Travel Tuesday Top 10: Foreign Frequent Flyer Programs

May 7, 2013

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With the launch of a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus offer on Barclaycard’s Lufthansa Miles & More Premier World Mastercard over the weekend, I wanted to take a look at the top 10 foreign frequent flyer programs you should consider, even if you’re based in the US, and some great redemptions on each.

Use your Avios for a Los Angeles-Honolulu Economy Award.
Use your Avios for a Los Angeles-Honolulu Economy Award.

1. British Airways: British Airways awards are distance-based,  so there are some sweet spots when redeeming. One of the best-value British Airways Avios redemptions is for flights from the US West Coast to Hawaii, which require just 25,000 Avios instead of the 35,000 miles American (and most other US airlines) will make you redeem. That’s because the distance on this flight is 2,556 miles, which is within the 2,001-3,000-mile band. Also, British Airways Avios are great for expensive short-haul flights. So if you want to fly a last minute one-way trip from New York to Toronto you can for only 4,500 Avios, whereas tickets on that route can go for upwards of $500. Another great way to redeem Avios is for upgrades on paid tickets, which only require half the amount of Avios as an economy award redemption to jump up a cabin, and even upgrading from economy to business class will require just 20,000 Avios in each direction from the East Coast to London. Avios is also the frequent flyer program of Iberia, so even if you want to use Avios to get to Europe, you can avoid those high fuel surcharges of flying through London by flying Iberia to Spain instead.

British Airways Avios are also amongst the easiest frequent flyer currencies to accrue. There is a lucrative British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase, which routinely offers 100,000-point sign-up bonuses (the current bonus is 50,000 Avios when you spend $3,000 in 3 months), and which is one of the best travel credit cards on the market thanks to its earning ratio of 1 Avios per dollar on purchases (3 Avios/$1 on BA purchases) and no foreign transaction fees. British Airways is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (transfers are usually instant) – which you earn on cards like the Premier Rewards Gold and the Platinum – and until June 7, 2013 there is a transfer bonus of 35%. British Airways is also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner if you carry a premium card like the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold (also instantaneous), and Starwood Preferred Guest (transfers can take around a week).

For more information, check out my Maximizing British Airways Avios series whose posts include Master FAQ Post on British Airways 100,000 Mile Offer, Spotlight on Taxes and Fees, Distance-Based Awards, Travel Together Companion Ticket, Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets, Household Accounts, The Avios and Cash OptionSave Money on Fuel Surcharges by Transferring British Airways Avios to IberiaUsing Avios For Non-Flight Redemptions.

Aeroplan's award chart has some great redemptions like from North America to Europe.
Aeroplan’s award chart has some great redemptions like from North America to Europe.

2. Aeroplan: If you are looking for a non-US program that’s still based in North America, Aeroplan is the best choice for you. It’s the frequent flyer program of Air Canada (though Air Canada sold it years ago and it operates as a separate company), which is a member of Star Alliance with 26 current  airline partners, and is also a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest (with a 5,000-mile bonus on transfers of 20,000 miles). It has also offered some very lucrative transfer bonuses and promotional bonuses in the past for things like converting other points to Aeroplan miles, a 75% mileage bonus for flying certain routes, and shopping through its e-store. Not only that, but Aeroplan has some very flexible routing rules so you can build in stopovers and take advantage of some very well-priced awards including just 90,000 miles from North America to Western Europe in business class and 125,000 miles from North America to Asia in business (which you can route through Europe and thus construct a “round the world” itinerary). Its engine for searching for Star Alliance availability is also very useful. Aeroplan does levy fuel surcharges on a lot of Star Alliance carriers including Air Canada flights, as well as Star Alliance partner Lufthansa, ANA, Adria, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, TAP and THAI; and they don’t price one-way awards at half the price of roundtrips – but you can find out more in my Aeroplan award series.

Score some discount domestic business class tickets for just 35,000 miles using Miles & More.
Score some discount domestic business class tickets for just 35,000 miles using Miles & More.

3. Lufthansa: What makes Miles & More a mileage program to consider is that it’s the program not only of Lufthansa, but also of SWISS and Austrian airlines. Like some other foreign airline programs, Miles & More tends to hold back advanced premium award space specifically for members of its own program, whereas finding premium award space on these airlines more than a few days out can be very difficult if you are searching just through a Star Alliance partner program such as United. Lufthansa is also part of Star Alliance, so you can use these miles on any of 27 partner airlines, including ANA, Singapore, United and US Airways. Lufthansa Miles & More is also a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, so you could always use some of these points to top up your account for a specific award and when you transfer in increments of 20,000 points, you get a 5,000-mile bonus, giving you 25% more miles.

