What is the best Star Alliance frequent flyer programme for you?

I wrote on Monday about the imminent joining of Star Alliance by Air India.  After seven years of delays, the final decision has been taken with a surprising degree of speed and the airline will become a member from July 11th.  This is just three weeks from the announcement!

Air India flyers will now be looking for a decent Star Alliance home for their miles.  I have also had a few emails recently from readers asking about the best Star Alliance programme, so I thought it was worth running through the options again.

Star Alliance logo

Unfortunately, this is the ultimate ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, to which there is no right or wrong answer.

You need to remember that frequent flyer scheme attractiveness is a function of:

  • Earning rate for a specific route and class of service
  • Burning rate for a specific route and class of service
  • Point thresholds required for status
  • Amount of time status lasts
  • Specific benefits gained from holding status with that airline
  • Ability to earn miles from third parties
  • Whether and how they impose fuel surcharges on redemptions
  • Whether you can do one-way redemptions

Programme A may get you status the quickest if your flights are all on Carrier X in flexible business, but Programme B may get you status quicker if your flights are all in discounted economy.  Programme C may have higher status thresholds than either, but may give status for 2 years (and/or have a soft landing if you don’t renew).  Programme D may have higher thresholds than either A, B or C but have extra availability of award seats for its own elite members.

Flyer A may fly a lot so earns all the miles he needs from flying.  Flyer B may only do the odd flight, so is reliant on the airline having a credit card partner if they are to get enough miles for a decent redemption.  Flyer B may also prefer a programme that allows one-way redemptions, as he could use a small amount of miles to fly to XXX and fly back using Avios instead ….

It’s all very complicated!

Here are some examples:

I stick with Lufthansa Miles & More for Star flights now.  Why?   Well, I like Lufthansa First Class a lot, and availability is heavily restricted to Star Alliance partner airlines.  It is, however, easy to get it (for 1 person, at least) using Miles & More miles.  Miles & More also seems to run a status match every five years or so, and has a soft landing – so if you get Gold (Senator) you effectively have status for FOUR years, 2 years as Gold / Senator and 2 year as Silver / Frequent Traveller.

(On the downside, Miles & More miles expire after 3 years – however much activity you have – unless you hold the Miles & More credit card.  They are not an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner either.  And their taxes are huge.  And the earning rate for many Star partner airlines is poor.)

Singapore Airlines is the other Star carrier that tends to restrict award availability on its own flights to its own members.  I have a Singapore Airlines First Class seat booked for a couple of weeks time, and the only way to get this was via moving Amex points to their Krisflyer scheme.

Turkish Airlines offers status for 2 years once you achieve it, and will status match if you are top-tier with another airline.  I have read some odd stories about difficulties with redeeming (eg having to pick up tickets in person at a Turkish office) but I don’t know the official line.

Aegean has unbelievably easy targets for achieving status and it is effectively valid for LIFE!  (There are separate posts on this here and here).

Avianca generally has lower priced redemptions than other airlines, and has a ‘cash and miles’ option.  You only need 40% of the headline miles to actually do a redemption when you use ‘cash and miles’.  You can’t do mixed class redemptions – so, for eg, you can’t book Lufthansa Business from London to Frankfurt and then First Class onwards.  If would need to be all Business or you book separate awards for each.  Their website is also buggy.

Avianca also doesn’t charge fuel surcharges on redemptions – even on airlines like Lufthansa who charge them to their own members!

Asiana, unless they have changed it, has a 10 year expiry period so you aren’t at any risk of losing miles.  They are also partners with Etihad and Qatar so you could top up your account with flights on those airlines.

Asiana and ANA are, I think, the only Star Alliance carriers to let you have a family account.

Only a few Star Alliance partners have UK credit cards – Miles & More and United spring to mind.  American Express Membership Rewards lets you transfer 1:1 to SAS and Singapore Airlines.  Of the two, Singapore has the more generous award chart – most people find SAS redemptions to be poor value on most routes.

Starwood Preferred Guest opens up some other options if you get their Amex card and move the points across.  Most Star airlines are SPG transfer partners and the ratio is a generous 1:1 (or 1:1.25 if you move in chunks of 20,000 SPG points).

