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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

Update 4/23/15:Three of the offers on this list have improved in April, so I am re-posting this re-ordered.

There are a lot of reasons to collect miles and points.

  • For free luxury hotel stays and First Class flights
  • To travel to more countries than you could otherwise afford
  • To take your family on vacation
  • To visit home for the holidays
  • To earn big rewards for everyday spending

Whatever your reason for coming to MileValue, there is a rewards card or cards that suit your needs.

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Climbing a banyan tree on Maui, on a trip made possible with points

In the last few years, I’ve been to dozens of countries, travel that would have been completely impossible without miles and points earned from credit cards. This has been my life thanks to miles:

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The 55 Countries I’ve Visited

If you don’t have the money to take your dream trips, the good news is that you don’t need much money. By maximizing the sign up bonuses on rewards cards, anyone with good credit can take a dream trip anywhere in the world.

1. Citi American Airlines Personal and Business Cards (100,000 Bonus Miles Total)

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® (personal card) comes with 50,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.

The other huge benefit is that cardholders get a 10% rebate on all American Airlines award redemptions up to 100k redeemed/10k rebated per year. Example: You book Cathay Pacific First Class from San Francisco to Hong Kong for 67.5k miles. In a few weeks, you get 6,750 miles rebated to your account.

The card also comes with a free checked bag, priority boarding, 25% off onboard food purchases, 2 miles per dollar on AA flights, and one mile per dollar on everything else.

There is no annual fee the first year, then $95.

Right now American Airlines has the best award chart in the world. Economy roundtrips to Europe start at 40,000 miles, and prices for Business Class and First Class awards can be 40% less than with United miles.

Application Link: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

The business version of the AAdvantage card offers the same sign up bonus (50k miles after $3k/3 months) and no annual fee the first year, followed by $95. Plus the business card offers 2x mile category bonuses on popular business categories. Full MileValue review on the business card.

You can hold both cards at the same time.

Application Link:  CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®

I recently used American Airlines miles to fly between the United States and Colombia. I’m writing a multi-part series on how to redeem American Airlines miles. Here are the first 10 posts.

2. Citi Prestige Card

Just improved 4/9/15: The Citi Prestige® Card comes with 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open, $250 in airfare or airline fee credits per calendar year, access to the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Priority Pass lounges, 3x points per dollar on air travel and hotels, the fourth night free on paid hotel stays, three free rounds of golf per year, and a $450 annual fee.

I got the Citi Prestige when it only offered 30,000 bonus points for its amazing benefits. Now that it also has one of the biggest sign up bonuses on the market, it shoots up my rankings.

The Citi Prestige® Card is premium card that is designed to give travelers huge benefits to offset the big annual fee. For the first 12 months of holding the card, you are guaranteed to get more than $450 from the card if you maximize the $250 worth of statement credits to offset airline tickets or fees each calendar year (that’s $500 worth in the first 12 months), a $100 statement credit to offset Global Entry, and Priority Pass and American Airlines lounge access.

Beyond the 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Citi Prestige® Card earns:

  • 3x points on Air Travel and Hotels
  • 2x points on Dining at Restaurants and Entertainment

ThankYou Points transfer to 11 airlines and one hotel. Or you can use the points for 1.33 cents off any flight on any airline with no blackouts or 1.6 cents off American Airlines and US Airways flights. Here’s how to use ThankYou Points.

Click these links for a full explanation of the card’s benefits and for a comparison to the American Express Platinum Card.

You can get both the Prestige and Citi ThankYou® Premier Card (#4 below) eight or more days apart and combine their points into a single ThankYou account.

Application Link: Citi Prestige® Card

3. Ink Plus

The Ink Plus is a business card that offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $5,000 in the first three months. Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to United, British Airways, Singapore, Korean, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more.

The Ink Plus earns 5x points on internet, phone, and cell phone bills; 5x points on purchases at office supply stores; 2x points on hotels and gas; and 1x points on everything else.

The annual fee is $95, though it is waived for the first year.

I recently used Ultimate Rewards (transferred to Hyatt points) to book the Grand Hyatt Macau and Ultimate Rewards (transferred to United miles) to book Slovenia-to-North Carolina in Lufthansa First Class.

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4. Citi ThankYou Premier Card

Just improved 4/20/15: The Citi ThankYou® Premier Card offers 50,000 bonus points after $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.

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ThankYou Points transfer to 11 airlines and Hilton or can be used like cash for 1.25 cents each toward any flight on any airline with no blackouts. I get more value out of transferring the points to airline miles.

My favorite transfer partner is Singapore Airlines. For 50,000 Singapore miles, you can book a roundtrip award to South America with two free one ways to Hawaii, all on United flights.

My second favorite partner is Flying Blue. Flying Blue miles can book Promo Awards that cost only 12,500 miles each way to Europe or Israel. You can also use Flying Blue miles to book one way awards on Delta like 15,000 miles to Hawaii, Central America, or the Caribbean.

The card offers 3x points on travel (broadly defined) and gas plus 2x on dining out and entertainment.

The card has no annual fee the first year, then $95 thereafter.

Application Link: Citi ThankYou® Premier Card

I recently transferred ThankYou Points to Singapore miles to book United First Class (flat bed) from Atlanta to Honolulu for 30,000 miles. The same flights would have cost 40,000 United miles.

5. Arrival Plus

The Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® is a great card for families that travel in economy, since Arrival miles can be used to book any flight on any airline with no blackouts. Miles can also be redeemed for any hotel or other travel expense.

This card comes with 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days and earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases.

Miles are worth 1.14 cents each, so spending $3,000 on the card in the first 90 days earns more than $500 in free flights or other travel expenses.

With this card you can book any flight on any airline at any time, or any hotel, or rental car, then redeem your miles for a statement credit equal to the cost. Here’s how.

The 40,000 bonus miles could be used on any $400 flight without the need to find award space. You would even earn miles for flying the flight, since the airline will see it as a cash ticket!

Plus you get a 10% rebate after every redemption for travel, so after redeeming the 40,000 miles for $400 in travel, you get 4,000 miles back, worth $40 more dollars.

This card fills the gaps in a miles strategy because the rewards are perfect for cheap domestic flights or hotels that otherwise would be bad redemptions with traditional airline miles and hotel points.

There is no annual fee the first year, $89 thereafter.

Application Link: Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard®

I recently used my Arrival miles to book myself a free Airbnb stay and to pay the taxes on an award booked with traditional miles.

6. Club Carlson Visa

The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card offers up to 20 free hotel nights after spending $2,500 on the card in the first 90 days.

The basic idea is:

  • 50,000 Club Carlson Gold Points after first purchase
  • 35,000 more Club Carlson Gold Points after spending $2,500 on the card in the first 90 days
  • Earn 5 points per dollar on all purchases (and 10 on purchases at Carlson Rezidor hotels), so you’ll earn at least another 12,500 points from meeting the minimum spending requirement. After meeting the minimum spending requirement, you’ll have at least 97,500 Gold Points.
  • Free nights at Radisson, Park Plaza, and other properties start at 9,000 Gold Points
  • On award stays of two or more nights, you get the last night free as a cardholder. That means a two night stay at a 9,000 point-per-night property costs only 9,000 total points. This only applies to bookings made by May 31, 2015, but some hotels allow bookings up to three years in advance.
  • That means 90,000 points is enough for 10 two-night stays (20 nights total.)

The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card is a must have if you are traveling near the 1,000 participating Club Carlson hotels. No other card offers a free award night on all award stays of 2+ nights. I picked up the card in 2013 and don’t ever plan on canceling it.

Application link: Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card

7. Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a personal card that earns 40k Ultimate Rewards after spending $3k in 3 months. Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to United, Singapore, British Airways, Korean, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more.

You also get 5k bonus points for adding an authorized user while applying, so I think of this as a 45k bonus point card. (Adding an authorized user does not prevent that person from getting the card at the same time or in the future as a primary account holder and getting the full sign up bonus.)

The Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on dining and travel. Dining includes bars, restaurants, and fast food. Travel includes airfare, hotels, taxis, rental cars, tolls, parking, and much more.

The Sapphire Preferred has no annual fee the first year, then $95 thereafter.

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8. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card

  • Limited Time: Earn a $100 statement credit after spending $100 or more on your first hotel stay in the Hilton Portfolio within the first 3 months of account opening.*

The Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card is the best card for giving you free luxury hotel nights. The card comes with two free weekend nights at Hiltons worldwide after spending $2,500 in the first four months. The free nights are best spent at top-tier Hiltons and Conrads that can go for $500 or more per night.

This card is perfect to get aspirational stays at top tier properties like the Conrad Koh Samui that goes for 95,000 Hilton points per night and costs more than $1k per night.

The card also comes with Hilton Gold Status, so you can enjoy free internet and breakfast on those free stays.

The card earns 10x points on Hilton stays, 5x on airlines and car rentals, and 3x on all other purchases.

There card has no foreign transaction fee. The annual fee is $95.

Application Link: Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card

9. Platinum Card from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz

The Platinum Card from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz comes with 50,000 Membership Rewards after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Membership Rewards transfer to around 20 hotel and airline programs including Delta, Singapore, and British Airways.

The card has a $475 annual fee in the first year. But it comes with huge benefits like airline fee reimbursement, airport lounge access, and hotel status.

For more info on setting up and maximizing the benefits, see Get the Most Out of Your Platinum Card.

Landing Page: Platinum Card from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz

10. British Airways Card

The British Airways Visa Signature card comes with 50,000 bonus Avios after spending $2,000 in the first three months on the card.

The card comes with 2.5 Avios per dollar on British Airways purchases and 1.25 Avios per dollar on other purchases. Starting April 30, these earning rates change to 3 Avios per dollar on British Airways purchases and 1 Avios per dollar on all other purchases.

British Airways Avios are perfect for short, direct, economy flights on British Airways partners that do not levy fuel surcharges like these partners.

For instance, the west coast to Hawaii on American Airlines or Alaska Airlines flights for 12,500 Avios or only 4,500 Avios between New York and a dozen destinations are two of many sweet spots.

Starting April 28, prices for Business and First Class awards go up for medium and long haul flights.

The card has a $95 annual fee that is waived for the first 12 months.

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Most of the posts on this site are minutia: a discount on awards to Brazil and Chile or a new Delta route with good award space to Europe. Such posts are only valuable once you understand the big picture and how the miles world works and fits together. Here’s the current big picture.

How to Earn Big Miles

Now, more than ever, the way to earn big miles and points for free travel is through credit cards. United and Delta have slashed the number of miles they give to you for flying their flights, while the number of miles you can earn from signing up for a credit card is often 40,000, 50,000, or more.

There are a lot of types of miles and points you can earn.

Types of Miles and Points from Easiest to Understand to Most Complicated

1. Credit Card Points Pretending to Be Miles

If you’ve seen a Capital One Venture Card ad with Jennifer Garner, you probably don’t understand what Capital One points are because the marketing deliberately obfuscates the product.

Whenever you see an ad that promises miles you can use on any airline with no blackout, the card does not earn true miles. It earns points worth 1 cent (usually) each toward the purchase of any cash ticket. Because you can redeem the credit card points for any cash ticket at a fixed rate, they can legitimately market the card as having no blackouts.

Cards that earn points that can be used at a fixed rate toward any flight are great for people who know how to find cheap tickets, people who don’t mind flying low cost carriers, people who need to travel on completely fixed dates, and families who travel in economy.

These are the simplest rewards program to understand: 1 point/mile = 1 cent or 1.14 cents or whatever the company says they’re worth. You never have to search for award space (explained below); you just purchase any cash ticket on any airlines and redeem your points to offset the cost of the ticket.

Examples of Cards/Programs In This Category:

  • Capital One Venture
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Arrival
  • Many Smaller Banks’ “Miles Earning” Cards
  • Any Card that Promises Redemption of Rewards on Any Airline with No Blackouts

Program to Start with For Beginners: Start with the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® with 40,000 bonus “miles” after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and the miles are worth 1.14 cents each toward any flight, hotel, car rental, cruise, or other travel expense. It is the best of the bunch for its sign up bonus, value of its miles, and the fact that you can redeem for any travel expense not just flights.

Further Reading: Three Steps to Get $500 in Free Flights, Hotels, and Car Rentals from the Arrival Plus Card

2. Airline Points

Airline points are points that have a fixed value or close to a fixed value and can be redeemed on any flight that airline operates. The number of points you need is based on the ticket price.

These are conceptually very similar to the fixed-value credit card points above, except that these can only be used on one airline.

For example, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards can be redeemed for any Southwest flight with no blackouts as long as tickets are for sale. You just pay 70 Rapid Rewards times the base fare. A flight with a $100 base fare would cost 7,000 Rapid Rewards.

These programs are much easier to understand than traditional airline miles that require award searching (explained below) and amounts of miles based on an award chart and award availability.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Virgin America Elevate

Program to Start with For Beginners: If Southwest serves routes you want to fly, join the program and get one of the Southwest credit cards when the bonuses go to 50,000 points every few months. If you usually fly with the same companion, get the Southwest Companion Pass–possibly the best deal in travel.

By the way, to figure out where any airline flies, search “[airline] destinations wiki.” To figure out all the routes from your home airport, search “[city] airport wiki.”

Further Reading: Basics of Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Points

3. United, Delta, and American Airlines Miles

Airline mergers have winnowed down the legacy carriers in the United States to three: American, Delta, and United. They’re miles all work basically the same.

Each is a member of an alliance with a few dozen airline partners. You can use your miles on any of the partners. American Airlines is part of oneworld, and there are 24 airlines on which you can redeem American Airlines miles. United is part of Star Alliance. Delta is part of SkyTeam.

On its own flights, each legacy carriers either releases Saver award space or doesn’t (and releases Standard/AAnytime/Level 2-5 award space.) Saver award space costs the fewest miles, but it is not available on every flight in every cabin. It is most available when the airline expects to have empty seats. Think unpopular days, routes, and seasons.

All partner award space prices at the Saver level, so if you are booking Cathay Pacific or Qantas flights with American Airlines miles, you are paying the Saver price.

The number of miles you need for an American Airlines, Delta, or United award is determined by three things:

  1. The cabin you want to fly: economy, Business, or First
  2. Whether you found Saver award space or not
  3. The departure region and arrival region. The cities you fly into/out of don’t matter. Just the regions. Think North America and Europe.

Once you have those three piece of information, you read off the price of your award from the award chart of the airline whose miles you’re using.

These types of miles are complicated because you have to be proficient at searching for Saver and partner award space, or you have to hire an Award Booking Service like mine in order to maximize the value of your miles. But if you can handle the complexity, these miles are more valuable than any other type of miles.

If you find Saver award space, you can fly one way from Los Angeles to Paris in Business Class for 50,000 American Airlines miles. That’s probably a $2,000 ticket, which means it would cost about 200,000 Arrival miles.

American, United, and Delta miles tend to be best for international trips, especially in premium cabins.

Program to Start with For Beginners: American Airlines has the cheapest award chart because United and Delta more recently increased the prices on their charts. You can go to Peru for 15,000 miles one way or Southeast Asia in First Class luxury for only 67,500 miles one way. For a limited time, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card also comes with other awesome benefits like a 10% rebate on miles used for award bookings.

The business version, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, also comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. This card comes with 2x miles on select business purchases and a 5% miles bonus on renewal. One person can have both cards. Getting both would be enough for a roundtrip anywhere in the world and up to four roundtrips to the Caribbean.

Further Reading: Basics of American, United, and Delta miles

4. Transferable Points

Transferable points are points you earn from a credit card that you can transfer to many different types of airline miles or other points. For instance, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to six airline miles/points programs, four hotel programs, and Amtrak points.

Transferable points are awesome because they give you so much flexibility. Each airline program has strengths and weaknesses in terms of the number of miles you need and the availability from point A to point B. Collecting transferable points ensures that no matter where you decide to go, you can always transfer your points to the type of airline miles that is best for the award you want.

