There is a ton of strategy that goes into maximizing frequent flier miles and there are plenty of websites devoted to that sort of thing. This isn’t one of them. But over at Cranky Concierge, our Award Travel Architect David puts a lot of time into helping people use their miles for their travels. We’ve even started a little test program where David helps people from the beginning – pick where you want to go and he will help you figure out the best way to get miles in the right program. So in that spirit, I thought it would be good to get David to put together a very basic overview of the various US airline programs and what they can be good for. The goal was to avoid anything very complex and just give the basic pros and cons.
While I’ve been enamored by the airline industry for my entire life, my fascination with frequent flier miles began when my family flew using miles to Hawaii when I was 11. I’ve been collecting, redeeming and learning how best to earn and use miles ever since. I am often asked which mileage program or credit card is best for getting free flights, and I always tell people that it all generally depends on where you want to go. Below are a few programs and their strong points:
I and many others who focus on points and miles believe that United miles generally give you the best chance to fly internationally, particularly in a premium class. United miles can be redeemed for one-way awards and don’t have a lot of restrictions. As a member of Star Alliance – the world’s largest passenger airline alliance, their partners give you a great opportunity to trade in miles to cross either ocean given the sheer number of partners that they have. Generally, if you’re looking to fly to Asia, you can choose to travel over the Pacific Ocean or through Europe, which isn’t true with other domestic carriers. United’s Star Alliance partners also cover Africa quite well. The biggest hole in the map is southern South America. Partner TAM will be leaving Star Alliance for oneworld by early next year. Even now, though, they give out almost no award availability. I’ve redeemed millions of United miles for myself and clients to places all over the world. With some flexibility, you shouldn’t have much trouble doing the same.
US Airways miles currently have many of the same advantages as United. They’re also a Star Alliance member and have flexible routing rules. They cannot, however, be redeemed for one-way awards. There are some great opportunities for relatively cheap redemptions, such as awards from the US to North Asia (including China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and others) or the South Pacific. All that said, US Airways will soon be merging with American Airlines. If you’re sitting on a stash of Dividend Miles they’ll eventually become AAdvantage miles. We don’t know what the new combined program will look like exactly, but if there’s something in particular that you like about the US Airways award chart today, I’d look to cash them in sooner rather than later.
The merger talk isn’t intended to scare you about what may come of your US Airways or American miles. Frankly, both airlines have pluses to their award programs but we don’t know what that will look like after the merger. The one thing we do know is that the current American partners will be the ones that survive. American has the advantage of allowing one-way awards and really shines if you want to travel to South America. It has an extensive network that is greatly enhanced by LAN and soon TAM. I not too long ago used miles to fly to Argentina with my wife and a couple friends. While some others on our trip spent more than $1,000 per person to get down there and back in coach, my wife and I flew down on LAN in their flat-bed Premium Business Class and back in American’s First Class for a total of $37 per person.
American also offers good award availability for flights to Europe through partner British Airways among others. Be careful, though, as these awards carry a hefty fuel surcharge, and your “free” ticket can cost $500-$1,000. British Airways generally offers more seats per flight than other airlines – particularly in premium classes – which can be helpful when trying to find seats for your whole family.
I always cringe when someone comes to me with Delta miles, as Delta is about as stingy as it gets when it comes to making low-level ward seats available. That’s not to say that SkyMiles are worthless, however, as many of their partners offer pretty good award space. In particular, Delta miles are particularly useful when trying to get to Australia and Tahiti with partner airlines, which is ironic given how difficult those destinations can be to find award seats in general. They also have good award space to Asia through partners China Southern, China Airlines and Korean Air. Often, with Delta miles, the hardest part of the award is finding the domestic seats to match up to the partner award space to your final destination.
In spite of my dire warnings about terrible Delta space, I recently found a client some Business Class space to Europe. They were heading to Scandinavia, and I found them a flight into Zurich. From there, they paid for a nonstop flight from there to Scandinavia since they didn’t want to make the double connection that would have been required on miles. On the way back though, I was then able to find them space on KLM on the way back all the way home. Not bad for 100,000 miles that they thought they were convinced were worthless!
I won’t talk about Alaska much because Cranky highlighted the recent changes in that program, but I will echo what he says. This program can be very lucrative.
Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America
I haven’t talked a lot about domestic awards, as most people that approach Cranky Concierge are looking to use their miles for international trips. Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America all have limited international service, so only choose these if your award travel needs are largely limited to domestic trips (with a few exceptions). All three of these programs are revenue-based, as opposed to distance-based, mileage programs. That means that you accrue points according to how much you pay for tickets, not according to how many miles you fly. Redeeming points is also based on ticket price so more expensive tickets will cost more in points.
Sometimes, it works best if you can diversify your miles and take advantage of different strengths of programs. For example, I recently helped a client book a trip to the Dubai and Malaysia. I was able to use United miles to get him to the Dubai using a combination of United and partner Lufthansa. I then used his American miles to get him to Malaysia on Malaysian Airlines and back to the US using Cathay Pacific.
Please keep in mind that this rundown isn’t comprehensive and there’s no such thing as the perfect program. The important thing is to use your miles in a way that works for you. If you’re sitting on a large number of Delta miles and are trying to visit Gramma and Grampa in Wichita, do it! You may just have to spend the same number of miles as someone else uses to fly to Europe, but you’re getting a trip that you want to take. I generally believe you can’t really go wrong collecting miles in a Star Alliance program, but it still may not be the best option for you. Take a close look at each program, and figure out how you’ll be using miles. When you know what you want to get out of a frequent flier program, choose the one that’s the best matches how you want to use it.
If you’d like help redeeming miles, email us at email@example.com and we can tell you if we think we can help with your particular trip. You can learn more about the service at crankyconcierge.com/awardtravel.