Deciding Which Miles To Use

Reader Uri posed a question in the “Ask Lucky” forum recently, wondering how to go about finding award space when one has lots of miles and points:

So, it is clear that to check for award space, you need to do it one leg of the trip at a time.

But – with so many options near any large metro area, and so many airlines, how does a person who has (say) many points on (say) Chase Sapphire – search for award space?

Is there a single search engine, or do you need to log into both AAdvantage, British Airways, and so on?

The direct answer to his question is that yes, you need to search space in each alliance separately. But it made me think about how we can decide which miles to use for our award tickets.

As I spend much of my time guesstimating which mileage currency is going to be most practical for a given award, I thought it might be useful to walk through the process I use.

What do you want?

This is the obvious starting point for me. Some people might want to fly first class on every A380, others might want a nonstop flight which limits their options, etc.

For most people though, the real question is usually going to be “Where do I want to go?”

Which are the best awards?

Once you have a destination in mind, you can start teasing out the comparative values in each award chart.

If you know how many miles are needed for an award ticket in each program, you can come up with your own rankings to determine the best values. The program with the lowest mileage requirement isn’t necessarily the best — you might have way more miles in a certain program and thus want to use those first, there are fuel surcharges to consider, etc.

But do your best to come up with 2-3 theoretical options that seem worth exploring.

Best value versus best reality

Once you have a couple of awards you’re interested in, you can start to see which program might make the most sense for this particular trip.

My mental process is somewhat like this:

Which-miles-tree

To put this into more concrete terms, let’s look at an award between North America and Europe, more specifically between Miami and Nice.

Nice3

Personally, I would think that the “overall best value” award in this case would be through Air Canada Aeroplan. 45,000 miles for one-way business class, and the plethora of Star Alliance transatlantic options means award space is generally good.

So let’s work through this as an example.

Which-miles-tree-example

Do you have points that can transfer to Aeroplan?

Starwood Preferred Guest is a transfer partner of Aeroplan, as is American Express Membership Rewards in the US and Canada. You might have other options in your country as well.

If you don’t have points that you can move to Aeroplan, then this is all a moot point, so you’ll want to start looking at your next best option.

Look at carriers with no fuel surcharges

Aeroplan levies fuel surcharges on most award tickets, but they have about a dozen partners where you can avoid those hefty fees. You’ll want to look at award space on these carriers first in order to preserve the value of your award.

Is there award space?

This is where it starts to get fun! After all, just because something sounds nice in theory doesn’t mean it’s going to work in practice. So you’ll need to dig in and actually search for award availability over your dates.

For an award from Miami, my first pick of carriers would be Swiss. They have a direct flight to Zurich, no fuel surcharges, and should have several connecting flights a day to Nice. And since we’re looking at an Aeroplan award, we won’t pay fuel surcharges on Swiss.

Sample-routing-MIA-NCE

Ta da!

What if there isn’t award space?

Well, there are a few options here:

  • Play with your dates — even a day can make a huge difference
  • Look at adding a connection or even a positioning flight

If those don’t work, then it can make sense to look at the carriers that would incur fuel surcharges. In most cases though, that’s going to be a tough sell.

Are awards with fuel surcharges still a good value?

They can be. If it’s your only option for getting where you need to go, it might be a fantastic value compared to buying a ticket.

If you have flexibility though, you might want to evaluate other options before settling on an award with hefty fees.

For example, if you’re considering spending 45,000 miles and $750, it might make more sense to look at other redemption options. 70,000 miles and $100 could be a better value — you have to determine that for yourself.

So if it’s not a good value for you, then you should start the process again using a new mileage program.

Bottom line

This is a big part of why it helps to know your travel goals when deciding which miles to accrue.

If you want to go to Tahiti it doesn’t matter how great the offers are, or how easy United miles are to accrue — they won’t realistically get you there. And if you don’t have or can’t get miles into a given program, it doesn’t really matter how spectacular the values are on the award chart.

So there is a bit of back and forth that goes into determining the best options, and the best values. Having a better understanding of the tradeoffs will go a long way towards getting the most for your miles.

How do you decide which miles to use for an award?

