Fiji Ain’t Easy

I have an AwardCat client who is on a year-long round-the-world trip. He and his partner are visiting some really interesting destinations along the way (frankly, I’m jealous), and Fiji is one of those interesting destinations. Only one problem: it’s one of the toughest award tickets in the world to get, especially in a premium cabin. While I can work a lot of magic when booking awards, this one used pretty much every trick in the book. I’m writing it up while it’s still fresh and hoping that it helps other folks trying to get there.

Fiji beach scene

Fiji dreams? Get ready for an award booking nightmare.

The first problem in getting to Fiji is finding an airline that even flies there in the first place. It’s not a long list:

  • Aircalin
  • Air Kiribati
  • Air New Zealand
  • Fiji Airways
  • Air Vanuatu
  • Jetstar
  • Korean Air
  • Virgin Australia

 

The second problem is routing. Aircalin? It’s a great option if you’re based in New Caledonia, a French territory. Air Vanuatu? Perfect if you’re coming from Port Vila. You get the idea. Even some of the bigger airlines, such as Jetstar, don’t work unless you’re starting in Australia. This leaves only four  real options if you’re coming from outside of the region: Virgin Australia, Korean Air, Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the third problem is availability. You can book Virgin Australia flights using Delta points, but good luck actually finding availability. The same is true on Air New Zealand, who more or less never makes seats (even in economy class) available on this route. Even if they made space available, finding award availability that lines up from the US to Australia or New Zealand and then onward to Fiji is a nearly impossible task.

This leaves Fiji Airways as the routing that most people have written about. You can book their flights using Alaska and American points. While I won’t say they have either good availability or a particularly good inflight product, it can be achievable with a little (ok, a lot of) flexibility. I won’t rehash all the other posts here; suffice it to say that it’s a good potential route if you’re sitting on lots of American and Alaska points, but otherwise not a good route.

And then there are my clients. Who were, naturally, not starting anywhere conventional, but in Osaka, Japan. This particular client earns Amex points at an astonishing rate; he has the Platinum Business card and his company books a ton of expensive airfare. This is a 5x bonus category with this particular card, meaning that for every $1 his company spends on airfare (and they spend over $10,000 a month on airfare) he receives 5 points. Naturally, given the amazing sweet spot, they have been working Membership Rewards pretty hard and have nearly a million points in the program. And they had very few points in anything else, after I encouraged them to spend all of their Marriott points on an air and hotel package to a Fiji hotel (me and my big mouth). Oh, and best of all, they were traveling on fixed dates (this strikes fear into any award booker’s heart) because they had already booked the hotel.

I knew I wouldn’t find anything on Air New Zealand but looked anyway. Nothing. Virgin Australia was a no-go. Fiji Airways was possible from Tokyo, but not on their dates, and they wouldn’t be in Tokyo. And then I checked Korean. Bingo. Economy class and first class availability on the dates I needed (well, one day early, but no way around that because there weren’t flights every day). And I knew I was going to have a difficult conversation with my clients, who really don’t like flying economy class if they can avoid it. I understand their perspective; really, I do. When you are swimming in points with no end in sight, you might as well burn them on seats up front. After all, my client has accumulated more points than many people could use in a lifetime, and all they do is devalue. If you’re in that position, why not treat yourself to the best?

A route, or a challenge?

Korean Air isn’t, unfortunately, the easiest program to use. You can only book tickets for yourself or for family members, which are strictly defined. And you can’t just name your family members like you can with other programs, such as Asia Miles. Instead, you have to complete a complicated family registration process which literally requires married couples to provide a marriage certificate. My clients, who I’ll call Lars and Jen, are on the road. They’re in a country that is known to have an officious government and are well-prepared for officialdom with plenty of documentation, but a billion bureaucrats are no match for Korean Air’s booking dragons. I knew that the only thing that was likely to work was Lars and Jen each booking their own ticket from their own Korean Air account, which fortunately both of them had.

The upside is that Korean Air will put award seats on hold while you figure out how to pay for them. I went ahead and put the seats on hold, and then we set about the task. The first step was seeing how many Chase points the couple had. These transfer directly to Korean Air. Fortunately both Lars and Jen are Chase cardholders, and they’re part of the same household. And Jen had enough Ultimate Rewards points to pay for her ticket. I went ahead and transferred over the points.

This left Lars. I moved Jen’s remaining Ultimate Rewards points into his Chase account, giving him a total of 42,000 points. This wasn’t going to be enough, but I transferred them over to his Korean account (remember, it had to be his because of Korean’s complicated rules). Lars also had 9,000 Starwood points, which can be transferred to Korean Air. This wasn’t enough on its own, but American Express transfers to Starwood. It’s a horrible conversion rate, at 3 Membership Rewards points per 1 Starwood point, but transfers do go through instantly and Starwood points do transfer to Korean Air. And fortunately, this is an avenue that is still available; the program ends in a couple of weeks on August 18th and it’s likely that the ability to use Membership Rewards points in the successor Marriott program will not exist (since Marriott is affiliated with Chase).

circuit diagram image

Simple, right?

Starwood is also running a points sale, and this offers pretty good value, but I advised Lars to transfer his Amex points instead. Why? He is earning them at a furious pace, faster than he can really use them, and there would be no out of pocket cost to do this. He’s also earning points at more than a 3:1 rate already, which means that it’s not as big a “loss” on the conversion. And it’s not quite as bad as a 3:1 conversion, because for the transfer we were doing, Starwood would provide a 5,000 point bonus. It’s still not good at all, but not quite as bad as before. Fundamentally, though, he would not be trading real money for points. He’d be trading points (which he got for free) for different points (also obtained for free). You really have to be careful about valuing points as money because they aren’t; they are far less valuable than cash.

