In general my mantra about the whole frequent flyer thing is to try and look on the bright side – that for all of the complaining that this community tends to engage in, there’s been so much good….for years many of us have gotten to travel all over the place, in comfort, for a pretty reasonable number of miles, most of which we had accumulated by doing things other than traveling. As I’ve written here a whole bunch of times, it’s been a golden age.
Until today…and even I can’t see a single shimmer of light in United’s announcement today. For those of us who use miles to travel internationally in business class, the game is, while not exactly over, considerably more over than it was.
One thing I’ve found interesting: People love JetBlue and Virgin America. Love them. People speak far more highly of those two airlines than they do of any other, in my experience. And neither has anything resembling a real frequent flyer program. They’ve chosen to compete through service and experience, and (largely) they’ve succeeded. The big carriers have (in large part) decided to compete using frequent flyer miles (and relied on the banks to keep these programs profitable). And travelers have become addicted to these programs (and to the loopholes, games, and general fun of trying to accumulate as many points as possible) to the point where making any change to the program leads to a tremendous amount of blowback.
Now, blowback and loss of business are two different things. Delta has an embarassment of a program, but it’s grown into a profitable behemoth of an airline. The lesson? The ability to redeem those frequent flyer miles at a reasonable rate does not a profitable airline, make. Sorry, but it’s true. And United woke up to that and, unfortunately, we’re feeling that pain today.
But enough with the whining (for now)…I thought I’d share the best frequent flyer programs to redeem for business class trips to different regions, now that United’s chart has gone off the rails for partner travel. I’m assuming departures from the US, and I’m also assuming that US Airways will be disappearing soon enough, so I’ve left them out. I’ve also skipped North America and South America since those didn’t change much with the devaluation today.
If you’re going to Dublin from Boston, Avios is 50,000 points round trip on Aer Lingus with no fuel surcharges. If you’re flying to Dusseldorf or Berlin, Avios charges 80,000 points round trip on Air Berlin, with no fuel surcharges.
If United actually has award availability you are generally better off using ANA’s points – their distance-based award chart starts at 63,000 miles in business class roundtrip from New York to Dublin or London. Most of Europe from most of the US will max out at 90,000 miles roundtrip in business class. They do not impose fuel surcharges on United or Air Canada metal (but they do on just about all other airlines to Europe). Membership Rewards and Starwood both transfer to ANA.
If you’re going to Accra or Lagos, you should use those ANA points – it’s just 90,000 miles with no fuel surcharges when you fly on United metal. If you’re willing to fly via Dubai, you could use about 100,000 JAL miles (from Starwood) on Emirates. Unfortunately if you’re going anywhere in Africa via a more direct route you’re either going to need United’s now-miserable award chart, or you’re going to pay fuel surcharges. You may decide that 90,000 miles + $500 or so in surcharges is better than 160,000 miles (ie, are 70,000 miles worth more than $500? Probably).
TO MIDDLE EAST
Using JAL points (transferred from Starwood) to use on Emirates generally makes the most sense. They have a distance-based award chart where you’ll pay about 85k-100k miles roundtrip with no fuel surcharges for most Middle East itineraries.
American Airlines is 100-110k for business class to Asia, which is fantastic if you can ever find availability. Korean (via Ultimate Rewards) charges 125,000 miles round trip (150,000 to Southeast Asia). If you can get on United metal, the 140,000 miles they charge don’t seem so crazy anymore for business class. You can also use Avios points on Cathay, which will also run you 140,000 miles with no fuel surcharges (assuming you’re flying nonstop to Hong Kong – it’ll be additional mileage if you need to connect). Unfortunately you’ll find surcharges when you use ANA points (even on United metal) when you fly to Asia.
ANA allows you to fly on Air New Zealand with no fuel surcharges. Round trip flights in business cost just 90,000 miles for flights from LA (good luck finding availability on that, btw). If you can actually find availability Alaska Airlines charges 105,000 miles round trip on Delta or 110,000 on Qantas.
Any that I missed?