A Mileage Redemption Wish List for the Holidays and the New Year

The holiday season sometimes brings so much joy that all my hopes, at least for award booking, seem possible. And with a New Year, there’s an unwritten future. So I dare to dream. And I’ll share with you, my dear readers, the content of my five wishes as we close out 2009 and usher in 2010.

1. An end to United Starnet Blocking

I genuinely believe that United Mileage Plus offers the best top-tier elite level. But their award redemption is truly sub-par. They block award seats that their partners are making available, something that no other Star Alliance airline does. Their award chart isn’t cheap relative to the competition, in many cases it is more expensive than say the US Airways chart or the Air Canada chart. Both of those airlines let you book any seat that Star Alliance partner airlines are making available. Same is true for Continental, whose award chart is competitive with United’s (and Continental makes many of their Star partners bookable online!). And All Nippon Airways and Asiana both have interesting award charts for shorter distances.

United could have a truly great frequent flyer redemption program. Instead they offer a dishonest program, where agents tell customers that their partners just aren’t making seats available, aren’t making them available to United, or aren’t operating a given flight on a particular day — to such absurd ends, I’ve been told “Thai Airways doesn’t fly to Bangkok that day” and “Lufthansa doesn’t fly to Frankfurt.”

My dream is that United would behave just like every other Star Alliance airline, letting members book the award seats that Star Alliance partners offer.

Now, Star blocking comes and goes — United manages blocking to prevent spending too much money on partner awards, and depending on how their projections are going they loosen and tighten blocking accordingly. So there are times when awards are bookable, and times when they’re not. I just wish I knew when calling United what I could book. If they’d make the inventory they’re letting members book be searchable online (and some Star carriers like ANA, Air Canada, and Continental do make partner awards bookable online to various extents) I could deal with blocking because I could search for the flights that United will book and phone calls would be much shorter and less frustrating. But I know this is not an IT priority for United.

I’ll just hold out hope that the blocking practice isn’t sustainable. It’s my number one wish for the holidays and New Year.

(For more discussion of Starnet blocking see here, here, here, and here, and for a long-shot hope of United being boxed into dropping blocking, here.)

2. That American and British Airways miles could be used for each others’ transatlantic flights between the US and London.

Oneworld isn’t nearly as big as Star Alliance, and there aren’t as many options for international partner award redemption. The two biggest transatlantic carriers, American and British Airways, won’t let you book each others’ flights with their miles. Ostensibly this began as a sop to anti-trust concerns, that they couldn’t codeshare to Heathrow because of concerns about monopolizing the Heathrow market. It’s never been clear that award redemption restrictions had anything to do with this concern, and the airlines have simply left it in place for years and haven’t meaningfully worked to change it.

British Airways offers pretty good award inventory from the US to Europe in premium classes, but I can’t use my American miles to redeem for it. There’s the workaround of flying from Canada or the Carribean to London, but that adds extra flying. My wish is for this restriction on award redemption to finally come to an end.

3. That Delta would bring back award holds.

Delta miles are hard enough to use as it is. Their award inventory is tight. Their website is broken for award redemption, the web prices available seats at higher prices than inventory requires. Sure there’s the workaround of the old Northwest website, that still works for the most part, but it will go away soon.

Delta won’t let you hold awards when you call reservations anymore, but the website isn’t viable and it’s so tough to construct awards that sometimes it takes more than a single call to get it right. The technology and inventory make premium class international award bookings so hard, that Delta could go far to make it a little less stressful by simply returning the ability to put an award on hold. You make some progress on the phone, and then return to keep working on it later. That’s a pain to customers as it is, but it at least helps the process along — a process that Delta impedes in the first place.

4. That US Airways, Continental, and Air Canada don’t change a thing.

Sometimes you feel like things are just too good. At least I do. And paranoid that I am, I figure when that’s the case it cannot possibly last. Right now US Airways, Continental, and Air Canada are almost too generous with award bookings.

Air Canada more than all the others. They offer a great award chart, 80,000 miles for business class to much of Europe and 100,000 for first (some destinations are higher). It’s 120,000 miles for first class from the US to South Asia, as far South as Singapore (Malaysia and Indonesia are higher). So their awards in most cases are cheap.

What’s more, they don’t block partner awards.

And their award routing rules are incredibly generous. While limiting you to 10 segments on an award (perfectly generous), they permit you to transit either the Atlantic or the Pacific on an award redemption to Asia, or cross one ocean in each direction. In other words, you can book a ’round-the-world’ trip for a basic award redemption. And rather than offering only a single stopover or open jaw a la US Airways or United, they offer two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw.

