Continental joins Star Alliance at the end of October, and their miles become much more valuable as a result. Continental has long had a reputation for being terrible with award redemption, which was really a two-part problem.
(1) They were always stingy with flights on their own metal, when awards were available they were at inconvient times. Continental has always been much harder to redeem, at least except close-in to departure. And with small international premium cabins those prized awards were doubly difficult.
(2) Being a member of the worst alliance, with the worst partners. Continental wasn’t just stingy with awards, their partners were stingy with awards too. Northwest and Delta were almost as bad as Continental historically. Moreover they were aligned internationally with Air France and KLM and Korean (while finding a single transpacific business class seat on Korean isn’t that tough, try finding more than one on the same flight).
While I don’t expect Continental to become that much more generous redeeming for flights on their own metal, they’re joining the Star Alliance which opens up myriad redemption possibilities. Lufthansa and Swiss open up huge availability across the Atlantic and from Europe to Asia. Turkish is also wide open. Asiana makes tons of seats available in premium cabins, just check out award availability from Los Angeles to Seoul — multiple seats available almost all days in premium cabins.
Sure, there are tough awards to get in the Star Alliance. Singapore premium transpacific seats and Europe to Singapore are tough. They don’t open up very many premium class seats on their newer aircraft, they’re phasing out their 747s where seats are sometimes still available. ANA is tough most of the year, except in first class, but December through March multiple seats are doable in first class — especially Chicago-Narita.
So with Continental entering the Star Alliance there have been two big questions:
First, would Continental follow United’s lead and employ ‘Starnet blocking’? United refuses to spend money on award seats offered by their partners with some frequency, and blocks their agents from even seeing those available award seats even exist. Frequently agents are misinformed and tell customers that the partner airline doesn’t fly the route on the given day, or isn’t making seats available, when in fact United is just refusing to pay for the seat.
Continental has explicitly said that they would not engage in this practice. At the same time, they’ve indicated they would offer an award chart whose pricing would allow them to keep that commitment.
So the second question was, what would that award chart look like? Would they be asking 250,000 miles for a first class award to Asia?
Well, the award chart is out, and it’s frankly pretty good. In general the award chart appears on par with United, with minor variances. Which is fine and a huge advantage if Continental keeps its word and allows members to book all award seats being offered by their Star partners.
Now, the award chart has some advantages and some disadvantages relative to the other North American Star carriers.
US to South Asia on Continental will be 145,000 miles in first class, the same as United. It’s less expensive by 15,000 miles than US Airways and more expensive than Air Canada Aeroplan by 25,000 miles.
On the other hand, business class from the US to Europe is 105,000 miles with Continental, same as United (but no blocking!), and 80,000 with US Airways. Depending on the destination in Europe Aeroplan can be 80,000 or 100,000 for Star Alliance awards.
Still to be determined, or at least understood by me, are Continental’s routing rules. United, for instance, charges a premium for travel between the US and Asia via the Atlantic (they charge the Europe – Asia prices). US Airways charges no such premium. Air Canada even lets you route via the Atlantic one way and the Pacific the other. Both US AIrways and Air Canada permit two stopovers on such awards (with US Airways the stopover can only be one in each direction, and in a Star hub and only then when arriving on the carrier operating that hub). United allows only one stopover (or open jaw). I am not familiar with Continental routing rules, or how those will manifest themselves when booking with Star partners.
But for now it certainly appears that the Continental award offers are better than United’s. Continental miles appear to now be worth more than United miles, at least as of October 27 when Continental joins Star. That’s a far cry from the past 8 years or so when United miles were deemed to be worth far more than Continental points.
In fact, the only real advantages that United has over the other three North American Star Alliance airlines are (1) economy plus seating and (2) confirmed upgrade instruments for 100,000-mile flyers.
Certainly United now offers the weakest redemption program amongst the four.