HOURS REMAINING: Extend Your LifeMiles For 2 Years

I don’t recommend that most people maintain large balances of LifeMiles, because the program is generally untrustworthy. It can be difficult or impossible to redeem miles, and LifeMiles also has a history of suddenly devaluing the program with little or no notice.

However, the most recent devaluation came with plenty of notice: The LifeMiles expiration policy is changing. Up until today, April 14, 2018, any earning or redemption activity in your LifeMiles account will extend the validity by two years. However, after that, only earning miles will extend their validity, and (like Aeroplan) the validity will be only a short one year.

Most travel blogs are recommending that you buy miles through their link, presumably because they get a commission. However, there is a much less expensive way to accomplish the same thing: donate one mile. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Log onto your LifeMiles account.

Step 2: Point to Use, and then click Donate Miles

Step 3: Donate whatever quantity of miles you want. The form is self-explanatory. I donated one mile.

Step 4: Ignore the error message that you receive. It’s just broken Avianca IT.

Step 5: Point to My Account, and then click Your eStatement:

 Step 6: Verify that the donation shows up in the transactions detail:

lifemiles statement detail 2

Want to use this loophole to extend your LifeMiles? You only have a few hours remaining to do it. Transactions must be posted by midnight Colombia time!

Adventures With LifeMiles: South African Airways and United Business Class

Having secured my outbound flight to South Africa, I needed to figure out how to get back. My first choice was using Avianca LifeMiles because I don’t trust the program, had a substantial mileage balance, and the program doesn’t levy fuel surcharges (which are substantial over such a long distance using other programs). I was starting with 69,000 Avianca LifeMiles. 60,000 of these came from an Avianca Vuela credit card signup (so I got them for free), and the remainder came from a combination of flights credited to the program and credit card spend. Now, LifeMiles is one of the least trustworthy programs of all airlines. This is not a program you want to keep a lot of miles in, and especially not for long. Behind the scenes, LifeMiles is the spun-off (but captive) program of a financially shaky Colombian airline in the midst of a bruising management battle. They have frequently devalued points, sometimes with no notice. In fact, in between the time I booked this trip and flew (just 3 weeks later), there was another program devaluation.

Making matters worse, it’s often very difficult to redeem LifeMiles. You’ll see blogs say stuff like “it isn’t for the faint of heart” (often while trying to sell you a credit card or even worse, purchased miles), but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Here’s what redeeming LifeMiles is like in practice: The Web site suffers from frequent technical issues, so it’s often not possible to book flights that show as available. And when it does, you’re negotiating with Colombians which is like negotiating for anything else in Latin America–patience and Spanish-language ability are both a big help. Unlike with other airlines, calling in won’t help you here: telephone agents just use the Web site for you (and charge you a fee to do it) so if you can’t book it on the Web site, you can’t book it over the phone. So, although I definitely wanted to burn LifeMiles if possible, I was willing to use other miles if it wasn’t possible. As long as I was willing to return January 16th or later, there was plenty of availability in economy class using multiple programs so I was confident in attempting to book with LifeMiles given that I had more than one backup plan.

One recent change in the LifeMiles program is that they now allow mixed cabin bookings, and they also discount a business class itinerary based on the economy class legs involved. This is actually positive because most programs charge you the full business class price if even one leg is in business class. I am not entirely sure how the pricing works, but one example is it was only ~51,000 LifeMiles for a mixed cabin itinerary departing from Johannesburg to Frankfurt in economy class, connecting onward to a United flight in business class to San Francisco. I don’t really understand the logic here because if you took a flight from Europe to the US in business class it’s 63,000 points, but it’s cheaper for a longer journey if you have a leg from Europe in business class on a mixed cabin itinerary. I kept playing with the site and eventually found an itinerary that would get me back to Seattle if I was willing to fly an overnight segment in economy class, connect in Europe, and then connect again in Chicago. It wasn’t ideal but the price was right so I went ahead and attempted to book it.

Not an itinerary I was excited about–except for the price.

Naturally, the Web site choked and failed. Who knows why. It doesn’t matter. I got all the way to the end and it bombed out. This happens often. I called in, and they suggested I try again. No dice. So, I found out from the telephone agent that there is a backdoor procedure you can use with LifeMiles to book. You start by emailing support@lifemiles.com with the itinerary you want, and an explanation that you can’t book it online due to technical errors. It helps if you have screen shots of the itinerary and pricing. The LifeMiles support center will email you back a day or so later and ask for a scan of your passport. I sent them a picture. They’ll then forward it to a really friendly guy in Medellin, Colombia. A day or two later, he’ll call you up and ask if you if you still want to book. Best of all, he works directly in the reservations system, and has access to StarNet, so he can book any StarAlliance inventory that is available to partners. This is very different than you’ll normally see on the LifeMiles site, where certain partners (such as South African Airways) appear to be blocked.

