Airlines make seats available as awards at the lowest level that they don’t think they can sell for cash. They also want to make sure not to release seats to someone who would pay cash. So you’re getting the leftovers.
That requires flexibility, if you start out saying here’s where I need to go, and here’s the dates I need to travel, and here’s when I need to make my booking.
I prefer to wait until seats I may want open up and grab them, ideally starting with the airline award availability and building a trip around it – rather than locking in a trip and then going looking for awards.
My award booking partner Steve Belkin (author of the new book Mileage Maniac), emailed me his thoughts on these tradeoffs, and what they mean for valuing partner airline awards when you’re thinking about the value of miles.
Mileage valuations are an interesting academic exercise, but in my 10 years and over 5 billion miles worth of international premium class award bookings, none of our clients are crunching those numbers. Rather, there are a number of real-world trade-offs that determine a client’s final decision to accept the low-cost/’Saver’ award that we present.
TRADE-OFF 1- Routing
Whatever the most streamlined routing that is available with a purchased airfare, there are typically an extra 1-2 stops with low-cost award redemptions. The extra journey time is the inflection point. Some clients will just grin and bear an extra 3-5 hour add-on. Some lounges are so tricked out with great food and booze, even showers and massages so that their layover is like a mini-spa/gourmet tasting day. Some are thrilled at a 20 hour layover not as a burden but an opportunity to whisk around a new destination.
There is no objective valuation possible of measuring people’s tolerance for more circuitous routing to secure a low-cost award
TRADE-OFF 2- Domestic Segments
Especially prevalent on East Coast to Asia or West Coast to Europe routes, there is often no Business Class award space on the domestic sector to get to the airport where the international Business Class award starts. And more than 80% of the time, there isn’t even Economy Class award space from origin airport to/from hub airport. Instead, the client is forced to agree to purchase a separate Economy airfare, which has a host of pitfalls. First off, the airfares range from the cheap to the extortionate, but there’s a new hard cost irrespective. Often times, the paid flight is not part of the alliance of the award flights. So, a client that has a generous Business Class free baggage allowance gets dinged for baggage fees on the separate domestic sector. Then, upon arrival at the hub airport, there is no interline agreement with the award airline, so the baggage must be claimed and rechecked, sometimes at a totally different terminal with its accompanying inconvenient logistics. And the crowning touch is having to go through security a second time.
Unless the client wants to burn a separate domestic award at the peak rate to ensure no extra airfare and baggage costs and the time suck of claim/recheck/security, then this domestic segment hurdle can fundamentally change the tone of a trip from a seamless and leisurely option into a harried hot mess, often both directions.
TRADE-OFF 3. Taxes/Fuel Surcharges
Of course, the Big 3 domestic airlines generally have minimal taxes and no fuel surcharges on their own flights, but the chances of getting low cost award space on Delta and American are pretty grim. We primarily find more attractive and more available low cost award space with alliance partners or credit card airline transfer partners, whom have no compunction about high out of pocket costs. Air France/KLM have reasonable award space, with roundtrip taxes/fees ranging from $500-800, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are kind of held hostage to London Heathrow excessive airport fees, which push out of pocket costs into the four figures. ANA and Lufthansa are other well-known high fee culprits.
The point being is that award travel isn’t free travel.
TRADE-OFF 4. Airline Choices
Star Alliance award space to Africa is available 95% of the time using partners Egypt Air and Ethiopian. I have flown them both a number of times and can vouch that the ground and inflight experiences are fine. Do I miss getting a little tipsy in flight on EgyptAir with their no alcohol policy? Not really. Am I bummed that Ethiopian’s lounge doesn’t compete with Turkish or Qatar or Singapore lounge. Not really, as its clean, comfortable and quiet. But getting clients to agree to fly these airlines because of their perceptions, not reality, can be tough and most feel like they would be making a sacrifice in the value of their miles flying with these airlines. (Interestingly, we have received practically no negative feedback after clients have completed their trips with said airlines). Star Alliance has the same expectation vs. reality issues with travel to South America. United and Air Canada rarely have their lie fat seat long haul aircraft available for low cost award travel. Rather, the go-to option is Panama-based Copa or Colombia-based Avianca which typically offer domestic style First Class, think Barca-loungers. Some partners just don’t open space to partners (or sometimes at all)- like Singapore Airlines USA-Singapore or Air New Zealand USA-Auckland.
SkyTeam is reliant on Saudia as their Mideast/Africa/India gateway airline. Another dry option, Saudia has a suitable but by no means astounding flight experience. Kenya Airways is also an option that I have flown without incident and without reservation, but clients often look askance. They can’t exactly explain why, but its a tough sell to them. But, those are the realistic options.
American’s oneworld partners also sometimes create pause for thought. To avoid BA’;s crazy taxes/fees, there is Iberia which only flies out of a handful of East Coast airports and has so-so award space. Otherwise, to get to Europe is via overflying to Helsinki and backtracking or Royal Air Maroc, which is a fine airline, without the public reputation to support how fine it is.
So, the brand name airlines are listed on airline program websites as theoretical partners, those brand names can be elusive actual choices.
Is An Award ‘Worth It’?<
To conclude, it seems as though there are a lot of moving parts and considerations that factor into how at least an international Business Class award is valued in real life situations. There is no spectrum of valuation with our award booking service- we receive simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. So, either awards are worth 100% of their redemption…..or 0%.
I don’t completely agree with Steve’s framing, but the tradeoffs are important to keep in mind. You can’t just take the price of the ticket you’re redeeming for and let that determine the value of your miles if you either (1) wouldn’t have paid that price for that ticket, (2) would have chosen a different itinerary if you were paying that much money.
I’ve done very very well for myself – and others – with miles. I’ve gotten the exact awards I’ve wanted, on the airlines I’ve wanted, at the times I’ve wanted. But using miles to get the greatest value can require a certain flexibility.