Where To Credit Cheap First Class Fares On United

Travis is my first new contributor to the blog, who will be posting a couple of times per week. The idea behind adding guest contributors is to add different perspectives to the blog. Travis has a unique approach towards travel, given that he travels almost exclusively with his wife and young children, which is in stark contrast to my travels, which are usually alone.


Last June, United had a fare mistake sale in which they sold First class tickets between Boston and Seoul for about $1,700. While not as deep a discount as United’s recent Great Dane (not honored) or American’s Beijing fares (honored), it still represented significant savings over retail. Of course, I’m not sure who would ever pay that to fly first on United, but regardless, this was a pretty good deal.

A good friend of mine, Ben (not that Ben!), lives in Boston, so we decided to take a joint trip with our families to Korea. That trip is soon to commence. (To avoid confusion, I thought of referring to him as Unlucky Ben, but decided that “Boston Ben” had a better ring to it.)

At the time of booking, United still awarded miles based on distance flown. They also had class of service bonuses for premium cabin travel — for A fares such as these, the bonus was 175% or 250% depending on whether it was a 2- or 3-cabin plane. That means that a General Member such as my friend Ben, would have earned 37,784 United miles for the standard Boston – San Francisco – Seoul round trip.

Then United announced the switch to revenue-based earnings beginning March 1, 2015, at which point this trip to Korea suddenly became a lot less lucrative. Instead of earning nearly 38,000 miles, it will now earn about 7000 if credited to United. Ouch! I mean, the trip is still a good deal, just not as good as it once was.

Now my friend “Boston Ben” is looking to me for advice on where to credit the miles other than United. And I’m realizing that there isn’t a clear-cut answer.

United 747 first class seat
United 747 first class seat

Here is my analysis. Of course, I’d really like to hear your comments and ideas.

Boston Ben’s Travel Profile

“Boston Ben” travels with his wife and two young kids. He doesn’t fly for work. He takes a couple of trips each year with the family, usually international (Europe) and in business class. He primarily uses his Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card, and has a boatload of Ultimate Rewards points. His last big trip was to Switzerland where he was able to redeem for five seats in Swiss business class. He doesn’t travel much domestically.

Here is my analysis of the various options.

Lufthansa Miles & More

Lufthansa credits United A fares at 300%. This trip should earn 50,208 Lufthansa miles per person.

Pros:

More miles than he was originally expecting to earn. Each person would earn enough miles for exactly two domestic round trips on United. They could also use their miles for one round-trip to the Caribbean with enough left over for a domestic one-way award.

Cons:

Lufthansa adds fuel surcharges to award tickets, except for trips within the US, the Caribbean, or to South America.

Lufthansa doesn’t have any transfer partners. “Boston Ben” and his wife could apply for the Lufthansa credit card to boost their account, but that won’t help the kids’ accounts.

Miles expire 3 years from the date they were earned.

Lufthansa Miles & More
Lufthansa Miles & More

Aegean Miles+Bonus

Like Lufthansa, Aegean credits United A fares at 300% so he would again earn 50,208 miles for the trip.

Pros:

Gold status on Aegean requires 48,000 miles on partners, so all of his family members would earn Star Gold status.

Cons:

Aegean doesn’t have any transfer partners, and since the only credit card is issued by a Greek bank, there is essentially no way to earn miles other than to credit flights.

Aegean Miles + Bonus
Aegean Miles + Bonus

Turkish Miles and Smiles

Turkish credits United A fares at 150%, so they would earn 25,104 miles on this trip.

Pros:

Turkish has a family account program whereby you can supposedly pool the award miles from your family members into the same account. This would allow them to have a larger aggregate balance. I say supposedly because information on this program is scant — and you have to send in copies of birth certificates to prove that you are a family which sounds like a colossal pain. I also haven’t had great experiences with Turkish customer service — it took 6-12 months to receive my Elite card after my status match!

Cons:

No transfer partners.

Fuel surcharges.

Slow customer service.

Turkish Miles and Smiles
Turkish Miles and Smiles

Singapore KrisFlyer

Like Turkish, Singapore credits United A fares at 150%, so he would earn 25,104 miles for this trip.

Pros:

Lots of transfer partners, including Ultimate Rewards.

Access to premium cabin space on Singapore.

Cons:

Fuel surcharges, although they are modest.

Singapore KrisFlyer
Singapore KrisFlyer

United MileagePlus

United awards 5 miles per dollar spent for general members. In the best case, this $1700 ticket would earn 8500 miles, but since taxes aren’t included I think it might be closer to 7000.  Either way, it’s not much.