We transferred the remaining points needed from Amex to Starwood (they credited instantly), and then from Starwood to Korean. All of the points should show up in their respective accounts over the next week or so, along with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points they selected with the Marriott Hotel and Air package they booked. If I’m lucky, the Fiji Airways ticket they want to Australia will still be there and I’ll grab it with Alaska points.

And that’s how Lars and Jen are going to Fiji. Simple, right? Just sign up for a few credit cards and you’ll be in paradise. The reality is a lot more complicated. With some planning and work, you might even get there on Korean Air.

Other blogs sell credit cards to accrue points – we help you use them! AwardCat can help you get to Fiji, or anywhere else in the world.

 

 

United Close-In Booking Trick Is Dead

I don’t make it a practice to write about questionable loopholes in award programs, other than warning people against using them without knowing exactly what they’re doing. For one, making loopholes well-known and easy to use is the best way to get them shut down. For two, loopholes often come with risks that are underappreciated by the majority of people.

Still, some loopholes exist for such a long time that it is hard to know whether they’re a loophole or intentional. Nowhere is this more true than with United. Loopholes in their “Excursionist Perk” have existed since the award program was revamped roughly a year ago. Additionally, since the introduction of a $75 close-in booking fee, there has been a loophole to get around it: book a ticket farther out, then make a change within the 24-hour policy to an earlier date. Until recently you could do this online, and then for several months thereafter you were able to do it over the phone.

united logo

It wouldn’t be too big a stretch to expect that this was intentional. United customers are particularly vocal and resistant to change, so they have a practice of making off-menu services available to those “in the know” but not advertising them to those who aren’t. Think of this as akin to the In-N-Out “secret menu.” For example, if you book United Polaris business class, you can ask for wine flights, a gel pillow, and a mattress pad. These aren’t officially on the menu, but are available when you ask on board.

Unfortunately, it seems that whether intentional or not, the trick to avoid the close-in booking fee is well and truly dead. When you call in, telephone agents are prompted to collect the additional $75 if you change to a flight inside of 21 days. Unfortunately, I only learned this after I transferred points to Mileage Plus and tried to use them! So in the interest of helping you avoid a similar situation, don’t assume you can take advantage of this loophole. It’s gone.

Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.

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!

How To Position With An Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Award

When you’re booking an international award flight, one of the trickiest things to figure out is how to get from where you are going to and from international gateways. Although there is more point-to-point service nowadays, the majority of international flights travel between major hub cities with connecting flights on either end.

Alaska Airlines has a somewhat unusual and often frustrating rule when it comes to partner award tickets (these are tickets that involve flights on airlines other than Alaska Airlines). You can only mix a single partner and Alaska Airlines flights, which has historically made positioning really difficult on Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award flights.

The upside of this approach is that it allows Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan to run separate award charts per partner, which (presumably) allows Alaska to price award flights in a way that reasonably correlates with their cost. So, rather than having a single chart for all partners that averages the cost across all programs, they can have a separate chart for each partner. Overall, I think this makes sense because some partners (such as Emirates) appear to be very expensive for the program while others (such as Condor and Icelandair) are relatively inexpensive.

dus airport

If Dusseldorf is your destination, it’s surprisingly difficult to get there with Mileage Plan.

The downside of this approach is that, in order to reach partner gateways, you’re limited to the reach of Alaska Airlines within North America (which used to be a serious drawback) and you’re also limited to the reach of the partner you’re flying. So, for example, if you are flying American Airlines to London, you can’t continue onward to the rest of Europe with British Airways. Additionally, in some cases, Alaska Airlines only has partnership agreements with a primary airline, and not all regional affiliates:

  • Cathay Pacific: No access to Cathay Dragon
  • Hainan: No access to Hong Kong Airlines
  • British Airways: No access to Comair (South Africa)

 

However, just to make things more confusing, there are other cases where it is possible to fly regional affiliates. You can use American Eagle flights on an American Airlines partner award, and you can also use Openskies flights on a British Airways award.

This means that when you’re booking an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan award, it’s important to know which airlines fly to your destination, and what other ways you might possibly get there. For example, if you’re traveling to Dusseldorf, you won’t get there on Condor; they only fly to Frankfurt and that is the end of the line as far as Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is concerned. You could do it on British Airways, connecting through London, but you must fly the entire route (except for connecting to and from the British Airways North American gateway city, which can be done on Alaska flights) on British Airways. However, when you consider the fact that British Airways charges more miles, the fact that British Airways also levies a fuel surcharge, and the pain of connecting through London, you’re probably better off flying to Frankfurt and taking the train from there to Dusseldorf.

Another thing that gets really confusing is which Alaska Airlines flights you can take in order to position for a partner award. Let’s walk through an example to see how it works. Suppose you want to travel from Seattle to London in business class this summer. There is a flight that seems perfect from North America to London:

BA jfk-lhr price

The problem is, when you try to start from Seattle, this flight doesn’t show up no matter what you do:

sea-lhr flight missing

The other flights are all mixed cabin itineraries, and the economy class segment is the long flight (by the way, Alaska, you really should fix this). So obviously you wouldn’t want to book these.

Frustratingly, though, there’s an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to JFK! It should work, and you should be able to add this, right?

SEA-JFK not available at saver level

There is actually a specific reason why you can’t book this. It’s because you can only add an Alaska Airlines positioning flight if it’s available at the low “saver” level. And to find those flights, the best way to search them isn’t to look on Alaska Airlines’ Web site. Instead, you should search on the American Airlines Web site, which only shows Alaska flights in fare classes that can be hooked up to a partner flight. This surfaces a heretofore hidden option:

Hidden route to LGA

Wait, what’s this?

The perfectly timed overnight flight that would give you a full day in New York isn’t available for partner awards, so you can’t use it. However, by using the American Airlines Web site, another option surfaced.