Miles & More redemptions do incur ticket fees, surcharges and taxes between $500-1,000 on transatlantic redemptions on Lufthansa, SWISS and Austrian. However, according to the Miles & More award chart, domestic flights are 25,000 in Economy, 35,000 in Business and 50,000 in First roundtrip, so you could potentially score some business class tickets on United for a real discount at that 35,000-mile level, or first class tickets at 50,000 miles. Plus, you can redeem for one-ways with Miles & More, which you cannot using US Airways miles.

Newark-Madrid for 68,000 miles in Business Class on United.
Newark-Madrid for 68,000 miles in Business Class on United.

4. ANA: ANA is a Japanese airline and a member of Star Alliance, as well as a partner with several other airlines including Virgin Atlantic. Its award search engine is one of the best ways to find Star Alliance availability. Like British Airways, ANA’s mileage program is distance-based, so you can find some award redemption sweet spots such as needing just 63,000 miles for roundtrip business class between the east coast of North America and London on Virgin Atlantic (or 68,000 between the East Coast and continental Europe on other partners), . See the whole partner award chart here. One downside is that ANA levies variable fuel surcharges on many of its partners, but you can check out my series on ANA redemptions to estimate how much you’ll be paying on top of your award redemption based on which carrier you want to fly. The airline is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (transfers usually take about 48 hours) and Starwood Preferred Guest (transfers can take up to a couple weeks), which makes it a very versatile program to maximize when it comes time to redeem some of those points for an award on a Star Alliance carrier.

Promo Awards are one of the best redemptions when it comes to Flying Blue.
Promo Awards are one of the best redemptions when it comes to Flying Blue.

5. Flying Blue: Flying Blue is the frequent flyer program of SkyTeam partners Air France, KLM and Air Europa. It is also a transfer partner of both American Express (it has offered transfer bonuses of up to 35% – most recently in September, though there is currently a targeted 35% bonus) and Starwood Preferred Guest. The program does charge sometimes high ticket surcharges on routes from North America to Europe, but on premium awards, you can still get good value from your miles. The program just released some good news/bad news regarding those ticket surcharges – they’ll go down on economy and premium economy tickets, but remain high on business and first tickets starting in June. First class awards on Air France, which were previously reserved only for Flying Blue elites, will also be bookable starting in June. Now for the bad news: award pricing will rise for premium economy (30%), business (around 25%) and first class awards (over 60%) starting in June as well.

However, the program’s Promo Awards, which are 50% off normal award levels between gateway cities all over the world and Europe and run all year long, will remain after the June devaluation – though the premium economy and business class levels will obviously be a bit higher than the current ones based on the new redemption levels. Promo Award gateway cities generally change every two months on a rolling basis. They are currently Chicago, Montreal and New York through June. Using Promo Awards, you can find award itineraries from North America to Europe and beyond for as low as 25,000 miles roundtrip in economy and 50,000 miles (for now) in business class on Air France, KLM and Air Europa. Each airline offers these discounts on different destinations and cabins. Another great feature about Flying Blue is when it comes to Delta awards. Delta doesn’t allow for one-way awards, but Flying Blue does allow you to book one-way awards on Delta at the saver level, so it’s a handy workaround if you just need a one-way on Delta such as for a positioning flight.

19,000 LAN Pass miles for a roundtrip Santiago-Buenos Aires Economy Award.
19,000 LAN kilometers for a roundtrip Santiago-Buenos Aires Economy Award.

6. LAN: A member of Oneworld (partners with American and British Airways), LAN is a South America-based airline that is currently merging with Brazil-based carrier TAM, and should create a massive new integrated South America route network for North American flyers to connect to when heading south of the equator. Part of this program’s real value, however, lies in intra-South American redemptions for flights that can be quite expensive if purchasing a la carte, and having LAN kilometers makes finding availability through LAN much easier than searching through its Oneworld partners. For example, a roundtrip economy award ticket between Santiago and Buenos Aires only requires 19,000 LAN kilometers, whereas the same flights would cost around $300. Plus, LAN is also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest and Starwood points transfer at a generous 1:2 ratio, so 10,000 Starpoints = 20,000 LAN kilometers, and 20,000 Starpoints = 50,000 LAN kilometers.