Comments

  1. Similar question. I will need 3 business class award seats in November 2016 (thinking ahead) from Austin (or DFW or IAH) to Florence or Milan or Rome. What airlines would you target using which points currency – which has best biz class and enough availability for 3. I have some time to earn but already have plenty of Amex, chase, Spg, Alaska, AA, United, and aero plan points to make it work. Any ideas? I’m stuck at step one…

  2. I built a calculator to do just that! You can specify how much you value each currency and it’ll tell you a best and 2nd-best program to use across 10 of the most commonly used airline programs and most frequent bank transfer partners.

    You can download it at http://gum.co/awardcalculator – One Mile At A Time readers can get $5 by using the promo code “OMAAT”

    I’m also releasing a v2 this Wednesday that covers AF, LH, AZ, and AM and Economy, Business and First, but anyone who downloads this version now will get a fresh copy then.

    Eric from TravelCodex

  3. @EricB

    You could use British Airways, they have a decent business and fly to Austin, DFW, and IAH. Alternatively, you could fly a the long way via one of the ME3.

  4. @EricB (hey! we have the same initials!) – You might want to look into Alitalia and Korean @ 80k roundtrip (with some fuel surcharges) on Skyteam, and ANA @ 88k and Air Canada at 90k round trip on star alliance.

    AC, in particular, has many European partners where they don’t pass on fuel surcharges. Korean transfers from Chase while the other three are Amex transfer partners.

  5. Also, I also built an award calculator that helps to answer that exact question “Which currency to use for each destination?” – Take a look by clicking the link above in my name. Use the promo code “OMAAT” to get 25% off.

    Releasing v2 on Wednesday which will cover the 14 most frequently used programs and economy, business and first class to 303 destinations – but anyone downloading now will get that new version via email.

    Eric from TravelCodex

  6. Rule # 1-Never fly on ripoff BA. Never. #2-IB has bad fuel surcharges but not as bad as BA. #3 Try to avoid any fuel surcharges. #4 Don’t fly out of UK with ripoff air duties.

  7. @Jerry great ideas, sadly bit difficult for those of us based in the UK! Our other much bigger problem is that BA Avios (or VS Flying Club, which also have surcharges) are over of the few points currencies we can earn at any reasonable rates though sign-up bonuses or credit card spending 🙁

  8. Hi Tiffany — you had a great start to this post but you didn’t address perhaps the most compelling variable that affects my decisions (and those of a great many frequent flyers) to book flights which is something that should go on your flow chart.

    I have many millions of miles and points across a number of programs. I guess I am fortunate because I can’t use them fast enough. However, before I consider any of the flow chart issues you present, I consider what programs have deadlines for booking before their next devaluation, and then I look at what programs are most likely to have a devaluation in the near future.

    For example, even though I mostly prefer to book long haul flights in first class, a while back I had to exhaust all of my Delta Skymiles before I lost a great deal of value with their devaluation. Same thing with United, BA Avios, etc.

    I’d imagine that most frequent flyers consider impending devaluations as their number one motivating factor to book a trip.

    It would be great if Ben could compile a monthly list of what programs we frequent flyers would want to consider booking flights with right away, and what programs he considers relatively safe. For example, Aeroplan has announced a devaluation for flights booked after December. That’s definite. AA will be dropping the hammer any time now. We’re on notice.

    Ben put together valuations of miles and points for each miles and points program. It would be great to have another series of listings by perhaps creating some categories of how urgent it is to use a particular mile or point currency and then placing the various programs into those categories. Maybe four or five categories: From “Burn Immediately” to “Safe for a While.” Similarly, when an airline suddenly makes award seats available that weren’t available before, it’s a “Book Immediately” situation, because there is great value and/or opportunity that might disappear very quickly. What do you think?

    Also, and I mentioned it before on this blog, how come no one has come up with a contest to guess when AA will announce their expected devaluation, and when it will go into effect?

  9. @ EricB, that’s easy! I’d fly from JFK-MXP on Emirates a380 in business class! You can use Alaska miles. Buy a separate ticket to NYC if you must — JetBlue?

  10. @ LeAnna — I have, and I hope it’s helpful to folks! I really like to encourage people to use their own brains and learn how to tease this stuff out though 🙂

  11. @Tiffany- Haha! Using your own brain is always a good thing….buuuut spending HOURS scouring award charts just to figure out the best use of my points HURTS my brain 😛 Might as well use a tool that makes life a lot easier 🙂

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