Best Of

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

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:

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.

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Where I’ve been through July 10, 2015

1. Citi Prestige Card

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. I value the current sign up bonus at $1,250.

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 for purchases of airline tickets or airline 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 (#3 below) eight or more days apart and combine the 100,000 bonus points into a single ThankYou account.

Application Link: Citi Prestige® Card

2. 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.

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3. Citi ThankYou Premier Card

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.

4. 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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5. American Airlines Card

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

The card offers a free checked bag on American Airlines flights, priority boarding to get overhead bin space for your carry on, and a 20% discount on inflight purchases.

It has a weak earning rate like most airline cards–2x on American Airlines purchases and 1x elsewhere–but it has one killer benefit that means you should keep the card year-after-year,

The card offers a 10% rebate on American Airlines miles used for award bookings, up to 100,000 American Airlines miles redeemed, 10,000 rebated per calendar year.

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

7. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card

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 $1,000 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

8. Platinum Card from American Express

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

Some people will consider the Platinum Card from American Express for Ameriprise Financial to be a better offer. (Hat Tip Ted)

The card has a smaller sign up bonus of 25,000 Membership Rewards after spending $3,000 in the first three months, but the card waives the annual fee for the first 12 months ($450 thereafter.)

Otherwise the card has nearly identical benefits to the Mercedes-Benz Platinum.

Landing Page: Platinum Card from American Express for Ameriprise Financial

The “regular” Platinum card is worse than both offers because it has the smaller sign up bonus of the Ameriprise version, but with the annual fee not waived.

9. 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 3 Avios per dollar on British Airways purchases and 1 Avios per dollar on 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.

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

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10. Club Carlson Visa

The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card offers up to 10 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

The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card is a must have if you are traveling near the 1,000 participating Club Carlson hotels. I picked up the card in 2013 and don’t ever plan on canceling it because of the 40,000 points I earn every year on my card’s anniversary upon paying the $75 annual fee.

Application link: Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card

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

Will you be approved for a new card? Will you get its bonus?

What if you’ve already had that card and gotten its bonus before?

The answer to these questions depends on the issuing bank of the credit card. The issuing bank is not the payment network like Visa, MasterCard, or American Express. The issuing bank is the bank that gives you the card, collects interest, and provides customer service. For rewards cards, the main issuing banks are Chase, Citi, American Express, Barclaycard, and Bank of America.

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Let’s look at the rules for each issuing bank, which vary widely.

Chase

  • You can only get the bonus on the same Chase card once every 24 months. This 24 month clock starts when you got the last bonus (which may be several months after you got the card).
  • If you are applying for a Chase branded credit card (ie Sapphire Preferred, Freedom, Slate, Ink Plus, Ink Cash), and you have 5+ new card accounts in the last two years, you will be denied. I’m using the more widely accepted 5+ number even though at least one person reports being denied with only 4 new accounts in the last two years. Some folks are reporting even getting denied for Chase co-branded cards (United, Southwest, Marriott, etc) for this reason.
  • You can be approved for multiple cards on the same day. I know people who have been approved for two personal and one business card from Chase on their first ever credit card applications.

American Express

  • You can only get the bonus on an American Express personal card once per lifetime.
  • For business cards, you can get a new bonus on the same card if the old account has been closed for at least 12 months.
  • You are limited to holding four American Express credit cards. Both personal and business count toward this limit. (AMEX Gold, Everyday, Delta, and SPG are credit cards.)
  • Separately, you are limited to holding four American Express charge cards. Both personal and business count toward this limit. (AMEX Platinum is a charge card.)

Citi

  • You can be approved for no more than one Citi card in an eight day period. If you want two Citi cards, get them on days 1 and 9.
  • You can be approved for no more than two Citi cards in a 65 day period. If you want three Citi cards, get them on days 1, 9, and 66.
  • Different cards have different rules for repeating the bonus. The Platinum and Gold AA cards require 18 months from closure of the identical card while the AA Executive card and Citi Prestige® Card allow you to get the bonus over and over without waiting (beyond the limit listed in the first two bullet points) or closing your other AA Executives.

