Mileage program comparisons

This item appears on page 38 of the April 2017 issue.
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Nancy Tan of Fresno, California, wrote, “I would be very interested in reading comparisons of airlines’ frequent-flyer-mileage programs from travelers who are members of more than one airline’s loyalty program.”

We asked those of you who are members of more than one airline’s or airline alliance’s frequent-flyer program to tell us which one you prefer and why. What are some specific differences between the programs? When you have a choice of airlines on a particular route, do you make your decision based on the mileage program and, if so, for what reason(s)?

We are printing, below, some of the responses we received, and we will present more in the next issue.


My husband and I are members of the frequent-flyer-miles programs of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Before Continental and US Airways consolidated, we also were members of their programs.

Why all of them? It costs nothing to join, so why not? They all flew out of our airport, one which is relatively small (Rochester, New York). If we lived near a hub, we would definitely have concentrated on the major airline there, but no such luck.

When I started collecting miles, it was because my parents were still alive and living in Florida. In case of an emergency, I knew I could get a ticket at the last minute for 25,000 miles plus $75. Also, as long as the starting and ending points were the same, there was no cost to change the return date if I found out I had to stay longer. Unfortunately, I had to make use of this more than once. (Miles can still be used for last-minute purchases.)

Over the years, we have had an airline-sponsored credit card for each of those airlines. We would apply for a card when an airline offered big bonuses, like 30,000 to 50,000 miles. Yes, the credit cards each have a fee after the first year, but we feel we have more than gotten our money’s worth. 

When we charge the cost of a flight on an airline’s card, we get to check luggage for free. We also get priority boarding, which means not having to worry about finding overhead bin space. We have also been fortunate to use miles to fly in business class many times, paying extra just for the cost of taxes (usually under $50).

So what has changed? Delta. After Delta changed its program to a system in which miles are awarded based on ticket cost instead of miles flown, they also changed the costs (in miles) of the flights. There is no set amount to aim for, such as 40,000 for a main-cabin seat on a flight to Europe. It changes just like the dollar prices of tickets change. 

It is now very expensive getting a business-class ticket when using miles on Delta, and we were planning to move ourselves away from their program.

On the other hand, main-cabin flights on Delta can be very cheap, a lot cheaper than those on United or American. We flew Delta round trip from Rochester to San Francisco in February 2017, returning in March, and a main-cabin ticket cost $327! American and United were charging almost twice as much. For that price, we fly Delta and pay cash. It is not worth it to use miles or to use another airline.

A very good feature of using miles is being able to get one-way tickets for literally half the “cost” of round-trip tickets. So we have been able to use miles from one airline to take us to Europe and those of another airline to take us home.

A negative feature is you don’t usually get the best routing. For a trip to Tenerife (admittedly not a major airport) in 2016 on American, we flew Rochester to Charleston to Chicago to Heathrow and then had to change to Gatwick for our final leg to the Canary Islands, but it was business class all the way, plus we had the use of lounges at the stopovers — another advantage of flying business class. 

(We could have had better routing if we had used British Airways out of the US instead of American, but the flights on BA to Heathrow have very high taxes. In our case, it would have been over $700 per person on that routing. For that much money, we’ll take the extra leg and pay for the Heathrow-to-Gatwick transfer.)

I must admit, it can take a lot of time and effort to find the best routing using miles. Not all flight itineraries are available, as we found out with our Tenerife flights, but I don’t think it takes much more time than I would spend looking for the best price. 

In the end, using miles has allowed us to fly business class for free on long-haul flights. On international flights where we weren’t able to fly business class, mileage seats have still saved us about $1,000 per person, round trip. To me, it has been worth the (sometimes) hassle. When we travel, I can think of better ways to spend that money than on airfare.

Diane Robbins, Penfield, NY 

 

The programs my wife and I use are those of United Airlines and American Airlines as well as that of the hotel chain Starwood (the latter in conjunction with the American Express card). We now charge nearly all our purchases with the Starwood/American Express card and exchange their points for miles. 

You can look up which programs Starwood points can be transferred to plus the exchange rates. Because United gives only one mile for every two Starwood points, we always transfer points to American Airlines (AA) at a one-to-one ratio. We still have AA and United credit cards but use them much less than the Starwood one.

On both American and United, you can go online to book flights using miles. This is often easier than dealing with an agent. However, you have to be very careful to understand what is being presented, as some flights you may want can be twice the cost, in points, than what you want to pay. 

For example, United has a “Business Saver Award” and a “Business Standard Award.” The first may cost 80,000 points and the second, 180,000 points. Since we always want the most for our points, we obviously want to book the lower-cost one, but there are fewer choices for those lower-cost seats.