To maximize transferable points is extremely complex, though, because you need to understand the basics of every transfer partners to ensure you are using transferring your points to the right partner.

For instance, most people with Ultimate Rewards who want to go to Hawaii from the East Coast are probably transferring their points to United miles to book United flights. That’s a huge mistake. Another Ultimate Rewards transfer partner–Singapore Airlines–can book the exact same United flights for fewer miles. Not knowing that fact would lead to spending too many Ultimate Rewards for your trip to Hawaii.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Citi ThankYou Points
  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints

Program to Start with For Beginners: I like Chase Ultimate Rewards roster of credit cards and partners a lot, and I always start friends and family off with a Chase Sapphire Preferred personal card and Chase Ink Plus business card. They both have 40,000 to 50,000 point sign up bonuses and category bonuses of 2x points that let you rack up points.

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Further Reading: Transferable Points Basics

5. Other Mileage Programs

While you’re mastering transferable points, you’ll have to master other, mostly foreign, airline miles programs.

Programs like British Airways Avios, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, Lufthansa Miles & More, Singapore KrisFlyer, and Air France Flying Blue all offer tremendous value to Americans for certain awards, and you can get all of their miles by earning the right transferable points.

While it might seem interminable to learn about 10-20 other airline programs, it’s actually not very tough. I always say that understanding one airline program like American Airlines is the same difficulty as understanding airline programs 2 through 99 combined. All airline programs share certain principles, which make learning the basics of each one a snap. You just have to learn the few quirks.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • British Airways Avios (great for short, direct, economy flights on American Airlines, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines within United States; for flights intra-Europe; for flights intra-South America; for flights from the West Coast to Hawaii; for flights from the East Coast to Europe)
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (great for Business and First Class on Emirates and Cathay Pacific)
  • Lufthansa Miles & More (great for flights within the Western Hemisphere on Star Alliance)
  • Singapore KrisFlyer (great for Singapore Suites and flights within the Western Hemisphere on Star Alliance)
  • Air France Flying Blue (great for Promo Awards and some Delta flights)
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club (great for Economy and Premium Economy to the United Kingdom)

Program to Start with For Beginners: If you live somewhere with a lot of American Airlines, US Airways, or Alaska Airlines flights, start collecting Avios.

Further Reading: Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles

Hotel Points

Beyond the scope of this post, but there are plenty of ways to earn free lodging on your travels.

Bottom Line

Miles and points are still the best way to travel for free. The main way to earn them is through credit card sign up bonuses.

The miles world is complicated, so learn about it a chunk at a time. Start by understanding fixed value credit cards that claim to offer miles. Progress to airline points and airline miles. Pretty soon you’ll understand all the foreign mileage programs to which you can transfer your transferable points. Along the way, you’ll have earned and redeemed hundreds of thousands of miles for thousands of dollars in free travel.

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Earn up to 20 free hotel nights after meeting spending $2,500 in the first 90 days on the Club Carlson Visa.

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

I just booked myself a trip to Cuba with miles. One direction I am flying on a single award from the United States to Cuba. On the return, I am flying two awards: Cuba to Colombia and Colombia to the United States.

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I used American Airlines, Asiana, and Lufthansa miles, all of which are easily available to Americans.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba?

Here is the State Department’s page on visiting Cuba.

I am going to travel to Cuba on a general license as a journalist. A “general license” means that I do not have to contact any government agency in advance to receive permission. Here are the 12 categories of general licenses:

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I’ll need a valid passport and a tourist card to enter Cuba. I can buy the latter for $20 in Panama before boarding my flight to Havana.

It is still technically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism. Figure out for yourself whether you can fit one of the 12 general licenses, so you can legally travel to Cuba.

Awards

In a previous post, I ruled out charter flights to Cuba because they’re impossible for folks traveling to Cuba on a general license, and I ruled out paid flights via third countries as very expensive. I was determined to book my trip to Cuba with miles.

But booking a trip to Cuba with miles is not 100% straightforward.

If you go to united.com and type Havana into the search box, you get no results. The US-based airlines are not going to let you use their miles to fly to Cuba for the time being, even if you just want to use the miles to fly from Panama to Cuba.

Any awards you book to Cuba will have to be with foreign miles. There are a lot of options:

  • Avianca LifeMiles, Singapore KrisFlyer miles, Asiana Club miles, Lufthansa Miles & More miles on Avianca or Copa to Cuba
  • Air France Flying Blue miles from Mexico City to Havana, flying AeroMexico

I looked into using Singapore, Asiana, Lufthansa, and Avianca miles. Here was my experience.

Searching for Award Space

I tried to use the miles of four Star Alliance carriers, all of which have equal access to Saver award space released by Avianca and Copa on their flights to Cuba. As I mentioned, not all award search engines will display award space to Cuba, but lifemiles.com will. Search for Star Alliance award space to Cuba on lifemiles.com.

There are several routes to Havana from the Americas on Star Alliance carriers: Copa, Avianca, Air Canada, and Air China.

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There are also routes to Cayo CocoCayo Largo del SurHolguínSanta Clara, and Varadero on Star Alliance carriers.

To search for any of these routes on lifemiles.com, click on Air Tickets under the Enjoy tab.

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You may need to log in to a LifeMiles account to search. Sign up for a free account here.

On the search screen, next to “Preferred carrier,” select the carrier that serves the route you’re searching. Not specifying an airline will cause the search engine to miss results.

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My Searches

I was interested in combining Cuba with Colombia. I need to start and end my trip in Washington DC. I searched:

  • Washington-Dulles <-> Havana on Copa
  • Havana <-> Bogota on Avianca
  • Bogota <-> Washington-Dulles on American and Avianca

I searched all three itineraries in both directions because I was willing to visit Bogota and Havana in either order. I let my search results dictate my order.

In the end, I found much better award space on my dates from Havana to Bogota than vice versa, which sealed my plan to fly USA to Cuba to Colombia to USA.

Spending an Afternoon in Panama City

Here are sample results for economy awards from Washington to Havana.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.28.55 PM

All of the options go from Washington to Panama City to Havana on Copa with varying layovers in Panama City. I decided to choose a seven hour layover in Panama City. From a quick search, I learned that I can visit the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal with a five hour layover. That sounds fascinating, and I plan to save money by hiring taxis instead of a tour company.

American Airlines Space to the United States

I was hoping to book Avianca’s direct flight from Bogota to Washington-Dulles for my return. There is award space on the flight in economy on many dates (yellow on the calendar below), but I couldn’t make it work for my trip.

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My back up plan was American Airlines miles with one stop in Miami. The benefit is that American Airlines charges only 15,000 miles one way between the United States and Northern South America for much of the year. United would have charged me 20,000 miles one way for the Avianca flight.

American Airlines award space is wide open between Bogota and Miami, and from there to anywhere else in the United States or Canada for the same 15,000 mile price.

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I noted the date, cabin, and flight number of the award space to Cuba on Copa, to Colombia on Avianca, and to the United States on American Airlines. Now it was time to book.

Booking the Award

I wanted to get all three of my awards or zero. The first step was to put the American Airlines award on a free five day hold while I investigated my booking options with Star Alliance miles for the Star Alliance flights.

Avianca LifeMiles

Selecting the Copa award flights from Washington-Dulles to Havana brings up a price of 17,500 Lifemiles + $31.85. Or you can toggle the “More money” button to book the award for 7,500 Lifemiles and $181.85.Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 2.29.42 PM

The problem is that I don’t have LifeMiles. Getting LifeMiles is a bit of a challenge. You basically need to buy them. They are often on sale for 1.65 cents each, though not currently. Once you have 7,500 LifeMiles, you can book the award for another $181.85.

I would consider buying the 7,500 miles when they are on sale for 1.65 cents each which happens every few months, but right now they cost 3.3 cents each.

The Havana to Bogota award was only 10,000 LifeMiles, but that was 10,000 more than I had.