There is one other important thing to remember about Star Alliance statusA Silver card only gets you lounge access with the airline that issues your card.  If you turn up at a Lufthansa lounge with a LH economy ticket and a Thai Silver card, you’re not getting in.  (Thai Gold, yes, Miles & More Silver, yes.)  This is the opposite of BA / oneworld, where a Silver (mid-tier) card on any airline gets you into any lounge.

This means, if you fly with Lufthansa most of the time and want lounge access, you actually need to compare the flights needed for Miles & More Silver with the flights needed for (fill in whatever airline) Gold.  This complicates the analysis even further.

If you have a (very large) mug of tea, this Flyertalk thread discusses the same issue.  It was started at the time that bmi British Midland left Star Alliance following the British Airways takeover.

In general, though ….

For earning easy status …. Aegean

For cheap redemptions, especially with small balance …. Avianca

For a European-based programme with a credit card, 2 years status and soft landings …. Miles & More.

Feel free to criticize my choice in the Comments section!

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Comments

  1. matthew says:

    SAS has family pooling.
    SAS Silver will not get you lounge access (apart from at xmas and summer holiday periods)
    SAS long haul redemption costs in miles are similar to BA but without any surcharges.

    • Nathaniel says:

      SAS flies from nordics to USA is 60,000 miles economy return and when there’s a special offer it’s 45k (tax £50). This discount is usually available twice a year.

    • Thanks Matthew. Interesting if SAS has no surcharges – I need to do a Turkish redemption and was going to move Amex to Singapore to do it, but may look at SAS – even though it needs more miles – if it waives the YQ ….

      • 1 way CPH-EWR in J

        60000 miles

        Passenger service charge18.80 GBP
        APHIS User Fee2.90 GBP
        Immigration User Fee4.10 GBP
        Customs user fee3.20 GBP
        Total:29.00 GBP

        CPH-EWR-CPH

        100k miles

        Passenger service charge18.80 GBP
        Passenger charge5.60 GBP
        APHIS User Fee2.90 GB
        Immigration User Fee4.10 GBP
        September 11th security fee1.50 GBP
        Customs user fee3.20 GBP
        Total:36.10 GBP

      • Seems the lack of YQ may only be on SAS metal:

        Taxes and fees may apply per person in addition to the points required and they vary by route.
        Example: New York – Frankfurt – New York with Lufthansa, in Economy 70 000 points, plus € 492 in taxes & fees.
        The exact amount will appear when you book your award trip.

  2. Phillip says:

    I used to be a big fan of Asiana Club (albeit a pain to physically redeem once you determine availability) because of the family pooling, the 10 year mileage expiry date, and because they were partners with both Qatar and Etihad (Qatar is now in OW so that takes that benefit out, and if someone is flying a lot on Etihad, I recommend joining Etihad Guest). Nevertheless, as someone who does not fly Star often, the 10 year mileage expiry still wins so I haven’t looked elsehwere.

  3. Phillip says:

    The other good thing for Krisflyer is the mileage discount for booking online.

  4. Stewart says:

    ‘A Silver card only gets you lounge access with the airline that issues your card.’

    Rob, I think it’s better to say that *S doesn’t give lounge access at all, with a few exceptions where access is granted for that airlines own *S flyers (like LH as you highlight). Certainly the star alliance website does not include lounge access as a *silver benefit, in contrast to OWS (ie BA Silver).

    Really it’s better to think of *Silver as being equal to OW Ruby, with *Gold equal to OW Sapphire. Star doesn’t have an alliance-wide equivalent to OWE/BA Gold, although individual members have higher status levels.

    For AA/UA, elite requirements are:
    AA Gold = OW Ruby = 25k miles = UA Silver = * Silver
    AA Plat = OW Sapphire = 50k miles = UA Gold = * Gold
    AA Ex Plat = OW Emerald = 100k miles = UA 1k = ….

  5. Lady London says:

    Given competitive flight pricing conditions in Scandinavia this year, I’d be more inclined to view flights involving Scandinavia as a miles earning opportunity rather than a spending opportunity.

    Slightly OT I encountered an irrop in CPH last year and SAS ticket office staff made it clear that had I been a Eurobonus member they could have been much more helpful reticketing my other-airline Star Alliance ticket.

