With United’s big announcement that they’re going to revenue-based mileage accrual effective March 2015, there will be some customers who benefit:
- Short haul flyers who pay high fares. These folks might average more than the 20 cents a mile that’s break-even for year-over-year earning.
- International premium cabin flyers. Buying very expensive business and first class tickets you can come out ahead — just be sure your ticket isn’t too expensive because mileage-earning is capped at 75,000 miles per ticket (buy two one ways if you’re a full fare long haul business passenger, instead of a roundtrip).
But for folks that aren’t elite frequent flyers with United, who don’t need to credit their miles to United but will still fly the occasional revenue ticket with them, here’s what you might consider.
Other than – of course – another airline. American AAdvantage has said they won’t be making major changes until they complete integration with US Airways. Switch to American (or Alaska, which has considered a revenue-based program) and tell them why you are doing it. If American can make money under the current model they won’t have a reason to switch. And integration with US Airways gives them a reason to wait and see.
If you’re based in Houston or Denver especially your non-stop alteratives to United are limited though.
Flying a transcon between Washington Dulles and Los Angeles, you currently earn 4575 miles roundtrip.
If you’re airfare is less than $915 you’ll earn fewer miles starting March 2015. And if your airfare is less than $457 you’ll earn even fewer miles than crediting the flight to a non-US program that credits 50% miles on the cheapest fares.
So what are the fares like? Here are the lowest fares on United for Washington Dulles – Los Angeles currently. Note the lowest, the W fare (what some programs require for full mileage credit), and the V fare (other programs still).
It won’t make sense to pay for a higher fare in most circumstances just to earn more miles. But if the fares you’re seeing fall into the W bucket a whole world of foreign programs open up for full mileage-earning. And even if you’re lucky enough to be paying less than a W fare, if your fare is less than $457 you’re going to earn more miles still even crediting to a program giving 50% miles on this particular route.
Nonetheless, there’s no perfect alternative for US frequent flyers to crediting United flights to United.
- Most other programs you can credit to will add fuel surcharges to awards (Avianca’s Lifemiles is an exception)
- Most other programs you can credit to will give you less than 100% of flown miles earned (although many will give you 100% miles on relatively reasonable W fares)
- Most other programs won’t give you as many earning options, to pool miles from as many sources, as a US program will.
Still, here’s who you might consider crediting United flights to if you aren’t going for United status.
Singapore Airlines Krisflyer
Singapore allows you to earn 100% flown miles on all United flights. (.pdf)
Singapore adds fuel surcharges to awards. Their website is frustrating — you can only book Singapore’s own flights online, and will have difficulty booking awards in mixed classes of service that way.
But they do offer a 15% discount for online bookings. And there’s really one primary use of their miles — that’s that Singapore offers much much much better award availability on their own flights for their own members.
Sure it’s still tough to get 2 first class award seats on their A380 from US destinations to and from Asia. But it’s not impossible. And suites class between other cities are easier. First (on their 777s) and business class awards have better availability.
If you want to fly Singapore Airlines, which really has one of the world’s best first class products, the way to do it is with Singapore’s own miles. And availability is outstanding.
- San Francisco – Hong Kong in ‘suites class’ is 70,125 miles one-way.
- Houston – Moscow in first class is 57,375 miles one-way.
- New York JFK – Frankfurt in suites class is 57,375 miles one-way.
You can have one enroute stopover on a roundtrip award as well.
Other useful awards:
- US – Hawaii costs 35,000 miles roundtrip in coach, 60,000 miles roundtrip up front (no fuel surcharges)
- North America domestic first class awards cost just 40,000 miles roundtrip (no fuel surcharges)
- North America – Europe is 130,000 miles roundtrip in business class; 160,000 miles roundtrip in first.
- North America – Middle East is 115,000 miles roundtrip in business class, 150,000 miles roundtrip in first.
- South Africa is 145,000 miles roundtrip in business class.
American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Starpoints transfer to Singapore. And Chase does too now. That makes Singapore miles among the easiest to get, and easiest to combine with the occasional United flight.
Singapore miles expire after 3 years — not 3 years of account activity, but 3 years after earning. So you need to earn miles, top off via transfers in from other programs, and redeem if you go this route.
Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
Turkish is great for earning and keeping elite status, status lasts two years, and their award chart is pretty good. But they do add fuel surcharges to awards where those apply to paid travel (you can fly US domestic and South America of course without fuel surcharges).
The downside is that you aren’t going to earn miles from a lot of other activities with Turkish. They aren’t a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Aegean Miles & Bonus
Aegean requires a ‘V’ fare (one class above W) or higher to earn 100% miles on United.
They bonus premium fares well — 300% for United’s first class, for instance.
And they offer 500 minimum miles on United regardless of deep discount fare class, doubling that for business and tripling that for first.
They also offer the easiest Star Alliance Gold status there it. You get 1000 miles for signing up, and if you earn 19,000 more in your first year you’ve earned Star Gold. For life, under current program terms, as long as you credit a flight to the program every 36 months.
That’s what makes the program most interesting. There are some decent awards on their chart but routing rules are restrictive.
Air Canada Aeroplan
Last year >I called Aeroplan the most devalued program in North America. In some ways that’s good, because they have several transfer partners (e.g. Amex, Starwood) and they have several good awards still and may not have much further to fall.
While Aeroplan adds fuel surcharges onto some partners, you do not pay fuel surcharges for bookings on Air China, Brussels Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, EVA, SAS, Singapore, Swiss, Turkish, and United, and fuel surcharges are modest (about half what you’d pay on Lufthansa) for LOT.
And awards between the US and Western Europe (Poland counts, for LOT’s outstanding award availability) cost just 45,000 miles each way or 90,000 miles roundtrip.
You’re also permitted two stopovers in addition to your destination, or a stopover and an open jaw.
Lifemiles credits W fares and higher at 100%.
The program has no fuel surcharges, offers one-way awards which are priced reasonably, and as with this offer they sell miles cheap. They also offer ‘cash and points’ which means that as long as you have 40% of the miles needed for an award you can buy the rest at the time of redemption for just over 1.5 cents apiece.
That said, their call centers are frustrating (although if you can wait a day for a response they’re much better over email) and they don’t permit “mixed cabin” redemption — so if you are redeeming a transatlantic business class award, all segments need to be in business class (including domestic US flights, and intra-Europe flights). And back in May they tweaked some award prices without notice and increased the cash cost of cash and points awards to its current pricing as well. So it’s far from a perfect program!
Still, it’s easy to buy miles cheaply and quite frequently in order to top off an account that’s accruing United flight miles.
So what works best for you?
If you’re not someone who goes for status on United, you need to identify your flyer type to know which program is best:
- The occasional United flyer, on cheap fares, I think will benefit most from Singapore Airlines Krisflyer with its 100% earning … if their goal is to redeem points domestically in the US (including Hawaii) or to secure award seats on Singapore. Plenty of ways to get more points than just those from flying United!
- If international awards are the goal, and avoiding fuel surcharges is key then Lifemiles is a good bet if you’re buying more expensive tickets that still come out behind on United (and are willing to buy miles).
- Otherwise consider Aeroplan if you’re buying expensive tickets but don’t want to buy points, given their partnerships with Amex and Starwood — and then focus on redemption partners that don’t earn fuel surcharges.
- Finally if you buy the cheapest tickets, can’t avoid fuel surcharges, and don’t want to buy miles for top off, then Avianca’s Lifemiles is your bet.
- Aegean only seems a good option for earning status and being treated better inflight, not as much for mileage-earning except for cheap short hops (and there aren’t great ways to top off an Aegean account towards an award).