He confirmed with me the itinerary I was attempting to book, but it wasn’t actually available any longer. In between the time that I had originally looked and the time that I worked through the email procedures, the inventory had disappeared. However, while we were talking, I was searching (on the United Web site, which still isn’t perfect but does a better job of showing StarAlliance inventory) and I found a better itinerary. It was business class from Johannesburg to London on South African Airways, then from London to Chicago in business class on United, and finally from Chicago to Seattle in economy class.

Still not perfect, but much better than before.

He saw the itinerary as bookable but it wasn’t appearing on the LifeMiles Web site, so here’s the craziest part: we negotiated the price! It’s 75,000 LifeMiles for an itinerary that is entirely in business class. However, since there was a leg in economy class, he agreed to discount the itinerary to 72,000 LifeMiles. This seems like around the right price based on what the site was displaying for similar itineraries, but it’s clear he just manually priced the itinerary and had the ability to charge any price that made sense. Since I had only 69,000 points, he collected $99 for the 3,000 additional points along with the roughly $101 in taxes and $25 booking fee. A couple of days later, I got an itinerary in Spanish that had a ticket number, so I called in to United and South African Airways to pick seats. I still didn’t believe that I actually had a ticket until my boarding passes printed out in Johannesburg and made sure I had two backup plans in the bag. However, the backup plans weren’t needed: the ticket was actually there.

The Economics – In A Nutshell

  • My primary objective was to return in mid-January in a premium cabin on at least one long leg (preferably the Africa-Europe overnight leg), using LifeMiles, and minimizing out of pocket cost. I was successfully able to achieve this objective at an attractive redemption value.
  • Some flexibility was needed. I compromised on airlines and didn’t focus on “aspirational” products. That is all academic when you’re traveling to or from a popular destination like South Africa in the austral summer and a good redemption is–first and foremost–one that gets you on a plane for free. A ticket in hand is worth far more than a dream and a points balance. Would I rather have flown back in Cathay Pacific first class? Sure, but it wasn’t available at all, and can’t be booked with LifeMiles anyway.
  • Neither United nor South African Airways operate the best business class cabins in the world–not even close. However, they do offer lie flat seats on long flights, operated safely and professionally. And this is 90% of what you’re going for when you book in a premium cabin. The other 10% is the trimmings.
  • I needed to be able to think on my feet. LifeMiles is a Latin American program run by people in Colombia and a patient, friendly and flexible approach to business will get you farther than having rigorous American or European expectations.

 

I still didn’t get amazing value for these miles, at least the way I value them. I don’t look at this as a $4,000 ticket (or a 5.5 cent per mile redemption), even though that’s what the flight would have cost in cash. Why? I wouldn’t ever have bought that flight. Instead, I look at this as a $650 ticket, because a roundtrip ticket to South Africa on my dates in economy class would have cost about $1,300 (for a decent logical routing; the cheapest terrible routing through China would have been about $1,000).

Out of pocket, I saved about $425 in cash. That’s 0.6 cents per mile. However, I got most of these miles for free, and the opportunity cost was … well, what, exactly? Another devaluation? More failed redemption headaches? Also, there is value in a business class seat, it’s just not the price the airline charges for it. Is that closer to the 1.7 cents per mile that LifeMiles charges during mileage sales? Probably. This comes in at $1,224, or around double the price of an economy class seat. For an amount of premium cabin flying that pushes 10,000 miles, that’s a pretty fair price.

Wrap-Up

I generally feel pretty good about being able to use LifeMiles for anything at all before they suddenly devalue, so I felt very good about the value I was able to achieve for them in this case. Sure, this wasn’t the world’s most “aspirational” redemption. However, nothing in this market is given the number of points I had.

How And Why I Booked A Round-The-World Trip In Premium Cabins

Yes, you’re still reading Seat 31B. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I mostly write about travel to unconventional places via unconventional routes, and about squeezing the maximum value out of your points (in terms of money you would have actually spent). You’re a lot more likely to read a review of an economy class flight to Ecuador on the worst seat in a regional jet here than you are to read about Cathay Pacific First Class.

And yet, the latter is exactly what I booked as part of the round-the-world trip I just completed. I’ll be writing a lot about South Africa and St. Helena over the next week or so but the elephant in the room is the long-haul flights. They were all booked in premium cabins and this is fairly uncharacteristic for me so I figured I’d write a post about why I spent my miles this way, and why in this specific case I think it made sense for me, given my personal situation and the opportunities I had. I will also write two “deep dive” articles about the mechanics and economics of booking these flights.