The other issue that arises is surcharges. For example, using United points to fly British Air can cost real money. Be sure to check that out before booking.

Be careful with United’s business-class overseas flights. When looking at the United self-booking site, you may see the term “Mixed Flight,” which means your first flight will be to a hub in economy, and then you will be in business class for the overseas flight. 

Same coming back. For example, a flight from San Francisco to Cape Town will have an economy flight to Washington, DC, and then business-class flights to Addis Ababa and on to Cape Town.

For over 40 years, we have used frequent-flyer miles to fly business class on international flights only. We’ve never used them within the US, as the values don’t add up like they do for overseas flights. 

With economy awards, the number of flights to choose from is much greater, but you may have to make an extra stop or even two. Dates make a difference, so looking at the airline’s website can really help.

We have found we can get nearly everywhere in the world with either American’s program or United’s, as each airline is partners with other airlines.

Often, flying on a partner airline has had some benefits, such as being able to work with that airline directly for schedule changes. For example, in January 2017 we flew SWISS to France and then Morocco, and United, which booked the flight, was very hard to work with. Going directly to SWISS was like a dream when dealing with the flight changes I wanted to make.

When joining any miles program, the first issue — especially when using credit card miles for points — is determining what restrictions are up front, such as the number of points that can be earned in a month or year.

When my wife and I gathered points through our business, we would run into these issues. When we first found this out, we added a second airline’s program. We monitored carefully what we charged to each program’s card. United had a 60,000-point limit per year, so when we hit that limit, we switched to the American Airlines card.

The second thing to consider is what prevailing airline you are near. For example, where I live, in northern California’s Bay Area, United is the biggest carrier, so it makes sense for us to use United. If you are in Dallas, you would consider using American Airlines, for obvious reasons. 

It is also important to consider which airline you are going to fly the most, and then get its branded credit card in order to rack up points.

Third, each airline card has fine print that may limit what can be “bought” with points on any given flight. We keep each of our original more-than-40-year-old programs for this reason. The come-on for any new airline-card program is up-front points, but read the fine print carefully to deem if there are limitations.

 Fourth, consider using credit cards that are not sponsored by airlines but which allow you to transfer points to airlines. For example, Starwood Preferred American Express is great for awarding bonus points that can be transferred to many airline programs; for every 20,000 points transferred, we get 5,000 extra points!

Next, how many flights are you willing to take to get a “free” one? You often find there are no nonstop flights to your destination that you can buy with points, but one is available with a stopover in, say, Montréal if you can spend a bit more time traveling. 

Sometimes we have had to take three flight legs to get those business-class tickets. For our flights home from Morocco during our recent trip, we endured flying from Marrakech to Zürich, Geneva, Frankfurt (overnight stay) and then San Francisco. 

Total persistence is necessary to get the flights you desire. Day to day, the situation can change. If you’re offered flights that are not ideal, just keep calling to see if a better result can be achieved.

Finally, getting frequent-flyer points just for flying takes a lot of flying if you are not flying for business, so add that airline credit card to your wallet to assist you in getting your trips.

Joseph Whitehouse, Oakland, CA

 

Though I have used up my Avianca LifeMiles (which once got me to Nicaragua round trip in exchange for 24,000 miles), I still have miles in United Mileage Plus, American Airlines AAdvantage and Delta Skymiles.

United has worked best for me. However, purchasing a flight with miles takes a phone call much of the time. Also, they tend to want to send you to Europe on Lufthansa. I prefer Turkish Airlines.

After I listen to what they have to offer, I say, “My ideal routing would be…,” and I have done well with that practice, sometimes only having to change a flight forward or back a day.

I never fly on United Airlines if I can help it, but I love their partner airlines. However, in October 2016 I flew on United from Los Angeles to Newark Liberty Airport, and the service was as good as on the old Continental Airlines. I was very pleased. 

Three-hundred-and-thirty-one days ahead of a November 2015 trip, I was able to book a round trip to Australia with AAdvantage miles for the minimum amount of miles, going out on Fiji Airways to Sydney and, three weeks later, coming home from Melbourne (via Brisbane) on Qantas in business class. [All three are oneworld partner airlines. — Editor]

We had asked AA for Qantas flights nonstop to Sydney and home from Melbourne, but we found Fiji Airways (in business class) to be truly excellent, and we were glad to have a stopover in Brisbane. Both airlines were great. 

In December 2016 I tried to book a trip to India using Skymiles. Delta’s website offered only Aeroflot, which I was not interested in. The website has no mileage chart, either. Delta’s phone operators seemed to be just as uninformed.

United, with Mileage Plus, and American, with AAdvantage, are great, if you book way ahead (or perhaps at the last minute), but don’t bother trying to fly either of them in high season.