Because this flight goes into a different New York area airport, and because of the overnight layover, this route didn’t show up on the Alaska Airlines Web site (although the Alaska site, to its credit, is considerably better at piecing together unconventional itineraries than most). So, to make this price out, we have to build it as a multi-city itinerary:

sea-dal-lga-jfk-lhr

You can force a routing by putting in the specific airports you want. It’s hard to see here, but I specified LGA on the inbound flight to New York, and JFK on the outbound. That caused it to price out:

priced out at 60k

Boom!

So, what’s really cool about this? Before the Virgin America merger, this is not a routing that would have worked. You’d have been stuck buying a flight to New York, or booking two separate awards. However, this routing makes use of Alaska’s newly expanded network to build in positioning flights.

It this an ideal itinerary? No. There is a fuel surcharge, British Airways has a below average business class, and there is a forced overnight in New York. However, you are flying in first and business class all the way to London, and have a full day to enjoy New York along the way. While not the best option, it’s certainly not a bad option for summer travel to Europe.

The next time you’re searching for an award flight with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, don’t forget that you can add Alaska Airlines flights to your itinerary at no extra charge–if you can find partner availability. That’s the hard part, but with some creativity and a bit of luck, you can stretch your miles even farther!

Should I Spend Or Save My Points?

Very often, I work with people who have accumulated large points balances. However, when the opportunity arises to spend their points on a very good redemption, they often balk and start looking at paid flights or other options to save points and spend cash instead.

Whenever this happens, it drives me a little bit insane. I don’t think most people think this through and since I’ve had the same conversation multiple times this week, I think it’s probably worth pulling this together into a post.

Understanding Factors Influencing Points Valuations

There are ways that points can become more valuable, and there are ways that points can become less valuable. Over the past few years we have seen both of these, but the overall trend is devaluation and I don’t think there are many opportunities left for points to increase in value.

Levers

Which lever will your airline pull?

Airlines can increase or decrease the value of points in the following ways:

  1. Changing the price of awards.
  2. Increasing or decreasing flexibility, based on the rules involved.
  3. Adding or removing booking fees, such as telephone booking fees or close-in booking fees.
  4. Imposing or removing co-payments (often called fuel surcharges) for awards.
  5. Making more or fewer flights available on which you can redeem your points.
  6. Making it easier or harder to earn points through flights or with partners.
  7. Causing your points to expire sooner.
  8. Adding partners with whom you can redeem awards, giving more options to redeem.

 

As you can see airlines have a lot of levers to pull in their programs, which can move in either direction, and they pull them frequently. You need to keep these in mind when you consider saving your points. What follows are some of the reasons people most often decide to save, rather than spend their points:

Pursuing Value

It is rational to keep an asset when you believe that it will grow in value. Conversely, it’s rational to liquidate an asset when you believe it will fall in value, or will grow in value at a rate that is slower than inflation.

This gets tricky with miles and points because there is a very lopsided value distribution. For most people, the greatest value for miles comes at the top end of the award chart, for international business and first class award tickets. However, these are also the hardest to book (so difficult, in fact, that people pay points consultants like AwardCat) and the most subject to airline award chart devaluations.

If you save your points vs. spending them immediately, you’re making a bet. I think there is only one good reason to do it:

  • You plan to redeem your points for a top-tier award, and you have a strategy to earn the points in order to do it.
  • You feel confident that you’ll be able to redeem the award you’re pursuing before the goal posts move.

Preserving Optionality

A lot of people try to preserve optionality. “I might take a trip in the future that is more valuable or expensive,” they think, so they pay cash now and save their points. There can be some logic to this, but you need to be strategic about it and consider what your needs really are.

I don’t think it makes any sense to speculate on the potential cost of a trip you’re planning on taking later, and whether there will even be availability on points then. In 3 years, we have gone from seeing Iceland be one of the most expensive places in the world to visit down to one of the cheapest places to reach (although the prices when you get there are another story!). We have also gone from American Airlines having extremely generous award availability to almost no award availability. The only thing you can be certain about in the miles and points sphere is that your points will generally lose value at a rate far higher than inflation.

blue lagoon

It used to be expensive to visit Iceland. Now Reykjavik is one of the cheapest flights to Europe.

I do think there is some value in having enough points to deal with a last-minute emergency without paying an arm and a leg. This is one of the most valuable ways to use points–flights to small airports on short notice; the kind of stuff that looks to the airline like business travel for which they charge a premium. However, this requires being strategic about the points programs you are using and this will generally involve transferable points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, and American Express points.

Remember #3 above, booking fees? American and United both charge a close-in booking fee. Delta and Alaska charge more points for last-minute bookings (although Alaska does so within a fixed range; Delta has no upper limit). This leaves foreign programs such as Aeroplan, LifeMiles, Korean Air, Flying Blue, and Avios with fixed redemption values and no close-in booking fees. However, you’re really not going to know which airline has availability at the last minute, so it’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket.

History Of Devaluations

Airlines have frequently devalued their award charts. At the same time that this has been done, they have sometimes (though not always) added “sweeteners” to make the devaluation seem less bad. For example, the first broad industry round of chart devaluations was accompanied by an improvement in flexibility. Although the number of miles required for a round-trip flight went up, it became possible to book one way tickets. Most airlines now publish charts on a one way basis.

Delta has devalued more frequently than any other award program. However, one Delta award chart devaluation came with a promise that SkyMiles would never expire. Another Delta devaluation was spun as an increase in availability, because any Delta flight can now be booked with no blackout dates (popular dates just now require a ridiculous number of miles to book). The Delta devaluation after that dropped the price of some short-haul flights when booked in advance.

venezuela government store

After an award program devaluation, you can queue for the scraps.

