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?

  1. Andrew MacDonald said,

    Don’t forget that to Europe and Asia, Air Canada almost doubles the number of possible routings on *A (given their own metal overwater flights and *A partners that fly to their hubs). Between all of the different *A carriers, it gets pretty time consuming to sort through all the possible routings ex-NA!

  2. PanAM said,

    Good information as always! I’d really love to see a similar article except covering availability in Y. I know that’s looked down upon by the premium-cabin-obsessed FT crowd. But many of us either have families to try and take places or just want to stretch our miles for more trips and are OK with slumming it in back.

  3. Gary said,

    @PanAM I don’t think there’s really any obsession involved with me here, it’s just that I tend to redeem for premium cabins — for myself, and of course I am not trying to redeem for 4 and 5 people, but also for people who pay me to redeem their awards, since there’s value and leverage in hiring someone to get you the premium cabin awards you want, much less leverage in paying my fee for the more limited savings relative to paid economy fares. So since it’s what I have the most experience in, what i know the best from over 100 million miles’ worth of redemptions, it’s what I share my experiences with. Do I notice economy redemption availability? Sure, just not as systematically. As I say, I share what I know where, rather than taking ‘assignments’ and going off to figure things out in order to generate blog psots. So anyway, that’s what’s going on.

  4. ED said,

    CX announced they are dumping First Class from YYZ next year. In addition, AA is dumping Eagle routes from YYZ. That makes YYZ a no-man’s land soon.

  5. JA said,

    What is the situation with Air Canada international flights? Is it true that they seldom offer premium seats? In attempting to redeem for a flight to Europe recently, there was absolutely nothing available to any city in Europe from both YYZ and YUL. They do have one of the better premuim products but all I could find was coach. If they rarely offer premium seats on their own metal, how do they get away with vis a vis the other SA carriers?

  6. JA said,

    @Ed, Please provide details of AA “dumping” routes out of YYZ?

    “there are no immediate plans to change any American Airlines flights originating to or leaving Canada, although final decisions will be made for the winter season around Nov. 17, said Ed Martell in an OBJ interview.”

  7. Chas said,

    @JA
    When are you looking? I find AC has pretty stellar availability to both Asia and Europe. Keep in mind AC is only a 2-class product; no F, only C.

  8. beachfan said,

    Hi Gary;

    One of your best post’s ever! I fly AA (Ex Plat) but have built up quite a warchest of Continental miles due to MR transfers, Continental card, and Chase Saphire. I still have a bunch of United miles left over from when I was a United person (pre – Ted), as well as their credit card offers. This post will save me time figuring out how to redeem!

    By the way, the BA all in cost for 2 LAX-JNB F tickets with a stopover one direction in LHR was just under $3200 ($3178 IIRC). So I got a shock even though I was expecting it to be over $1k a person. The “over 1k a person” is just the YQ (it would be less than $1k if one booked the same itinerary in the UK due to the YQ differential between UK and US bookings).

  9. FrequentMiler said,

    Awesome post. This is the sort of post I’ll bookmark and return to often for reference. Thanks!

  10. Gary said,

    @beachfan yes a London stopover does add the UK premium cabin departure tax, which is a real killer…

  11. JA said,

    @Chas,

    I just returned this week, so I was looking last month and while availability on LH, CO and UA would come and go, I never saw a single C seat on AC open up over the course of six weeks time.

  12. Jade said,

    Thanks, Gary. This post is awesome and very informative! Certainly we still have a lot of details to work out if needed. However, the information at this high level helps us to focus our efforts on certain areas and could potentially save us a lot of time. Appreciate your efforts! By the way, not many flights from US to Shanghai are non-stop ones, right? Thanks.

  13. Gary said,

    @Jade right… Newark – Shanghai on Continental… Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco – Shanghai on United… Los Angeles – Shanghai on China Eastern and American. I think that’s it.

  14. FreeFrequentFlyerMiles.com said,

    And then there is Alaska Airlines, with a list of partners crossing several alliances. They can put you on American, Delta, Air France, and Cathay Pacific, among many others. We have a Cathay Pacific ticket for December, San Francisco > Hong Kong > Bangkok, using 100,000 Alaska miles for business class. And if you want to see Alaska…

  15. Ty said,

    Regarding South America, AA miles can also be redeemed on Gol, which flies to lots and lots of smaller cities. It’s good for flying intra-SA flights on their own, but also connecting from easier-to-redeem AA destinations like GRU and EZE.

  16. Harold said,

    Any thoughts on India? We are looking for the best way to get there.

  17. Gary said,

    @Harold Lufthansa availability is pretty good. So is BA availability but there’s fuel surcharges. Swiss availability is good Zurich – INdia but less so across the Atlantic. In a pinch there’s Turkish. Overall I’ll say Star Alliance to India. Though Kingfisher partnership means you can actually get there on Delta miles,,,

  18. Harold said,

    THANKS!

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  28. NY Flyer said,

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  34. Julie said,

    I know this is not a super recent post, but I hope you will respond. My family has traveled fairly regularly from Nashville to Brisbane in the past (it’s been about 4 years now) and we are ready to travel regularly again. We have over 200k miles on American/Qantas, but of course can’t find an award flight for the dates we need, so are buying a revenue tickets. We found flights a bit cheaper on Delta/Virgin Australia. We generally don’t like Delta (they’ve lost/recovered our bags more than once) and have never flown VA. So, we are debating whether we should take the Delta/VA flights and forgo the AA points/miles. Should we look into collecting Skymiles for our next flights and just use our AA miles domestically? What are your thoughts? Thx.

  35. Gary Leff said,

    @Julie – If Virgin Australia is cheaper, fly them. And collect the Delta miles. Use your American miles for a trip to Asia or South America :)

  36. Julie said,

    Well, it’s only about $350 more for all 4 tickets on Qantas, so not much more. But, the real question is whether I want to bother with Delta Skymiles or not (or just keep adding to my AA ones). I was looking more closely at the Skymiles plan and new changes for 2015 and it doesn’t seem very advantageous in terms of acquiring miles. It would take forever to get to the required 100k (at the very lowest redemption rate) when only acquiring miles based on the price of the ticket verses miles traveled.

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