American Miles Becoming Increasing Valuable for Aspirational First Class Award Redemptions, While Star Alliance Programs Become Harder to Use

If you want business class all over the world, it’s hard to beat Star Alliance (although American miles, and oneworld, have Star beat for North America to South America by a wide margin – great availability on both American and on LAN).

But if you want first class awards, departing from North America, Star (e.g. United/Continental and US Airways) has really fallen down several notches while American Airlines miles have gotten more useful.

Star Alliance used to be my go to, all over the world, but recently it’s been much much more difficult to get first class awards departing the U.S.:

  • Singapore Airlines used to be hard, but possible, usually just for a single seat at a time. Now that they no longer serve any U.S. routes with the old first class on the 747, there aren’t any first class awards made available to partner airlines. Even Singapore Krisflyer members have to spend double points for 777 routes and nearly a million points roundtrip for first class on the A380.

  • Swiss first class used to be an easy get from New York, Boston, and Chicago. Now it’s pretty much never available for U.S. departures if using miles from a partner airline. Only the Montreal – Zurich route ever seems to have seats available in advance.

  • Lufthansa first class used to be easy, they fly to tons of U.S. cities, and only the West Coast flights were generally tough (though Seattle was frequently doable). A couple of years ago I could get first class awards just about every day from Houston and Detroit, and most days from Boston, DC, and New York. Now that Lufthansa is making real progress installing their new first class seats, which bring the 747 down from 16 seats to 8, they’re holding back award space until the last minute. It’s available most of the time only within the two weeks prior to departure. Sure, they’re opening up those seats on the A380 routes now like Frankfurt to Tokyo and Beijing, but again only within the weeks leading up to departure rather than in advance.

  • Asiana used to offer first class on their New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles routes. There’s no longer first class from Chicago to Seoul. And the New York flight seems to never have seats more than one day a week. In 2009 you could get as many as 4 first class award seats on the Los Angeles – Seoul flight, and at least two most days of the week. Maybe it’s the improving economy, but while the Los Angeles flight still offers first class awards at times it’s much less frequent than in the past.

  • All Nippon only opens first class award seats in Winter, generally January through March, and mostly on the Chicago and Washington DC routes. They’ve even gotten stingier about releasing seats at the last minute, not making awards available even the day before departure despite a cabin being 3/4ths empty.

Thai doesn’t offer a first class cabin on their one U.S. flight. US Airways, Continental, SAS, LOT, and Turkish don’t offer international first class cabins at all. TAM is a pretty tough get. So that leaves United as your only choice for first class award space booked in advance departing the U.S.

And while I like the Mileage Plus program a great deal for award redemption, and I do think their ‘new’ (several years-old) first class seat, their product just isn’t that aspirational compared to their alliance partners that offer a first class cabin.

Once you get to Europe it’s another matter, you can connect onward to Asia on Thai. Thai isn’t as generous with first class award space as they once were either, but it can still be obtained. And the Swiss flights to India are pretty easy to get in First. But departing the U.S.? It’s hard to have that First Class experience these days.

On the other hand, American miles have gotten increasingly useful. To wit:

  • Qantas is actually making award space available on their A380. I’ve seen it 331+ days out, especially on their Melbourne – Los Angeles flight. And I’ve seen it flying to Singapore and on to Heathrow. Australia is still the toughest award there is, but first class on the A380 isn’t the snufalufagus of award travel anymore.

  • American’s new partner Etihad offers a ton of first class award space. I’ve even seen most of the first class cabin available on points (12 seats in the cabin, flight shows O9 meaning there are at least 9 award seats open). And while Lucky‘s reports may not suggest their service is always the most polished, or their food the best in the sky, it’s sure going to be a lot better than United’s most of the time. The seats are suites with doors. And they offer car service on departure and arrival (even for business class).

  • Cathay Pacific first class is so darned available. This used to be among the rarer finds in award travel, I remember getting incredibly excited in spring 2009 when they began opening up first class award space and not just from Toronto on Tuesdays either. They did just announce an end to first class on their Toronto flights, but JFK will offer decent first class space (there are 4 flights a day after all, though one makes a stop in Vancouver). Chicago first class award space is outstanding. San Francisco’s is too. Los Angeles is usually hard in first, oddly much easier in business. I’m fundamentally lazy which is why I flew Cathay first for my Thanksgiving trip (actually, that was to burn all my Avios, but that I’m flying them again next month was laziness). It’s been pretty easy to get first class awards on Cathay without having to have much date flexibility if planning reasonably far out or close in to departure.

