In the comments section of my post today about American offering United flyers status matches, FBKSan left (in part) the following comment:
I was surprised not to see more discussion of using miles, however. I get that the post is primarily about AA and its policies, but the ability to use miles is pretty central. I continue to be underwhelmed by the thought of what my AA miles could do. I realize *A availability has waned somewhat lately, but the sheer number of star partners still really appeals to me. Moreover, BA’s prominent position in OneWorld makes me gun-shy (those surcharges!) I’ve seen you and Gary comment positively about AA award availability and flight experiences, but their hard product in C is a real drag. I’ve come to really value the seat, especially when I’m flying a domestic carrier, so for me UA trumps AA.
For a long time I’ve considered United miles to be the most valuable mileage currency out there by far, given the liberal routing and stopover rules, reasonable award costs, and excellent partners. That being said, everyday the value of American miles is creeping up, in my opinion, while the value of United miles continues to slowly decrease.
Over the past few years we’ve seen the following happen with Star Alliance award availability for United flyers:
- Swiss has completely stopped releasing first class award space to/from the US more than 24 hours in advance
- Singapore has more or less stopped releasing award space in first and business class
- Lufthansa has stopped releasing first class award space more than a week or two before departure (this was the biggest blow, since they were the backbone of Star Alliance transatlantic first class award space)
- Air New Zealand has become even more stingy with releasing premium cabin award space out of North America
- ANA is hardly releasing first class award space anymore, even in the winter months when they previously were pretty generous
Of course these are all just trends. Meanwhile, using American miles, we’ve seen the following over the past couple of years:
- Cathay Pacific has continued to release more and more award space, often two first class award seats per flight
- American added Etihad as a partner, which has excellent award availability and a very nice first class suite
- After a long anti-trust agreement, American miles could once again be used for transatlantic travel on British Airways, though with very hefty fuel surcharges
But when you break it down by destination, American miles look more and more compelling (keep in mind I’m talking specifically about premium cabin award redemptions):
Asia — American
American miles are hands down more valuable than United miles for premium cabin redemptions to Asia. American releases plenty of first class award space on their own flights, as does Cathay Pacific and JAL. Meanwhile using United miles, only Asiana, Air China, and United release award space in first class between the US and Asia, none of which have nearly as much space as American or Cathay Pacific.
South America — American
Okay, this one’s not even close. American has one of the most extensive route networks to South America (they fly to at least a dozen places down there that I’ve never heard of), and they also partner with LAN, which has the most extensive route network in South America.
Australia — American
In the past Air New Zealand used to be a great way to get to Australia using United miles, but I’ve just about written them off because I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a premium cabin award seat on them. Compare that to American, which partners with Qantas. While Qantas is stingy with award space, they do occasionally release space, and it’s even possible to redeem for Airbus 380 first class with them. Furthermore, American partners with Air Pacific, Air Tahiti Nui and Hawaiian, which also serve Australia/New Zealand.
Middle East — American
American partners with Etihad, El Al, and Royal Jordanian. Etihad is especially generous with releasing award space and they have a fully flat first and business class product, so you really can’t beat that for getting to the Middle East.
Europe — United
Believe it or not, I consider this one to be at only a slight margin. Why? Because the only first class product you can book between the US and Europe in advance is United first class. In the past you could redeem on Lufthansa and Swiss in advance, in which case I’d say United won by a long shot.
But with American you can also redeem for first class on their own flights with relative ease, with the added option of redeeming on British Airways with very high fuel surcharges. It’s not ideal, but at least you have the option of essentially paying a premium to fly a foreign carrier.
But United does still have the edge thanks to how many partners they have in Europe, including Austrian, LOT, Lufthansa, SAS, and TAP. The only issue is that for the most part they’re not very generous with releasing transatlantic award space. Still, it’s better than what American offers.
Africa — United
United partners with both South African Airways and Ethiopian Airways, so has a much more extensive route network to and around Africa.
But there are two major caveats I should emphasize. If you can wait till the last minute to book, United miles are very valuable, since Lufthansa, Swiss, and often even ANA do open up award space close to departure. Second, United does have very liberal routing rules which American doesn’t. So in many of the above instances if you’re willing to travel “the long way” you’ll have better luck with United than American. For example, with United you can travel to Australia via Asia, or to Asia via Europe.
But the average person doesn’t want to fly the long way and doesn’t want to wait till a few days before departure to finalize their trip. So which points currency is more valuable really comes down to your travel needs and flexibility. I think one thing is clear, though — the value of American miles has been on the rise over the past couple of years, in both absolute terms (thanks to their new partnerships) and relative terms (thanks to the decreasing value of miles with other programs).
What do you guys think?