3 reasons your family needs LifeMiles for domestic travel

Sep 6, 2019

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While some foreign airline loyalty programs can be a bit daunting due to rules that differ from what you’re used to, in many cases, they are a better option than those of U.S. airlines. In particular, Avianca LifeMiles has an especially strong appeal. There are multiple reasons why the program is ideal for family travel. I’ve used LifeMiles several times now for domestic family trips, and their value and usefulness keeps me coming back. Here’s why every family should have some LifeMiles in their back pocket.

United's latest business seat on the 767-300. Note that bedding isn't provided on most domestic flights. Photo by Zach Honig.
United’s business seat on the 767-300. Note that bedding isn’t provided on most domestic flights. (Photo by Zach Honig)

A short-haul redemption sweet spot

Avianca LifeMiles had one of the more unique award charts for travel in the United States. Rather than include the Lower 48 in a single zone, like most other programs, the old LifeMiles award chart broke the U.S. up into three zones. I put this in the past tense since there have been some tweaks to LifeMiles domestic U.S. pricing, but it appears much of the former award chart remains intact based on some trial searches.
Avianca is a Star Alliance member, and you’ll be using its miles to fly on United Airlines. Economy flights generally range between 6,500 and 13,500 miles, depending on the route. Many short-haul awards price at 7,500 miles, which is the former “intra-zone” price. These short-haul awards can also include connections, making them ideal for flyers tied to regional airports. United and American both have short-haul award charts, but their rules say you must fly nonstop.
Here is an example of a LifeMiles itinerary from Monterey, California, to Denver, Colorado, for just 7,500 miles:

Every single instance where I have redeemed LifeMiles has resulted in a value of at least 2.5 cents per mile. This is typically because I am flying from a small regional airport and/or last minute. This brings me to another benefit of using LifeMiles.

Dodging United’s close-in fee — for now

In general, I find that United releases a decent number of award seats two to three weeks prior to departure. This is a boon for families looking for a last-minute getaway. There’s just one problem: At the moment, United levies a “close-in” fee of $75 per ticket. This is reduced or eliminated if you hold United Premier status — but for most folks, it’s a tough pill to swallow. For a family of four, you’re looking at $300 in extra fees for your “free” flights.
Note that this close-in fee won’t be an issue for much longer. United is moving away from an award chart and eliminating these close-in award fees starting on Nov. 15, 2019. It’s unclear how this will affect partner awards, but I am confident that LifeMiles will remain an excellent option for domestic awards.
In the meantime, LifeMiles are an excellent way to dodge the close-in booking fee. Last year I burned just 22,500 LifeMiles, plus taxes and fees of $91.80, to book three one-way tickets to Arizona for a spring road trip. Cash tickets were going for nearly $500 one-way. United MileagePlus would have charged us 37,500 miles and $241.80 for the same itinerary, so using LifeMiles brought us excellent savings. Combined with an eight-day car rental for right around $100 (using the Southwest U.S.’s version of the spring car rental migration) and we had the makings of a cheap vacation.

LifeMiles are easy to earn

Avianca LifeMiles are a transfer partner of multiple bank currencies, unlike United, which is a partner exclusive to Chase Ultimate Rewards. This means that you don’t necessarily need to stockpile LifeMiles themselves, but can keep points as either American Express Membership Rewards or Citi ThankYou points. Transfers from both programs are instant. Capital One is a third option, although the transfer ratio is 2:1.5.
American Express Membership Rewards points are particularly easy to accrue. With the American Express® Gold Card you can earn 4x Membership Rewards points per dollar at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x) and dining worldwide. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card earns 2x miles on everything. If you have a small business, you could consider The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express or the Capital One Spark Miles for Business.
If you want to earn LifeMiles directly, Banco Popular issues two cobranded cards that earn LifeMiles: the Avianca Vuela Visa Card and the Avianca Vida Visa Card.

Other things to know about LifeMiles

LifeMiles redemptions carry a fee of $10 to $25 per ticket. This is unavoidable, and is levied per redemption. It doesn’t matter whether you’re booking a one-way or round-trip.
I’ll admit that LifeMiles can be a frustrating program at times. The amount of award space that shows online often doesn’t match what is available through United’s own website, and some routes don’t ever display any award inventory. You’d think that calling LifeMiles would let you book award flights not available through the website, but this doesn’t tend to be true.
LifeMiles often runs buy miles promotions. I’m personally not interested in these, but they do offer you the potential to save a significant amount of money if you have an immediate need for LifeMiles but don’t have any points available. LifeMiles are also ideal for premium cabin award redemption on Star Alliance partners due to the fact that they never pass on fuel surcharges.

Bottom line

I’m rather possessive of my United miles, only using them when absolutely necessary. In many cases, I find that LifeMiles are an ideal alternative for domestic family travel, as I can often accrue LifeMiles more quickly and use fewer when we go to redeem them.
Curious about other uses of LifeMiles? Here are some other resources to check out:

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.

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