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I went looking for other foreign Star Alliance options to book the flights.

Lufthansa Miles & More

Lufthansa is also a member of the Star Alliance, so it partners with Copa and Avianca. The Miles & More award chart shows a great price of 17,000 miles one way from the United States to Cuba or Colombia to Cuba.

I called the Miles & More call center for the United States and tried to book Washington to Havana. The agent said he could not book flights to Cuba.

Next I called the British service center at  +44 371 – 945 97 37 for 1 cent per minute via gmail. I fed the agent the Copa flights from Washington to Havana and she priced them at 17,000 Miles & More miles and 4.5 GBP ($7.) These were the same flights that the agent at the US call center couldn’t price.

She priced Bogota to Havana at 17,000 miles + $15.

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Fantastic! I had 18,000 Lufthansa miles, so I could book one of the awards with Lufthansa miles.

I continued my research.

Singapore KrisFlyer

The Singapore award chart shows a price of 17,500 miles from the United States to the Caribbean. Havana to Bogota would be 25,000 miles.

I called KrisFlyer and tried to price my Copa award. Three different agents priced it at 35,000 miles one way. For whatever reason, the computer wanted to collect Washington to Panama and Panama to Havana as two separate awards.

I didn’t bother to price Havana to Bogota because I knew it would be cheaper with Lufthansa miles, but I am confident it would have cost 25,000 Singapore miles.

Asiana Club

The Asiana chart shows Colombia to Cuba costing 17,500 miles and the United States to the Caribbean at 17,500 miles also.

I priced out Havana to Bogota at 17,500 miles + $15.

I didn’t bother to price out Washington to Havana because I had all the information I needed.

How I Booked

I had the perfect amount of Lufthansa and Asiana miles to book the two Star Alliance awards. If I hadn’t had those perfect amounts, I would have transferred Starpoints to Lufthansa miles. Starpoints transfer 1:1 to Singapore, Lufthansa, and Asiana miles. And every 20,000 points transferred earns a 5,000 mile bonus.

When the Asiana agent priced Havana to Bogota at 17,500 miles one way, I immediately booked. I got the following email a few minutes later with my confirmation number.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 3.02.29 AM Next I called Lufthansa back. Because of the time of day, I called the Australian Miles & More center at +61 1300 – 655 727 for 2 cents a minute through gmail. I booked Washington to Havana for 17,000 miles + $7. My confirmation came quickly via email.Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 3.02.42 AM

 

Last I signed into my American Airlines account and ticketed Bogota to Washington, which I had held earlier in the day. It cost 15,000 miles + $95 (though I’ll get about $35 back upon check in.)

Bottom Line

Lufthansa, Avianca, Singapore, and Asiana are all willing to ticket award tickets to Cuba, even if they begin in the United States. Copa has several destinations in America from which you can get to Cuba with only one connection in Panama. If you don’t live in one of those cities, you can connect on United and Copa flights to Panama and then to Havana on your Miles & More award.

Search for the award space on lifemiles.com and call the non-US call center of the airline whose miles you want to use. You can book a roundtrip for as little as 34,000 Lufthansa miles, which is 29,000 Starpoints.

To get Starpoints, open the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express with 25,000 bonus Starpoints after spending $5,000 in the first six months. Just meeting the minimum spending requirement gives you more than enough points for a roundtrip award to Cuba.

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Earn up to 20 free hotel nights after meeting spending $2,500 in the first 90 days on the Club Carlson Visa.

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It is cheaper to book the exact same United flights to Hawaii with Singapore KrisFlyer miles than with United miles.

  • United charges 22,500 miles each way in economy and 40,000 miles in First Class between the mainland and Hawaii
  • Singapore charges 17,500 miles each way in economy and 30,000 miles each way in First Class between the mainland and Hawaii

That’s a humongous difference. Instead of costing 90,000 United miles to get two people from your home airport to Hawaii and back, you could pay 70,000 Singapore miles. Instead of paying 160,000 United miles for two roundtrip First Class tickets, you could pay 120,000 Singapore miles–even occasionally for flat beds!

To reiterate, these are the exact same flights with vastly different prices depending on which miles you use. Singapore even has access to all the same Saver award space United releases to people with United miles (except for some space set aside only for United elites and credit card holders.)

What’s the catch? For bookings to Hawaii, there really isn’t one.

  • Singapore awards cost fewer miles than United awards
  • Singapore awards are way cheaper to change or cancel than United awards if your plans change
  • Singapore awards do not have a fee for booking within three weeks of departure like United awards do
  • Singapore awards on United flights within the United States (including Hawaii) do not have fuel surcharges, so both types of awards will just have identical taxes of around $11 roundtrip.
  • Singapore miles are easier to get than United miles, and even share a key transfer partner.

Getting Singapore Miles

Singapore miles are a partner of the four major transferable points program:

  1. Chase Ultimate Rewards, 1:1
  2. Citi ThankYou Points, 1:1
  3. American Express Membership Rewards, 1:1
  4. SPG Starpoints, 1:1 with a bonus. Every 20,000 Starpoints transferred earns a 5,000 mile bonus, so the ideal transfers are in exact increments of 20,000 Starpoints to 25,000 Singapore miles.

. Cards I like that earns points that transfer:

  • Citi ThankYou® Premier Card50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open. The card also earns 3x points on travel and has
  • Citi Prestige® Card: 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open. The card also comes earns 3x points on airfare and hotels and has a host of benefits like lounge access and $250 in free airfare per year.
  • Sapphire Preferred: 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. 2x on dining and travel.
  • Ink Plus (business card): 50,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. 5x on office supplies and telecom bills.
  • Whichever Membership Rewards card (Platinum or Gold, personal or business) is offering a big 50,000, 75,000, or 100,000 point sign up bonus

To compare this to earning United miles, United has its own co-branded personal and business cards plus is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards but not any of the other three transferable points programs.

Searching for Award Space, Transferring Miles, and Booking the Awards

You will have to search for award space on the United flights on united.com; then you will call Singapore Airlines at 213-404-0301 to book the awards.

Here’s how to search united.com. Make sure that you do NOT sign into united.com when searching for award space that you plan to book with another type of miles because signing in can cause award space set aside for elites or credit card holders to appear, and that space is not bookable with other types of miles like Singapore miles.

How to Interpret the Calendar

The first thing you’ll notice when you search for award space to Hawaii on united.com is that it’s widely available for much of the year. Here’s a calendar of the next month and a half. Yellow days have Saver economy award space; blue days have Saver First Class space; green days have Saver space in both cabins. Singapore miles can book all the Saver space that is depicted on these calendars.

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How to Interpret the Itineraries

Once you select a date, the itineraries will be displayed from shortest travel time to longest travel time. Most results will have four columns of award space. You can ignore the Economy Standard Award and First / BusinessFirst Standard Award columns. Singapore miles cannot book that space.
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We’re looking for a blue button in one of the Saver columns.Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 8.01.08 PM

The “First / BusinessFirst” column is especially interesting and potentially confusing to people unfamiliar with award terminology.

Two vs. Three Cabin First Class

The vast majority of United’s domestic flights have two cabins that are sold as Economy and First. Internationally, United’s two cabin flights are sold as Economy and BusinessFirst. Whenever United operates a two-cabin plane, the premium cabin’s awards are priced at the Business Class award price by United and by Singapore.

Extremely rarely, you will encounter a plane on a domestic route with three cabins: Economy, Business, and First. Whenever any itinerary is available with any flight with three cabins, the four columns you’re used to seeing on the search results turn into six columns.

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United charges 50,000 miles if any of the segments is in First Class on a three cabin plane. Singapore would charge 40,000 miles. But again, these flights are rare, and you can get flat beds in two cabin planes for 30,000 Singapore miles.

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Flat Beds

Both Business and First Class on three cabin planes have flat beds.

On two cabin planes, you can occasionally find flat beds in First Class. To find out if your plane has flat beds, click View Seats on the itinerary. Regular seats look like squares with rounded edges.
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Beds look like little beds.Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 8.02.26 PM

Some 777-200s feature flat beds, and all 767-400ERs feature flat beds. Flights from Newark and Washington-Dulles to Honolulu all feature flat beds, and some San Francisco and Houston flights feature flat beds.