  • British Airways means fuel surcharges but it also means great availability. On most of their routes and there are a ton, like Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle and Vancouver, Denver and Houston and Dallas (Houston will often have half a dozen first class award seats open, incidentally so will Philadelphia), the Atlanta and Miami and Washington DC and Boston flights are good for availability, too. Their product isn’t out of this world, but it’s sure available.

And of course American’s own first class, while not competitive with the better Asian and European carriers, is just so darned available on the South America routes.

I used to be a total Star Alliance guy when it comes to awards. And I still am in my recommendations to folks who want business class award seats, there are just many more options available to construct trips to most destinations. And goodness knows that American’s award routing rules can be simultaneously super generous and incredibly vexing.

But I also increasingly value my American AAdvantage miles, because they’re providing such great access to the first class aspirational awards that I value the most. Which is sort of problematic, because that means I begin burning through them more quickly…

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. …. and yet AA miles are harder than ever to use for economy class and business class redemptions on its own metal than at any point in at least the past two decades. …. Unless willing to pay double the most marketed standard price level.

  2. @GUWonder why would you want to use American miles for international redemptions on AA metal (other than to South America, where availability happens to be quite good)? And it’s really really easy to get domestic flights on American metal to the international gateway city of an award, American’s domestic award space is unrivaled.

  3. @Gary –

    And of course American’s domestic award space is MUCH cheaper if you’re using BA miles. Just got two fix CHO – ORD for 9k BA each, as opposed to 25k AA saver.

  4. @Michael Air New Zealand offers an excellent business class as does Virgin Atlantic, but no one else has what they call first class

  5. “GUWonder why would you want to use American miles for international redemptions on AA metal (other than to South America, where availability happens to be quite good)?”

    … for the same reason as usual for me for decades: holiday plans to Europe during the Dec. 15 to January 8th period, always on the off-peak flights/dates relative to this period. In more recent times, I also have to consider how to try to minimize getting hit by AA’s fuel surcharges on AAward travel itineraries that include BA flights.

    … but it’s not just international travel that has been hit by AA’s crackdown on releasing the marketing standard priced “MileSAAver” inventory. AA’s domestic (US) inventory/pricing release practices have also been hit, just not as hard as something like non-stops on AA metal between the US and LHR during this recent holiday period.

    When I end up finding DL to be even more generous with mileage ticket inventory release/pricing practices on its own metal than AA on something as simple as US-Europe travel, something has indeed changed, and it’s not change for the better at AA, at least not from this customer’s perspective.

  6. @Michael – In Canada, the RBC Avion Visa allows transfer of points to AAdvantage at 1:1 ratio (and semi-regular bonus promos). It earns 1 Avion point per C$1 spending with a 25% bonus on travel spend. Nothing overly superb, but a decent option for earning AAdvantage miles with a Canadian credit card.

  7. My limited experience mirrors your much broader experience exactly, Gary. For a recent trip, I used AA miles to book BA F outbound. It was done and dusted in about 5 minutes. It took me a week before I could even find routes home using UA miles, and then two of us were on separate LH flights. I worked til the day of travel improving the routing, but never got us on the same plane. On the other hand, the surcharges for the BA award for 2 were $1700. The surcharges for the LH award for 2 were $100.

  8. Gary,

    Alas, USAIR does not allow one way flights LAX-LHR. So it’s AA or BA and I can fly in first for both but BA is $280 more and it’s an evening flight, so is it worth it to spend extra $$$ on BA? If it was a daytime flight, I wouldn’t hesitate, but since I’ll be sleeping…

  9. @Michael If both are available then sure save the cash, you won’t have better lounge access on the ground for an LA departure anyway. If you’re good at sleeping straight through.

  10. You can’t forget though, the huge benefit (at least for me) is the stopover ability, which I don’t get with AA. Sure, I can do open jaws (b/c of their one-way awards), but I prefer rtw-routing with stopovers myself 🙂

  11. Only tangentially related, but it is big news today. AA has deleted the ORD-DEL nonstop service, which was a pillar of my loyalty to AA. So I may have to rethink my airline strategy. If Air India does join Star, that would be a strong pull, in addition to the better BIz cabin availability you mention.

  12. Gary, Which do you think is better: BA or AA for Canadians transferring from RBC Avion points and trying for Cathay or Qantas availability to Asia or Aus? I’ve gone with BA before because of their more lucrative bonuses (50%), but I wonder now with their devaluation if AA miles aren’t a better better for Asia/Aus rewards from NA? Is availability the same from either program?