A whooooole lotta flights

The Flights

Getting to St. Helena requires starting from Johannesburg (you can also buy tickets to and from Cape Town, but these currently connect through Johannesburg). It’s a really unique flight in a lot of ways, the operations and marketing are very strange, and that’s an entire article in and of itself but these tickets are only sold ex-South Africa. The largest number of international flights into South Africa (by far) land in Johannesburg, although there are also international flights to Durban and Cape Town. I ultimately decided to book the outbound to St. Helena from Johannesburg and return to Cape Town, both because it was cheaper and because I wanted to visit Cape Town.

So, this meant that I had to get to Johannesburg, one of the most difficult destinations in the world to reach using miles and points. And making matters worse, I had decided almost at the last minute that I was going to take the trip. This is because unexpectedly, due to a threatened lawsuit, business in my company ground to a halt. This wasn’t something that was going to be resolved quickly. The tech industry more or less shuts down from the middle of December through the middle of January (people take off for Christmas and then it’s CES, so nobody really gets back to work until the 15th). So, I found out a week before Christmas that I was going to have about 3 weeks free. I booked everything starting just 8 days beforehand.

Of course, this wasn’t easy. At all. I was looking to fly over the holidays (or “festive season” as they call it in South Africa and St. Helena) when flights are absolutely packed. However, you can sometimes score last minute seats, especially when you only need a single seat. This is because airlines will give away unsold seats to frequent fliers at the last minute, and they will also generally return last minute cancelled seats to inventory.

You don’t always have to book award flights 330 days in advance

The conventional wisdom when it comes to booking award travel is that you need to start 330 days in advance when the booking calendar opens. Like most conventional wisdom there is some truth to it, but it isn’t the only truth. The reality in the current state of the industry is that revenue management systems at many airlines regularly evaluate seat inventory and make seats available to frequent fliers based on anticipated revenue load.

This means that, with many airlines, you have multiple opportunities to score an award seat. Consider a flight where five business class seats were made available for awards. The airline might initially make two seats available 330 days in advance. However, they might open up another two seats 20 days before departure (allowing the seat to be booked, but allowing themselves to collect a close-in booking fee). Another seat might open up 3 days before departure if it has remained unsold, with the final seat made available on the day of departure. People also sometimes need to cancel their flights at the last minute. There is an influenza epidemic this winter. Someone else’s flu misery might be your travel opportunity, because most airlines will put award seats that were cancelled up for grabs.

This is what saved me. I was able to book the whole thing using the mileage currencies I wanted thanks to last-minute inventory becoming available. What was available to book? A mix of the world’s most aspirational and least aspirational first and business class products. In the end, it cost me under $300 in cash to literally travel all the way around the world, in premium cabins, on all but one leg of my journey. If I’d paid cash, this would have cost over $30,000. And if I’d bought a discounted business class fare, it would still have cost me about $7,000.

Why I Booked In Premium Cabins

I normally fly in economy class and look for “sweet spots” on award charts to travel the maximum distance and squeeze the maximum value out of the fewest number of points. However, I consider Africa to be a “sour spot” destination in economy class. Depending on the award program you use, it can cost 50,000 points in economy class for a one-way trip to Africa. And South Africa is really far away. From Seattle, it’s 14,237 miles when routing via Asia.

Meanwhile, the price in a premium cabin to Africa is–depending on the program you are using–almost the same cost as a trip to Europe or Asia. It’s about twice as far, making the value of a lie-flat seat considerably more valuable; however, unlike in economy class, this doesn’t actually cost any (or much) more. It takes a solid 27 hours (or more) of flying to get to South Africa, so this is one of the few places in the world where the upgrade is truly worth the extra miles.

Wrap-Up

I was able to book my trip during absolutely peak travel periods, to one of the most difficult to book award travel destinations, and do it all without paying fuel surcharges. And I was able to redeem the points that are, in practice, the most difficult to redeem for this destination and the most at risk of devaluing. The way that I was able to accomplish this was by being flexible and using multiple points currencies. Award travel booking is part art and part science. I think this was a great redemption, and an amazing trip!

Avianca Miles Now Expire After 12 Months

Avianca LifeMiles is, in my opinion, one of the least trustworthy award programs out there. Nominally affiliated with the Colombian airline Avianca, but actually a spun-off independent company like Air Canada did with Aeroplan (which is owned by a company called Aimia, and whose points are likely to become worthless in 2019), they offer regular mileage sales, only to devalue the miles almost immediately. Devaluations have sometimes happened with no advance notice.

