Maximizing Citi ThankYou Rewards with Thai Royal Orchid Plus

May 19, 2015

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Citi ThankYou Rewards has stepped up over the past year by introducing new benefits to the program’s credit cards and improving its array of airline transfer partners. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr looks at award opportunities on one of those partners to see what kind of value it offers.

I’ve been completing a series of posts on the airline transfer partners of ThankYou points to discover what hidden gems may lie before us. I found gold in the Etihad Guest program as well as in EVA Airways and Cathay Pacific’s programs. Today, I continue my series by diving into Thai’s Royal Orchid Plus frequent flyer program.

I flew Thai Airways' old 747-400 Royal First Class from Tokyo to Bangkok.
I flew Thai Airways’ old 747-400 Royal First Class from Tokyo to Bangkok.

I love flying on Thai Airways. I enjoy everything about the airline, from the plane livery, color schemes and interiors to the perfectly put-together flight attendants. Shortly after I flew Thai Royal First Class from Haneda to Bangkok earlier this year, the news came out that Thailand had failed a UN safety audit, and the country’s civil aviation program was named a “significant safety concern.” This has caused many to second-guess flying Thai, and has led to further financial burdens on the already floundering airline.

The Royal Orchid Plus frequent flyer program is not doing anything to help attract customers, either. 

To be fair, I’ll analyze the program like I do all others, and I’ll start by giving you the basics of redeeming miles through the program:

  • Award flights on Thai are distance-based — there are different charts for one-way and round-trip travel.
  • Award flights on partner airlines are based on a regional chart.
  • You’re allowed one stopover in each direction and one open-jaw at your turnaround point on Star Alliance awards.
  • You can redeem awards for yourself and up to five other family members or friends by including them on your Award Nominee list. Any changes to the list after your original five will cost you 7,500 miles or $125.
  • Star Alliance awards must be round-trip and return to the city of origin.
  • Mixed-class awards are not available, unless you fly first on one leg and first is not offered on another leg. In all other cases, you will be charged the rate for the highest class of service for the entire itinerary.
  • There is an around-the-world option that allows 10 stopovers on up to a year-long itinerary. The miles required, however, are just silly.
Thai A380 Royal First open suite.

There are a few notable rules with the program:

  • Backtracking is only permitted on intercontinental award travel. Stopovers when backtracking, for example Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok-Sydney, are subject to a service fee of $95, with a maximum of 2 stopovers, and 1 stopover in each direction. (I am not aware of another program that allows stopovers for a charge.)
  • Lost or stolen award tickets can be reissued for $125. (I’m guessing many people in Thailand still use paper tickets.)

Prior to September 1 of last year, the Royal Orchid Plus program was not too shabby. Thai then announced a devaluation of the award chart, which made other airline devaluations seem painless. Thai increased several prices for award flights by 100%. As a result, the Royal Orchid Plus award chart is no longer competitive with other programs on the vast majority of routings.

Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus Redemption Strategy

First and foremost, your strategy should be to credit your paid Thai flights elsewhere. I recommend ANA MileageClub, Singapore KrisFlyer or United MileagePlus. Why should you avoid Royal Orchid Plus?

  • Fuel surcharges are exorbitant.
  • The few sweet spots with competitive redemption rates still aren’t worth trying to book with Thai or paying the fuel surcharges.
  • Good luck getting a phone agent who can help —  the call centers have limited hours for Star Alliance ticketing.
  • You can book Thai awards online, but you cannot search availability unless you have miles in your account.

Let’s take a look at some of the mileage requirements for Star Alliance Awards:

Thai's award chart for round-trip business class from North America on Star Alliance members.
Thai’s award chart for round-trip business class from North America on Star Alliance members.

The above award chart for business class reveals no routes worth using Thai miles. (Region definitions are found here.) United charges 140,000 miles for a round-trip saver award in business to Australia/New Zealand, which is a tad lower than Thai’s price.

Round-trip, first class prices for Star Alliance flights.
Round-trip, first class prices for Star Alliance flights.

I find Thai’s first-class award chart to be more reasonable than the business chart. Price increases from business to first are minimal. Many of the above prices are cheaper than what United or Singapore would charge for the same routes. United charges 220,000 miles for Star Alliance first class from the US to Japan, compared to 192,000 miles for Thai. However, fuel surcharges imposed by Thai wipe out any savings on this route.

One itinerary that could be a good value: North America to North Africa via Europe in first class for only 160,000 miles round-trip. This means you could fly Lufthansa first class from Chicago to Frankfurt, stop over, then fly to Casablanca on Lufthansa business. On the return, you would have access to the exclusive Lufthansa First Class Terminal. United would charge 220,000 miles round-trip just for the Chicago to Frankfurt trip. The draw back to this seemingly good deal? More than $1,000 in carrier-imposed surcharges. If you think about using your ThankYou points transferred to Thai as buying a highly discounted first-class ticket, this could make sense.

For awards on Thai’s own flights, the prices are high, but not as outrageous as many have stated. Still, there’s no incentive to use the program with Thai tacking on several hundred dollars of surcharges. You can book these Thai flights online, but you must have mileage in your account to search availability — so you effectively cannot use the online booking tool if you’re planning to transfer ThankYou points only after finding the flights you need.

Partial Royal Orchid Plus award chart for round-trip flights on Thai-operated routes.
Partial Royal Orchid Plus award chart for round-trip flights on Thai-operated routes.

There is a one-way award chart for Thai-operated flights. It’s important to note that one-way flights are not half price of round trip; one-way can cost you up to 75% of a round-trip ticket.

So what is the best use of Thai Royal Orchid Plus miles, as I see it? How about a one-hour flight simulator experience for only 9,900 miles at Thai’s crew-training building?

Bottom Line

High mileage prices, high fuel surcharges and limited booking opportunities over the phone with difficult agents means this program should be at the bottom of your list for ThankYou point transfer partners. Make sure you do your research on how to maximize the value of your hard-earned ThankYou points.

If you want to fly in a premium cabin on Thai Airways, I recommend using Air Canada’s Aeroplan, where you can fly Tokyo-Bangkok for only 30,000 miles round-trip in business class. You’ll need to pay a couple hundred dollars in surcharges, but you can’t beat that redemption rate for more than six hours in business.

To earn ThankYou points, I recommend checking out some great offers for cards in the ThankYou Rewards program, including the Citi Premier Card and the Citi Prestige Card

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.