Mixed Cabin Awards

Many awards on united.com in the premium cabin columns say “Mixed Cabin.” Holding your cursor over “Mixed Cabin” launches a pop up that says which cabin is available on each flight.

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You always have to pay the full price of the premium cabin award even though part of the award is an inferior cabin.

Singapore Airlines also lets you book mixed cabin awards for the full Business Class price.

Whether you want to book a mixed cabin is up to you. I just booked myself one because my first flight is about 2 hours in economy, and the next is 8.5 hours in a flat bed. That seemed worth paying 30,000 Singapore miles.

Transferring Miles

Transfers from Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Points to Singapore miles all take about 36 hours. SPG transfers take at least that long.

Once I find award space, I initiate the transfer.

Award space changes all the time, so in a worst case scenario, your award space could disappear before your miles posted. If you can’t handle this outcome, transfer Ultimate Rewards to United miles instantly instead, and pay the extra miles.

I can handle the small chance that my award space will disappear. Maybe it will reappear later. If not, I can always use Singapore miles in the future for a different high value award.

How to Book Singapore Awards

Once your miles post, you have to call Singapore Airlines to book the award. Call 213-404-0301 and be ready with your Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer account number and six digit PIN.

Feed the agent the date, flight number, and cabin of each flight you want.

For cabin, call United First Class on its two cabin planes “Business Class” because that is what the agent needs to search for.

The agent will charge you taxes denominated in Singapore dollars. If you convert that price to US dollars, it should be about $5.60 per person per direction, the standard taxes on domestic awards.

Within a few minutes, you should get an email from Singapore Airlines with an attachment like this.

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Picking Seats

To pick your seats and confirm that your reservation was ticketed correctly, head to united.com and input the Singapore Airlines confirmation number on the home page. The Singapore Airlines confirmation number is the six letter/number code listed on your email attachment next to “Booking Reference.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 3.16.56 AM

United.com will recognize the Singapore Airlines confirmation number. You can select your seats and note your United confirmation number, which will be a different six letter/number code.

Other Benefits of Singapore Airlines Awards Over United Awards

  1. United charges $75 to book an award within 21 days of departure. Singapore charges no fee for such bookings.
  2. United charges $200 to cancel an award booking and get your miles back. Singapore charges $30.
  3. United charges $75 to $100 to change an award booking. Singapore charges $20.

My Experience Booking United to Hawaii with Singapore Miles

Today, I found out that I don’t need to go to New York this week, so I’ll start my trip to Hawaii a bit early. Booking so late in the game is no problem because United offers excellent last minute award space to Hawaii.

I needed to book an award from Atlanta to Honolulu, so I searched united.com and found a mixed-cabin award with Atlanta to Houston in economy and Houston to Honolulu in a flat bed in United First Class on a two cabin plane.

A short hop in the back before a long flight in a bed
A short hop in the back before a long flight in a bed

The award would have cost 40,000 United miles and $80.60 to book including United’s $75 fee for booking within 21 days of departure. I noted the flight number, dates, and cabins plus my KrisFlyer number and PIN.

I already had 30,000 Singapore miles in my account because I transferred Citi ThankYou points and Chase Ultimate Rewards weeks ago in anticipation of booking an award to Hawaii in First Class when I knew what date I wanted to fly.

I called Singapore Airlines and fed the agent the information and called the First Class cabin on my United flight “Business Class.”

He priced the award at 30,000 Singapore KrisFlyer miles + 7.8 Singapore dollars ($5.66.) I booked the ticket with my Citi ThankYou® Premier Card because it has no foreign transaction fees and earns bonus points for airfare purchases and got an email confirmation a few minutes later. I input the Singapore confirmation code into the United app on my phone and selected my seat and bed.

Bottom Line

Use Singapore miles instead of United miles to book economy and First Class awards to Hawaii on United flights. You’ll pay fewer miles, lower fees, and be able to book the exact same seats. Plus Singapore miles are so easy to get as a transfer partner of pretty much everyone.

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Meeting the minimum spending requirement on the Arrival Plus give you about $500 worth of free flights on any airline with no blackouts.

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It’s already February. Summer is just a few short months away, so now is your last, best chance to plan and execute a perfect summer vacation to Europe for 2015 with miles and points for pennies on the dollar.

Your roundtrip flights can be under $100. You hotels can be free. Everything else will seem like it’s 30% off as the euro sits at $1.13. I’ve been in Europe when it was $1.50!

This blueprint will explain which miles to accrue, why to accrue them, how many you need, and which cards to open now to accrue them. I’ve even got a few tips on free hotel and airbnb.

Get United Miles

United and its partners in the Star Alliance have the best award availability to Europe for Summer 2015 by far. Award space in economy to Europe is wide open for 4+ people on the same itinerary this summer. Sample routes:

New York to Frankfurt, June and July, award space for 4 in economy on 54/61 days

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Houston to Brussels, July and August, award space for 4 in economy on 55/62 days Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 2.50.03 PM

Los Angeles to Paris, June and July, award space for 4 in economy on 34/61 days Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 2.50.28 PM

Award space is better from the East Coast because finding the award space within North America during the summer is hard, and flights from the West Coast directly to Europe have terrible award space on almost every airline.

Award space within Europe is excellent, so pretty much no matter where you want to go in Europe should have similar award space.

Business and First Class award space is very limited right now. Usually United’s flights to Brussels from Newark and Washington-Dulles have some of the best premium-cabin award space in its European network. Right now Washington-Dulles to Brussels only has premium-cabin award space for one passenger on 6/61 days in July and August.

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Some days do have award space in both Business and First Class.Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 3.14.55 PM

If you really want to fly a premium cabin, I’d suggest one of two options:

  1. Book a premium cabin one way. There is sprinkled award space in Business and First Class on various routes. Find space in one direction that you can build on, and then book the other direction in economy since economy space is plentiful with United miles to and from Europe this summer. The age old question is which direction to book in Business Class? If it’s the eastbound, you get better use of the bed. If it’s the westbound, you get more out of the service and experience. There is no right answer.
  2. Book economy now and look to change one or both directions to a premium cabin in the last few days before departure.

Both United and Lufthansa, the German Star Alliance carrier, are pretty famous for opening last minute award space in Business and First Class.

Check a few weeks before departure to see if space has opened up on your flight and then every day after that. Space can open up as late as the day of your flight.

Unfortunately changing an award within 21 days of departure does cost $75 per ticket, but weirdly, sometimes this fee is forgotten by phone agents and not charged online.

How Many United Miles?

United charges:

  • 30,000 miles one way in economy
  • 57,500 miles one way in United Business (and for a limited time in partner Business)
  • 70,000 miles one way in partner Business Class normally
  • 80,000 miles one way in United First
  • 110,000 miles one way in partner First

You’ll need at least 60,000 United miles per person for the roundtrip to Europe. United awards do not require a payment of fuel surcharges, but you will be on the hook for government taxes associated with your flights. These vary based on the countries you transit, arrive in, and depart from.

The highest taxes are on roundtrip Business or First Class awards to the United Kingdom (about $300). For most European itineraries, the roundtrip taxes will be in the $100 to $150 range. Lower taxes are available to some countries also. If the taxes matter a lot to you, play around with awards to different countries on united.com.

Add up the number of miles you need for the passengers and cabins you have in mind.

How to Get United Miles

The easiest way to get United miles is from credit card sign up bonuses on cards that offer United miles or Ultimate Rewards, the proprietary points Chase offers with some cards that transfer 1:1 instantly to United miles.

All the relevant cards are offered by Chase. In my experience, you can get one Chase personal and one Chase business card on the same day. Between such days, I like to wait 91 days until I apply for more Chase cards. I’ve also noticed that many people who are brand new to Chase can get two personal cards (and a business card) on the same day.