Pros:

Transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards.

No fuel surcharges.

Good website for booking awards.

Cons:

Very few miles.

You end up dealing with United.

United MileagePlus
United MileagePlus

Analysis

I may be biased but I view United miles as the most valuable currency in Star Alliance and sadly that is still true even after the recent massive devaluations. The fact is that they still don’t impose fuel surcharges and that opens up the opportunity to book both economy and business class awards while still obtaining decent a decent redemption value. (Yes, partners cost more, but for business class at least, it’s not that much more.) They also offer stopovers and open-jaws on award tickets and have a good website that can book most awards. Sure, other Star programs have sweet spots and may be be good for specific uses, but for an all-around flexible currency, United miles are still the most valuable.

But they aren’t 4-10x more valuable!

If the goal is to maximize the number of miles earned, either Lufthansa or Aegean would seem to be the best choice as both would credit this fare at 300% (50,204 miles). Of these, Aegean has the added bonus of granting Star Gold status at 48,000 miles. But “Boston Ben’s” travel patterns suggest that he would not get much, if any, from this. Therefore, I would probably recommend Lufthansa since at least they have a co-branded credit card for US resident which could be used to earn more miles on two of the accounts. Plus, I tend to trust German airlines slightly more than their Greek counterparts to keep their programs stable.

KrisFlyer has the benefit of being a transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards, which my friend Ben has a lot of, but I’m not sure that’s worth earning half as many miles compared to Lufthansa.

Conclusion

I’m prepared to recommend that my friend “Boston Ben” credit his trip to Lufthansa. I think the caveat is that he should mentally prepare to redeem these miles for two domestic trips within the next three years. It may not be his preferred redemption, but it will allow him to redeem nearly the entire balance without leaving behind any orphan miles. Or he could get a round-trip in economy to the Caribbean for 35,000 miles (where he also likes to go) plus a one-way domestic award. The key is knowing that he probably won’t be able to (or even want to) redeem for business class to Europe with these miles.

In doing this analysis, I realized just how complicated our hobby has become. You almost have to decide how you want to spend your miles before you’ve even earned them!


What do you think? Are any of the other Star Alliance programs worth considering? What advice would you give to my friend Ben?

Comments

  1. Aeroplan maybe? fuel surcharges are horrendous on some partners including Air Canada but not all. it is only 150% though.

  2. Avianca LifeMiles might be worth considering. They value United A at 150% which is not great but they do usually offer some interesting miles promotions during the year which can be a good way to top off those accounts; they also allow you to book miles + cash if you dont have enough miles.

  3. Lantean — Yep, guess I forgot to Aeroplan and it could be an option. Looks like 150%. And of course, good transfer partners, and stopover policy. But also fuel surcharges.

  4. this comment more about your trip to Seoul, my family and I are going to Seoul in May and landing at 4am on korean air first class, are their any lounges / places to freshen up / things to do that early assuming we won’t be able to check in so early to our hotel?

  5. So, the United revenue-based mileage earning is for all tickets FLOWN after March 1, not all tickets BOOKED after March 1?
    I booked a cheap First Class fare before March 1, but the flight isn’t until May…

  6. A3 all the way. Some very good redemption sweet spots, and the fuel surcharges are quite reasonable if you know which carriers to avoid.

    Only bad thing is the requirement of “One Stopover”.

  7. Travis – but you can avoid surcharges by flying with partners that don’t have them, or have low surcharges. For example, Turkish, LOT, Austrian, etc.

    Lots of ways around that, and very easy to transfer there with Amex MR. Would have been my choice, IMO, over LH M&M as it is easier to redeem as well.

  8. For me, personally, the eqm would still point me at United. I wish I had booked this one, since I had the chance to do so.

  9. You mentioned LH has no transfer partners, but you can transfer Starwood to Lufthansa.

    You should also check out the JetFriends program for kids.

  10. After the frst 35k miles you hit FTL status with M&M, adding 25% more award miles.
    Also, status is valid for two years and miles don’t expire if you hold it.

    Add a couple international trip and he could get Senator status and *G privileges for two years.

    With their mileage bargain you can score US-EU business class tix for 55k miles (and hefty surcharges ex US).
    For the regular mileage rate of 105k C award you can fly LOT through Warsaw with much lower surcharges as well.

  11. A3. All of them get *G and once they hit silver they can create a “Together” account which will merge all accumulated miles (past and future) so you have a family account.

