The Hardest Airline Miles to Earn and Why You Want Them
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When TPG publishes his monthly valuation series for airline, hotel and credit card points, he focuses on the redemption side of things. For example, Amex Membership Rewards points recently got a bump to 2 cents each thanks to the addition of Avianca LifeMiles as a 1:1 transfer partner. Scarcity is an important and often overlooked element of value though. If everyone had access to an unlimited supply of Membership Rewards points, we would snap up all the best first class redemptions, forcing airlines to devalue their award charts and making our points worth less. In many ways, scarcity helps your miles retain their value over time.
While there are plenty of hard-to-get miles that aren’t worth all that much (you don’t see me crying over the fact that Spirit doesn’t have any transfer partners), a few of the most valuable airline miles happen to also be some of the hardest to get. Today we’ll take a look at these programs, including how to earn these miles and the high-value redemption options that make them worth your time. In each of these cases you can earn miles by crediting revenue flights to the specific loyalty program, so I’ll skip over that option and focus instead on credit card bonuses and transfer options.
Japan Airlines Mileage Bank
While JAL offers an unappealing credit card (5,000-mile sign-up bonus and either .5 or 1 mile per dollar spent), your best bet for racking up Mileage Bank miles quickly is by transferring from Marriott Rewards. Points transfer at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.
Redeeming for flights operated by JAL is a great option here, but I’ll start with the one flight that dominates most points enthusiasts’ bucket lists: Emirates first class. After a no-notice devaluation of Alaska’s partner award chart for Emirates, JAL emerged as the easy first choice program for booking Emirates awards. They’ve since begun passing on fuel surcharges for Emirates awards, which can exceed $1,000 on certain routes, but you can minimize them by strategically picking your departure city.
Let’s take a look at what I consider to be the single best route for Emirates first class redemptions: Hong Kong (HKG) to the East Coast — either Washington DC (IAD) or New York (JFK) — with a stopover in Dubai (DXB).
Both of these routes cover just over 10,000 flight miles, and would cost 145,000 JAL miles in first class based on the award chart shown below.
You would need to transfer 360,000 Marriott points (worth $3,240 based on TPG’s latest valuations) to get this many JAL miles, but in return you’d get two long-haul flights in Emirates first class and a free stopover to explore Dubai. The kicker is that taxes on this route are minimal, generally less than $100 for a $10,000+ ticket.
Since fuel surcharges are specific to the departure city, you’ll want to avoid the reverse routing (i.e. flying from New York to Hong Kong) which would cost more than $800 in addition to the miles.
You can also use Mileage Bank miles to get a great rate on JAL premium cabin redemptions. You can access the full award chart here, but some of the highlights include:
- US to Japan for 50,000 miles each way in business, or 70,000 miles in first class
- US to China and South Korea for 55,000 miles each way in business, or 80,000 miles in first class
- US to Oceania for 70,000 miles in business class (or 85,000 miles in first class, but the Tokyo-Oceania leg would be in business)
JAL first class is an incredibly refined and luxurious flight experience. You’ll find it aboard the carrier’s flagship 777-300ER aircraft flying to only six destinations around the globe, four of which are in the US. 70,000 miles for 10+ hours in first class is an incredible deal, and in many ways puts JAL on par with another mileage currency we’ll get to in a minute.
On the shorter end, flights from much of the East Coast to Europe fall under 4,000 miles. One-way awards, say, from New York-JFK to Paris (CDG) on American Airlines would only cost 25,000 miles one-way in economy or 48,000 in business, which is significantly cheaper than what the competition charges (AA would want 30,000 miles in economy and 57,500 in business).
You can use this combination of multiple stopovers and a distance-based award chart to create your own mini round-the-world itinerary. For example, this trip from Chicago to Sydney, with stops in Los Angeles (LAX), Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and Hong Kong (HKG), only covers ~24,400 flight miles. To fly this whole trip in business class would only cost 150,000 miles, for all five flights. That’s less than most airlines would charge for the simple round-trip ticket from Chicago to Sydney, and you get to enjoy three stopovers free of charge.
Korean Air SKYPASS
Korean Air has a number of personal and business co-branded cards issued by US Bank. Sign-up bonuses range from 5,000 to 30,000 miles, and while not the most compelling offers on the market, this could be a good way to earn some elusive miles. Since Chase dropped Korean Air as a transfer partner last year, your best option is again to transfer Marriott points at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.
Cheap award rates, low taxes and a fairly extensive North American route network all mean that one of the best uses of Korean Air SKYPASS miles is for flights actually operated by Korean. Korean flies a mix of Boeing 777-300ERs, 747-8s and Airbus A380s (all of which feature first class) to about half a dozen US cities.
One-way flights from the US to Korea, Japan, China or North Asia only cost 80,000 miles each way in first class, or 62,500 miles in Korean’s phenomenal apex suite business class. Prices are slightly higher during peak season, but this just applies to two months at the beginning of summer and two weeks around New Year’s. You can also build in a free stopover in Seoul (ICN) before continuing on to another destination. While not as generous as it used to be, Korean Air is also known for releasing multiple premium cabin award seats on a single flight, making this an ideal way to fly in comfort with your family or friends. I had the chance to tr out 747-8 first class earlier this year, and the spacious cabin in the nose felt like a private jet, even though we were flying a double-decker jumbo.
