that dominates most points enthusiasts' bucket lists: Emirates flights. After Alaska cut ties with Emirates, JAL emerged as a popular choice program for booking Emirates awards.

Unfortunately, Emirates no longer releases first class award space to partners like JAL but there's still plenty of value to be had in business class awards.

JAL allows up to two stopovers on Emirates tickets. So you could book an itinerary such as: New York – Dubai (stopover) – Bangkok (destination) – Dubai – Milan (stopover) – New York-JFK. This would cover almost 20,000 flight miles and cost 130,000 JAL miles in business class.

(Screenshot from jal.co.jp)

Related: 5 reasons I pursued elite status with a foreign airline

You would need to transfer 315,000 Marriott points (worth $2,646 based on TPG's latest valuations) to get this many JAL miles. In return, you'd get five long-haul flights in Emirates business class and get to explore three cities.

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. 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.

(Screenshot from jal.co.jp)

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 cover ~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.

(Screenshot from gcmap.com)

Related: The best credit cards from foreign airlines

Korean Air SKYPASS

First class in the nose of Korean Air's 747-8 feels like flying in a private jet. Photo by the author
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 several personal and business co-branded cards issued by U.S. Bank, all offering 30,000-mile sign-up bonuses. 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 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, 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 zone-based award chart and increasing award rates by as much as 110% as of April 2023.

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

(Screenshot from koreanair.com)

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 U.S. to Hawaii for only 25,000 miles round trip. Saver level award space is tough 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 pass on massive fuel surcharges. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Earning

Asiana used to have a co-branded card issued by Bank of America, but discontinued it earlier this year. Like JAL and Korean Air, you can transfer Marriott points to Asiana at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.

Related: 5 of the easiest elite statuses to earn, and why you want them

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.

(Screenshot from flyasiana.com)

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, Asiana discontinued its first-class product, which had only been available on the carrier's A380 fleet.

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 U.S. 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'd 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.

(Screenshot from flyasiana.com)

The best value on this chart 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 one of the cheapest way to book Lufthansa first class awards. By comparison, Aeroplan usually charges around that much for a one-way ticket, but it doesn't pass on fuel surcharges.

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 30 days before departure.

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.

Additional reporting by Benji Stawski.

Updated 9/7/22

Featured image by 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
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases