Why Your Choice of Frequent Flyer Program Needs to Match Your Award Goals

Continental’s generous routing rules are one reason why I’m not all that happy about the pending Continental-United merger. Wandering Aramean writes about his booking from the US via Europe and Asia to Australia. US Airways permits this, Aeroplan often won’t (though booking via Asia is perfectly doable).

United on the other hand requires US-to-Australia awards take a much more direct routing, eg San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Vancouver to Sydney or to Auckland and on to Australia. (There are a couple of other permissable routings, such as via Hawaii and New Zealand, but those aren’t generlaly useful.)

Continental offers one stopover and an open jaw, whereas both US Airways and United will allow only one or the other. But more importantly Continental doesn’t really have much in the way of routing rules. Like US Airways they don’t force you onto published routings or to keep your award within a route’s published maximum permitted mileage.

Starnet blocking issues aside, where United has been known to refuse to book award seats being offered by their partners when they don’t want to pay for those seats (and blocking has been much less of a problem since early May than it was in the months prior), this is another reason to prefer Continental mils over United miles. And it’s a reason why American Express points are great since they transfer nearly instantly to Continental (and Continental will hold an award without the miles in your account for up to 3 days, whereas United won’t hold an award on their partners until miles are in the account and even purchased miles from United take 48 hours to post). Sadly it’s almost certain the once United and Continental merge there won’t be an opportunity to transfer American Express points to the new combined program.

The Australia route is a great example of why program selection matters. In my experience the two toughest awards to get, particular programs notwithstanding, are North American to Australia and also to Tahiti. In the former case, it’s because United has been incredibly tight with their US-Australia non-stop inventory, they seem to release a handful of seats when the schedule opens and then they’ll dribble a few our over the course of the schedule. (Ben suggests waitlisting as a viable strategy.) Air New Zealand seems to release seats during their high season at exactly 60 days out in my experience. And Air Canada’s Vancouver – Sydney flight isn’t easy to get.

So a program that lets you take a ‘creative’ routing to Australia is often the only way to get there on points, at least confirmed in a premium class of service.

Tahiti is tough because there are only two carriers that fly there from the US — Air Tahiti Nui (partners with American and Delta, easier to get their seats with American miles in my experience, and it’s an expensive award for the distance flown) and Air France (Delta partner, their flights aren’t daily, and during high season seats are very tough to get). If you have miles in a Star Alliance program your only way to get there is Air New Zealand via Auckland, and that flight is only three days a week. A ton of extra flying, first to New Zealand and then up to Tahiti. (With American miles you can fly via Santiago and Easter Island…)

If your award goals entail one of these destinations in particular, your choice of program matters a great deal. Yesterday a reader asked for advice in using their US Airways miles for a honeymoon in Tahiti. I explained the challenge, that they’d have to fly to New Zealand first (not that this is an easy award to get in its own right), and they responded that they were hosed by US Airways again! While my take is that they weren’t at all, I love, love, love US Airways miles. Just not for that particular award.

Ultimately I have a hard time using Delta miles for most things, I love American miles for their domestic availability and to South America (even with the addition of TAM to Star Alliance, American’s own flights to South America supplemented by their LAN parntership is just vastly superior) and booking on Cathay Pacific. But I’ll place my bets on most routes most of the time on Star Alliance carriers to get me the seats I need. And my personal favorite Star carrier programs for award bookings are Aeroplan, Continental Onepass, and US Airways in that order.

Update: As I think more on it, I actually believe I prefer Continental miles over Aeroplan miles, even though the Aeroplan award chart is in many cases less expensive and even though Aerooplan allows two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw (more generous than Continental). That’s because (1) they allow award holds when there aren’t enough miles in an account, Aeroplan does not, which makes booking with Amex points easier, and (2) they allow changes to routing and carrier, not just to date and time, after departure on Star Alliance award tickets. I value the ease of booking and flexibility enough to warrant the higher award cost, but that’s just me, and others will still prefer Aeroplan. Sadly I expect much of this Continental flexibility to go away post-merger.

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. Gary- Do you think the addition of the US Airways clubs to the plat/centurion portfolio is a precursor to their addition as a transfer partner for amex points? Especially with the anticipated departure of CO?

  2. This is true, you need to choose the program that best fits your needs/goals. I’m an American who flies biz class frequently to Europe and Asia, but I accrue all of my Star Alliance miles on Lufthansa. In my opinion, their program is much better than UA, US, and CO. 1) you get to keep status for two years after you qualify. Since I live in a DL hub city, traditionally my primary alliance was SkyTeam and secondary was Star. The past 18 months, that has kind of flipped around due to the fact that DL raised their fares on the routes that I fly and changed connection times to be more inconvenient. Anyways, when I was annually accumulating 150K-200K MQMs on DL, it was nice to be able to take a few trips on LH to qualify for status and then receive all the bennies for 2 years. 2) LH awards have good availability and they even have award fare sales on some routes, i.e. within Europe. I happened to take a rare 2 week trip to Europe and ended up flying to Berlin over the weekend because they had a sale for only 15K miles. 3) When you are booking a family award trip as a LH Senator, your wife and kids’ award fares have reduced mileage requirements (assuming you are flying on all-LH or LH-affiliated equipment like Swiss). They even let you overdraw if you don’t have enough miles in your account 4) LH treats me like a king. They are always doing little things like taking my meal order first to ensure that I get my selection, having the pilot introduce himself to me, or even the occasional bump from biz to first. The meal and the pilot introduction might seem a little silly, but it certainly reinforces the theme that I’m a valuable customer to them.

  3. Hawaiian as an option to Tahiti? Expensive in First and you need to get to Hawaii first, but if memory serves, AmEx miles transfer instantly.

  4. This year my strategy has been to only credit 100K to United and everything else (about 150k) to Continental. I much prefer redemption on Continental to United mostly due to the lack of starnet blocking. Once the merger is done, I won’t have to split things and maintain top tier status on 2 carriers.

    Though it sounds like Starnet blocking might go away on the new united, i am afraid of the worse case scenario: United Routing Rules, *Net Blocking, Continentals indifference to top tier elites, continental’s stingy or non-compensation for just about anything and VDB starting at $200, United’s terrible catering with continental’s lack of hot nuts, Continental employees adopting the service levels of current united folks, and CO presidents clubs charging for alcohol ala RCC’s, and Continental’s lack of three cabin international aircraft.

    That would in the short term be the most profitable way to do things but in the long term they would probably lose many of their top tier elites and business travellers to AAmerican…

  5. One other great thing about Continental I like is being able to mix Emirates and Virgin with Star, which in my opinion is a really nice benefit (although no First Class redemptions on EK). This often opens up so many opportunities if you are flying business class and Star has no availability. Although one can also redeem with UA Mileage Plus on Emirates (even F), non-Emirates segments cannot be added to the itinerary, not even United positioning flights. Hope the merger will bring the best of both with regards to Virgin and Emirates, but I highly doubt it.

  6. Will be going ORD to FCO next year, is it better to take UAL or LH in your opinion? I am presently a United club member.

  7. @pokey in what class of service? This is a controverial opinion but with United elite status I’d take United in coach (for economy plus). I’d also take United in business on a 767 (flat bed vs angled flat) but I’d take Lufthansa business over a United 777 (very few converted planes thus far, most bucket style recliners). And Lufthansa in first over United a no-brainer. Lufthansa is better food and service period of course, but United’s hard product is better in economy plus and new business.

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