So, it’s sort of like Venezuela handing out vouchers for staples while devaluing the Bolivar. Yeah, your savings just evaporated, and you can’t afford to buy anything nice anymore, but here, have a few rolls of toilet paper. Subject to availability, of course.

Points You Should Always Spend

It almost never makes sense to save Southwest Airlines or jetBlue points if you plan to book a flight on either airline. This is because these points can be redeemed at a fixed value toward the cost of a ticket. There is no history of the fixed value increasing; it has only decreased. Accordingly, if you have enough points for the flight, you should spend these points instead of cash.

Wrap-Up

Given the lack of credibility airline award programs have, the frequent history of devaluation, and the fact that miles and points sometimes devalue without prior notice, it continues to astonish me that people want to hold onto their points rather than spending them. If you think their value will go up, can I also interest you in some Venezuelan Bolivars?

I do think it can make sense to hold a small balance of transferable points for emergencies. And it can also make sense to save up over a short period for a specific premium cabin redemption. However, it generally doesn’t make any financial sense to save your points. They are a depreciating asset.

What’s the biggest reason I think people have trouble spending their points? 100,000 points just sounds like an awful lot. It isn’t, though. In reality, it’s just enough points to fly a family of four to Disney World in economy class. But given how much Disney tickets cost these days, wouldn’t you rather save the money for the park instead of spending it on the flights? Spend your points. You can earn more!

MEGA POST: Flying Alaska Airlines For Fewer Points

Since its merger with Virgin America, Alaska Airlines has a lot more reach than in the past. It is an airline that has been growing like crazy anyway, and with the addition of the Virgin America network, there are a lot more opportunities to connect than were previously available. This means that if you’re based on the West Coast (or traveling to the West Coast) it’s a lot more practical to use Alaska for cross-country flights than it used to be. Alaska has also added a ton of service to Hawaii and they fly to Costa Rica for good measure. They are also a great airline to fly (and one of my favorites) offering friendly Pacific Northwest hospitality, power at every seat, and free WiFi on every plane.

alaska airlines jet

Eskimo tails are showing up all over the country

One of the great things about Alaska Airlines is the number of partners it has. You’ll see plenty of blog articles extolling the virtues of its Mileage Plan, and I do think that Mileage Plan is pretty good overall. However, it’s not always the best program for booking flights on Alaska Airlines itself. Alaska’s partners sometimes have better award pricing.

Alaska has such a large number of partners that, with one exception, I am focusing on partners to whom you can transfer points. Other partners, such as Hainan and JAL, are primarily useful to people based in their respective local markets.

Programs I Recommend

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

While Mileage Plan isn’t always a good deal for Alaska Airlines flights, it sometimes is. For flights on Alaska Airlines, Mileage Plan has two very good sweet spots:

  • A stopover is allowed on one-way flights, provided you redeem at the highest 12,500 mile saver award level. This allows you to visit two cities on the same trip with one ticket. I wrote more about how to do this here.
  • Short-haul awards, when booked in advance, cost as little as 5,000 miles.
  • Domestic US award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles start at 7,500 points, versus 10,000 or more points with other programs.

 

Stopovers are cool, but they have limited utility for most people outside Alaska (where they are sometimes necessary, which is why I think Alaska Airlines still allows them). While it’s fun to add a tag flight to Anchorage onto your award flight from, say, LA to Seattle, it doesn’t really do you much good if you weren’t actually planning to visit there.

The real sweet spot? Almost any other airline program you use is going to charge a minimum of 7,500 points for an award flight on Alaska Airlines, so Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan can be significantly less expensive on short-haul flights. There is a catch, though. Alaska Airlines generally doesn’t give seats away at these award levels when you book at the last minute. You’ll need to book 3 weeks or more in advance.

Another sweet spot is award flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles. On most award charts, these are more expensive than the 7,500 miles Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan charges. The same advance purchase requirements apply as for short-haul awards.

British Airways Avios

British Airways has a distance based award chart. It’s roughly aligned with Alaska’s distance based award chart, with similar award levels. However, you have to watch out because along with the sweet spots, there are some “sour spots.” For example, the Avios chart is usually more expensive than Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan for flights between 1,152 and 1,400 miles (I say “usually” because Alaska has a variable award chart and charges more for flights booked on short notice).

The program is also quirky in that it charges per flight. This means that if your flight involves a connection, using Avios could make your award much more expensive than in other programs. And a further quirk is that you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights online. Instead, you have to call in, and let’s just say that British Airways doesn’t run the same kind of top-notch call center operation that Alaska does.

Here are the things I think are best about using Avios for Alaska Airlines flights:

  • If you don’t have airline status, it’s the cheapest way to book Alaska Airlines flights you want to reserve, but might need to cancel. The cancellation fee is just $5.60 per segment for US domestic flights (for some reason there’s a massive change fee, so it’s cheaper to cancel and rebook).
  • The award chart is strictly distance based with no zones or borders. So, for example, you can fly from Los Angeles to Mazatlan for just 7,500 Avios each way. I think that’s far more interesting than the 12,500 Avios from the West Coast to Hawaii that every other blogger beats to death.
  • It’s relatively easy to get Avios. They transfer from HSBC Premier, American Express and Chase along with many hotel programs. There are also lots of bonus opportunities through the Avios shopping portal.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and award pricing doesn’t change. It’s the same price if you book 3 hours in advance as it is if you book 3 weeks in advance.

 

The downside? Awards are a little complicated to book, not searchable online, and availability is limited compared to what Alaska Airlines makes available to their own members. Still, this program is a great way to save points when booking Alaska Airlines flights.