Once you get your cards, you will have to meet a minimum spending requirement to get the promised bonus miles. Once you meet the requirement, your miles should post the same day or maybe a day after the day on which your next statement closes.

Because of this lag between credit card application and getting your miles, unless you are planning a very late summer trip, you only have time for one relevant application day before summer. Make it count.

Here are the best two personal and one business card:

  • United personal card: 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months, 5,000 bonus miles for adding an authorized user

Sign into your United account. Do you see a banner for this offer? If not, apply for the “standard” 30,000 miles offer. Then when approved, send a secure message from chase.com asking to be matched to the 50,000 mile offer. Something like this has worked for 2+ years:

“I recently applied for the 30,000 mile offer on the United card. Heading through the airport the other day, there was a 50,000 bonus mile offer after spending $2,000 in the first three months that was open to everyone. Can you match me to that offer?”

Your mileage may vary.

About the extra 5,000 miles for adding an authorized user: the authorized user card does NOT stop that person from getting their own United card account with the bonus miles, does NOT require inputting that person’s social security number, and is sent to you.

This card should be 57,000 miles after spending $2,000.

  • Sapphire Preferred personal card: 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months, 5,000 bonus points for adding an authorized user.

This card should be 49,000 points (which transfer 1:1 instantly to United) after spending $4,000.

  • United business card: 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months (limited time offer)

If you can get a business card, this card should be an easy 52,000 miles after spending $2,000.

One person getting all three cards would be 158,000 United miles after spending $8,000 in the next three months.

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Future Cards

In 91+ days, you could get the Freedom for 10,000 bonus points after spending $500 in the first three months and the Ink Plus business card for 50,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. That’s about it in the short term for how many United miles one person can get.

I’d also save hotel cards for the future unless you can meet their spending requirements at the same time. The reason? Award flights at the Saver level are heavily capacity controlled. Get them first. Free hotel nights are generally available whenever there is a standard room for sale at that hotel. Get them later.

The hotel cards I like in Europe are:

The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card comes with 85,000 bonus points after spending $2,500 on the card in the first 90 days & the last night free on all award stays of 2+ nights.

My Review of the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card explains how meeting the minimum spending requirement equals up to 20 free hotel nights.

The Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card comes with Two Free Weekend Nights (Fri, Sat, or Sun) worldwide at top tier Hiltons after spending $2,500 in four months. The card also comes with free Gold Status.

The Club Carlson card gets you more free nights, and the Hilton Reserve gets you fancier nights. Check that locations of participating Club Carlson and Hilton properties coincide with your travel plans before getting either card.

Of course, hotels are only one option for lodging. I actually prefer airbnb because they are cheaper, have more space and multiple bedrooms if you want, include a kitchen, and are often in more interesting parts of the city. Here are Three Ways to Save Money on Airbnb.

The Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® comes with 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3k in the first 90 days. You can redeem Arrival miles for airbnb stays (or the taxes on your flight award.)

Do You Really Have Enough Miles?

Transferring United miles between accounts is very expensive, so one account with 45,000 miles and one account with 15,000 miles is very different than a single account with 60,000, which is enough for a roundtrip to Europe.

You can book United awards as one ways, so two accounts with 30,000 miles can be great to book one direction of the trip from each account. Anyone’s United miles can be used to book anyone else a ticket.

Ultimate Rewards can be perfect to top off accounts, but the points can only transfer to your United account or your spouse/domestic partner’s.

When you’re planning how many miles you need and which cards to get, keep these limitations in mind.

What Can You Do On Your Award?

One way United awards can’t have anything fancy. No stopovers, only connections of up to 24 hours.

Roundtrip United awards can have two open jaws at the end points, one stopover, and the destination, plus any connections up to 24 hours.

On a roundtrip award, you can do something like this:

  • Home to European city A (stopover)
  • European city A to European city B (destination)
  • European city C (open jaw) to home

And feel free to throw a few 23 hour connections in there in European cities D and E.

Note the open jaw between cities B and C. This would be filled in with a train or low-cost carrier flight.

Any questions?

Get started now, so you can have your miles in place as soon as possible and your flights booked shortly thereafter. At that point, worry about hotels and lodging if you haven’t already.

You can use your miles to see up to three European cities (plus more on 23 hour connections) on a single roundtrip award.

Award space is wide open, Europe is unusually cheap at the moment, and miles and points can pay for most of your trip. What are you waiting for?

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Pay your award taxes and fees with the Arrival Plus then redeem Arrival miles to remove the charge.

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Delta awards that originate in Europe have big fuel surcharges, but they can be dumped fairly easily.

The fuel surcharges weren’t much of an issue for most Americans in the past when Delta required roundtrip awards because not many of us book roundtrips originating in Europe. But now that Delta allows one way awards, the fuel surcharges for awards originating in Europe are very annoying. They effectively make it cost-prohibitive to book a one way award from Europe to the United States.

The Problem

For instance this Madrid to New York one way has 199 euros ($230) worth of taxes, fees, and charges.

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That roughly lines up with the taxes and fuel surcharges (194 euros) of a cash ticket.

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But if you book this one way as part of a roundtrip to Madrid, you pay only $91 total in taxes for the entire roundtrip.

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The Solution

The way to fuel dump the one way ticket out of Europe is to add a preceding one way ticket that originates somewhere other than Europe, like the United States.

Go to the Delta Multi-city search page and search for a flight that doesn’t originate in Europe followed by your one way ticket from Europe to the United Staes.

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In the above example, I’ve chose Atlanta to New York preceding Madrid to New York. Yes, back-to-back flights on the award go to New York. I chose this example to show that the preceding flight can really be any flight that doesn’t originate in Europe.

This award booked at 87,500 miles + $68–no fuel surcharges–in First Class and Business Class. That’s 25,000 miles for Domestic First Class and 62,500 miles for Business Class from Europe to the United States.

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It priced as 42,500 miles in economy–12,500 miles for domestic economy and 30,000 miles for Europe to the United States. Again without fuel surcharges.

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Unfortunately online I couldn’t get the computer to price domestic economy plus Business Class returning from Europe. When I selected flights like that, it overrode my selection and put the first flight in First Class.

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The first flight doesn’t need to be a domestic flight in the United States. Here is an example where the first flight is Seoul to Tokyo, which by the way, is dirt cheap at 7,500 miles one way.

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The award prices at 37,500 miles + $88 in taxes–again, no fuel surcharges.

The Problems with the Solution

The big one: If you don’t fly the first flight, your entire award will be cancelled. Pick a first flight you actually need.

Smaller one: Domestic First Class on most routes is not worth double the price of economy, but I couldn’t price out domestic economy for the first flight plus international Business Class home from Europe. I suspect you could price this out correctly by phone. I further suspect the agent’s computer would spit out the taxes without fuel surcharges for the entire award, and the agent wouldn’t even notice that you just dumped over $200 in bogus fuel surcharges.

Hat Tip for this trick to reader John who came up with it while playing around with a Delta award he was booking.

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Pay your award taxes and fees with the Arrival Plus then redeem Arrival miles to remove the charge.

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Earlier today, I explained why American Airlines miles are not very good to go to Europe in Business Class (and what the best option is.) Every type of miles has strengths and weaknesses, and overall I consider American Airlines miles the most valuable miles. Here are the strengths of American Airlines miles:

  • Economy awards to Australia, including via Hawaii
  • Business and First Class awards to East Asia
  • Business and First Class awards to the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, and Maldives
  • Latin America awards
  • Cross-country awards in international-quality First Class
  • Economy awards to Europe

American Airlines miles are strong to every continent except Africa, can access some of the world’s nicest Business and First Classes, can be used for one way awards, and feature the cheapest award chart since United and Delta jacked up their prices last year. They’re also really easy to get.

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® offers 50,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months, and the business version, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, also offers 50,000 bonus American Airlines miles and two Admirals Club lounge passes after spending $3,000 on the card in the first three months.

That’s 106,000 American Airlines miles just for getting two cards and meeting the minimum spending requirements.

Let’s go through the strengths I’ve outlined one-by-one.

