Top 8 Airline Miles Programs – 2016 Edition

I last made my recommendations of which airline miles programs to join back in 2012 so with all the changes I think it’s time for an update!  Which programs are still good?  Which ones no longer exist?  Which ones are less valuable than before?  How can Australians and Americans get free miles from credit cards?  Read on!

WHAT MAKES A PROGRAM “GOOD”?

  • I attribute greater value to programs which require minimal outlay of cash (no fuel surcharges) and better opportunities to get miles from everyday credit card spend and sign up bonuses.
  • “Buy miles 100% bonus” deals may have value to people who have cash to outlay but since this is a guide for cash poor people who want to travel I am not including them here.
  • These recommendations are for eco-tourists so I haven’t considered luxury travel to Europe and Asia redemptions.
  • Free miles from E-Rewards is a plus.
  • I have not taken elite programs into account in any of the below programs.
  • I am not a credit blogger so please use other resources to find the best deals on sign up bonuses.

1.  American Airlines AAdvantageOne World member

Has more options between USA and Australia on Qantas, Air Pacific or Air Tahiti Nui, also great for LAN or AA to South America and Africa via Qatar or direct QF flights.  Can book several of their partners online with AA planning to add more as they go along.  One way awards at half round trip rates.  Save AA miles for long hauls if possible, use BA for short haul.  No fuel surcharges except BA and IB awards.  E-Rewards participant.

Americans get miles from Citibank co-branded cards and the grandfathered Barclays Aviator cards (not available to new applicants).  You can also transfer points from SPG best done in blocks of 20k to get 5k bonus.

Australians get miles by transferring preferably blocks of 40k Amex MR points to get 20k SPG, then blocks of 20k SPG to get 5k bonus.

2.  United Airlines Mileage PlusStar Alliance member

Good for awards to South-east Asia on UA, SQ & TG; Central & South America on Copa & Avianca and Africa on South African, Ethiopian and Egypt Air.  Also very good for intra-Latin America and intra-Africa.  E-Rewards participant.

Americans get miles easily via Chase’s Ultimate Rewards cards and co-branded United Explorer card.

Australians have a much harder time getting miles as the SPG route is a poor value at 20k SPG gets 10k United plus bonus of 2500.  Most Aussies will find Singapore a better Star Alliance partner.

3.  Singapore Airlines KrisFlyerStar Alliance member

Don’t keep miles in here if you can’t use them within 3 years because they expire whether you have activity or not.  Be careful of fuel surcharges on Asian routes.  Good for redemptions on NZ between Australia and Pacific islands & redemptions on Avianca & Copa for Central/South America trips as no fuel surcharges.

Americans get miles from Chase’s Ultimate Rewards cards, Citibank Thank You cards, American Express Membership Rewards & SPG.

Australians get miles from American Express Membership Rewards 1000:1000 and transferable rewards programs from Westpac and ANZ.

4.  British Airways Avios and Iberia AviosOne World members

Same Avios currency but you need to join both BA and IB’s versions to maximize it.  Pretty easy to earn Avios via E-Rewards and can also credit stays at Accor hotels to Iberia’s program and transfer easily between BA and IB.    Not a great program for long haul or itineraries needing connections but excellent for short haul within South America on partner LAN, the BA-Comair flights within Southern Africa or within Australia on partner Qantas.  Some nice 5th freedom flights in the Caribbean – Trinidad to St Lucia gets you between 2 islands with good birding.

Americans get miles from Chase’s Ultimate Rewards cards and co-branded British Airways card. You can also transfer points from SPG best done in blocks of 20k to get 5k bonus.

Australians get miles by transferring preferably blocks of 40k Amex MR points to get 20k SPG, then blocks of 20k SPG to get 5k bonus.  Aussies need to use a European or American address as they don’t accept memberships with Australian addresses.

5. Flying BlueSky Team member

Be careful as most redemptions here attract fuel surcharges.  Flying Blue can get you some places that are otherwise very difficult to get to such as Kenya Airways flights to Madagascar and Garuda domestic Indonesia flights (no surcharges).  Also use on short haul flights on Gol, Aerolinas Argentinas (no surcharges) and some other interesting partners.  Participates in E-Rewards.  Miles expire after 20 months of when they were earned unless you credit a Sky Team flight to Flying Blue.  Non-flying activities such as credit card spend and E-Rewards don’t renew your expiration date.

Americans get miles from Citibank Thank You cards & Amex Membership Rewards.  You can also transfer points from SPG best done in blocks of 20k to get 5k bonus.

Australians get miles by transferring preferably blocks of 40k Amex MR points to get 20k SPG, then blocks of 20k SPG to get 5k bonus.

6.  Virgin Velocity – Not in an alliance. 

Good for short-haul to New Zealand and Pacific islands, domestic Australia flights and sometimes long haul to USA and Asia.  Participates in E-Rewards.

Americans get miles from transfering SPG points best done in blocks of 20k to get 5k bonus.  You need an Aussie address to join.

Australians have numerous credit cards (basically every bank in Australia) that earn Velocity points directly or transfer there.  Keep an eye out for huge sign on bonuses which have greatly improved in the last year or so.  There is a new partnership with BP to get 2 points per litre with occasional targeted bonuses.

