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Building Up Mileage and Points Balances Quickly: Introduction

How do we turn these into miles and points as quickly as possible?
How do we turn these into miles and points as quickly as possible?

Building Up Mileage and Points Balances Quickly: Introduction

Building Up Mileage and Points Balances Quickly: United

Building Up Mileage and Points Balances Quickly: American Airlines

Building Up Mileage and Points Balances Quickly: Delta

Bulding up Mileage and Points Balances Quickly: US Airways

One of the most frequent questions clients ask me is “How do I get a lot of _______ miles quickly?” Not everyone is a points freak like me, so often people are looking to build up a bunch of miles in a particular program so that they can take one trip – honeymoon, anniversary, trip of a lifetime, whatever. The good news is, if you have six months to a year, you can totally build up a large enough balance to go wherever you’d like – sometimes even in business class! In this introduction post, I’ll review the mileage costs for awards for the different programs, what areas of the world work well with which programs, and special award ticketing rules to be aware of.

For each airline, first I’ll list out the miles needed at the saver (lowest) level to get to different regions (assuming a start from the continental U.S.). After each region, I’ll say easy, medium, or hard, to indicate how difficult it is to find award space to that region on that airline. Easy, medium, and hard are my subjective opinion, but I’m factoring in award space I’ve seen, how difficult it is to actually book the award space, and partner airlines. Finally, I’ll end with any sweet spots the award chart might have and some final thoughts for each airline.

United Airlines

United Award Chart

Miles needed round trip departing from continental U.S. (Economy/Business/First, in thousands)

Note: many United flights no longer have first class cabins

Continental U.S.: 25/50/70 (easy)

Hawaii: 40/80/100 (medium)

Central America and Caribbean: 35/60/80 (medium)

Northern South America: 40/70/90 (medium)

Southern South America: 60/100/135 (medium)

Europe: 60/100/135 (easy)

Africa & Middle East: 80/120/150 (medium)

Asia: 65/120/140 (easy)

Oceania: 70/120/150 (hard)

Australia/New Zealand: 80/135/160 (hard)

One-way award: Yes

Stopovers/Open Jaws: One stopover and two open jaws for round trip itinerary

United Airlines has two great things going for it. First, it’s part of the Star Alliance, which means there are tons of partners so you can find a lot of availability. Secondly, United allows one stopover¬†and one open jaw on round trip award itineraries, which really helps you maximize your miles. You can even tack a free one way quite easily on to the end of your trip if you so incline (see milevalue.com).

You can do all this on one United award ticket (gcmap.com)
You can do all this on one United award ticket (gcmap.com)

There are no sweet spots on the award chart in terms of super values, but you can transit multiple regions on the same award ticket. I stated that it’s “hard” to find award space from the U.S. to Australia/NZ, which is true. However, if you route through Asia, it’s much easier to find space, AND you can even stopover in Asia to see even more things. United miles definitely offer you the most options, and even though the website sometimes results in errors, it’s generally pretty straightforward to book online to avoid phone ticketing charges.

American Airlines

American Airlines has an award chart for AA flights only, and for Oneworld and partner awards. I’ve listed both, the second mileage values are Oneworld/partner awards.

American Airlines Award Chart

Oneworld and Partner Award Chart

Miles needed round trip departing from continental U.S. (Economy/Business/First, in thousands)

Continental U.S.: 25/50/65, 25/50/65 (easy)

Hawaii: 45/75/95, 45/75/95 (medium)

Central America, Northern South America: 35/60/80, 35/60/80 (medium)

Southern South America: 60/100/125, 60/100/125 (medium)

Europe: 60/100/125, 60/100/125 (medium)

Asia 1 (Japan, Korea, Mongolia): 65/100/125, 65/100/125 (medium)

Asia 2 (everywhere else in Asia): 70/110/135 (China only), 70/110/135 (medium)

Indian Subcontinent, Middle East: no AA only, 90/135/180 (medium)

Africa, South Pacific: no AA only, 75/125/145 (hard)

One-way award: Yes

Stopovers/open jaws: Yes open jaws, stopover only in North American gateway city

After United, I find AA miles to be the second most useful. Like United, you can make one way award trips. In fact, I think AA generally thinks of round trip awards as one way awards, which allows you to build in open jaws. You are only allowed to stopover in the North American gateway city (the last city you leave in North America or the first one you arrive in), so that limits things.