Singapore Airlines New York-Frankfurt First Class Award.
Singapore Airlines New York-Frankfurt First Class Award.

7. Singapore Airlines: Singapore is another Asia-based Star Alliance member, and one of the world’s premier airlines. A lot of expats living in Southeast Asia make the switch from United MileagePlus to Singapore KrisFlyer because of special perks like flown mileage bonuses on Singapore itself, and better international premium award availability. The program is also a 1:1 transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. When it comes to redemptions, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer program is divided into zones based on distance. One of my favorite perks is that KrisFlyer members receive a 15% discount when redeeming award flights online. So for instance, a roundtrip New York-Frankfurt First Class award is 114,750 miles plus $556.87 in taxes and fees, when booking online. To buy this outright, it would cost $7,845.77, meaning you would be getting 6.35 cents per mile value.

The award mileage requirements on Korean Air’s website are listed for roundtrip awards – but the airline allows one-ways for half price.
The award mileage requirements on Korean Air’s website are listed for roundtrip awards – but the airline allows one-ways for half price.

8. Korean Air: SkyTeam has made some extensive inroads into Asia including with Korea’s premier carrier, which has a great business class product and decent first class service. Although Korean Air’s SkyPass program is a bit quirky (you can read about my Experience Booking Award Tickets On Korean Air Using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points as well as Upgrading on Korean Air Using Ultimate Rewards Points), it’s worth taking a look at. When it comes to earning miles on Korean, it all depends on the fare class that you buy since you can earn between 70-200% of the flown miles based on which class you’re ticket is coded into. Check out Korean’s earning rates here. In terms of elite status, if you’re a SkyTeam flyer and Delta is your airline of choice for now, keep in mind that the Medallion program is changing as of now for 2014 qualification based on how much you spend on Delta airfares or by spending $25,000 in the calendar year on a Delta co-branded Amex card, so you will need to spend a certain amount to keep up your status, and that might be a consideration – as is the fact that you can book Korean Air awards one-way, which you cannot with Delta (you can, but you still use the full mileage for a roundtrip). Finally, Korean Air is a transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards if you have the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus, so if you’ve been racking up the Ultimate Rewards points in the hopes of using them for an award to Asia, this could be a great carrier choice for you.

Cathay's Asia Miles chard is distance-based.
Cathay’s Asia Miles chard is distance-based.

9. Cathay Pacific: Another premier Asia-based carrier, Cathay is part of Oneworld and its award chart is distance-based like British Airways’. To get from LA to Hong Kong, you’d need 70,000, 120,000 or 180,000 miles for economy, business or first respectively, while with American you’d need 70,000, 110,000 and 135,000, so this might not make sense for you. from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. However, other redemptions might definitely be worth consideration, especially when redeeming for roundtrip awards, which are priced more cheaply than if you simply combined two one-ways. For example, flying from the East Coast of the US to Europe would only require 45,000, 80,000 and 120,000 miles roundtrip in economy, business or first, whereas with American miles, you could be using 60,000 (peak saver), 100,000 or 125,000 miles for the same classes respectively. Another important thing to note is that Cathay doesn’t seem to incur taxes and fees quite as high as those on British Airways or American on routings through London. For example, JFK-London on Cathay’s Asia Miles would require 80,000 miles but only incur $791 in taxes and fees, as opposed to if booking through British Airways where taxes and fees came to $1,149 in taxes. Cathay is also a 1:1 transfer partner from American Express Membership Rewards.

Lifemiles' 100% buy miles bonuses make for some great value redemptions.
Lifemiles’ 100% buy miles bonuses make for some great value redemptions.

10. Avianca: Avianca is a member of Star Alliance and you can view their award chart here, but for instance, roundtrip business class from North America to Southern South America (Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia) is 100,000 miles (135,000 in first class). The airlines been offering enticing 100% buy and share miles bonuses lately that make buying miles as cheap as 1.5 cents each. So a roundtrip business class ticket to Argentina would only cost you $1,500 if you used miles you bought through a 100% promo. North America to Europe in business has gone up recently to 105,000 miles  for an award redemption, but that brings the price to just $1,575. One of the other interesting and potentially extremely lucrative elements of the Lifemiles redemption process is that you only actually need 40% of the miles necessary for a particular award in order to book it and you can then “buy” the other 60% of the miles at a rate of 1.275 cents each, making potential redemptions even cheaper.

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