Barclaycard

  • Applicants with zero Barclaycards may be able to get several at once.
  • Applicants who have a Barclaycard will not be approved for another for at least six months since the last application.
  • Barclaycard denies people for having too many Barclaycards, not enough spending on existing Barclaycards, too much credit with Barclaycard, or too many accounts with other banks.

Bank of America

  • At least for the Alaska Airlines personal and business cards, the only cards worth getting, you can get as many as you’d like at one time. I get one of each every 91 days, but people have gotten multiple at once or waited less time between applications.

Bottom Line

Every issuing bank has different rules on how often you can apply for its cards and how often you can get a new bonus on a card you’ve had previously. The rules are changing, and the general trend is toward a tightening of the rules. The rules are sometimes written down and sometimes figured out by aggregating data points on FlyerTalk or good, old-fashioned experimentation.

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

One of the main questions people email me to ask is whether they should cancel one of their rewards cards before the next annual fee.

I cannot answer that question. Only you have the information necessary to answer that question for yourself. I’ll lay out the two-step process you should use to determine which cards to keep and which to cancel.

How do I approach the decision of whether to keep or cancel a card?

  1. Am I getting a retention bonus for keeping the card that is worth more than the annual fee? If so, I keep the card. If not, I go to step 2.
  2. Are the marginal benefits of holding the card larger than the annual fee. If so, I keep it. If not, I cancel it.

Both steps come down to future-looking value. The annual fee is a cost, and I need to get a benefit at least as big as that cost by keeping the card.

Step 1: Hold Cards that Offer a Retention Bonus Bigger than the Annual Fee

I’d automatically hold onto my cards with no annual fees. The Discover it Miles Card has no annual fee, so I’d keep it. For other cards, compare the annual fee to retention bonuses. There are two types:

  • an automatic retention bonus
  • a retention bonus if you call and ask for one

The Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card offers a 40k point retention bonus and a $75 annual fee. If you value a Club Carlson point above 0.19 cents, you should keep the card. (They’re worth more like 0.3 cents to me.)

The American Airlines cards have no automatic retention bonus, but you can often get a retention bonus of a few thousand miles or a statement credit equal to the annual fee if you call the number on the back of your card and say you’re thinking of canceling it.

For cards with an annual fee and no retention bonus, even after asking, move to Step 2.

Step 2: Are the Benefits of Holding the Card for Another Year Worth More than the Annual Fee?

Tally up all the benefits of holding a card for another 12 months. If they are worth more than the annual fee, keep the card. If they are worth less, cancel the card. A card might offer:

  • more points for your spending than your other cards offer
  • lounge access
  • elite status or the chance to get elite status through spending
  • statement credits
  • other benefits
Better Earning Potential than Your Other Cards

Obviously one of the main reasons to keep a rewards card is the rewards from spending on it. You need to figure out the value of keeping the card by figuring out the rewards you earn from spending on the card and subtracting the rewards you’d earn from putting that spending on other cards.

Ink Plus 5x Example

For instance, imagine you have an Ink Plus with 5x points per dollar at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services. You spend $5,000 in those categories earning 25,000 Ultimate Rewards per year. You value Ultimate Rewards at 2 cents each, so those points are worth $500 to you. If you cancel the card, you’d have no category bonus for that spending, so you’d put it all on your SPG card earning 1 Starpoint per dollar. You’d value those 5,000 Starpoints at 2.5 cents each or $125.

That means you get $375 extra in value from the category bonuses on the Ink Plus. That’s way more than the card’s $95 annual fee, so keep the card.

ThankYou Premier 3x Example

Imagine you have the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card with 3x ThankYou Points on travel including gas and 2x ThankYou Points on dining Out and entertainment. You spend $8,000 on travel including gas each year because it is such a broad category and $5,000 on dining and entertainment, earning 34,000 ThankYou Points per year in those categories. You value ThankYou Points at 1.8 cents each, so those are worth $612 to you. If you canceled the card and had to put that spending into 1x categories, that would be a huge loss, so you wouldn’t cancel the card.

But imagine if you also have the Citi Prestige® Card with a similar 3x category and identical 2x category. The Prestige offers 3x on air travel and hotels. That would change the math of how much extra holding a Premier is worth.

Bottom line: figure out NOT how much your spending on the card you’re thinking about canceling is worth but how much EXTRA your spending is worth than it would be worth on your other cards.