Air Canada Aeroplan’s rules are just too good. And they’re an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, points post instantly. So you can ring Aeroplan, have them set up your award, and while they wait on the phone you can go online and transfer points into Aeroplan from American Express — isntantly. I just hope this value lasts awhile.

Continental has historically been a holiday scrooge for award redemption, inventory on their own flights was difficult to obtain. And they were a member of Skyteam, the least generous alliance for premium class international award redemption.

But then they joined Star Alliance. They introduced a competitive award chart. With no Starnet blocking. They made many of their partners bookable online. And I’ve found their agents very easy to work with on the phone, generally helpful, and not to persnickety about routings (though they don’t officially allow routing to Asia via the Atlantic – yet – many folks have had success doing so as long as they don’t add a second destination in Asia with an intra-Asia segment). They’re also an Amex transfer partner with points posting instantly, and they’ll put awards on a 24 hour hold without points in the account.

Finally, US Airways will be a surprise member of this list for many. But they offer Star Alliance award redemption without blocking, they very rarely enforce any sort of routing rules (if someone tries, just hang up and call back). They even waive their telephone booking fee on Star Alliance awards, because those can’t be booked on the US Airways website. They’ll put awards on a 3-day hold without points in the account, and their miles are so easy to get — for example, the current 100% bonus on purchased miles and the 250% holiday shopping bonus. I had great fears that all of their printing of cheap miles, combined with planned changes to the award chart for flights on their own metal, would lead to changes in Star Alliance awards ending the party. But they’ve announced their award chart changes and they really aren’t so bad. So we hold onto the US Airways redemption values for awhile.

5. Alaska Airlines mixed partner awards.

Alaska offers an interesting, valuable program — even for folks not living in Seattle or Alaska. They partner with Delta and they partner with American (as well many Skyteam members and oneworld members). Basically they partner with anyone outside of United and Star. So if you’re not a regular American or Delta flyer, you can credit your travels on both carriers to one frequent flyer account — Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. And you can redeem on much of oneworld and Skyteam.

The one drawback is that you can’t mix partners. You can’t fly Seattle to Dallas on American to pick up a British Airways award flight from Dallas. You can’t fly Delta from Atlanta to Los Angeles to pick up a Korean flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Mixing and matching of partners would be a huge boon to award redemption, and reportedly something that Alaska is “working on.” I have no knowledge of likelihood or timetable, but it makes my list of hopes and dreams for the New Year.

Those are the big improvements in frequent flyer programs I’d like to see, all relatively minor changes that would make programs much more valuable. I think they’re all within the world of the possible. What are your similarly-constrainted wishes?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Is the waived US Airways fee you refer to the “Award Processing Fee” of $25 Continental US/Alaska/Canada; $35 Latin American/Caribbean; $50 Hawaii/Europe/Middle East/South America?

    I’m guessing not, but if so, I am owed several refunds.

  2. That fee still gets charged. It is the standard fee (15?) to make a booking by phone. They waive it booking Star Alliance awards though they will charge it you book a US metal award that you could book online.

  3. Nearly 90% or more of my travel is international, so maybe I have a different perspective, but I don’t understand the statement “United Mileage Plus offers the best top-tier elite level”. I used to accrue my Star miles on United, but didn’t find their top-level very appealing so I switched to Lufthansa Miles and More. They have a great program and Senator status gets you a number of benefits i.e. 1) when you achieve status, you keep it for 2 years, 2) when you book an award ticket, your spouse’s award ticket is only 50%. And booking award tickets for children is also cheaper. 3) You can overdraw on your miles if you happen to be short 4) you can get award upgrades on many of the other Star carriers, 5) their award inventory, especially for business class, seems to have good availability.

    The downside: there are no complimentary upgrades on any Star carriers on “domestic” flights. However, you can sometimes get Economy Plus upgrades on United by simply showing your Senator card and being nice to the gate agent. And LH has occasionally bumped me from business to first on international flights, which isn’t too shabby.

    From your description, it sounds like Air Canada and Continental have better Star programs than United, so why wouldn’t you choose them?

  4. Excellent and extremely informative post. This sentence caught my eye – “While limiting you to 10 segments on an award (perfectly generous), they permit you to transit either the Atlantic or the Pacific on an award redemption to Asia, or cross one ocean in each direction. In other words, you can book a ’round-the-world’ trip for a basic award redemption” That seems too good to be true. Would you be able to give a specific example of an itinerary that would qualify for this? How many miles would that take? Thanks in advance.

  5. @Gene, no, the telephone booking fee.

    @Brian, I’m drawing a major distinction between top tier elite program and redemption program. Unied has a good top tier elite program (8 confirmed domestic upgrades per year, 6 confrimed int’l upgrades per year, etc) and a poor redemption program (blocking)

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