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February 2, 2006

More on Awards shopping

The comparisons I'm making of awards are most advantageous to people who either get most of their miles from credit card expenditure or people who fly constantly. For people in between those extremes who fly frequently enough to possibly achieve status, that should be a consideration as to where you credit your flights.

I did the series on distance based vs. zone based award systems less to see which was better overall than to illuminate a few exploitable anomalies, such as Asia Miles to Europe. Someone planning a dream vacation in the future is in the perfect position to take advantage of these, as long as you realize that frequent flyer program rules and awards change with little or no notice.

Look at the award levels for as many airlines as you can to your chosen destination and also its partners. Here's another comparison - New York to Buenos Aires in Business Class.

American Airlines flies this route non-stop. At 11 hours duration even non-stop, if the plane is full it's a pretty miserable flight and worth flying in business class. A business class award on AA costs 90,000 miles. Purchased with money, an economy ticket on this route is around $830 including taxes; business class is an astronomical $8300, though my guess is you can find a discount. By more circuitous routes on other airlines business class goes as low as $2200. If you want to attain status or accumulate miles on American, a round trip NYC-EZE nets you 10,400 miles, which is a significant chunk of the way towards status, at least gold status on a challenge, platinum if you buy a more expensive economy fare that gives you 1.0 Elite Qualification Points per mile instead of .05. If this is desirable for you, the best option may be to use AA miles to upgrade. AA lets any fare be upgraded for miles. Flights to Europe, Asia and the lower part of South America also require a co-pay of $250 one way. Flying business class would cost approximately $1,330 + 50,000 miles and you would earn miles and points towards elite status.

You can also get this award from other Oneworld partners. I'm discounting Aer Lingus, Finnair and Iberia from this comparison; in the first two cases the awards tables are not available on line. In the last, the system of points awarded doesn't lend itself to comparison with the other programs. Leaving the remaining partners, the results are a bit surprising.

Cost for a round trip ticket in business class, NYC-EZE on American Airlines:

American Airlines: 90,000 miles
LAN: 140,000 kilometers (between 70-87,000 miles depending on how earned)
British Airways: 80,000 miles
AsiaMiles: 100,000 miles
Qantas: 144,000 miles

So the winner, depending on the method of earning is LAN or possibly (and surprisingly) British Airways. British Airways is a lousy airline to credit flown miles to, as discounted economy earns .25 of actual miles flown, soemthing none of the American carriers do. But it can be an advantageous company to convert credit card miles to; there have been large bonuses given before. With this bonus as an example, 20,000 Starpoints gets a 5,000 Starpoint bonus, converted at a 2:3 rate - 37,500 points. So 45,000 Starpoints (40,000 with 10,000 bonus points and an extra 5,000 to top it off) would have become 80,000 BA miles, enough for an NYC-EZE reward. LAN accumulates actual kilometers and there are some bonuses if you happen to take a LAN flight for the first time, but as with BA, the most advantageous way to accumulate miles with them is converting Starpoints.

Venturing away from Oneworld, on Skyteam, Continental, Northwest and Delta all charge the same for that award, 90,000 miles, but you could get in from Air France for 80,000. On Star Alliance, United charges 80,000, Aeroplan is a very low 75,000. But it won't be a non-stop flight as only American flies that route.

The moral of the story? Once you have a destination in mind, do your research. You don't need to earn Frequent Flyer miles on them the airline you flew on. Figure out the best partner for your goal, and put them there. Unless there are rumors to consider of a change in conversion ratios or participants, don't convert anything out of Starpoints or another convertible reward currency until you need to or when there's an offer to pounce on.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at February 2, 2006 11:46 PM

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