Everyday Spending Cards

For most people, the best cards for unbonused spending are the Arrival Plus and SPG cards. The Arrival Plus earns 2x on all spending and points are worth 1.14 cents each toward all travel purchases. That’s a 2.28% return. The SPG card earns 1x on all spending, and I value SPG points at 2.5 cents each, so that’s a 2.5% return.

When thinking about canceling your everyday spending card, go through the same process. Figure out how much you spend on the card to figure out how much you are getting in rewards from that spending. Then subtract the value of putting that spending on your next best card.

If the EXTRA value of spending on the card in question is bigger than its annual fee, otherwise cancel it if it doesn’t have other benefits listed below.

Lounge Access

Does the card offer lounge access? If so, at what price do you value that lounge access? Forget about lounge access’ retail price.

How much you value lounge access is how often you use the lounge times the value of each visit.

I value generic lounge visits at about $15 even though they retail for about $50. Most people probably value lounge access higher than me; it’s just something you need to put a number on for yourself.

My Citi Prestige® Card offers me free American Airlines lounge access when I’m flying American or US Airways, free Priority Pass lounge access no matter who I’m flying, and two free guests at any of those lounges. I only use this lounge access when flying domestically or in international economy because international premium cabin awards come with free lounge access that is at better lounges. If I were evaluating keeping this card right now for another year, I’d have to estimate how many times I’d use that lounge access. I’ll guess 10 times and multiply that by $15 of value each time to get $150 as the value of this benefit.

You should not value lounge access from the Citi Prestige® Card at $150. You should value it at your number of uses times value from each use.

Other cards that offer lounge access: American Express Platinum, United Club Card, American Airlines Executive Card.

Elite Status Through Spending

Some cards offer elite status through spending. The Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card gives all cardholders Gold Status, and any cardholder who spends $40,000 on the card in a calendar year moves up to Diamond Status. The Delta Reserve card offers 15,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles for spending $30,000 in calendar year and another 15,000 MQM for spending $60,000 total.

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When valuing this, figure out how much the status you’re getting is worth to you, how much the other rewards from the spending are worth (in this case HHonors points or SkyMiles) and subtract the value of the rewards you’d get from putting that much spending on another card.

For instance, putting $60,000 on the Delta Reserve will earn 30k MQM and 60k Delta miles. That’s great, but putting that $60,000 in spending on the SPG would earn 60,000 Starpoints, which are worth $1,500 to me. Putting that $60,000 toward several minimum spending requirements would earn even more rewards. Don’t forget to subtract the value of the rewards you could have had from the value of the rewards you did get to see the EXTRA value of holding these cards.

Statement Credits

The Citi Prestige® Card offers $250 in statement credits each calendar year to offset the first $250 in airfare, award taxes, or airline fees. I spend so much more per year on those things that I value this at $250.

The AMEX Platinum offers $200 in statement credits each calendar year to offset the first $200 in airline fees or airline gift cards. I find this a little more annoying to redeem, so I value it at $195.

Both cards also offer a $100 statement credit for Global Entry every five years. Add in that value if its use is upcoming.

Other Benefits

The United Explorer card secretly offers extra Saver award space in economy on United flights. That could be worth $0 to $500+ to you per year depending on your award redemption habits.

The Citi Prestige® Card offers three free rounds of golf per calendar year. That could be worth $0 to $750+ to you depending on your love of golf.

The British Airways card offers a “free companion pass” (just pay crushing taxes and fuel surcharges) if you spend $30,000 in a calendar year. For most people, it is worth $0. For people who value Business or First Class redemptions near their retail value, it could be worth thousands of dollars.

The AA personal card offers a 10% rebate on redeemed miles up to 10,000 rebated miles per year. That benefit is worth $0 to $180 depending on how many miles you redeem each year.

Many airline cards offer free checked bags for you and companions. This benefit is worth $0 to $500+ depending on how often you fly, your status, whether you fly with companions, and whether you usually check bags.

Sometimes holding one card makes the points on another more valuable. Holding the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus turns the Freedom’s rewards from pennies into United miles. Holding the Citi Prestige® Card makes the ThankYou Points earned on the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card worth 1.6 cents each toward American Airlines flights instead of 1.25 cents each.

