What Are Miles And Points Really Worth? (2023)

Nearly every airline program I work with at AwardCat has massively devalued. And yet, I keep seeing the same optimistic points valuations on every blog. In my view, valuations are mostly a lie. While it might be theoretically possible to achieve the valuations noted, it’s clear that for the majority of redemptions, points aren’t worth anywhere close to what is ordinarily claimed.

Working with a shadowy group of Pacific Northwest miles and points enthusiasts, I have created a points valuation chart using an entirely new methodology. The truth is, the value of points varies per redemption and a lot of the value is theoretical (tickets to Amsterdam are generally undesirable in February, even if they’re still expensive in paid business class relative to redeeming with points).

This chart focuses on flights, not hotels. There is one exception: I did factor in the value of Hyatt transfers from Chase, because these really can deliver outsize value. Other hotel programs usually aren’t good value in exchange for transferable points.

cheap motel
You can usually get better value when booking independent hotels versus transferring bank points to a hotel program

Along the same lines, some options for redeeming your points are really good value, and others are not. So, we tried to calculate a weighted average based on a mix of awards redeemed within the program (as most users do; it’s rare that anyone uses their points only for the most aspirational of journeys). We also defined ceilings: Realistic Ceiling and Aspirational Ceiling, which reflect the highest value that can realistically be attained by most people, and the highest value that would typically be attained for an aspirational trip.

In particular, given the “ceiling” valuations, there are both objective and subjective influences and there’s probably room for folks to argue. For example, Aeromexico offers a tantalizing round-the-world award chart that should, in theory, offer far greater value than the 1.2 cent aspirational ceiling I have assigned. There are only two problems: partner availability is virtually nonexistent to Aeromexico on Korean Air, Delta, KLM and Air France in business class, and virtually all SkyTeam carriers levy fuel surcharges (along with Aeromexico itself). A round-the-world trip in economy class (with hefty fuel surcharges paid on every leg) looks a lot less aspirational, doesn’t it?

Conversely, Alaska Airlines crowns the aspirational ceiling (despite recent devaluations) because of their relatively low first class pricing, and because stopovers are permitted, achievable, and allowed on a one way trip. It’s harder than it used to be to take advantage of this, but stopovers really add outsize value. Air Canada similarly offers stopovers for 5,000 points each, although their comparatively high redemption rates lower their aspirational ceiling.

Airline/ProgramFloorWeighted AverageRealistic CeilingAspirational Ceiling
Aeromexico0.60.81.01.2
Air Canada0.81.31.92.9
Alaska0.81.32.14.2
American1.21.42.24.0
Amex0.71.11.42.9
Avios0.71.11.82.2
Bilt1.51.62.24.0
Brex0.60.81.01.7
Capital One1.01.31.72.9
Cathay Pacific0.81.21.92.4
Chase1.01.31.44.0
Citi1.01.31.72.9
Delta1.01.21.72
Emirates0.60.91.11.4
Etihad0.60.91.11.2
Flying Blue0.81.11.61.8
jetBlue1.21.21.31.3
LifeMiles0.71.21.82.7
Qantas0.51.01.23.9
Singapore0.81.01.31.7
Southwest Airlines1.21.31.41.4
Turkish1.11.52.42.4
United1.01.21.82.2
Virgin0.81.01.42.2
Average across all
programs
0.91.21.62.48
The above chart reflects my personal opinion of what airline and transferable points are worth, and is not the expressed opinion of AwardCat or any other party.

One of the biggest surprises to all of us was the low “floor value” of most points. This is because airlines and banks offer a lot of really unoptimal ways to spend points, from paying for WiFi charges to buying gift cards or statement credits towards credit card purchases. I ignored some of the worst and least optimal ways to redeem points and focused on flight related redemptions (either flights or enhancements to the onboard experience). Southwest and jetBlue win here, because it’s hard to spend your points for less than 1.2 cents each. While Turkish comes in just behind, this is primarily because there just aren’t very many ways (yet) to spend your points unoptimally in this program. And Brex (which, full disclosure, fired AwardCat as a customer so I do hold a grudge) takes the crown for least valuable transferable points. I’m very happy to have transferred my points out before they suddenly devalued their points with zero prior notice. That’s the risk you take with bank points, as I warned in 2016.