Getting to Tahiti using AA miles on Air Tahiti Nui
Getting to Tahiti using AA miles on Air Tahiti Nui (gcmap.com)

American’s value lies in its off-peak awards. ¬†Off-peak awards are only in coach, but you save 5-10K miles each way which is great. Also, American partners with Air Tahiti Nui, one of the few airlines that can get you to Tahiti. You can also get to exotic destinations like the Maldives on partner Etihad, or redeem for first class on premium carriers like Cathay Pacific. It’s also fairly easy to get free one ways on AA award tickets if you live in the North American gateway city.

Delta Airlines

Delta Award Chart

Miles needed round trip departing from continental U.S. (Economy/Business, in thousands)

Note: Delta Skymiles cannot be redeemed for first class travel

Continental U.S.: 25/45 (medium)

Hawaii: 40/75 (hard)

Caribbean, Mexico, Central America: 35/60 (hard)

Northern South America: 45/90 (medium)

Southern South America: 60/100 (medium)

Europe: 60/100 (medium)

Africa: 80/120 (medium)

Northern Asia: 70/120 (medium)

Southeast Asia: 80/120 (medium)

Southwest Pacific (incl. Australia): 100/150 (medium)

One way awards: No

Stopovers and open jaws: Yes, one of each

The biggest problem with Delta Skymiles is that they are very difficult to redeem. Delta.com has improved of late, but it’s still really hard to get your miles to work for you. I do think Delta has the friendliest and most helpful reps that I’ve talked to, but that doesn’t do much when the system is broken. Even the integration with Skyteam partners leaves a lot to be desired.

Flying into Sydney and out of Melbourne on Virgin Australia using Delta Skymiles
Flying into Sydney and out of Melbourne on Virgin Australia using Delta Skymiles (gcmap.com)

Still, if you have Delta miles and tons of patience, there is a lot you can do with them. One of the best redemptions is going to Australia on Virgin Australia for 150K miles in business class. That may seem like a lot of miles, but the fact that those flights are relatively easy to book (for Delta) make it more worth it. Plus, with stopovers and open jaws, you could even combine it with a trip to Tahiti. Delta also has two partners that go to Tahiti (Air France and Air Tahiti Nui), giving you more options, although most of the availability is in coach. Delta is also the only airline that will allow you to book stopovers on domestic award tickets, so if you can find the space (a big if), that’s very useful.

US Airways

US Airways Award Chart

Miles needed round trip departing from continental U.S. (Economy/Business, in thousands)

Continental U.S.: 20/50/50 (easy)

Hawaii: 40/80/80 (medium)

Caribbean, Mexico, Central America: 35/N/A/60 (medium)

South America: 60/100/125 (medium)

Europe: 60/100/125 (medium)

North Asia: 60/90/120 (medium)

South and Central Asia: 80/120/160 (medium)

South Pacific: 80/110/140 (hard)

Middle East: 80/120/180 (hard)

Africa: 70/110/150 (hard)

One-way award: No

Stopovers and open jaws: Either one stopover OR one open jaw

US Airways, like American, also has off-peak awards, my favorite of which is 60K in business class round trip to South America. The most annoying thing about US Airways is you cannot book any partner award travel online. So, you have to call and pay the fee. Also to be noted is when US Airways merges with American it will probably be Oneworld, not Star Alliance anymore. That means there will be fewer airlines to redeem on.

Believe it or not, on US Airways this itinerary costs less miles than just flying to Frankfurt (gcmap.com)
Believe it or not, on US Airways this itinerary costs less miles than just flying to Frankfurt (gcmap.com)

US Airways currently has a great sweet spot if you have the time: traveling to Australia through Asia saves you miles. That’s because awards to the South Pacific cost less than awards to Central Asia, you can take a stopover in Asia and hit two destinations for less miles. You can also go to North Asia via Europe and save miles too. Anyway, it’s almost a guarantee that these sweet spots will go away after the merger, so get them while they’re hot!

Final Thoughts

This post is by no means an exhaustive look at the different airlines award options. I just wanted to give you a feel for how much things cost and generally how hard it is to find award space. Again, my valuations in terms of difficulty are subjective, so take them or leave them, no offense taken! Hopefully this post helps you decide where you’d like to accumulate your miles. The good stuff – how to get miles as quickly as possible – comes next!

Joe
Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less
http://www.asthejoeflies@gmail.com

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