  13. Good timing for this article 🙂 Everyone can earn some AA miles as well as status still with the DEQM promotions (plus there’s quite a few people going on the OWMD). Also, if AA miles are becoming more valuable, that helps offset the pain of the $12 BankDirect fee a bit 🙂

  14. Gary,

    QF SIN-MEL A380 offers 1 first class award per flight, I have not tried whether they will release second seat yet

  15. As AA wades thru the ch 11 situation to consolidate their finances, they will bend over backwards to make sure they leverage their OW FFP benefits to capture more customers, its a customer loyalty programme after all. US Air is doing something similar till their *A partners realised (or rather ‘are realising’) that someone is selling their precious inventory for cheap. Funneling the redemption of miles into partners and collecting real $$$ for them from partners like credit card companies is a real cash cow. What will be interesting is how AA behave when they emerge from ch 11. UA/CO is having a tough time controlling cash flow and not alienating the average 1k in the process 🙂

  16. Gary, I’d be interested in reading a blog article if you were to summarize business class they way you summarized first.

  17. Completely agree with you. It was a breeze booking my trip to India and Thailand on LH, TG, UA, & LX last year, but this year I don’t see availability for us on Star Alliance members.

    But bookings through oneworld are wide open. I have the same problem as you – those AA miles are disappearing fast!

  18. Timely post, I am currently agonizing on where to credit some upcoming BA CW travel. I have almost 200k avios that have been devalued for longhaul travel and only useful for short and medium haul redemptions in the US and Australia. I’m 40 TPs away from silver in BAEC and have 9 months to go in my membership year with a reasonable chance of making Gold at the end. However, all that travel can be steered to AA to try and make Plat or EXP, with some strategic MRs because the intercontinental travel doesn’t earn at the same rate as those BA tier points. Having redeemable miles though for Intl F is so much more lucrative it seems than BA Gold. thoughts?

  19. Gary – of course, your facts are right. But if you don’t mind traveling to Asia thru Europe AND if you can meet the $30,000 BA Visa spend limit for the Companion Pass, you can still make BA work (or course, you also have to be willing to accept the fees!).

    We are planning a trip to Thailand. If we could get First with our US Air miles, it would be 160,000 x 2 = 320,000. My AA miles will get me two Cathay tickets for 135,000 x 2 = 270,000. BA fits right in the middle for me – a RIDICULOUS 300,000 miles on BA metal for one ticket, but with the Companion Pass, it’s right in the same area.

    But like you, having had the pleasure of Swiss First and Lufthansa First, they will be sorely missed.

  20. Gary, what happens when Lufthansa gets delivery of its 747-800’s? Will first class seating go back up to 16? Also, I think the first class seats on the 747-800 will be similar to the ones on the A380 (as opposed to a separate bed and seat).

  21. The LH 748i will have 8 F seats in the lower deck upfront in the nose. The upper deck will get 32 business seats, the new F seat is too heavy to be installed upstairs.

  22. Gary have you managed to work out the patterns for Etihad bookings yet? I am trying to get to Maldives and the JFK-AUH is weird. In April when it is peak time in the middle east and Maldives they seem to open up the entire F cabin, yet in June-August where middle east is unbearably hot and travel is low can’t get a seat for love or money. Well maybe money but not points.

  23. @Phil they’re weird. I don’t think they know what they’re doing yet. Historically they haven’t had much demand for award seats because they haven’t had tons of partners demanding those seats. They’ll get more sophisticated.

  24. I am now seeing my miles at United much as I do like Delta Sky Pesos.They are worth half or less of other airlines
    Saver awards are rarely available even on short hauls.If When they are available its on flights that depart@ 6:00 AM with 3 connections as oposed to a non stop at a desirable time
    I am buying full fare first ccass tickets on both American and Alaska because I no longer trust United mile currency.The government should have never allowed them to merge.United International award redemption is in shambles.I toast One World and V Australia for treating their customers fairly when it comes time to redemption.A slight nod to BA minus their extortion nuisance fees

  25. Gary just realized that one you missed off here was JAL. How is their availability? I tried finding some first from US to NRT but no luck. Given you do several award bookings would be curious to see if you have any experience where certain periods of the year they open up?

  26. Just inquired about award travel on AA from LAX to FCO via LHR and was informed about $750 tax/surcharge per person by BA! I’m trying to find alternate routing on AA partners but don’t know if they charge that much $ on award travel.
    Does anyone know? Thanks.

  27. @Susan — those fuel surcharges apply only when flying British Airways. There are surcharges on Iberia but they are less than 10% as much. No fuel surcharges on any other partner.

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