Carl Boyer
Santa Clarita, CA

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Nancy Tan of Fresno, California, wrote, “I would be very interested in reading comparisons of airlines’ frequent-flyer-mileage programs from travelers who are members of more than one airline’s loyalty program.”

We asked those of you who are members of more than one airline’s or airline alliance’s frequent-flyer program to tell us which one you prefer and why. What are some specific differences between the programs? When you have a choice of airlines on a particular route, do you make your decision based on the mileage program and, if so, for what reason(s)?

We are printing, below, some of the responses we received, and we will present more in the next issue.


My husband and I are members of the frequent-flyer-miles programs of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Before Continental and US Airways consolidated, we also were members of their programs.

Why all of them? It costs nothing to join, so why not? They all flew out of our airport, one which is relatively small (Rochester, New York). If we lived near a hub, we would definitely have concentrated on the major airline there, but no such luck.

When I started collecting miles, it was because my parents were still alive and living in Florida. In case of an emergency, I knew I could get a ticket at the last minute for 25,000 miles plus $75. Also, as long as the starting and ending points were the same, there was no cost to change the return date if I found out I had to stay longer. Unfortunately, I had to make use of this more than once. (Miles can still be used for last-minute purchases.)

Over the years, we have had an airline-sponsored credit card for each of those airlines. We would apply for a card when an airline offered big bonuses, like 30,000 to 50,000 miles. Yes, the credit cards each have a fee after the first year, but we feel we have more than gotten our money’s worth. 

When we charge the cost of a flight on an airline’s card, we get to check luggage for free. We also get priority boarding, which means not having to worry about finding overhead bin space. We have also been fortunate to use miles to fly in business class many times, paying extra just for the cost of taxes (usually under $50).

So what has changed? Delta. After Delta changed its program to a system in which miles are awarded based on ticket cost instead of miles flown, they also changed the costs (in miles) of the flights. There is no set amount to aim for, such as 40,000 for a main-cabin seat on a flight to Europe. It changes just like the dollar prices of tickets change. 

It is now very expensive getting a business-class ticket when using miles on Delta, and we were planning to move ourselves away from their program.

On the other hand, main-cabin flights on Delta can be very cheap, a lot cheaper than those on United or American. We flew Delta round trip from Rochester to San Francisco in February 2017, returning in March, and a main-cabin ticket cost $327! American and United were charging almost twice as much. For that price, we fly Delta and pay cash. It is not worth it to use miles or to use another airline.

A very good feature of using miles is being able to get one-way tickets for literally half the “cost” of round-trip tickets. So we have been able to use miles from one airline to take us to Europe and those of another airline to take us home.

A negative feature is you don’t usually get the best routing. For a trip to Tenerife (admittedly not a major airport) in 2016 on American, we flew Rochester to Charleston to Chicago to Heathrow and then had to change to Gatwick for our final leg to the Canary Islands, but it was business class all the way, plus we had the use of lounges at the stopovers — another advantage of flying business class. 

(We could have had better routing if we had used British Airways out of the US instead of American, but the flights on BA to Heathrow have very high taxes. In our case, it would have been over $700 per person on that routing. For that much money, we’ll take the extra leg and pay for the Heathrow-to-Gatwick transfer.)

I must admit, it can take a lot of time and effort to find the best routing using miles. Not all flight itineraries are available, as we found out with our Tenerife flights, but I don’t think it takes much more time than I would spend looking for the best price. 

In the end, using miles has allowed us to fly business class for free on long-haul flights. On international flights where we weren’t able to fly business class, mileage seats have still saved us about $1,000 per person, round trip. To me, it has been worth the (sometimes) hassle. When we travel, I can think of better ways to spend that money than on airfare.

Diane Robbins, Penfield, NY 

 

The programs my wife and I use are those of United Airlines and American Airlines as well as that of the hotel chain Starwood (the latter in conjunction with the American Express card). We now charge nearly all our purchases with the Starwood/American Express card and exchange their points for miles. 

You can look up which programs Starwood points can be transferred to plus the exchange rates. Because United gives only one mile for every two Starwood points, we always transfer points to American Airlines (AA) at a one-to-one ratio. We still have AA and United credit cards but use them much less than the Starwood one.

On both American and United, you can go online to book flights using miles. This is often easier than dealing with an agent. However, you have to be very careful to understand what is being presented, as some flights you may want can be twice the cost, in points, than what you want to pay. 

For example, United has a “Business Saver Award” and a “Business Standard Award.” The first may cost 80,000 points and the second, 180,000 points. Since we always want the most for our points, we obviously want to book the lower-cost one, but there are fewer choices for those lower-cost seats.

The other issue that arises is surcharges. For example, using United points to fly British Air can cost real money. Be sure to check that out before booking.

