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Why ‘what is best frequent flyer programme?’ is NEVER an easy question

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A question which comes up time and again is a variant of ‘what is the best frequent flyer programme for me to join?’. This article, for example, is my stab at answering the question with regards to the best Star Alliance programme.

At the end of the day, it is a personal choice based on lots of issues:

What class you usually fly (not just Economy or Business, but the exact ticket type you buy)? This impacts earning rates in different schemes

Are you focussed on building status or building miles for a quick redemption?

Do you want status for 2 years or just 1 year when you qualify? (Or ‘for life’ in the case of Aegean! More on that later this week.)

Are one-way redemptions important? Are low change fees on redemptions important? Is online award booking important?

In this post, I want to highlight one aspect of this, based on a real-life example.

I want to show how different frequent flyer schemes can have totally different redemption rates for exactly the same flight.

In early November, I need a flight ticket from Dubai to Istanbul (one person, one way, business class).

The direct options are either Emirates or Turkish, assuming I don’t want to send this person up to Abu Dhabi. Turkish is in Star Alliance, Emirates is non-aligned but has its own partners.

The only Star Alliance miles I have are Lufthansa Miles & More. They want 35,000 miles for this redemption. However, I value my Lufthansa miles as they are the only way of booking Swiss and Lufthansa First Class awards more than two weeks in advance. Using them here is a waste.

I can also move my Amex Membership Rewards point to a variety of airlines including two Star partners – SAS and Singapore Airlines.

SAS wants 54,000 miles for Dubai to Istanbul, one-way. They charge 60% of a return trip for a one-way. At 1:1, that is 54,000 Amex points – a price I don’t fancy paying.

Singapore Airlines is a LOT more interesting. Here is their reward chart. Singapore treats Turkey as part of the Middle East, not Europe. You will find lots and lots of these little quirks if you study reward charts – generally, the further away in the world from you the airline is based, the more likely it is they will put countries near you in odd categories.

(Russia is a good example of this. Some schemes put all of Russia in their Europe zone. This means that you can fly right to the very edge of Asia for the same miles as flying to France!)

With Singapore, Dubai to Istanbul is treated as a Middle East – Middle East redemption, not Middle East – Europe. In this case, this is actually bad news – ironically, Middle East to Middle East, at 32,500 miles for a one way in Business, costs more than the 25,000 miles required for a one-way to Europe. However, it remains a better deal than SAS.

For completeness, lets look at the Emirates options.

The only way I could get Emirates miles would be to transfer Starwood points at 1 : 1.25. Business Class from Dubai to Istanbul would be 52,500 miles (one-way redemptions must be done as Flex, not Saver, awards). I don’t consider that a great use of over 40,000 Starwood points, given I could get at least £600 of hotel stays for those.

Emirates is also partners with Alaska, easyJet, Japan Airlines, TAP Portugal, South African Airways, Qantas, Korean Air, JetBlue and Jet Airways. None of these are UK Amex partners or airlines where I have an existing balance, so there is not much scope here. I would not be willing to use SPG points to make a transfer either.

So, as this example shows, there are interesting arbitrage options to be had even within different airline redemption charts. This is just another reason why you can never give a definitive answer to the question of ‘which is the best frequent flyer programme’.

Comments (35)

  • danksy says:

    Very informative Raffles, especially the tip about checking out the redemption zones!

    Thanks!

  • Tom says:

    What is the furthest east you can fly on AAdvantage and still be considered in Europe? Milez.biz suggested you could get to Vladivostok but since I don’t think there are any OneWorld carriers that fly there that looks out.. any advance on Moscow?

    Trying to find something exciting for my AAdvantage credit card bonus! 🙂

  • Colin MacKinnon says:

    I know BMI used to regard Russia as Europe, but which of the current programmes do?

    Great post.

    • Alan says:

      BA does – you can fly there on Reward Flight Saver 🙂

      • Sinizter says:

        Isn’t RFS just due to the distance rather than any classification of Russia as Europe/Not Europe ?

        • Alan says:

          Hmm given the way they market RFS I’d thought it was more Europe but may well be wrong. Regardless of how it’s classified it’s a steal esp in premium cabins!

    • Denny says:

      Unfortunately I don’t think this is possible Raffles. I was interested in potentially doing something similar and came across this http://www.aa.com/i18n/AAdvantage/earnMiles/travel/airlines/s7.jsp , which basically says nowhere east of the Urals on one world/other partners award (explorer award is fine it seems). I never did call up and try though so could well be worth a shot!

      • Rob says:

        Could be, to be honest I just pulled up the AA chart at random and didn’t go into it in detail.

      • Tom says:

        Interesting! By that definition it looks like you might be able to get as far as Perm (PEE) with S7. Not sure you can check this out online, so would need a call to the AA bookings line to find out..

      • sandgrounder says:

        S7 is still a (sort of) viable low-cost redemption option. FRA or PRA-OVB is 25k in Y or 50k in J ret, from there you can fly on to BKK, HKG, PEK for 20/40k ret. Taxes are low, but the c.£140 for the double entry visa from an agency is a consideration. Probably only worth it if you want to see a bit of Siberia on the way, or spend a few extra miles and throw in a stopover in MOW.