While again highly subjective, I think the weighted average is where most people are likely to redeem their points. This is surprisingly low. Some programs, such as Emirates and Etihad, have so hugely devalued their programs that their points average less than one cent apiece in redemption value. Singapore maintains a relatively low weighted average because of their high redemption rates for economy class flights, and their levying of fuel surcharges on partner flights. And the weighted average of bank points is about 30% more than their floor value because of the optionality for points transfers that they provide. I will point out that Chase’s own valuation of Ultimate Rewards points, when redeemed through their portal for travel, would seemingly (net of the likely profit gained by running their own travel agency) agree with ours.

Wrap-Up

I think that most sources online offer an overly rosy picture of the value miles and points can have. Now, I won’t say it’s because most of them financially benefit from you remaining invested in these programs, or that credit card links can pay hundreds of dollars in commissions. So, maybe they just haven’t updated their assigned valuations to account for the massive inflation in award costs? Or maybe they believe that when airlines and hotel chains assign a possible range of award costs, lower pricing will prevail more often than higher pricing (also, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you)? Maybe they just really value the optionality of transferable points, to the extent that this optionality is worth considerably more than the points of transfer partners? Whatever reasons they have for their charts, here is mine. This is what I think points are really worth, for most people, most of the time, under most circumstances.

Do you agree? Vehemently disagree? Leave your comments below!

The Phantom Of Singapore

One of the biggest problems when booking award travel is “phantom inventory.” This is inventory that shows up in an online search, but isn’t really there. When you go to book it, it won’t confirm. Certain airlines are notorious for displaying phantom inventory: TAP, Ethiopian and LOT to name a few. Typically, though, this problem only involves partner inventory (such as when using United Mileage Plus points to book a ticket on LOT). I have never–I mean, never–encountered this when booking flights on an airline through their own mileage program.

That is, until today. I was attempting to book a seat from Bangkok to New York. This is fairly straightforward. Singapore offers “Saver” and “Advantage” inventory, and the rule with them is that you have to find flights all the way through in the same inventory “bucket” in order for it to book as one fare. OK, that’s fine, no problem. Here’s a flight from Bangkok to Singapore:

And here’s another flight from Singapore to New York a few days later:

Easy, right? Singapore allows stopovers, so you can put the two together and it’ll book out at 143,500 points total. Make no mistake, this is an expensive award, but at least Singapore doesn’t have fuel surcharges when you’re booking flights that they operate.

Only one problem: I got all the way to the end, and was informed that I was added to the waitlist. Wait, what? Singapore does offer the option to waitlist flights in case they decide to open up award inventory, but in my experience, it’s pretty rare that these ever clear. And you generally won’t know until the last minute whether or not your request will clear. Waitlisting can be useful for speculative bookings if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, but this booking isn’t that. And I specifically picked flights which weren’t any sort of “waitlist” situation. They were clearly displayed as bookable.

The agent in this stock photo appears to be Thai, but this flight involves Thailand so artistic license is taken

OK, fine. I made a phone call to Singapore Airlines (this time, the call center was in The Philippines, an improvement vs. their horrible call center in India). Surprisingly, I got right through. Nope, the inventory wasn’t available. Nothing was available. Not a single business class seat was available on either a Sunday or Monday, nearly a year in the future, from Singapore to any location they serve in the United States. Typical. Given that I had screen shots and clearly the error was on Singapore’s end, I wasn’t really willing to take no for an answer. The agent had a way to collect my emailed screen shots and an escalation path of some sort, but for now, do not assume the Singapore Web site is reliable. If you’re booking anything with Singapore, do it over the phone. This is hard, because they won’t hold seats and points transfers are not immediate, although sometimes, Amex points transfers can show up quickly. It might be worth finding inventory with an agent, and seeing whether you can transfer points while you have them on the phone. Otherwise, you’re in for a nail-biting couple of days waiting for the points to post in your KrisFlyer account, and hoping the inventory you found is still there once they finally do.

Narrowly Avoiding An AAdvantage Nightmare

One of the best sweet spots on the American Airlines AAdvantage award chart is from Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia. It costs only 40,000 AAdvantage miles in business class for this trip. This is a lot of flying: 5,630 miles in Qatar Airways Qsuites. 12 hours of luxury in the world’s best business class. Fancy champagne, luxurious lounges, all of that stuff. I mean, this is definitely not the usual Seat 31B style, but it’s only 15,000 points more than going in economy class! For as good a bargain as this (on a flight that would cost a cool $4,000 in business class or $1,500 in economy) it’s well worth the points. And what an incredible graduation gift to a friend who lives in Kazakhstan this would be, right?

map of ALA-DOH-SGN

The trick is booking it. If you search the American Airlines Web site, these flights simply don’t exist–even though Qatar Airways award flights normally appear on Web search results. For this itinerary, I needed very specific dates. I searched with other Qatar Airways partners, saw availability for the outbound in economy class with business class on the return, and called American Airlines to see whether I could book it. This resulted in a 3 day adventure that finally ended with tickets issued, but could have been an absolute nightmare scenario.