Australia in Economy

American Airlines’ oneworld partner Qantas flies from Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, and Honolulu to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and beyond.

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Award space is very rare in Business (my review) and First Class between the United States and Australia, but it is wide open for two people in economy. American charges only 37,500 miles each way in economy between the United States and Australia, not bad when tickets often go for near $2,000 roundtrip.

Here’s what economy award space for two people looks like next month, a peak time, from Los Angeles to Sydney.

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American Airlines also partners with Hawaiian Airlines, which flies from Honolulu to Sydney and Brisbane. If you want to add Hawaii to your Australian vacation, these flights are ideal and also feature a ton of award space. Here is the calendar for two passengers in November.Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.29.07 AM

Unfortunately stopovers are not permitted on American Airlines awards, so if you don’t live in Hawaii, you’ll need to book a separate award to get there before your American Airlines award from Hawaii to Australia. (Here are the cheapest ways to get to Hawaii.)

East Asia in Business and First Class

Two words: Cathay Pacific.

American’s Hong-Kong-based partner Cathay Pacific has:

  • top notch Business and First Classes (review)
  • ample award space in Business and First Class
  • predictable schedules for releasing Business and First Class award space
  • a great route network in East Asia
  • cheap award space

American charges only 55,000 miles each way to East Asia in Cathay Pacific Business Class and 67,500 miles each way in First Class. Those prices are ludicrously cheap when you consider that United charges 120,000 miles one way from the United States to East Asia in Asiana First Class, which is comparable, but not quite as good in my opinion. (Review of Asiana First.)

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Cheap to Book Your Own Throne in Cathay Pacific First Class

Here is the release pattern to pick up two Business Class seats, and here is the pattern to pick up two First Class Seats. Cathay Pacific award space must be searched on ba.com and booked by calling American Airlines.

Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, and Maldives in Business and First Class

You can redeem American Airlines miles on both Etihad–hub in Abu Dhabi–and Qatar–hub in Doha. Both fly to the United States, Europe, and Indian subcontinent with strong route networks and ultra-luxurious premium cabins. Here’s a video of Etihad First Class.

Etihad award space must be searched on Etihad’s website–here’s how–and booked by calling American Airlines. Qatar award space searched on ba.com and booked by calling American Airlines. While these extra steps are annoying, they at least ensure that the award space is kept out of view of casual award searchers, and ensures excellent award space.

When people come to my Award Booking Service wanting to go to the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, or Maldives, I always hope they have American Airlines miles. That’s doubly true if they want to fly in Business or First Class.

American charges:

  • 45,000 miles each way in economy to the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, or Maldives
  • 67,500 miles each way in Business
  • 90,000 miles each way in First

Again, this is well below what Delta and United charge, and those types of miles offer worse award space in worse Business and First Classes.

Latin America

American Airlines has the best network in Latin America by far. It also partners with LAN and TAM (searchable on ba.com), which add considerably to the network, especially intra-country (like intra-Brazil or intra-Peru.)

Award space is widely available to most countries in economy. Here’s award space to Peru in April for two people.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.31.31 AM

Award space in premium cabins varies by route. Check the route you want to try to crack the pattern. To Buenos Aires, the pattern seems to be that First Class award space opens up within three weeks of departure.

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Cross-Country in International First Class

American Airlines operates three-cabin planes between New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles. Both Business and First Class feature fully flat beds.

Award space is not great on these routes in advance for two people. You seem to be limited to booking on Saturdays.
Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.33.06 AM

But both routes in both directions open up award space for 2+ passengers in the last week before departure in First and Business Class. Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.36.00 AM Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.38.04 AM

Keep in mind that American Airlines would collect a $75 fee for booking within 21 days of departure. That might make these flights a better candidate to be booked with Avios, which doesn’t collect such a fee.

Europe in Economy

Europe is available to people with American Airlines miles who are willing to fly economy. Plus American Airlines charges only 20,000 miles each way in economy to Europe for seven months out of the year, from October 15 to May 15.

I limited my search on aa.com to showing only American Airlines flights (to avoid seeing British Airways award space, which has big fuel surcharges) and here were the results for April for two passengers to London…Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.40.53 AM

…and home from Paris.Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.41.08 AM

Airberlin, Finnair, US Airways, and Iberia also offer useful economy award space available to American Airlines miles, and all partner space also prices out at the off peak price of 20,000 miles one way during most of the year.

Bottom Line

All miles have their strengths and weaknesses. The glaring weaknesses of American Airlines miles are Europe in Business and getting to Africa.

But the strengths are formidable. American Airlines miles are easy to get and can be redeemed on a much cheaper award chart than Delta and United miles, especially for Business and First Class. American’s partners have the most luxurious Business and First Classes too. And American Airlines miles have great award space:

  • Economy awards to Australia, including via Hawaii
  • Business and First Class to East Asia
  • Business and First Class to the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, and Maldives
  • Latin America
  • Cross-country flights in international-quality First Class
  • Economy awards to Europe

Key Links

Each card offers 50,000 bonus AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months:

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Here’s a mix of some of my favorite and some of the most popular posts from 2014. If you’re favorite post isn’t on the list, link to it in the comments.

Beginners Posts

Credit Card Reviews

In Depth Award Booking

Resources

Money Saving Tips

Trip Report

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How am I flying around the world in some of the world’s nicest Business and First Classes? By earning loads of miles, of course. Here are five easy ways you can earn more miles.

1. Collect More Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses

This is the easiest one, and where the vast majority of my miles come from. There are so many 40,000, 50,000, and even larger sign up bonuses available.

Many people worry about what the effect of opening credit cards will be on their credit score. There is an effect, so I recommend tracking your credit score over time to see that effect. I’ve found the effect on my score to be very small, so I open any card with a big bonus I think I can use. This gives me those mega-balances that let me travel in Lufthansa First Class or Cathay Pacific First Class while still leaving enough miles for economy awards that save me serious cash.

Check out the best travel credit card offers for December 2014 or a Free Credit Card Consultation to get started with collecting more sign up bonuses.

2. Category Bonuses

Many of the cards you have likely offer 2x, 3x, or 5x points on certain purchases. Memorize those categories or put small reminders physically on the cards, and carry all your credit cards–easier if you have a purse–to maximize every purchase.

If you figure you can get around 1.5x miles per dollar on all purchases if you maximize the category bonus on every swipe, and you spend $3,000 per month, this is an extra 18,000 miles per year compared to always getting 1x per dollar.

You’ll note that this is way smaller than even a single credit card sign up bonus, so focus there first and here second.

3. Retention Bonuses

I always cancel my credit cards by phone because I want to give the agent a chance to pitch me a bonus or bonuses for holding onto my credit cards. The bonuses might be:

  • A fixed number of miles: we’ll give you 5,000 miles to keep the card
  • Increased miles for spending on the card: we’ll give you 2 miles per dollar for the next three months
  • A waived annual fee: we’ll credit your account for $95 if you make five purchases on your card in the next month; that will offset the annual fee
  • Something else

Sometimes you can get a few offers and choose between them. I always listen carefully and decide whether the retention bonus makes keeping the card the smarter move.

You might even want to call in and ask about retention bonuses if you plan on holding your credit card. It never hurts to get free miles.

4. Refer Your Friends to Your Cards

There are frequently ways to get extra points by referring a friend to a card you have. We’ve seen that on the Starwood Preferred Guest cards, the Chase Freedom, and Chase Ink Plus among others.

You should always evangelize to your friends about miles to try to get them interested, so they can be your travel companions. (Forward them this post.) And when you can get bonus miles for referring them to a card that you believe would be valuable for them, jump at the chance.

5. Dining Programs

You can earn up to 8 miles per dollar at select restaurants if they are members of a dining program. You earn 5 miles per dollar by registering your card and dining frequently enough to earn status plus another 2-3 per dollar if you use a card with a category bonus at restaurants. I use the Citi ThankYou® Premier Rewards Card for its 3 ThankYou Points per dollar on dining and entertainment.