Well, LifeMiles is at it again. This time, it’s a stealth devaluation. You need to earn miles at least once every 12 months, or your miles will evaporate. If you somehow manage to get the LifeMiles credit card (which is issued by Banco Popular of Puerto Rico, an astonishingly difficult bank with whom to do business) activity will extend your miles by 24 months. Here is the official announcement:

lifemiles validity shortened

I never advise anyone to maintain large LifeMiles balances anyway. If you use this program, have a plan to burn the miles (which can be more difficult than you may expect due to IT issues, Starnet blocking and more – you’re in for a roller coaster ride). And if you have points, prepare for their validity to be shortened. Burn your LifeMiles now – in my view, you cannot trust this program.

One Day Left Before LifeMiles Devalues!

Frequent flier miles are a depreciating currency. Don’t hang onto them and never trust that they will maintain their value. The latest program to devalue is Avianca LifeMiles. You have until midnight (Colombia time) tomorrow to book under the old rates. Pay attention to the time zone so you don’t miss out!

Avianca logoThe new award chart hasn’t been published (and won’t be until the devaluation has already happened) so it’s impossible to know precisely how much the program will be devalued. Accordingly, if you have Avianca LifeMiles, my recommendation is to redeem them now.

One of the most frustrating things about the LifeMiles program is that you can really only book what is offered online, and there are a lot of restrictions. It’s really best to use the program for simple point-to-point itineraries. You can book either one way or roundtrip itineraries. Unfortunately, the LifeMiles search engine is spectacularly stupid. A lot of itineraries fail to show up, even though they are available.

To search for flights, I recommend using the United search engine, which seems to work a lot better, to find an itinerary. Ideally, look for an itinerary involving only one airline. Once you find a workable itinerary on the United page (bearing in mind that only “United Saver” or “Partner” award space will be available when booking with LifeMiles), you can search for the same dates with LifeMiles. The LifeMiles search engine allows you to skip their “SmartSearch” option (which, in my opinion, is the opposite of smart) and select an individual airline. I have tested a few different itineraries and by using this method, have been able to make successful bookings that do not show up either with the “SmartSearch” or “StarAlliance” option.

Good luck, and burn LifeMiles now while you still can. At least Avianca gave advance notice of the devaluation this time. This doesn’t always happen.

US Bank LifeMiles Visa Bonus: Read The Fine Print

A few months ago, US Bank ran a 40,000 mile signup bonus for the Avianca LifeMiles visa card. The Avianca program is one of the most generous in the StarAlliance for booking partner awards, if its limitations are acceptable to you. These limitations are substantial. The program doesn’t allow stopovers, you can only book what is available online even if other award space is available elsewhere, and the call centers are in El Salvador and Colombia (it’s best if you speak Spanish). However, there are some real advantages; award rates are reasonable and there are no close-in booking fees.

US Bank Avianca LifeMiles Visa

There’s always a catch.

I pulled the trigger and signed up. 40,000 miles is double the usual bonus offered for this card. As advertised, the deal was for 20,000 miles after the first purchase, and 20,000 miles after spending more than $3,000 within the first 120 days. Well, that seemed easy enough to achieve, and it was. I put the card at the top of my wallet and made the $3,000 minimum spend in the first month. A month later, 20,000 miles showed up in my Avianca account.

Wait a minute. Only 20,000 miles? I emailed US Bank, who explained that the bonus miles are delivered separately and I would receive them within 6-8 weeks. I was definitely not happy with the delay; frequent flier programs devalue very rapidly (often without prior notice) so 20,000 miles today could be worth the same as 10,000 miles tomorrow. However, I was also traveling on a complicated round-the-world itinerary and didn’t really have time to argue across multiple time zones so I just gritted my teeth and hoped that a devaluation wouldn’t happen in the interim.

8 weeks later, there were still no bonus miles!  I emailed US Bank again. What I found out (and which their Twitter team confirmed) is shocking. The 8 week clock starts after the first 120 days! Yes, it takes a full six months after completing the minimum spend to receive your bonus miles. And you will not receive the additional 20,000 miles if you close the card before then! This is something that I have never seen before with credit card bonus miles, and it’s a very disturbing trend.

A lot can happen in frequent flier programs in 6 months. I have not only missed the entire summer travel season (and I was counting on using this promotion for a flight this summer), but I would not be surprised to see a massive devaluation strike before my bonus miles are deposited. Avianca has devalued their LifeMiles program overnight in the past, and I expect they may do so in the future amid across-the-board devaluations in nearly all other frequent flier programs this year.

This definitely changes the game with credit card miles and points. For most people, collecting airline miles and points is a bad way to earn free flights. Hotel and other loyalty programs (such as American Express Membership Rewards) are starting to look a lot better.