When you search for these flights online, the error above is displayed. You have to call to book!

When I initially called to book the itinerary, the agent didn’t seem very experienced. She located availability, but then somehow released it back to Qatar Airways, who instantly removed it from inventory. This happens sometimes when you’re working with an agent over the phone; if they don’t know how to correctly work with inventory during the booking process, it might be released back to the partner airline (who may or may not put it back into inventory). Naturally, the flight I wanted was no longer available because of the agent’s error, so I ended up having to book an evening return (rather than the morning) and the whole thing was in economy class, rather than a return in business class. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but wasn’t what I was hoping for.

OK, fine. Challenge accepted. I have dealt with this sort of problem before. If you wait overnight, sometimes the inventory pops back up again, so I checked again in the morning. Success! Not only was the flight I wanted available, but business class was available, too. All I’d need to do was get American to make the change, but no big deal, right? Changes are free. It’s a relatively simple exercise, just changing the time of day and class of service. Two flights swapped, nothing more. What could possibly go wrong?

After 90 minutes of calling American, getting routed by the dumb automated phone robot to the wrong department (domestic revenue tickets instead of international AAdvantage, even though I provided my confirmation code), and then finally being transferred to the right department, I had someone on the line who could make the change. She understood what I was after, updated my booking, got me the class of service I wanted, and told me that it’d be an even exchange for the tickets because the taxes were the same.

Perfect. Sounds good. No problem. I received an email confirming the changes, my card was charged the correct amount for the taxes, my AAdvantage account was charged the additional 15,000 miles for the upgraded segment (in a goofy roundabout way involving charging me 115,000 miles and then refunding 50,000 miles, but it added up to the right amount), so good to go. Right?

A “Trip Confirmation And Receipt” might not be what you think it is

Here’s the thing. When I logged on to aa.com, the ticketing status showed “On Request.” That’s fairly normal, because American issues award tickets manually. But I also got a pop-up at the top of the screen saying that I needed to call and contact an agent for ticketing. That is not normal. If you see that, it usually means the payment didn’t go through. And if your payment doesn’t clear, American will cancel your reservation 24 hours later. They do so without mercy or regret and when a Qsuites award is at stake, someone else will likely snap it up before you get the problem sorted out.

So, I made my third call to American. Another 90 minutes on hold. The agent I spoke to said “No, there’s no problem, you are in queue for a refund.” Wait, what?! Evidently the previous agent didn’t really know what they were doing. And my ticket was so messed up that the agent I was speaking with didn’t know how to fix it. It was going to require action from the “Resolution Desk” and the “Partner Desk,” according to her supervisor, and those were only open between 6am and 5:30pm Central time. “Will my reservation be cancelled in the interim?” I asked. “No, you should be safe as long as the resolution desk fixes this tomorrow, because this is in a ticketing queue.”

OK, fine. Another call to American the following day. Only an hour on hold this time. The first agent insisted on trying to help me when I explained it was an international AAdvantage ticket, and then after several minutes of typing and looking at my reservation, said “oh, this is an international AAdvantage ticket” and blind transferred me to the right department. I immediately asked for the “Resolution Desk,” which got me transferred to a supervisor. Apparently supervisors now perform this function, even though it used to be a dedicated desk.

This particular supervisor was friendly, and seemed to have some experience at the airline. That’s difficult to find these days; airlines laid off so many people during the pandemic that finding anyone with the institutional knowledge to solve problems can sometimes be difficult. However, she was stumped. “Oh my goodness, I’m not sure what to do here!” She put me on hold for a few minutes while she came up with a strategy.

cyber cyber cyber

Ultimately, the solution was to refund the existing itinerary, move all of the reservations into a separate PNR (with a new confirmation code), and then charge me again. Sure, no problem. This was a lot of manual data entry in airline computers, but the supervisor got it all done. The next two stops were the “Liaison Desk” and the “Ticketing Desk,” both of whose action was needed to actually get the ticket issued. 45 minutes or so later, and success! “OK, your ticket is issued and ready to go. Just go ahead and look at it in your AAdvantage profile.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “It won’t show up there, because the ticket isn’t in my name.”