        • sandgrounder says:

          1sorry, ovb-hkg is 25k ret (Y) (if you can find a seat!)

        • Me says:

          Hadn’t spotted that one. I did see you can do a BAEC RFS from MOW-OVB on S7 for 20,000 return.
          (is that enough acronyms?)

    • pauldb says:

      I like the fact AA group the Middle East with India. Thereby from the Middle East to South Pacific is only 45k in J. CAI-AUH-SYD-IPC is considerably further than LON-HKG-AKL (i.e. halfway round the world).

    • Me says:

      Trouble is spitting distance from Far East Russia to Japan is still rather expensive, even ignoring visa implications!

      S7 uses a number of regional airlines it bought a year or two ago, like Validvostock Avia, which when I last checked, are marketed as such rather than as S7 – so it’s hard to tell if you can actually redeem miles on them.

  • xcalx says:

    BA award flights are distance based, not continent based

  • Worzel says:

    Tom-7.12a.m. Don’t forget to factor in the costs of a Russian Tourist Visa-circa £85 Single £100 Double.

    • Sir Stamford says:

      In addition, don’t forget to factor in the cost of the visa support documentation – a further £10 – £15. Some larger hotels will issue these free of charge but should you cancel your booking, they will charge you a fee.

      Sir Stamford

    • Tom says:

      Good point. I’ve always been attracted to those ridiculously low easyJet prices to Moscow (I think I saw £38 recently!) but the visa cost makes the trip significantly more expensive!

  • Denny says:

    I’m not sure if I’m misreading the Singapore chart, but it looks like its cheaper (in miles at least), to go Europe-Middle East, than just staying in the ME region. 35/50/70 roundtrip from Europe, and 40/65/105 within Middle East. Am I reading it correctly or is my computer making the chart wonky?

    • Rob says:

      Erm, yes. You’re right. I never actually spotted that! Turns out I picked a bad example to make what is still a good point! I have edited the post slightly.

  • Jerry says:

    Hi Raffles,

    would it be possible for you to rank the best programs per region ?

    would you say for instance that BA or Lufthansa is the best program in Europe, Singapore Airlines the one for Asia.. ?

    it would help expats to switch programs..

    thanks

    • Rob says:

      The problem is that it depends on how you earn and how you spend. Lufthansa gives poorer earning rates, for example, on cheap business class tickets on most Star carriers than its competitors. This means you earn fewer miles.

      You may also be bothered about a programme which has a linked credit card – or you may not!

      Status may be important, in which case Aegean (for Star) is the best option.

      You may redeem to the US from Europe, I may redeem to the Middle East more often. One programme may be cheaper for one of these, another for the other.

      And so on ….

      BA is clearly the best programme if you live in the UK and would redeem a lot in Europe, because of Reward Flight Saver (Lufthansa’s taxes on EU tickets are so crazy it is outrageous) and the 241 voucher with the BA Amex. However, if you travel alone and want out and out luxury, then Lufty First or Swiss First wipes the floor with BA First and may want to focus your efforts into Miles & More (Lufty and Swiss First is rarely available to other Star airlines).

  • Charlie says:

    I fly between HKG and LHR about once a year, preferably direct, normally flying Virgin and so stuck with Flying Club, converting Tesco ClubCard to Flying Club Miles, Flying Club credit card, etc.

    However I have found Reward flight availability on this route to be increasingly poor… so have decided to switch to OneWorld (I took out the AAdvantage MBNA Amex credit card) for potential Cathay and BA options. Any thoughts on whether this would be the better frequent flyer programme for me?!

    • Rob says:

      You certainly have far more options of getting to Asia, with Cathay and BA, plus connections with other carriers. Qatar will presumably add another option from October.

    • Colin says:

      I always seemed to be out of luck on BA redemption flights to Asia, and trying to do a search from GLA only confused the BA website further, so always resorted to Emirates which is a great product in Biz (i.e. I don’t have to site facing backwards! get a big TV screen and a car picks me up from home), but since the recent update to the BA website searching for availability seems to have improved and the routing seems to be improved (i.e. no longer being routed via Helsinki), also MAS now seems to be fully integrated which may give additional options for getting to Asia (via KUL) although redemption flights travelling within Asia using MAS looked poor value last time I checked (when compared to Air Asia in economy).

      • Sir Stamford says:

        “redemption flights travelling within Asia using MAS looked poor value last time I checked (when compared to Air Asia in economy).”

        MH is a full service carrier with a proper J class, lounge access etc. AK, on the other hand, is a low cost airline and operating from a tin shed airport. Comparing MH with AK is like comparing Dom Perignon champagne with tap water. Harsh but true!

        Redemptions in economy are rarely of good value anyway. In J class, I didn’t think the MH redemptions are particularly of poor value. For example, it would cost £785 for a return trip in their A380 from KUL to HKG. You can redeem 20,000 Avios + £279.50 for the same J class return. Excluding opportunity cost for tier points and Avios earned on a revenue ticket, you are getting 2.5p per Avios. Pretty OK value, if you ask me.

        Sir Stamford