    While you can’t book A3 awards online, I’ve found their call centre to be really easy to deal with when booking. Their award rates are okay (especially when compared to your preferred option of LH). Change fees are also minimal at just €25 a pop.

  12. Oren… Consider booking a hotel for the night before you arrive. We did this recently for a 6:30 a.m. arrival, and it was great to arrive at the hotel, tired, but knowing we were heading to our room. Just let the hotel know in advance.

  13. Others have called it out, but I was wondering why you didn’t compare with Air Canada / Aeroplan in your post? I know that it’s all about maximizing the system, but regardless where he ultimately earns, as he’s in Boston there are a ton of *A redemption options via Montreal or Toronto with little to no fuel surcharge e.g. AC to TK or AC to MS via YYZ. Worth him considering once he’s looking to redeem. I’ve redeemed on TK ex YYZ using Aeroplan for literally just a few dollars, total.

  14. I have one of these booked, routed BOS-IAD-NRT-ICN and back.
    I do already have lifetime gold on UA, so no need to get EQM there.

    My plan was to credit the outbound (+ a positioning flight) to A3 to get *G for another year, giving access to UA Clubs when traveling domestically. And then change the FF# to my KrisFlyer # for the inbound flights: I like the KrisFlyer rates for US48-Hawaii awards.

  15. As I read the A3 requirements, 48,000 miles on partners for gold applies to silver members. For blue (basic) members, you first need 16,000 miles on partners to reach silver, then 48,000 on top of that for gold. So without any additional flights, the 50k from this trip would not be enough for *G.

  16. Too bad the trip isn’t after July. Copa Connectmiles looks like they would be a good future option, although they haven’t released earning rates yet on partner airlines.

  17. What about crediting to OZ? Family pooling of miles with a 10 year expiration date, transfers from SPG, and lifetime *G status at 500K.

  18. In case no one above pointed it out, Starwood points can be transferred to Lufthansa, so if he has an SPG, and is interested in flying Lufthansa F, despite the fuel surcharges, this is a great way to do it because they allow booking further out.

  19. If you have the LH M&M credit card & make 1 transaction per billing period, your miles don’t expire (although you should probably do one every two weeks just to be safe).

  20. Lots of good tips her Travis, perhaps it’s time you or Lucky wrote an updates comparison of the different *A frequent flyer programs?

    Requirement for getting *A Gold, retaining it, Life membership, what premium cabins they have access to and don’t have access to, extra fees when booking, etc?

  21. You had me at 300%, go with M&M, the rest are in a different ballpark. Plus 17k one ways in domestic UA J.

    Of the 150% partners, I would also vote for Aeroplan but for a different reason. No YQ on UA + no close-in booking fee + Oneway redemptions means they are one of the best miles to use for last-minute flights on UA metal.

  22. Another option is Thai Airways’ Royal Orchid program, if BostonBen wants to take his family to Asia. He’d earn 150% of miles and you can transfer miles from the Citibank Prestige card in. The Thai Business Class product and service is much better than UA or any of the US airlines… The miles would get him Silver Status and he would have another 24months to earn additional 25,000 miles for Gold – it’s measured on a rolling 24months schedule! You can find more detail here: http://dreamtravelonpoints.com/2014/12/finally-an-alternative-to-united-thai-royal-orchid-award-program-overview/

  23. Thanks for this article. I’d been wondering about this, but hadn’t checked into it personally. Out of curiosity, how did Boston Ben get 5 business class seats to Switzerland? I’d thought Swiss space is notoriously tough, and for 5 people you’d have to book months in advance to arrange time off form school and work.

  24. @ Christian — I’m not Travis, but Swiss does sometimes seem to release a TON of business class award seats. They’re extremely inconsistent about it, but I’ve definitely seen it.

  25. Correction: Why DIDN’T you buy this Business Class ticket from Lufthansa, then had the miles credited to United’s MileagePlus, where then your friend (Ben) would have received full mileage credit, plus bonus miles? The UA rules state “Ticket number does not start with “016” and was purchased from an airline other than United or from a travel agency or other travel website: First (F, A) 200%; Business (J, C, D) 200%; Discount Business (Z) 150%; and Deep Discount Business (P) 100%. If your friend (Ben) had any Premier status, then he would also get the additional Premier member bonus.

  26. Christian — Sorry, missed your question. The trip was last August. He found 5 seats in business on the non-stop Boston – Zurich each way. I think he booked maybe 6-8 months in advance.

  27. Blue Love. If you read the post you’ll see that this was a mistake fare available only on United.

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