Korean Air Skypass

Hardly anyone writes about using Korean Air Skypass for booking Alaska Airlines flights, and I think it’s probably because almost nobody does it. Also, there is a lot of speculation lately that this partnership will end soon, because Alaska’s relationships with other SkyTeam carriers have ended. Nevertheless, provided you are willing to deal with how much of a hassle this program is, it can be great to use if you’re traveling over a longer distance. Here are the advantages:

  • Flights within the US (except for Hawaii) cost 20,000 points roundtrip.
  • Flights to Mexico, Hawaii or Costa Rica cost 30,000 points roundtrip.
  • A stopover and an open jaw are both allowed.
  • There are no close-in booking fees and pricing doesn’t go up close to departure.

 

A lot of the reasons why round-trip awards are hard to book can be worked around with the generous stopover and open jaw rules. For example, you could fly from Seattle to San Francisco, stop over for a few days, continue to New York, take the train to Philadelphia, then return to Seattle from there. Not only does this allow you to visit 3 cities on a single ticket, but it gives you more options to find award availability.

So, what are the downsides?

  • You can only book tickets for yourself and immediate family, and family relationships require a lot of paperwork to prove.
  • Award tickets for travel on Alaska Airlines can’t be booked online. You have to book over the phone, and the call center is (to put it politely) difficult to work with. The agents are not native English speakers and they are kept on very strict timers, so try to rush the booking process.
  • Only round-trip itineraries are allowed.
  • Even though Delta is a Korean Air partner, you can’t mix and match with Alaska flights. You can only fly Alaska Airlines (including Horizon Air and Skywest flights marketed as Alaska).
  • Availability is more limited than to Alaska Airlines’ own members.

 

If you’re traveling over a long distance, though, this program is a no-brainer. 20,000 miles roundtrip from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale is impossible to beat. It’s even really good for more conventional transcontinental flights such as from Seattle to New York.

It’s also a good deal for flights to Costa Rica when booking from certain regions. These cost 35,000 points when you redeem Korean Air SkyPass miles on Delta, but it’s only 30,000 points when redeeming on Alaska.

Note there is, from some regions, a better “sweet spot” with Costa Rica redemptions using Singapore KrisFlyer. However, this award isn’t available from all zones on their chart whereas there are no zone restrictions using Korean Air Skypass.

Singapore KrisFlyer

Singapore is one of Alaska Airlines’ newest partners. In fact, they are so new that as of this writing, you can’t redeem Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles on Singapore flights. Nevertheless, Singapore KrisFlyer members are able to use their miles on Alaska Airlines flights.

The award chart appears to have been created by an intern who has very limited knowledge of US geography. It was obviously rushed out with very little review, because among other things it has invented the states of “North Dakorta,” “Goergia” and “Alsaka.” I was absolutely baffled the first time I saw it. Over time, I’m guessing Singapore will tighten it up, but for the time being, there are some amazing sweet spots. Here’s what I like about the chart:

  • One way awards are allowed, and connections en route are (in practice) allowed at no additional charge.
  • It’s as easy to get KrisFlyer miles as it is to get Avios. All the same programs apply.
  • Costa Rica and most Mexico flights are a crazy value. It’s only 12,000 points each way from most of the West Coast to Costa Rica or Mexico on Alaska Airlines.
  • Flying from Canada to Hawaii is only 11,500 points.
  • It’s 12,000 points from the West Coast to Hawaii, and only 12,500 points to Hawaii from the Midwest and mid-South. This is an especially good option for people in Dallas where award availability from the former Virgin America mini-hub at Love Field is excellent.
  • If you’re based in Dallas, last-minute flights to the East Coast from Love Field are excellent value. The price is the same as Alaska’s own distance-based chart, but it doesn’t go up close to departure.

 

The downsides:

  • The Singapore chart blocks a lot of routes. Las Vegas to Costa Rica? Well, even though you could easily connect in LAX, it’s not an option. The same applies from the East Coast to Costa Rica.
  • The Singapore chart is very expensive for short-haul flights to Alaska (such as from Seattle to southeast Alaska). Seattle to Ketchikan can be as little as 5,000 points on the Alaska award chart, but it’s 12,000 on the Singapore chart.
  • Intra-Alaska flights are extremely expensive because they cost the same as a flight from Alaska to Hawaii (which, on the other hand, is extremely cheap at just 12.5k miles).
  • No stopovers are permitted. Technically, “transfers” are not permitted either, but this seems to only apply to co-terminals (meaning no airport changes are allowed).
  • You can’t book Alaska Airlines flights with KrisFlyer miles online. Instead, you have to call in, and dealing with the KrisFlyer call center can be a challenge (to put it lightly).

 

To me, what is the best sweet spot? Costa Rica. It’s less expensive on the Singapore chart than any other award chart. While the Avios chart can be cheaper to a handful of Mexican destinations from Los Angeles, the Singapore chart beats it hands down if you’re going to or from anywhere else.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

While Cathay Pacific has a fairly expensive award chart for most flights on Alaska Airlines, they can deliver equivalent value to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan if you need to take a trip with a lot of stops. This is because Asia Miles allows you to take up to 5 stopovers on an award, and you can also include two open jaw connections. ** Edit: Technically you’re only allowed 2 stopovers because it’s a non-Oneworld award, but in practice agents have allowed me to do 5. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s an example. You could travel from Los Angeles to Seattle, stop for 3 days, continue to Ketchikan, take the ferry from there to Juneau, continue from Juneau 4 days later to Anchorage, stay a week, return from Anchorage to Seattle, take the train to Portland, and then continue 2 days later to Los Angeles on a flight that connects in San Francisco. The whole itinerary would cost 30,000 Asia Miles, which is the same number of points as if you booked with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and fully optimized your stopovers.