7. Etihad Guest – Not in an alliance

I never looked twice at this program until they partnered up with Flybuys.  I did a recent review with Aussies in mind (sorry Americans) and found some interesting options with partners and decent value to Africa.  Probably not a good program for Americans to join, better to use AA redemptions on Etihad awards.  Beware of miles expiring after 2 years, don’t transfer them until you are within booking range.  Activity does not renew the expiration.

Americans get miles from Citibank Thank You cards.  You can also transfer points from SPG best done in blocks of 20k to get 5k bonus.

Australians get miles from American Express Membership Rewards 1000:1000 and the new Flybuys partnership FB 10,000: EY 4000.

8.  Qantas Frequent FlyerOne World member

Use for domestic Australia or short-haul to NZ, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.  Has fuel surcharges on most routes with the possible exception of LAN intra-South America.

Americans get points from Citibank Thank You cards.

Australians get points from co-branded Qantas cards, just about every bank in Australia has them.  Unfortunately the Woolies and Optus partnerships are gone so much harder to get points now outside of credit cards.

Dream TravelObviously not everyone needs to use ALL these programs.  It depends on where you want to go.  Situations change so you need to be constantly evaluating.  A month ago I wouldn’t have considered Etihad Guest but now I can see getting at least 16,000 free miles each year just by grocery shopping at Coles and using bonuses.  From the previous list US Airways Dividend Miles is gone and the Avianca Lifemiles program is no longer as valuable as it once was due to devaluations.  It is no longer so easy to get Qantas miles as they eliminated their best “every day spending” partners.  American may lose it’s #1 position if they devalue their awards.  I say as long as it’s free to join a program, then do so as you never know what deals may come in the future!

 

Best & Worst Frequent Flyer Programs

This interesting interview takes a look at how the 25 largest frequent flyer programs in the world stack up when it comes to redeeming your miles.

Here are the best and worst airlines for using travel rewards.  I have bolded the programs that I use and added my observations.

1. airberlin, top bonus

1. Southwest, Rapid Rewards – I joined this one just because it seems to be the only way we can fly from SJU (Puerto Rico) to mainland USA.  No availability on other programs the date I wanted.

3. Virgin Australia, Velocity – easy to redeem on their own flights, even managed to snag a domestic USA route I needed for next year on Delta!

4. Air Canada, Aeroplan

5. Singapore, KrisFlyer – yes, easy to get flights but crazy expensive fuel surcharges!

6. JetBlue, True Blue

6. Lufthansa/SWISS/Austrian, Miles & More

8. Air Asia Group, BIG

9. Alaska Group, Mileage Plan

9. British Airways, Executive Club – my go-to program for shorthaul OneWorld flights

9. China Southern, Sky Pearl Club

12. United, MileagePlus – partner availability better than their own flights but excellent online booking interface.

13. Qantas Group, Frequent Flyer – easy to book but expensive fuel surcharges.

14. Alitalia, MilleMiglia

14. GOL, SMILES

16. American, AAdvantage – better availability on international than domestic, no fuel surcharges!

17. Cathay Pacific, Asia Miles

18. Emirates, Skywards

19. Air France/KLM, Flying Blue – useful for flights in exotic places on KQ & GA

20. Turkish, Miles & Smiles

21. Delta, SkyMiles

22. Scandinavian, EuroBonus

23. Air China, PhoenixMiles

24. Avianca, LifeMiles – easy to use on their own metal but I hear not so easy on partner awards.

25. LAN, LANPASS – had to join as I couldn’t get flights to Galapagos any other way.  Call centre is useless.  They take your complaint, raise a “case number” when apparently disappears into a black hole.  Why do they even bother?

 

 

15% Bonus When You Transfer Credit Card Points To Virgin Velocity

If you have a credit card from any of the banks below, you have 2 more weeks to take advantage of this promo.  They do these bonuses once a year, maybe twice if you are lucky.  Since I am an advance planner, I wait for them when I have a trip planned to a Velocity destination like Rarotonga, Tasmania or anywhere else they fly.

Velocity Promo

If you do not have an Amex card, I can get you up to 40,000 sign-up bonus points if I refer you.  Please post below in the comments and include your real email (which won’t be published) and I will email you a referral.  I can refer for several different Amex cards.  Although some of the cards have a high annual fee, it can be offset by the free airline ticket that comes with the card.

Amex Referral

Getting To Central Asia With Frequent Flyer Miles

Out of the countries classified as “Central Asia”, the ones that offer the best birding are India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  This is one area you have to carefully check how your airline’s program defines Central Asia, sometimes Sri Lanka is put into South-East Asia.   If you are married to or involved with a non-birding partner, this is a great region to plan a trip to as they will find plenty to do while you are off chasing birds.   Unfortunately, being so far from everywhere it can be very expensive to get there whether you use miles or cash.  Let’s look at a few options using the top 8 frequent flyer programs for eco-tourists.