Silence.

“Oh. Um, right. You see, I, uh… issued the ticket in your name, not your friend’s name. Oops!

Now, I wasn’t upset. Everybody makes mistakes. At least we caught it before I got off the call, so I didn’t need to call in again. No big deal, easy to fix, right? Just change the name? Nope. Airline computers aren’t set up that way. Instead, fixing the problem required refunding everything again, charging everything again, building out another PNR with the correct name, moving the reservation into it, calling the Liaison Desk again, calling the Ticketing Desk again, and finally a ticket was issued in the correct name.

Finally. Five long phone calls and several hours later. With no warning at all that anything was even remotely wrong except for an obscure pop-up on the Web site, which almost anyone would have overlooked. After all, American Airlines issued me a “Trip Confirmation and Receipt,” charged my card, deducted mileage, issued a confirmation code, and I could even pick out seats and meals!

However, no AAdvantage redemption certificate was issued. It wasn’t attached to the ticket because there was no ticket. In fact, nothing was attached to the reservation. If I hadn’t sorted this out, it would have been a mad scramble at the airport on the day of travel. As far as Qatar would be concerned, they’d never have been paid, and there was a reservation with no ticket, so they wouldn’t owe any transportation. And it’d require calling American Airlines to fix the problem, because they issued the ticket. Good luck getting that sorted out, over crappy airport WiFi, 3 hours prior to departure.

What can you do? Always make sure that a ticket number is issued, visible, and attached to your reservation. You’re looking for the following:

  • Confirmation code, both for the airline you’re booking with and the airline operating the flight
  • Ticket number (For example, this will start with 001 if American issued the ticket, or with 006 if Delta issued the ticket)
  • Your card was charged for the full amount of taxes and fees
  • The mileage was deducted for your ticket, and it’s the correct number of miles

If all of the above has not taken place, then there could be something wrong with your ticket. Call and ask and if the agent doesn’t seem sure, ask a supervisor to double-check. If you’re booking a partner award (meaning the airline that is operating your flight is a different airline than the one that issued your ticket), you can also check your reservation on their Web site to see whether a ticket number is attached.

Avoid problems at the airport. Check your reservations carefully. And if anything looks off, get in touch with the airline that issued your ticket.

Using Points To See Polar Bears

Churchill, Manitoba has been on my bucket list ever since I first spotted it on a map as a kid. It’s in the Canadian sub-arctic, located on the shores of Hudson Bay, and is served by both air and rail (a rail line making it as far north as Churchill is incredibly unusual). There is, however, no road, making this a challenging location to visit.

Why visit? It’s one of the world’s most accessible places to see polar bears. Hudson Bay freezes earlier than other locations near Churchill because the Churchill River dilutes the salt content. This makes the bears happy, because they’re able to get out onto the sea ice and hunt seals earlier than in other locations. Polar bear season runs from mid-October through mid-November, and it’s easier to spot polar bears during this time than in any other time and place in the world. Of course, this also means a lot of visitors to Churchill during a compressed time frame, which makes this a generally expensive destination.

Photo courtesy Lazy Bear Lodge

Most visitors to Churchill book with a tour group. However, this is a decidedly upmarket destination, and tours cost upwards of $7,000 (often plus airfare). That’s obviously out of my budget so I decided to try to visit Churchill “Seat 31B style” and see just how far I could make my budget stretch. I figured that it would be more possible in 2022 than in other years, because when I booked the trip (in May), the Canadian border was only barely open, crossings required the ArriveCAN app, and there was still a ton of uncertainty in Canada about the COVID situation. In May, enough was moving in the right direction to start making serious plans.

The first thing I needed was a way to get to Churchill, and that is typically the hardest part. You have only one choice of airline: Calm Air. They fly from Winnipeg (and only Winnipeg), and you can’t book an award ticket to Churchill on a single itinerary using points, or for that matter, online at all. You can use Aeroplan points to book the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill over the phone on Calm Air (priced at 15k points roundtrip), plus a whopping fuel surcharge – it was $330 in Canadian dollars. When can you go? Theoretically, anytime: Calm Air makes two seats available per flight for Aeroplan members. In my case, the only dates available with points during polar bear season were the exact dates that tundra buggy expeditions weren’t available (there are three companies that operate these specialized vehicles which travel in permitted areas). I went ahead and grabbed the seats, hoping for the best.

