A lot of people ask me about the best Star Alliance frequent flyer programme so I thought it was worth running through the options again today.
Unfortunately, this is the ultimate ‘how long is a piece of string’ question to which there is no right or wrong answer.
It would be great if there was a ‘slam dunk’ easiest option. There used to be – Aegean was the default choice for a while, and bmi British Midland before that – but no longer.
Of course, at the moment, TAP Portugal is matching British Airways Silver and Gold members to Star Alliance Gold. This will keep you going for a year, but you would need a longer term plan beyond that.
What should I think about when selecting a frequent flyer programme?
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
- Whether the programme allows family accounts
If you earn most of your miles from credit cards and redeem mainly to Asia, your answer may be different from someone who earns miles mainly from non-flexible business class flights and redeems mainly to North America.
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 ….
Or perhaps you’re doing a one-off Star Alliance flight with your family – in which case you need a scheme which offers a family account as otherwise you’ll have 3-4 accounts with too few miles to use.
It’s all very complicated.
Here are some examples:
I stick with Lufthansa Miles & More for Star Alliance flights. Why? Well, I like Lufthansa First Class a lot, and availability is heavily restricted to Star Alliance partner airlines. You can only book it within 14 days of departure via other Star frequent flyer schemes but Miles & More members can book well in advance.
Lufthansa also has decent redemption rates to the Middle East – 70,000 miles return in Business with a 25% discount for children – which is a route I use annually. Availability is excellent in a UK half-term as German and Swiss schools are not off.
Miles & More has a UK credit card (suspended to new applications until Summer 2021) which, because it is structured as a prepaid debit card, means that I am able to pay my VAT and self-assessment tax bills with it. If you can earn status, you benefit from a soft landing – so if you get Gold (Senator) you effectively have status for FOUR years, two years as Gold / Senator and 2 year as Silver / Frequent Traveller.
On the downside, Miles & More miles expire after three years – however much activity you have – unless you hold the Miles & More credit card. They are not an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner – if I need to top up my account, I would normally use Marriott Bonvoy points although most hotel transfers to M&M are currently suspended. And their taxes can be huge. And the earning rate for many Star partner airlines is poor. And they don’t do family accounts. For many people, Miles & More is a terrible choice – it just happens to work for me.
Singapore Airlines is the other Star carrier that tends to restrict award availability on its own flights to its own members. I have booked Singapore Airlines First Class in the past and the only way to get this was moving Membership Rewards points to their Krisflyer scheme.
A few years I booked four Singapore Airlines seats in Business Class to Singapore and, because I needed the extra availability not offered to Star Alliance partners, this had to be booked with KrisFlyer miles. Singapore Airlines has VERY low pricing to the Middle East (you fly Lufthansa or SWISS) and has various other sweet spots too.
Turkish Airlines offers status for two years once you achieve it and has family accounts. It has become more relevant since it began to allow online booking of partner airline flights without insisting that you visited a Turkish Airlines office in person.
Aegean used to have unbelievably easy targets for achieving status. The gravy train ground to a halt a few years ago when a requirement was added that you needed to fly FOUR segments on Aegean itself each year. If you can manage this, you will earn Gold for a surprising low number of status miles. Without it, the mileage requirement for Gold is doubled. If you want the quickest route to Star Alliance Gold status, and you can fit in a four segment trip to and around Greece on Aegean once a year – Aegean is the scheme for you.
Avianca generally has lower priced redemptions than other airlines, and has a ‘cash and miles’ option. Avianca also doesn’t charge fuel surcharges on redemptions – even on airlines like Lufthansa who charge them to their own members. The airline has a track record of making ‘no notice’ changes to their scheme, however, and if you have issues you are dealing with a company based in Latin America.
Asiana, the South Korean airline, has a 10 year expiry period so you aren’t at any risk of losing miles. They are also partners with Etihad and Qatar Airways so you could top up your account with flights on those airlines. Asiana is in the process of being taken over by Korean Airlines, however, and is likely to leave Star Alliance if the deal completes.
Asiana, ANA, Turkish, SAS, Air New Zealand and EgyptAir have some form of family account or points pooling. Aegean has one too but it is only open to Silver and Gold status members. Lufthansa allows them for members in some countries but not the UK.
United stopped expiring its miles last year which may make it more attractive to some. I would not necessarily trust them to retain this policy long term. It also has a partnership with Marriott Bonvoy which lets elite members transfer between the two schemes.
This is only a sample of the options available from the 26 Star Alliance airlines.
Think about how you will top up your miles when you’re not flying
Only one Star Alliance partner has a UK credit card – Lufthansa Miles & More. Our card review is here, but applications are suspended until Summer 2021.
In addition, 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.
Hotel transfers to Miles & More are currently suspended. If/when they resume, Marriott Bonvoy opens up some other options if you get the Marriott Bonvoy American Express card (review here) and move the points across.
Most Star Alliance airlines are Marriott Bonvoy transfer partners – here is the full list – and the ratio is a generous 3:1,with a 25% bonus if you move in chunks of 60,000 Bonvoy points). You can also move Amex Membership Rewards points into Marriott Bonvoy – at a 2:3 rate – and then onto other airlines.
The lounge access rules may impact the programme you pick
There is one other important thing to remember about Star Alliance status. A Silver card only gets you lounge access with the airline grouping that issues your card.
If you turn up at a Lufthansa lounge with a Lufthansa 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.
The answer is ….
…. that there is no easy answer. For a European-based programme with its own UK credit card, two years status once achieved, a soft landing and the ability to book seats other schemes cannot access (ie Lufty First Class) I still stick with Miles & More. You may come to a different conclusion.
However, as long as TAP Portugal is willing to status match British Airways Silver or Gold members to Star Alliance Gold, it is a no-brainer which way to jump in the short term.