The SkyPass program also has a number of great sweet spots for SkyTeam partner awards, but note that only round-trip tickets are allowed. For flights departing the US, the SkyTeam partner award chart is as follows:
Before you get too excited about the prospects of flying round-trip first class to Europe for only 100,000 miles, I have to dash your hopes: There isn’t actually a SkyTeam carrier that will let you book that ticket. Air France is the only SkyTeam carrier to operate a true first class cabin between the US and Europe, but it restricts first class award bookings to elite members of its own Flying Blue program. Still, 80,000 miles for a round-trip business class ticket to Europe is a great deal, whether you choose to fly on Air France, KLM or Delta.
SKYPASS is also one of the best programs for booking awards to Israel, a popular destination that’s surprisingly hard to get to on points and miles. You can fly round-trip in business class for only 120,000 miles, or 80,000 miles in economy. Between Delta’s nonstop flight from New York-JFK to Tel Aviv (TLV) and one-stop routings through Paris (CDG) or Amsterdam (AMS) on Air France or KLM, you have plenty of options to choose from here.
Another great redemption option to consider is Delta economy from the US to Hawaii for only 25,000 miles round trip. Saver level award space is very hard to come by, but this ranks as one of the top ways to get to Hawaii on points and miles.
Asiana has a co-branded card issued by Bank of America, which currently has a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days. Like JAL and Korean Air, you can also transfer Marriott points to Asiana at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.
Asiana offers some of the lowest Star Alliance redemption rates, but unfortunately it passes on massive fuel surcharges, which can really undermine the value of your “free” ticket. Let’s start with the award chart for flights operated by Asiana itself. Prices shown are for round-trip flights, and I’ve highlighted the routes to and from the US. You can book a one-way ticket for half the miles, and Asiana even allows stopovers on one-way awards!
160,000 miles for a round-trip first class ticket from the US to Seoul (ICN) is not a bad deal at all. Asiana flies its flagship A380 to both Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK), and when TPG flew it in first class earlier this year he loved the food and service.
Now let’s turn to Asiana’s Star Alliance partner chart for flights departing the US. Here’s where it gets a little confusing. While Asiana charges 170,000 miles round-trip for first class flights operated by Asiana from the US to China, Japan or North Asia, if you fly the same route on a Star Alliance partner such as ANA it only costs 160,000 miles plus taxes.
The best value on this chart though has to be the US to Europe round-trip in Lufthansa first class for only 100,000 miles (plus surcharges, likely around ~$1,000). This is the cheapest way to book Lufthansa first class awards, and while the surcharges are expensive, they aren’t any worse than what you’d pay if you booked through Aeroplan, and the mileage costs are lower here.
One caveat is that Asiana faces the same restrictions on booking Lufthansa first class awards as other programs: Generally speaking, Lufthansa will only release partner award space about two weeks before departure. Since you have to book round-trip partner awards with Asiana, this can make it tricky to find the space you need in that timeframe.
You can earn 40,000 miles after you make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account if you sign up and are approved for either the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card and Alaska Airlines Visa Business credit card. You can also transfer points from Marriott at the same 3:1 ratio. While Alaska miles might be the most valuable on this list, they’re also the easiest to earn thanks to the cobranded credit cards and frequent bonuses on purchased miles.
Since Alaska isn’t a member of one of the three major alliances, the Mileage Plan program has built individual partnerships with a uniquely valuable collection of airlines. Each partner has its own award chart, and while you can’t combine partners on an award ticket (but you can mix Alaska-operated flights with partner flights), you are allowed a stopover on one-way tickets. This includes domestic flights within the US, or stopovers at a partner’s hub airport on international tickets (such as Hong Kong for Cathay Pacific).
One of my personal favorite redemptions is 70,000 Alaska miles for a one-way Cathay Pacific first class flight between the US and Asia. These flights often cost as much as $20,000, giving you a value of nearly 30 cents per Alaska mile.
You can also fly Japan Airlines first class to North Asia for the same cost, though if you’re flying in business class Cathay Pacific is cheaper (50,000 miles vs. 60,000 miles), and JAL charges more for trips to Southeast Asia. You can even stop in Hong Kong on your way to India, all for the same 70,000 miles one-way in first class. Note that you have to call in to book Cathay Pacific awards, but JAL awards can be booked through the Alaska website.
If you’re looking to stay closer to home, Alaska miles are also great for flights to Hawaii if you can find saver space. Alaska also has an extensive route network from the West Coast to several different Hawaiian destinations.
It is still possible to book Emirates first class awards through Alaska, but the prices are now painfully high. A one-way first class award from the US to Dubai (DXB) costs 150,000 miles (more than a round-trip first class ticket to Hong Kong!) but one nice thing is that Alaska doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges. This can easily help you save $800 or more on US departures, but you will end up spending more miles.
For additional tips on how to use your Alaska miles, check out my guide to the best sweet spots in the program.
While these miles will take a little more effort to earn, they can help you unlock some of the most luxurious and coveted premium cabin redemptions available. And there’s another benefit to scarcity as well: the fewer people who have these miles, the less competition there will be for award space. You can give yourself a real advantage by diversifying your earning strategy to include some of these trickier programs, especially if you have a specific first class redemption at the top of your wish list.
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