One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Whose miles are really the best? I have a hard time using my miles and need to switch programs.” Or a common variation is, “I really should change credit cards, what credit card should I get to have the best chance of redeeming awards?” And there isn’t one true answer. There are some rough overall rules, but the best program for you depends on the award you want to redeem (and also the number of passengers, the class of service, willingness to take additional connections for better availability, requirements for inflight product, etc).
Since I found myself offering this insight to someone this morning, I thought I’d share it more broadly — there are rough and ready rules about best program based on where in the world you want to redeem awards to go.
- US Domestic. Unquestionably, compared to domestic counterparts, American has the best award availability inside the U.S. Of course, it much varies flight-by-flight but overall it’s not even close. Next best, surprisingly enough, is US Airways. US Airways takes a lot of flack for lack of award space, but in their domestic first class they’re really available. And while I’m rarely interested in redeeming for just domestic first class, most of the time that I would redeem a domestic flight on points it’s part of a larger, international itinerary. And that international itinerary is in a premium class of service, so the domestic flights in premium cabins are thrown in. So for my purposes, US Airways has just as good availability as American. From most cities and most of the time, I can shuttle someone from their home city to a US Airways hub (Philadelphia, Charlotte) and on to a Lufthansa flight to Europe. Or if they live in a US Airways city, I can get them mostly wherever they need to go in order to hit an international gateway.
- Asia. Star Alliance award availability is the best here, so United or US Airways miles. There are so many partners — Asiana, All Nippon, Singapore (ok, so you will not get premium cabin awards on Singapore departing the US), Thai, and then United/Continental offers its own flights. Plus United and US Airways allow routing to Asia via Europe, and from the East Coast at least and with many South Asian destinations it’s not even additional flying to do so, Lufthansa to Europe and then Thai to Bangkok or Asiana to Seoul are good options. American offers decent award availability on their own limited set of flights (Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing). And they do partner with Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific, Cathay’s award availability departing Toronto and San Francisco is especially good. But oneworld doesn’t come close to matching Star for flying North America to Asia.
- South America. American AAdvantage miles, every which way to Sunday. The Miami flights have outstanding availability, but even Dallas and JFK flights can be scored too, plus American partners with LAN as well. Getting anything with United (or US Airways) miles or Delta miles to South America is tough, American’s award availability is amazing.
- Europe. British Airways premium cabin award availability is unmatched, and they offer tons of flights from the US to London. If you want seven first class award seats to Europe, who besides BA will ever get that for you? I’ve seen that many times on their Houston flights. West Coast to London is quite doable, and when Los Angeles space isn’t open I find good luck with the Vegas and Phoenix flights. Using American miles you can get from the US to Europe in a premium cabin, though some routing, pretty much any day of the week (because American also has the best domestic award availability, you can even get to the international gateway city most of the time!). But the huge downside is that awards on British Airways incur fuel surcharges, which means nearly $500 in extra charges per person roundtrip. Ouch. As a result many will prefer Star Alliance, especially since Lufthansa award availability to Europe is pretty darned good.
- Africa. British Airways has great availability to Nairobi and Johannesburg, especially in first class. But those fuel surcharges, when flying two long-haul segments in both directions, really rack up. You can be all-in over $1000 per person on an award redemption. Skyteam availability, Amsterdam (KLM) or Paris (Air France) to Africa isn’t bad. But the award here has to go to Star, I can get someone to Africa almost all the time one way or another — on South African the US to Johannesburg direct flights can be tough to get but South African from London is often much easier. Between South African, Lufthansa, Swiss, and Turkish from London, Munich, Frankfurt, Zurich mean you can get there most of the time. In a real pinch there’s EgyptAir via Cairo. And then there’s Brussels Airlines to North Africa, and TAP Air Portugal even via Lisbon. So many ways to get there means that most of the time you can, even if routing or inflight product isn’t ideal.
- Australia and French Polynesia. I give Delta a really hard time, and deservedly so. But their miles happen to be the best-positioned for the two destinations from North America that I believe are the hardest awards to get. Naturally I’m not talking about actually securing premium cabin awards to Australia on Delta’s own Sydney flight, but on their partner V Australia — their Los Angeles – Brisbane flight especially, I’ve done multiple business class award seats even during the absolute peak of high season (though Delta does add fuel surcharges to V Australia awards, plan to spend $500 per person). Delta also happens to partner with both airlines that fly from the mainland US to French Polynesia, Air Tahiti Nui and Air France.
These are the general guidelines, based on having redeemed well over 100 million miles for premium cabin international awards. Does this match your experience as well?