You can’t book this kind of itinerary online. Instead, you have to call in and work with the Asia Miles call center. Note that the Asia Miles program is very complicated and it can take a long time for agents to review the rules and ensure that your booking confirms. Some agents will claim you can’t do something that is actually allowed (they apparently get in a lot of trouble if they make any mistakes), so it’s best to hang up and call again if you know you’re in the right.

Programs I Avoid

Not every Alaska partner offers good value when redeeming their points for flights on Alaska Airlines. Here are the programs I generally avoid:

American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines makes very few seats on American flights available in their program. It is not a program I generally recommend accumulating miles in because the award chart has frequently devalued and the miles have become very difficult to spend.

Because of this, it might be tempting to spend your AAdvantage miles on an Alaska Airlines flight, especially because it’s so easy: Alaska flights are bookable on the American Airlines Web site. However, American Airlines offers generally poor value for these flights because their award chart is expensive. Domestic flights on Alaska Airlines cost 12,500 AAdvantage miles each way. Flights to Hawaii cost 22,500 AAdvantage miles each way. No stopovers are allowed.

The upside is that you can mix in Alaska flights with other flights to create a complete AAdvantage award itinerary. This can be a good deal if it helps you connect up with an American or other partner flight to your final destination. However, for an itinerary that strictly includes flights on Alaska Airlines, the award chart is only competitive for long, cross-country flights.

LATAM Pass

On paper, this distance-based award program has some really nice sweet spots. Check out their chart. They are particularly sweet for short distance intra-Alaska redemptions under 350 miles round-trip such as between Petersburg and Wrangell or Juneau and Glacier Bay. These cost only 3,750 points each way.

The problem is fees, the complexity of booking, and the complexity of earning points:

  • There is a $30 fee to redeem awards when booked over the phone, and this is not waived for airlines (like Alaska) that aren’t bookable online.
  • You have to book round-trip. Prices shown in the chart are each way based on round-trip purchase.
  • The LATAM Pass call center only operates in the Spanish language. If you need to do business in English, there is a complicated process to call in and request a call-back. This can take up to two days to arrange.
  • The service center books so few flights on Alaska that they may tell you outright that it isn’t possible (that’s what they told me, in writing!). It actually is, you just have to be persistent.
  • The only practical way to earn LATAM Pass points, apart from flying, is with their co-branded credit card. Unfortunately the card just isn’t very good.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Not only are the redemption rates relatively unattractive, you can’t book Alaska Airlines flights on the Flying Blue Web site. It requires dealing with their call center, which is based in Mexico. Additionally, this partnership ends in April, which means that you won’t be able to make any changes to tickets booked for travel after then.

Emirates Skywards

Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Emirates points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way (and in fact, one of the only ways) to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.

Qantas

Same story as Emirates: Redemption rates are unattractive using this program. If you’re stuck with Qantas points, Alaska Airlines flights are a great way to redeem them with no fuel surcharges. However, you shouldn’t transfer points into this program to book flights on Alaska Airlines.

Wrap-Up

Alaska Airlines goes more places than ever before, and has relatively generous award availability on their own flights. This is particularly true if you’re based in the former Virgin America hubs of Dallas and San Francisco, or the new mini-hub of San Diego. However, the best award pricing often requires using a partner program and booking over the phone.

Understanding Loyalty Fraud In 2018

Loyalty fraud is a massive problem in the airline industry. It is estimated to cause billions of dollars in losses annually. Most of these losses used to only be “on paper” representing lost revenue; since airlines give away the seats they don’t think they’ll sell, a fraudulent redemption really only cost them a few dollars in overhead and catering. So, in the event that someone’s account was compromised and the points used, the airline would just restore the points and change the password (and optionally try to go after the fraudulent passenger, although this was usually more trouble than it was worth).

I’m sure this guy’s ID was legit. (Photo credit 419eater.com)

These days, it’s a much bigger deal when your miles and points get stolen because they can be redeemed for things other than airline tickets–items such as gift cards and online shopping purchases that cost the airlines real money. Naturally, given the increased risk exposure most airlines have implemented loyalty fraud programs. These look for unusual patterns in accounts and flag suspicious activity. Unfortunately, a lot of legitimate activity can look fraudulent, particularly when the algorithms aren’t updated along with changes in the way that people earn and redeem points.

I have helped people in a number of instances lately in which a frequent flier member’s account was flagged for fraud. Fortunately no tickets were outright cancelled but additional verification and security procedures had to be followed, up to even going to the airport on the day of travel with the credit card used to pay the taxes on an award ticket. However, this is happening less frequently lately and there are some identifiable patterns I will share to help you avoid being caught up by a fraud algorithm.

Now, if you’re here because you got involved with mileage brokers in the buying and selling of points and you just got caught, none of this will help you. That’s something you actually did, and if the airline is talking to you at all, you can assume they have you dead to rights. This post will only help you avoid being flagged if you’re actually innocent.

Fewer False Alarms

One thing that used to be incredibly suspicious in award programs was suddenly earning a large number of points, and then using them immediately for an expensive award redemption. And at one point, this made sense. Back when people earned most of their miles from flying, there was an upper limit to how much flying a person could reasonably do.

These days, this is a completely normal pattern. Many people have started earning points in transferable programs such as those operated by American Express, Chase, and Citi. So, they’ll earn the number of miles needed for a ticket, check for award availability across a number of different airline programs, and then transfer the miles to the program for redemption. And on the part of consumers, this is perfectly rational; airlines have devalued their own loyalty programs so much and so often that it’s better for most people to keep their options open.

The good news is that the horror stories of previous years, in which tickets were cancelled without notice or people were forced to drive to the airport to get award tickets issued, appear to have gone by the wayside in most of the programs that work with bank loyalty programs–provided that your redemption meets the new definition of “normal.” The biggest offender was Flying Blue but this wasn’t the only program that created difficulties.