The second thing I needed was a place to stay. There are very few options, so I swallowed hard and booked with Sarah’s Dreamhouse which proved to be an excellent decision. There is a very strict cancellation policy (which is understandable given the heavy demand) and prices during polar bear season aren’t cheap, but they’re less expensive than the alternatives. I ended up shelling out nearly USD$600 for 3 nights. This broke my “under $100 per night” general rule, but there just isn’t anything cheaper in Churchill (unless you want to try to sleep in the railway station). Given the limited number of places to stay and the heavy demand during polar bear season, I was really optimizing for any accommodations being available at all, so the fact that the lowest priced accommodation was available was a huge bonus.

The final thing I needed was positioning flights to Winnipeg for my flights to and from Churchill, since I couldn’t do the whole thing on a single Aeroplan ticket. It’s not always a great deal to use points for flights, and this was definitely the case here. The reason for this is that a low cost airline is competing on the route, and Westjet and Air Canada offer competitive fares–but only in basic economy (I paid less than USD$50 for my Winnipeg-Vancouver flight on Westjet). Both tickets I bought were basic economy fares, flying with Air Canada from Vancouver on the outbound, and with Westjet from Winnipeg on the return. I wasn’t able to comfortably route from Vancouver on the same day, due to the 10:15am departure from Winnipeg, so I booked the Vancouver-Winnipeg flight a day earlier. This meant that I also needed a transit hotel. I booked the Holiday Inn – Airport West, breaking my $100 per night rule here as well (by 50 cents), which proved to be an excellent choice because an airport shuttle is included (many properties have eliminated these). This saved me about CAD$20 each way to and from the airport, not only making this the lowest cost option but also being located directly across the street from restaurants and a Shoppers Drug Mart.

Calm Air operates ATR aircraft, including combi types!

Having secured flights and a place to stay, I started looking at tours, but it was really hard to decide what to book. I decided I’d more or less figure things out when I got there. This is sometimes a great idea and sometimes a terrible one, but it worked out really well in my case. My host in Churchill picked me up at the airport and a few minutes later, I was wandering around town. I ended up spending my first day following–on foot–tour buses full of $7,000 per head tourists all dressed in identical blue parkas, and just walking into places in town the groups had just left. I saw the Eskimo Museum, the Churchill Visitor’s Centre, and Polar Bears International and I pretty much had all of them to myself (the staff were all super friendly). All of these were also free and it was a great way to get situated on my first day. I capped off the evening by doing some grocery shopping at the Northern store.

The only grocery bargain I found in Churchill

Every time I visit the Arctic I’m caught off guard by the high prices, and Churchill did not disappoint with grocery costs approximately 3x those in Vancouver. Since Sarah’s Dreamhouse has a kitchen, I was able to cook for myself. Restaurants in Churchill aren’t bad, but they are set up to serve tour groups making them crowded and offering limited menus. I only ate one restaurant meal the whole time I was there. There are two grocery stores in town, the Northern store and the Tamarack Market, and Tamarack has generally lower prices and friendlier service (but a much more limited selection). They also have an in-store bakery and the baked goods are excellent and reasonably priced (try the cinnamon rolls, hot out of the oven). They also have pretty good deli sandwiches, at prices that aren’t too crazy.

Would you have spotted this polar bear and cub without a guide?

On the recommendation of some visitors who were also staying at Sarah’s Dreamhouse, I booked a half day tour with a company called Sub-Arctic Explorers. The guide was great–he was born and raised in Churchill, owns the local propane distributor, and also works as a tour guide on weekends (it was my impression that he enjoys the outdoors anyway, so guiding is a great excuse to do what he loves). This led to my first (and only) polar bear sighting of the trip! Polar bears are hard to spot because they like to hang out on the rocks, many of which are covered in white snow, and they’re white. When they lie down, it’s very hard to see them.

I spent Saturday afternoon at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which is a nonprofit lab facility for researchers located on the grounds of a former military rocket base. It’s a similar setup to the Antarctic facilities operated by the US Antarctic Program. I booked their first ever tour for the general public (they do give tours to school groups, tour groups etc.) and given that they weren’t really sure what everyone would be interested in, we were pretty much given the run of the place. This was capped off by a lecture by the executive director of the facility, himself a polar bear researcher and a well recognized local expert. It cost CAD$63 for the tour, including transportation, and it was totally worth it! I knew nothing about the research station before my visit, and simply booked the tour on their Web page at the last minute when I noticed they’d be offering one at a convenient time.