I wouldn’t bother eating at a restaurant just for the miles, but if your favorite restaurant is involved with a program and offers extra miles for every trip, sign up. Check here to see which restaurants are included with Rewards Network, which runs every airlines’ dining program.

But consider your time…

Balance all these ways to earn more miles against your time. We all have a finite amount of time, and sometimes there are better uses than squeezing out a few extra miles. Even I tend to save time and go for the lowest hanging fruit–credit card sign up bonuses–mostly.

Make sure to check out 4 Easy Ways to Spend Less Time on your Miles Hobby.

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From my vantage point reading comments on this blog, emails to me, and tweets @milevalue, I see a lot of mistakes being made in the collection and redemption of miles.

Five of these mistakes are being repeated over and over and are costing people a lot of dream trips.

The mistakes:

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 4.16.41 PM

1. Starting at the Beginning

With miles, you want to start at the end. By that, I mean to figure out your dream trip and work backwards from there to figure out which miles are best for said trip.

I see this mistake manifest a lot of ways. Sometimes people will email and say:

Hey, I see that The US Airways® Premier World MasterCard® now offers 50,000 bonus miles after first purchase. Should I get it?

Without the context of trip goals, no one can answer that question. US Airways and American Airlines miles are great for Asia and terrible for Africa for instance.

I also see the mistake when people come to my Award Booking Service with 1,000,000 Capital One or Arrival miles and want to fly First Class to Europe. These are fixed-value bank-points. The number needed for a ticket depends only on the ticket’s cash price, so they are terrible for expensive First Class and better for economy. Conversely airline miles like United or US Airways miles are better for international Business Class than domestic economy generally. (See the Six Types of Miles.)

Work in reverse. Think up your dream trip then collect the best type of miles for that trip. If you don’t know where to start, fill out my free credit card consultation form with all the details of where, when, and in what cabin you want to travel. I’ll tell you the right miles.

  • What are mistakes 2-5 (all have to do with redemption)?
  • How many of the redemption mistakes are you making?

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Asiana has the best award chart in the Star Alliance. That means that you can book any of the 27 Star Alliance airlines, including United, for fewer miles on many routes with Asiana miles than with better known programs like United, Lufthansa, LifeMiles, Singapore, and Air Canada.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 2.48.37 AM

Asiana is a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints. As usual with Starpoints transfers, you get 5,000 bonus Asiana miles for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred.

If you can get your hands on Asiana miles, you can book insanely cheap awards like:

  • Lufthansa First Class between the United States and Europe for 50,000 Asiana miles one way vs. 110,000 United miles
  • United First Class between the continental United States and Hawaii for 27,500 Asiana miles one way vs. 40,000 United miles
  • United Global First between the United States and Southern South America for 45,000 Asiana miles one way vs. 70,000 United miles

Unfortunately some Asiana awards have fuel surcharges, and it took 17 days for my transfer of Starpoints to reach Asiana miles. Continue reading for:

  • Comparison tables of United award chart versus Asiana award chart
  • Fuel surcharge info on Asiana awards

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Update: Mileage sale extended until 10/3/14.

Today (September 30, 2014) is the last day that you can get 1.52 Avianca LifeMiles on all purchases by using your Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard®.

This is a big flipping deal!

The Arrival Plus is already the most valuable card for economy redemptions since its 2 miles per dollar on all purchases and 10% rebate on all travel redemptions means you effectively get 2.28% back toward flights on any airline with no blackouts. This technique–which dies today–makes the Arrival Plus also the best all-around card for business and first class redemptions.

The technique in this post is an incredible way to turn Arrival miles, which are worth a fixed 1.14 cents each, into traditional airline miles that can be used for valuable international business and first class itineraries.

Now Get into Beds, like United Global First, with Arrival Miles

To me, the technique in this post makes the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® much more valuable because no other card earns 1.52 traditional airline miles on all purchases, and the LifeMiles award chart offers tons of great values for premium cabin awards on Star Alliance partners like:

Maybe you’ve never heard of LifeMiles, but they are actually fantastic for international awards. The only reason they’re not better known is because they’re normally hard to obtain.

LifeMiles awards never contain fuel surcharges, just government taxes plus a $25 award booking fee. You can book all 27 Star Alliance airline with LifeMiles.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 2.48.37 AM

Getting more than one-and-a-half miles per dollar on such a great award chart is quite a deal, and that deal ends today.

  • How can you get 1.52 LifeMiles per dollar on all Arrival Plus purchases?
  • How can you book LifeMiles awards?
  • What are the highest value LifeMiles awards?
  • Is earning 1.52 LifeMiles per dollar better than 2 Arrival miles per dollar?

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As promised in yesterday’s post on the Five Under-Priced Awards on the American Airlines Chart, today I’ll post six under-priced awards on the United chart.

The basic premise of these posts and my post on the Coolest Thing You Can Do with 60,000 Miles was connecting far-flung regions into a single trip by taking advantage of under-priced awards between the regions.

Why American and United awards? Because they can be booked as one way awards, and these THINK BIG trips allow you to see more by booking a series of cheap one way awards.

I’m including the cheapest one way international awards between non-American regions only because the cheapest international awards from the United States are better known.

Hopefully seeing cheap ways to get between South America and Africa or East Asia and Fiji will spur you to THINK BIG and come up with a really creative trip that incorporates both places.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 10.08.02 AM

1. Economy Class: 10,000 Miles Between Central America and Northern South America

or 20,000 miles in Business Class

Between Central America and Northern South America (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela), you can fly for only 10,000 United miles in economy or 20,000 in business.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 10.15.36 AM

United partners have hubs in El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama, so finding award space is a cinch.

This award could be the way to combine Central America, the Galapagos and South America on a single trip. THINK BIG.

  • What are the other top six under-priced awards on the United Airlines chart? Pay special attention to five and six!

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Last week I urged people to be realistic with their miles and listed The Easiest Places to Get with Miles. Today I’m telling you to dream big and to look to do things with miles that you couldn’t easily or cheaply do without miles.

For instance, for 60,000 miles, you can book yourself a “triangle trip” that lets you practice your Spanish in Chile and Spain. The trip would let you see the wildlife of Patagonia and the nightlife of Barcelona.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 8.59.52 AM

How many thousands of dollars would a similar trip cost? Could you even have dared to dream about such a routing before you knew the power of your miles?

The routing I’ll talk about relies on three discounted awards, and award space is plentiful on all routes. Best of all, you can live anywhere in the continental United States to take advantage, and you can customize the destinations to your taste.

  • What three discounted awards combine to form the legs of this triangle trip?
  • What 60,000 miles do you need? How can you get them?

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Where are the easiest places to get with frequent flyer miles, especially if you’re just starting out?

I started thinking about it because I had a string of very tough requests through my Free Credit Card Consultation form. One in particular read:

Been following your site for about a year and haven’t been able to jump in. Shame on me. It’s all very overwhelming for a newbie even though you break it down well. [Scott: Agreed, but it doesn’t have to be. Start with the Free Credit Card Consultation and reading my beginners’ series.]

So here is my situation: my wife and I would love to get to one of three destinations over the holiday break (12/26-1/3 ish). The top destinations ( in order) are : Maldives, bora bora, or Bali. Right now I am essentially starting from square 1.

Unfortunately, it’s a nearly impossible request given the:

  • time horizon: he’d need to get the miles and book within 3.5 months
  • travel dates: everyone wants to travel over Christmas and New Year’s, so there is less award space
  • destinations: French Polynesia is tough to get to with miles and Maldives and Bali are just really expensive, requiring more credit cards than he has time to open

Don’t worry about this requester, though, I helped him come up with a plan to get to the Maldives next summer that I am confident he can accomplish.

The tough request got me thinking about all the people who come with a nearly impossible first idea for miles, fail to achieve it, and then give up on our hobby. The opposite, an early successful booking with miles, can hook someone for life. I started pondering: what is the easiest place for a beginner to get quickly with miles.

  • What four regions do I think are the easiest for beginners to focus on to jump start their miles success?
  • What time horizon and travel dates increase the chance of success?

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