Understanding Fraud Algorithms

If you book a normal award redemption these days, it’s unlikely to cause you any issues regardless of the loyalty program you’re using (with the possible exception of programs that are new to working with bank loyalty programs; these include Turkish Miles and Smiles and Avianca LifeMiles).

What’s a normal award redemption? It’s one that doesn’t trip the algorithm. To understand this, you just need to think like a computer. Algorithms like these are designed to either add or subtract points on a transaction depending on criteria that raise suspicion. So, for example, suppose that you start with 100 points, and the threshold is 50 points or below. An algorithm might work like this:

Subtract points (less suspicious):

  • You earned the points through flying or partners, or you transferred them in from your own credit card.
  • You are traveling on the itinerary (you won’t get flagged because you bought a ticket for your significant other, as long as you’re both traveling together).
  • The person traveling is someone for whom you have previously purchased a revenue ticket.
  • The person traveling is an immediate relative.
  • The person traveling has an established frequent flier account with the airline and a significant points balance.
  • You’re paying for the taxes with your own personal credit card.
  • You are traveling 3 or more days in the future.
  • The person traveling is going to a low fraud risk destination (such as Canada).


Add points (more suspicious):

  • The points you are redeeming were recently purchased with a credit card.
  • You aren’t traveling on the itinerary.
  • The person traveling is someone with whom you have no obvious relationship.
  • You’re paying for the taxes with someone else’s credit card. Bonus points if it’s a foreign credit card and you have never used one of those before, and even more bonus points if it isn’t a card associated with the person traveling.
  • The ticket is for an immediate departure. Right now, today.
  • The passenger is traveling to a high fraud risk destination (such as Nigeria).

 

How many points are assigned for what specific criteria? And are these the only criteria used? Well, that’s proprietary, and (for very good reasons) loyalty programs aren’t going to tell you. Some programs are more relaxed and others (such as Flying Blue) are less so. Nevertheless, when you look at the criteria that adds points, it’s pretty obvious why it is there.

detectiveManual Review

Keep in mind that one or two things that add points probably won’t trip you up as long as there are enough things that subtract points. After all, this stuff can totally reflect normal life. Your best friend just rage quit her job and you’re buying her a ticket to Costa Rica right now. With the points you coincidentally bought yesterday because there was an incredible mileage sale. You’ll join her this weekend but plan to fly another airline. And you’re using up the crappy gift card you got this Christmas to pay the taxes before the thing starts charging you fees. I mean, nothing about that scenario is suspicious once someone has a conversation with you, but it totally looks suspicious otherwise.

Loyalty programs that over-rely on dumb algorithms will just automatically cancel a ticket, or it won’t go through in the first place. That’s why many loyalty programs implement manual review for suspicious transactions. Most commonly, a transaction that is too suspicious can’t be completed online and the member will be instructed to call the loyalty program. At this point, extensive validation is done when the ticket is being purchased.

There can also be a “soft review.” When this happens, the loyalty program will call the member at the telephone number on file to inquire about the transaction. Of course, if the member doesn’t recognize the transaction, they’ll immediately unwind it. And sometimes, additional validation is required. Most commonly, the airline will require that the credit card used to pay the taxes be presented at the airport (this is becoming a requirement even for transactions that aren’t suspicious, and some programs go even farther by requiring that the loyalty program member’s credit card always be used). The airline may also interview the traveler to determine the legitimacy of their relationship to the loyalty program member.

Wrap-Up

Every verification that I have needed to do in order to satisfy a loyalty fraud investigation was necessary because the activity objectively looked shady: 

  • An intra-Africa flight from Nigeria booked on short notice using an organization’s credit card, using the loyalty account of a member who had never been to Africa (this pattern matches either fraud or a church mission–it was the latter).
  • A last-minute one-way ticket to Nicaragua for a foreign national who wasn’t related, taxes paid with cash equivalent (his new girlfriend had to attend a funeral, and the taxes were paid with a gift card).
  • A business class trip to Asia for an apparently unrelated person on a top-tier carrier leaving the following day with points that were just purchased (his cousin’s employer reimbursed the economy class fare, and the member purchased miles to buy her a business class flight for the same amount of money).

 

In every case, the passenger was able to travel. It did take a little bit of extra work to explain to the airline what was going on, and in the case of the ticket from Nigeria, the airline wanted to see the physical credit card (emailing in a photo of both sides was fine). However, in every case the airline was satisfied with the explanation. No loyalty accounts were frozen, and no tickets were cancelled. The system worked.

Don’t avoid loyalty programs because of potential security problems. If you’re doing something that looks suspicious to, say, Flying Blue, it’s virtually guaranteed to also look suspicious to Mileage Plus. Airlines may react differently and have different tolerance thresholds for suspicious activity, but they’re getting a lot better at this stuff and false alarms are a lot less common these days.

Don’t Pay More For Last-Minute Award Flights

It’s well-known that the closer to the travel date you buy your trip, the more your ticket usually costs. This is because business travel often occurs on short notice and last-minute travel is rarely optional. Accordingly, airlines are able to charge a premium, and they shamelessly do so. A flight from Seattle to Los Angeles may cost well over $200 when purchased on short notice. Here are some example Alaska flights leaving from Seattle tomorrow:

$271 fare from SEA to LAX

Flying to LAX tomorrow? That’ll be $271. Ouch!

Meanwhile, if you book 3 weeks in advance, the fare can be as little as $59:

SEA-LAX for only $59

This fare is so cheap that it’s a no-brainer to pay cash.

For a long time, the pricing of flight awards was entirely disconnected from the supply-and-demand dynamics in play. Award inventory hung out on its own, and the pricing remained the same whether you were booking 330 days in advance or on the day of travel. This is no longer the case with all airlines. Sticking with an Alaska flight from Seattle to Los Angeles as an example, here’s what the pricing looks like if you travel tomorrow:

12,500 point pricing SEA-LAX

12,500 points is the highest saver pricing level for Alaska domestic economy class award flights.