Deep in the bowels of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

I rented a car on Sunday, and drove around looking for polar bears (taking an hour out during the day for a polar bear safety lecture offered by a local park ranger and game warden, who assured me that my plan was a pretty bad idea, and another hour at Cape Merry, where I was given a red carpet tour by two armed polar bear guards and two Parks Canada rangers). It is perhaps fortunate that I didn’t find any bears on my own; as it turns out, they are apex predators and they’ll kill you for fun. None of the locals go out in bear country unarmed. It was super fun to drive around Churchill in a Jeep though, tackling roads where tour companies wouldn’t be able to drive in their vans. And then Monday, it was time to fly back! That was an adventure in and of itself, and one that I’ll write about in a future installment (suffice it to say that the flight I was supposed to be on was cancelled, and I would be stuck in Churchill right now if I hadn’t been proactive).

Is travel with miles and points really free? Not even close! My trip cost me about $400 per day even after spending my points for the flight. There is just no way around Churchill being an expensive destination. Now, is the ~$1600 I spent more than people spend in more conventional locations? Definitely not–you’d easily spend this at a Disney park or in Las Vegas, and far more than this in Hawaii. Still, it’s important to maintain some perspective on this. When you’re traveling with miles and points, you’ll spend a lot more on your trip than just the flight. Here’s a breakdown of what I spent:

This is about as cheaply as you can reasonably do Churchill

Overall, I’m really happy to have achieved a “bucket list” travel goal. Ever since I was eight years old, I have been fascinated by Churchill. It was every bit as incredible as I was hoping it would be, despite not being able to take a “tundra buggy” tour (these aren’t the only way to see polar bears!) and not planning very much in advance. If I had carefully planned every detail, I would have missed out on a lot of serendipitous discoveries. That being said, even though everything worked out for me, it’s easy for things not to work out in a place like Churchill. You should probably go in with at least some sort of plan, but in the Far North, planning trips by yourself will save you a lot of money versus booking through a tour company.

Aeroplan Locking Accounts For Signup Bonuses

Air Canada Aeroplan is a popular program to use for award bookings, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people outside of Canada engage with it. You can transfer your points from American Express, Capital One, Marriott Bonvoy and Chase to the Aeroplan program, and use them to book flights on either Air Canada or its truly massive number of airline partners (both StarAlliance and other carriers such as Etihad and Oman Air). So given that, you might be tempted to pick up a Chase Aeroplan co-branded card. These recently launched, and they come with a generous sign-up bonus along with some excellent bonus categories (such as 3x points at grocery stores).

See polar bears with Calm Air, an Aeroplan partner

Well, if you had the Chase Aeroplan card in mind to get you closer to an Aeroplan award, you might want to put those plans on hold. Air Canada has just updated their Aeroplan terms and conditions with some vague and disturbing legalese to their Terms and Conditions that seems targeted at people who qualify for welcome bonuses from Aeroplan banking partners (like Chase):

"Aeroplan may, in its sole discretion, choose to limit the number of Welcome Bonuses or similar bonuses or incentives a Member may receive in any period, and, in addition to the other remedies set forth in these Terms and Conditions, reserves the right to suspend, revoke or terminate the Account of any person who engages in a behaviour of excessive use of the Welcome Bonus offers."

Aeroplan then goes on to vaguely define what it considers abuse in a non-specific way. It’s important to note that this language appeared after multiple Canadian users of Aeroplan reported that their accounts have already been locked “at the request of a bank” after qualifying for signup bonuses, so it appears that Aeroplan is already locking accounts based on some set of criteria.

One of the downsides of frequent flier programs is that they are almost entirely unregulated, and when they operate in countries like Canada (which offers generally poor consumer protections, especially when it comes to airlines) you’re pretty much entirely at the mercy of an airline. They control the vertical and the horizontal. The points in your account hold no value, as they happily remind you in the Terms and Conditions (irrespective of the fact that you can buy them from the airline for actual money), and they also don’t belong to you. It’s very much a one-sided deal.