  6. Trevor says:

    Turkish also do a family account for kids under 25. Plus, while I can’t find details of it now, there is something that you can enrol kids for so that their miles don’t expire. If I find the details of it at home, I’ll post a link.

  7. Phillip says:

    The only issue with Turkish’s Household Account is that you need to be Classic Plus which means earning at least 25,000 status miles (that’s how I understand it, anyway).

    http://www.turkishairlines.com/en-int/corporate/news/news/the-whole-family-is-smiling

    • Trevor says:

      Sadly, yes, and while I have tried to status match twice and been denied, I’ve also tried to earn the miles and had a flight declined without reason.

  8. Do we still think that Aegean is ‘lifetime’ Gold? My card has an expiry date, and the requalification rules are somewhat opaque.

  9. Blackberryaddict says:

    The one program you don’t mention is United Airlines. I inherited a membership to this when Continental Airlines was acquired by them. I don’t fly a lot of Star, but how do people feel United stacks up against others?

    • Jeremy I says:

      It’s a difficult one and I’m slightly surprised Raffles didn’t mention it in passing as it’s one of the easier Star programmes to earn miles on (with an MBNA-issued UK credit card).

      Positives: no fuel surcharges at all, great award flight availability on United and most Star partners, and the website has very good functionality for finding redemptions (though looks like it was designed in the early 1990s).

      There are still some good redemptions out there – Raffles has before mentioned 90k (used to be 70k) return to Sri Lanka and the Maldives etc in Business. Some of the economy redemptions aren’t too bad either – it’s done on zones and not flight sectors – so a return to CPT (or any other airport in Africa for that matter) in economy is only 60k miles. Finally, because they allow one-way redemptions, you can create interesting and flexible itineraries. Today is the day Norwegian launches some direct flights to the States, so you could have fun and save money by paying for a one-way with them on an outbound (which would mainly be the cost of longhaul APD anyway) and return from anywhere in the States for the princely sum of $2.50 on United. (My point is that long-haul one way revenue tickets on Norwegian are a bit of a game changer for those of us with low-but-not-too-low mileage balances!)

      Downsides: punitive changes this year mean premium cabin redemptions on non UA metal are really expensive – this hits ex-UK fliers hard (especially as nobody seems to want to travel in United’s premium cabins anyway). Finally, it will get harder for most of us to earn miles in the new year – they’re changing to a revenue based earning structure.

      That’s about as fair as I can be. I’m planning a TLV-CMB returning to CAI via LHR (dumping last flight) in Turkish business later this year – it will be 70k miles all in, which isn’t bad (with the cost of positioning to TLV but no fuel surcharges and minimal tax).

      I’d also be really interested to read other views on how United stacks up.

      • I think that’s a fair summary. Their mileage expiry policy isn’t too bad – any earning keeps it active so either the credit card or some eRewards surveys do the trick.

        I’ve built up about 80k now with them and would like to use them on EWR-EDI one-way fligths but availability sadly isn’t too great (so pretty much like BA then!)

      • With UA one also gets upgrades (RPUs and GPUs) for the higher (plat, 1K) statuses, and also bonus miles (100% for 1K on UA,LH,LX,AC,NH) which makes it quite worth it. One way to mostly get around the new revenue based model that comes next year is ironically to not fly UA but other *A (on non 016 ticket stock).

      • Blackberryaddict says:

        Thanks for the replies

        • Bobajob67 says:

          All of the above are good summaries of the programme but I’d like to add my experience with UA MileagePlus. I was able to book flights to Hawaii during the summer school holidays flying out in business for my family of four. The taxes and fees for the four of us came to under £800. Also this was booked about 7 months out as I have previously found UA availability generally to be pretty good; at the time I booked, business seats were available via both SFO or LAX (we went through LAX). I note recent posts suggest availability is not as great as it used to be. Agreed, UA business is not quite Emirates but the seats lie flat and as it was the kids first experience in front of the curtain they were thrilled to bits with the experience.

          Although my miles were emptied with this trip last year I still have the United credit card and am still collecting miles plus with the odd *A flight, the balance is slowly creeping up. The changes to the programme for partner metal is now crippling (in business anyway) but the lack of fuel surcharges makes an economy redemption worthwhile on UA itself (Norwegian possibly excepted?).