Meanwhile, if you book in advance, the pricing can look a lot different:

7500 points SEA-LAX

Booking in advance? The pricing is a lot lower–in this case, 40% lower!

Alaska and Delta change the price of flights depending on how far in advance you book your flight. It’s always cheapest if you book 3 weeks or more in advance and in the example above, it’s 40% cheaper to do this.

With Delta, the close-in booking price goes up for both their own flights and for partner flights. However, with Alaska, the close-in booking price only goes up for their own flights. However, unlike Delta, Alaska publishes an award chart showing the price range so you always know the maximum price of an award flight in the class of service you’re booking.

American and United don’t adjust the pricing of awards. Instead, they charge a $75 close-in booking fee if you don’t book 21 days in advance. Naturally, both airlines make last-minute award seats available inside of 21 days in advance, presumably so they can maximize booking fees.

My Favorite Programs For Last-Minute Flights

When I’m booking award flights at the last minute, I have two occasionally conflicting objectives: minimizing fees and using the fewest number of points. Sometimes, an award with fewer fees costs more points. So, this becomes a question of not just finding an award flight, but both optimizing the award program I use to book the flight and balancing points redeemed versus cash spent.

You may not be familiar with these award programs, but it’s possible that you have points you can transfer into them. There are plenty of other articles on the Internet about transferable points (Starwood, Citi ThankYou Points, Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards) so there’s no point in rehashing these here.

Aeroplan: This mileage program, affiliated with Air Canada, gives you access to United flights with no last-minute booking fees or higher prices for last-minute bookings. Aeroplan also charges lower award prices than many airlines. The downside is that Aeroplan passes along fuel surcharges. These aren’t charged on United flights, but are charged on a lot of other airlines, such as Lufthansa and Air Canada (Aeroplan is, believe it or not, a poor choice of program for booking Air Canada flights). For airlines such as these, Avianca LifeMiles is a better alternative.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Need an award flight on American Airlines? Alaska will charge you a partner booking fee of $12.50 each way, but this sure beats the $75 last-minute booking fee charged by American. You can also book American partners British Airways, Cathay Pacific and (soon) Finnair with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

Avianca LifeMiles: I hesitate to recommend this program for last-minute bookings because the Web site often has technical errors, and the complicated manual workarounds required when this happens take several days. However, if the Web site does in fact work, there are no last-minute booking fees, no fuel surcharges, and attractive redemption rates for United and other StarAlliance flights (such as Air Canada). Why bother? Well, why not, if you have nothing to lose?

British Airways Avios: This program is particularly good for booking award flights on Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. If you’re booking at the last minute and your flight doesn’t involve a connection, the pricing for these flights can be less than with the airlines’ own programs. There is also no last-minute booking fee. Note that award tickets are charged per flight and based on distance, so connecting flights are often much more expensive in terms of points than with the programs of partner airlines. Long-haul flights also tend to be expensive, especially in premium cabins.

Flying Blue (Air France/KLM): This is a great way to avoid Delta’s higher mileage rates when booking at the last minute. Award pricing is similar to Delta’s “old” award chart, which is less expensive than today’s pricing. There are no last-minute booking fees. Note that unlike Delta, Flying Blue passes along fuel surcharges on Air France/KLM flights. These can be substantial so be sure to crunch the numbers when considering the cash versus points cost of a trip.

Hawaiian: While the Hawaiian award chart is more expensive than most, availability is relatively generous for last-minute flights to Hawaii.

jetBlue TrueBlue: Except for partner flights on Hawaiian (for which using HawaiianMiles is generally a better deal), jetBlue charges based on the price of a flight. Although this is rarely a great deal for last-minute flights, you can sometimes get better value booking with TrueBlue points than using bank points towards a cash fare via a travel portal.

Singapore KrisFlyer: Another way to make last-minute bookings on Alaska Airlines or United at attractive redemption rates and no booking fees. The downside is that this must be done over the phone, and points don’t transfer immediately (but typically do transfer on the same day).

Southwest: This program charges based on the cash cost of a ticket. However, unlike many other airlines, Southwest sometimes has cheap fares right up until the last minute. It’s always worth checking Southwest if they fly a route you want to take, and you’ll almost always get better value out of Southwest points than you will using a bank’s travel portal.

Programs To Avoid For Last-Minute Flights

Some programs look good on paper for last-minute bookings because they don’t charge last-minute booking fees or higher redemption rates, but these are ones that I typically avoid:

Aeromexico: This program has unattractive redemption rates and a reputation for poor customer service. It also takes nearly a week for points to transfer into it.

ANA: Points transfers take several days, so this program isn’t useful for last-minute bookings unless you already have ANA Mileage Club points.

AsiaMiles: Points transfers take at least 24 hours, so this program isn’t useful for last-minute bookings unless you already have AsiaMiles. If you do, this program is useful for booking flights on Alaska and American without last-minute booking fees, although the redemption rates are typically higher than you would pay with either program.

Korean Air: This program requires partner awards to be booked round-trip, and the booking process for partner awards is very complicated requiring multiple phone calls and even the occasional fax. It’s a great program for specific “sweet spot” bookings when you can find availability and meet all the requirements, but it’s not good to use for last-minute award seats.

Iberia: This program won’t allow you to book less than 24 hours in advance even though availability is shown. Also, round-trip bookings are required.

Emirates Skywards: High redemption rates and the complexity of redemptions make this program a good one to avoid.

Wrap-Up

When you need to take a trip at the last minute, don’t just look for award availability in the program of the operating airline. Booking through a partner airline could save you both points and money!

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 [email protected] 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.