I don’t know how this is going to ultimately shake out. It’s almost unheard of that an airline program would lock a frequent flier account because of a legitimately earned signup bonus. However, this has clearly happened. Until the dust settles, I recommend that you don’t sign up for the Chase co-branded Aeroplan card. There aren’t enough benefits to holding the card for most people in the US to justify the risk that Aeroplan will randomly decide to torch your account because you earned a signup bonus.

An Epic Redemption To Svalbard And Moldova

Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.

If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.

That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.

Svalbard is way north!

The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!

The settlement of Barentsburg still has a statue of Lenin!

Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!

Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.

Abandoned Soviet circus? Yes, please!

Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.

Selecting A Mileage Program

Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.

I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.

I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).

Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).

16,773 miles in economy class

Yes, It’s In Economy Class

If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).

There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.

Considering The Cost

The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.

80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.

Availability: The Toughest Hurdle

In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.

This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.

One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.

Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown

I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.

The least expensive reasonable itinerary

I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.

Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:

  • $1,773
  • $223
  • $79
  • = $1,471
  • % 60,000
  • = 2.5 cents per point

Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.

This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.

Wrap-Up

I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!

A Trip To Christmas Island

Part 1: Planning

Earlier this year, Qantas ran a crazy sale on flights to Australia. I was able to score a $550 roundtrip on their A380 from Vancouver to Sydney. These weren’t nonstop flights (the outbound was from Dallas and the return was to Los Angeles), and Vancouver isn’t exactly a convenient airport for me to use given that I live in the Seattle area, but the savings were worth it—especially since the over 16,000 miles of flying credits at 100% to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically aim for 2.4 cents per point in fully loaded value from my Alaska Airlines points, and I’m regularly able to achieve this. So, it was like paying $75 each way. To Sydney, Australia.

Then, from a miles and points perspective, things got even better. Alaska ran a double miles promo for flights on Qantas, meaning that I’d get 200% mileage credit for these flights. When combined with the small mileage credit I received for my positioning flight on American, this $550 ticket scored me a massive points haul of 32,614 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. The way I spend them, it’s $783 in value, so in effect, Alaska Airlines paid me $233 to go to Australia. I don’t have any elite status with Alaska (most of my flights are paid for with miles and points, not cash) but if I had, I could have scored a nice tier bonus on top of this.

The catch was that August is winter in Australia, the weather isn’t great in Sydney, and the sale fare wasn’t available to other Australian destinations. Australian friends warned me that it’d be cold, so I looked into flying onward from Sydney to warmer destinations. I have been on an island kick lately, most recently visiting The Seychelles. I also have a trip booked to Providencia later next year. So when I started researching Australian island destinations, Christmas Island caught my eye.

The majority of Christmas Island is a national park

The island is most famous for its red land crab migration, which occurs during the rainy season. Millions of them swarm the beaches and cover them (along with the roads), basically creating a river of crabs. I wouldn’t be visiting at the right time of year for that, but I would be visiting early enough to disconnect from the Internet. Christmas Island is one of the few places in the world still connected only by satellite (a fiber optic connection to Singapore is currently under construction). Also, there are only two flights a week. So it definitely checked my box of “not reachable from work.” When I’m on vacation, I like to truly unplug, which, given the ubiquity of the Internet, is really difficult to do these days.

Internet is available only by satellite

I scheduled a day in Sydney and an overnight in Perth en route (to allow recovery time for missed connections–this is super important when visiting a place where there only two flights per week), and booked my onward flights. Flights to Christmas Island are very expensive on Virgin Australia on their fully economy class configured aircraft, but I was able to book this flight with 45,000 Delta SkyMiles. I also needed to get from Sydney to Perth in order to catch my flight, so ended up using American Airlines AAdvantage points for this. Domestic flights on Qantas within Australia in economy class cost 10,000 AAdvantage points each way. I also received a 2000 mile rebate on the roundtrip using a now-discontinued Citi credit card benefit, so I ended up paying 18,000 miles plus about $40 in taxes.

Continue to Part 2 – Qantas A380 Economy Class Review

American Airlines Awards Bookable On Iberia Again

Shortly after the British Airways Avios devaluation, American Airlines awards became impossible to book with Iberia Avios. If you called agents, they would see available flights online but couldn’t actually book them. I was concerned that an additional devaluation may be in the works, because the Iberia award chart is slightly more attractive than the British Airways award chart for booking most flights (especially short haul flights) on American Airlines.