Central Asia Map

 

ONE WORLD ALLIANCE

 

AMERICAN AADVANTAGE

For most people, joining American Airline’s AAdvantage will be the best option.  They have quite a few credit card options to quickly build your miles stash and a few partners such as E-Rewards and various hotels where you can transfer points in.  The region is called “Indian Subcontinent and Middle East” on this chart and includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan.

Please note that Sri Lanka is in South-East Asia for award purposes so you would do better to use Avios for routes between India and Sri Lanka.

Airlines which serve this area include British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas with Malaysian Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines and Qatar Airways joining very soon.

Peru Award2

These figures are one-way so double if you want a round trip.  The nice thing about AAdvantage is the flexibility, you may choose to go one way in economy and one way in business, or do an open jaw where you fly into Kathmandu (KTM)  for example and out of Mumbai (BOM).

USA and Canada:  Each way is 45,000 economy;  67,500 business; 90,000 first.  You can use British Airways, Air Berlin, Finnair, Iberia and Etihad but there are no stopovers allowed.

UK and Europe:  Each way is 20,000 economy; 30,000 business; 40,000 first.  You can use British Airways, Etihad or (coming soon)  SriLankan Airlines; or use Finnair, Air Berlin or Iberia to get to Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong or anywhere Qantas flies.

Australia and New Zealand:  Each way is 30,000 economy; 45,000 business; 60,000 first.  You can use Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian.

QANTAS

For Aussies who have easy access to Qantas points via their employer or Everyday Rewards, it’s worth checking out QF’s awards to Central Asia.  Use their points calculator as the awards are distance based, not by country.   The awards look expensive compared to AA, UA and US but if you got your points for free, might as well enjoy them!  Here is an example of what you could expect from one way in economy from Sydney to Mumbai.

AVIOS (BRITISH AIRWAYS AND IBERIA)

Later this year, Sri Lankan Airlines will  join One World, which opens up bargain redemptions for local short routes.  In the examples below, the awards will range from 4500 Avios to 10,000 Avios.  Compare the distance traveled with the screenshot of the Avios distance chart below.

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AVIOS AWARD CHART

 

 

STAR ALLIANCE AIRLINES

 

No matter where you live, the two best programs to use in Star Alliance are United and US Airways.  Both have their pros and cons.  With United, you can book partner awards online, book one-way awards and get lots of miles via several Chase credit cards; but if you can’t get these cards it can be hard to get miles in United Mileage Plus.  With US Airways, the major drawbacks are you have to book round-trips and you can’t book online, you have to call them.   The advantage with US Airways is that they offer frequent “Buy miles, get 100% bonus free” promos and in the past, they had the wonderful Grand Slam promos where it was possible to do partner transactions and with careful planning you could get about 120,000 miles for $400-600 incremental cost.  The US Airways Grand Slam hasn’t been seen since Sept-Nov 2011, unfortunately they didn’t do it in 2012.  Depending on where you live, Avianca/Taca Lifemiles could be useful too, but it is hard to use their booking engine for complicated routings so I suggest saving them for USA-Central/South America where they offer better value and ease of booking.

US Airways Chart

US AIRWAYS (round-trip only) Region is South & Central Asia which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chagos, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

USA and Canada:  Economy 80,000; Business 120,000; First 160,000.  You can use United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand (hard to get) or sometimes take the “scenic route” via Asia using Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana or ANA (All Nippon Airlines).  US has recently started enforcing MPM (maximum permitted miles) so some Asian routings may not be acceptable.

UK and Europe:  Economy 70,000, Business 90,000; First 110,000.  Most people try to get routings using Singapore, Thai, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.  Some airlines do not give US Airways business or first class awards such as Singapore, Lufthansa and Swiss.

Australia and New Zealand:  Economy 70,000, Business 90,000; First 120,000.  You can fly on Singapore, Thai and Air New Zealand.

 

UNITED AIRLINES (can book one-way or round trip.

The award chart is too big to copy paste here so please follow this link to see the whole chart.

USA and Canada:  (each way) Economy 40,000; Business 60,000; First 80,000.  You can use United, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Turkish, LOT, Egypt Air or sometimes take the “scenic route” via Asia using Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana or ANA (All Nippon Airlines).  You can easily see the routings via their online award booking engine.

UK and Europe:  (each way) Economy 30,000, Business 50,000; First 60,000.  Most people try to get routings using Singapore, Thai, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.  You can easily see the routings on their online award booking engine but be careful if you are looking at business or first class awards as sometimes they offer mixed class awards and the long-haul section could be in economy with a short sector in business or first.

Australia and New Zealand:  Economy 30,000, Business 45,000; First 60,000.  You can fly on Singapore, Thai and Air New Zealand.

Here’s an example of London to Mumbai, as you can see they quote both the miles and taxes and the business class award are “mixed class” and if you hover over the fare, you can see which flight is in which class.

LHR – BOM

You can see how much cheaper it is to fly from Brussels due to the very high UK departure taxes.

 

These are just a few examples, please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

If you need ideas on how to acquire frequent flyer miles, please see the Resources tab and Miles and Points tab. which I will update with new offers for free or cheap miles.

LIST OF PARROTS IN CENTRAL ASIAN COUNTRIES

INDIA

NEPAL

SRI LANKA