Be careful with United’s business-class overseas flights. When looking at the United self-booking site, you may see the term “Mixed Flight,” which means your first flight will be to a hub in economy, and then you will be in business class for the overseas flight. 

Same coming back. For example, a flight from San Francisco to Cape Town will have an economy flight to Washington, DC, and then business-class flights to Addis Ababa and on to Cape Town.

For over 40 years, we have used frequent-flyer miles to fly business class on international flights only. We’ve never used them within the US, as the values don’t add up like they do for overseas flights. 

With economy awards, the number of flights to choose from is much greater, but you may have to make an extra stop or even two. Dates make a difference, so looking at the airline’s website can really help.

We have found we can get nearly everywhere in the world with either American’s program or United’s, as each airline is partners with other airlines.

Often, flying on a partner airline has had some benefits, such as being able to work with that airline directly for schedule changes. For example, in January 2017 we flew SWISS to France and then Morocco, and United, which booked the flight, was very hard to work with. Going directly to SWISS was like a dream when dealing with the flight changes I wanted to make.

When joining any miles program, the first issue — especially when using credit card miles for points — is determining what restrictions are up front, such as the number of points that can be earned in a month or year.

When my wife and I gathered points through our business, we would run into these issues. When we first found this out, we added a second airline’s program. We monitored carefully what we charged to each program’s card. United had a 60,000-point limit per year, so when we hit that limit, we switched to the American Airlines card.

The second thing to consider is what prevailing airline you are near. For example, where I live, in northern California’s Bay Area, United is the biggest carrier, so it makes sense for us to use United. If you are in Dallas, you would consider using American Airlines, for obvious reasons. 

It is also important to consider which airline you are going to fly the most, and then get its branded credit card in order to rack up points.

Third, each airline card has fine print that may limit what can be “bought” with points on any given flight. We keep each of our original more-than-40-year-old programs for this reason. The come-on for any new airline-card program is up-front points, but read the fine print carefully to deem if there are limitations.

 Fourth, consider using credit cards that are not sponsored by airlines but which allow you to transfer points to airlines. For example, Starwood Preferred American Express is great for awarding bonus points that can be transferred to many airline programs; for every 20,000 points transferred, we get 5,000 extra points!

Next, how many flights are you willing to take to get a “free” one? You often find there are no nonstop flights to your destination that you can buy with points, but one is available with a stopover in, say, Montréal if you can spend a bit more time traveling. 

Sometimes we have had to take three flight legs to get those business-class tickets. For our flights home from Morocco during our recent trip, we endured flying from Marrakech to Zürich, Geneva, Frankfurt (overnight stay) and then San Francisco. 

Total persistence is necessary to get the flights you desire. Day to day, the situation can change. If you’re offered flights that are not ideal, just keep calling to see if a better result can be achieved.

Finally, getting frequent-flyer points just for flying takes a lot of flying if you are not flying for business, so add that airline credit card to your wallet to assist you in getting your trips.

Joseph Whitehouse, Oakland, CA

 

Though I have used up my Avianca LifeMiles (which once got me to Nicaragua round trip in exchange for 24,000 miles), I still have miles in United Mileage Plus, American Airlines AAdvantage and Delta Skymiles.

United has worked best for me. However, purchasing a flight with miles takes a phone call much of the time. Also, they tend to want to send you to Europe on Lufthansa. I prefer Turkish Airlines.

After I listen to what they have to offer, I say, “My ideal routing would be…,” and I have done well with that practice, sometimes only having to change a flight forward or back a day.

I never fly on United Airlines if I can help it, but I love their partner airlines. However, in October 2016 I flew on United from Los Angeles to Newark Liberty Airport, and the service was as good as on the old Continental Airlines. I was very pleased. 

Three-hundred-and-thirty-one days ahead of a November 2015 trip, I was able to book a round trip to Australia with AAdvantage miles for the minimum amount of miles, going out on Fiji Airways to Sydney and, three weeks later, coming home from Melbourne (via Brisbane) on Qantas in business class. [All three are oneworld partner airlines. — Editor]

We had asked AA for Qantas flights nonstop to Sydney and home from Melbourne, but we found Fiji Airways (in business class) to be truly excellent, and we were glad to have a stopover in Brisbane. Both airlines were great. 

In December 2016 I tried to book a trip to India using Skymiles. Delta’s website offered only Aeroflot, which I was not interested in. The website has no mileage chart, either. Delta’s phone operators seemed to be just as uninformed.

United, with Mileage Plus, and American, with AAdvantage, are great, if you book way ahead (or perhaps at the last minute), but don’t bother trying to fly either of them in high season.

Carl Boyer
Santa Clarita, CA