The prices shown are for round-trip itineraries, based on total mileage for all segments.

Iberia Avios are particularly valuable for redemptions on American Airlines that involve connections. British Airways Avios charges per flight, making connecting itineraries much more expensive.

Well, as of today, American Airlines awards are again bookable with Iberia Avios. Award flights are showing up online for both American Airlines mainline and American Eagle inventory (and yes, that is a flight you’re seeing from SEA-LAX which does compete with an Alaska Airlines route).

Iberia has an apparent glitch in their tax calculation. They charge you almost double what the tax should actually be. Keep this in mind if you buy your tickets online:

If you choose to book with Iberia Avios, keep in mind that unlike British Airways Avios, there are very significant restrictions on partner awards. You can only book round-trip awards, and no changes or cancellations are permitted whatsoever. You either fly as booked or you lose your ticket.

JAL Blocking Seat Selection On Award Tickets

I’m returning from Bangkok after Songkran next year, and it’s a long flight. Over the past two months, I just earned a ton of American Airlines AAdvantage points through generous credit card signup bonuses. However, no sooner had I earned them than the program started rapidly devaluing by moving to a dynamic award pricing scheme for flights on American Airlines. Given my lack of trust in AAdvantage at this stage, I decided to make burning these points a priority.

JAL recently started service to Seattle on their new 787, which is configured with Apex Suites (they brand it SKY Suites). And better yet, there was a more or less perfect itinerary returning from Bangkok which was bookable with AAdvantage points. Because it’s a partner flight, it’s also still bookable at the old (pre-devaluation) AAdvantage rates! So, using the brand new capability to reserve JAL flights on the AAdvantage Web site, I booked the flight.

With these seats, seat selection matters. Window seats in this configuration are much better and more private than aisle seats. So, I went ahead and called American Airlines to get the JAL confirmation code, which I then plugged in to the JAL Web site to pick seats. I was super disappointed to see the following maps:

No window seats. None at all. Right?

Only aisle seats were available to select. However, this didn’t sit right with me. This is a brand new flight to Seattle, and April isn’t exactly peak season to fly to Seattle. Who would be buying out every single good seat on the plane, in a premium cabin?

So, in a separate incognito browser window, I assumed my trusty alter ego of “Fo Do” and went back to the JAL site. This time, I was buying a flight, rather than assigning seats on an already ticketed flight. Lo and behold, when you’re not booking a partner award but are buying a flight from JAL, the seat map is totally different:

Just look at all those window seats!

Exasperated, I took a note of all of the open seats (any of which would be acceptable) and called JAL. Naturally their US office was closed, so I called their Tokyo number and reached an astonishingly dishonest agent (I’m used to being lied to in many countries in Asia, but not in Japan). First the agent lied and said the first two seats I asked for were “under airport control.” OK, fine, I gave him two alternates. These were “reserved for elites.” OK, fine, I gave him the last alternate. “This seat is not available.” Why isn’t it available? “I’m sorry, it’s not available.”

The agent was clearly uncomfortable with the conversation, so I explained exactly where I was looking at the seat map, and that the seats were clearly available. So why, when I already have a ticket, am I not able to pick one of those seats? Was there possibly a technical problem? Might it be possible another way (in Asia, always provide a face-saving way for someone to solve your problem)?

Nope. The agent wouldn’t budge. The seats weren’t available and that’s that. So I asked some very sharp questions. Is seat selection blocked for partner award tickets? For award tickets in general? And with that, I got a clear answer: yes, it’s blocked by fare class. The only way to pick a window seat on an award ticket is to check in online 24 hours in advance and hope one is still there.

This is incredibly frustrating. I went out of my way to fly JAL, and paid quite a bit more, to enjoy the excellent SKY Suites experience. For me, it’ll be considerably less excellent in an aisle seat.

Icelandair Awards Unavailable With Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

I forgot that there’s a long weekend ahead, and what better to do with a long weekend than fly to Iceland? This may seem crazy, but domestic travel during holiday weekends is crowded and expensive, while international travel is often available with points last-minute. When I went to check on Alaska Airlines’ Web site, though, nothing was available. I mean, nothing. There was no availability from any Icelandair gateway city all the way through the end of the schedule.

I reached out to Alaska Airlines on Twitter and after some back-and forth they have confirmed that there is an issue:

It’s unfortunate that, given the current lack of European partners, one of them isn’t bookable. Hopefully Alaska will solve the problem soon!