This is part of a series on origin-based award program sweet spots which will be compiled in the Award Sweet Spots by Origin section of the Resources tab at the top of the page. Actually, as you can see, this sweet spot does extend West of Denver and even includes Phoenix, and gets you from anywhere in the green circles to Central America or the Caribbean for just 20K-22K miles per person instead of 35K-40K on most region based award charts.
Update: ANA has revamped its program and is now region-based. The good news is that travel from the Continental U.S. and Canada to Mexico is 25K regardless of routing. The bad news is that the rest of Central America, the Caribbean and Northern South America has gone up in price.
Like several other foreign frequent flyer programs, Japan’s All Nippon Airways or ANA has a distance-based rather than region-based award chart. These charts work exceptionally well for fairly short distances that cover multiple regions and are relatively costly tickets if purchased with region-based points programs like United or American, penny points or cash. There are very clear sweet spots at a 4000 mile trip for 22,000 ANA miles and 7000 miles for 38,000 ANA miles, but I’ll be focusing on the 20-22K levels. With just one credit card signup bonus and the points earned from the required spending, a family of 5 can get from anywhere in green on the map to warm Caribbean waters! This card, the AMEX Platinum, may not be for everyone but there are several ways to reduce the effective annual fee from $450 to only $50. You can find details on that in various forums and blog posts specifically covering the Platinum card, including this one from Milesabound. Of course there are also other AMEX cards that earn Membership Rewards points that can be transferred 1:1 to ANA, and Starwood Preferred Guest points can also be transferred 1:1 with a 5,000 point bonus for each block of 20,000 points transferred. From United’s hubs in Houston, Chicago, Newark and Washington as well as Air Canada’s Toronto hub, you can put together a trip to the Caribbean or Central America for a much better value than most other programs. While some routings that show up on searches at UA or ANA may push the distance over 4,000 miles, you don’t necessarily have to have the most direct route if it’s not available. Here’s an example from Memphis to Belize, with stops in both Chicago and Houston in one direction, and only Houston in the other direction: The next best option for getting from Memphis to Belize would require 24K to 30K British Airways Avios points roundtrip on AA flights, depending on whether the routing is through Miami or Dallas. The closer you are to Houston, the further South you can stretch this one. From Little Rock, you can get to Liberia or San Jose, Costa Rica. From Detroit, you can go as far as Belize via Chicago, Grand Cayman via Washington, Cancun via Houston, and so on. It will take some playing around with Great Circle Mapper to find out exactly how this sweet spot applies to you (Good practice!).
Our trip to Roatan this year for our 14th anniversary is a great example of putting this sweet spot to use. I wasn’t really picky where we went, I just wanted someplace warm in February with a nice beach and warm water for a long weekend. The problem I ran into was a lack of seats to Cancun, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Montego Bay – the first places that came to mind. Finally I found Roatan on United’s route map, with seats that fit our times perfectly. We absolutely loved laid-back and low key Roatan, and can’t wait to go back!
Unfortunately, there are some limitations to ANA’s program that makes speculative transfers a not-so-good idea:
- Miles expire 3 years after they are earned or transferred. Of course this should not be a problem unless you are an extreme hoarder.
- ANA collects high fuel surcharges for travel on most partners other than New Zealand, Air Canada and United. It also collects surcharges on United for transpacific travel.
- Tickets can only be booked for the member and his/her immediate family. There may be some leeway here, but you can’t just book for anyone like most U.S. programs.
- All travel must be roundtrip, which they define as returning to the country of origin. You can, however, have up to 4 stopovers and utilize an open jaw to make the most of ANA’s chart. For example, you could book Nashville to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands via Washington and return to Newark and then catch a Southwest flight home for ~7000 Southwest points, or half of that using companion passes. Travelisfree.com has a great post on making the most of ANA stopovers although many of these run into surcharges and most go over 4,000 miles, as well as one of his epic guides to the ANA program.
- On the plus side, you can cancel ANA award tickets and pay a cancellation fee of just 3,000 miles to have the rest of your miles redeposited into your account, and you can change travel dates free as long as you travel within 1 year of booking. However, any changes must be made at least 3 days before travel is scheduled.
And then there is the limitation being imposed by United where there is less availability on the domestic flights than in the past. Maybe the best play if you run into that is to use Southwest points to position either way (or both) to a hub or nearby, which would also open up a wider range of Central America destinations. Here’s a good example of that approach, with the remaining segment from EWR-BNA available for ~7000 Southwest points, or less if you put a companion pass to use:
What did I miss, overlook or leave out? Don’t worry, there are more sweet spots to come. This is just one that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves for being available to such a huge portion of the country.