Add Up the Benefits and Subtract the Annual Fee

I have a United Explorer Card right now. For the next year, I would expect to get $0 to $50 in benefits from the free checked bag, $0 from the extra economy award space, and no benefit from spending on the card with its paltry 1x earning. That doesn’t justify the $95 annual fee.

I have a Citi Prestige® Card right now. For the next year I would expect to get:

  • $250 in value from the Air Travel Credit
  • $150 in value from the free golf rounds (retail value of $600+, but I would play cheaper courses in the absence of the benefit)
  • $150 in value from the lounge access (retail value of almost $1,000, but I wouldn’t pay that)
  • no value from the category bonuses; they’re awesome, but the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card has better category bonuses
  • $100 in value from increasing the value of the points earned on my Citi ThankYou® Premier Card

That’s $650 in value for me for a $450 annual fee. That makes the card an obvious keeper for me.

Trends

Hopefully you picked up on a few points.

  1. I don’t know whether you should keep or cancel the card. It depends on a lot of factors that only you know like how much benefit X is worth to you, how much a certain type of points are worth to you, and how much spending you put on your card.
  2. Cards on which you spend a lot come out well in the analysis.
  3. The more spending you do, the more cards you can justify keeping
  4. The wealthier you are the more you probably value a card’s benefits and points. The wealthier you are, the more cards you can justify keeping.
  5. Airline cards do poorly because they don’t offer good category bonuses, and their 1x return is always worse than the SPG card or Arrival Plus.

Recap

The idea is simple. Compare the marginal benefits of carrying a card for the next year to its annual fee. If the benefit is greater than the fee, keep it. If the fee is greater than the benefits, cancel it.

The trick comes in calculating the marginal benefits which requires valuing a cards’ perks, valuing each type of mile and point, and calculating how much spending you’ll do in various categories.

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

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Until 2014, the best way to use miles to book a round-the-world (RTW) trip was to save a lot of one mileage currency and book a special RTW award with those miles. If you’ve saved up miles for years to book yourself such a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you’re probably dismayed that the best two RTW awards from American Airlines and Delta were eliminated in 2014.

You can still book RTW trips in 2015, but now the best way is as a series of one way awards across many different programs to take advantage of sweet spots on each airline’s award chart.

In this post, I’ll list some of the cheapest awards, or sweet spots, from each region. When planning your RTW trip in 2015 or beyond, refer to these lists to piece together your trip. For instance, if you know you want to visit South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia, look under each of those headings to find cheap awards to the next region.

But before getting to those lists, let’s consider other types of tickets that should be part of your RTW award.

Avios & Cash

All of the awards on the lists in the next section are from programs with region-based miles. These miles usually offer the best value for international awards.

But before using region-based miles consider using Avios or cash for appropriate flights on your RTW trip.

Cash

Use cash if the possible awards are not getting you a good return on your miles (1.2 to 1.8+ cents each, depending on the miles.) This will be very likely when a low cost carrier flies the route you want to fly, especially within Europe and Southeast Asia or to Iceland.

When cash flights are the best option, you don’t need to actually use cash to book them.

You can book them with points that can be used like cash toward any flight like ThankYou Points or Arrival miles, or you can use the $250 per year airfare statement credit on the Citi Prestige.

Avios

British Airways Avios are fantastic for short, direct, economy awards especially when you can fly a partner with no fuel surcharges. There are tons of times you would want to use Avios on your RTW trip. A partial list:

  • West coast of United States to Hawaii
  • Miami, Dallas, or New York to Latin America or Caribbean
  • Intra-Latin America international flights
  • Intra-Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador (including Galapagos), and Chile (including Easter Island)
  • Intra-South Africa
  • Intra-Australia
  • Intra-Europe, especially on airberlin or Niki for no fuel surcharges
  • Boston to Ireland on Aer Lingus
  • India to Sri Lanka to change zones on the American Airlines chart from India/Middle East to Asia 2
  • Europe to Israel

Region-to-Region Awards

For the longhaul awards, you’ll almost certainly get the best value by using airline miles that allow one way redemptions with the price based on a region-based award chart. A partial list of such airline miles:

  • American Airlines AAdvantage (transfer partner of SPG)
  • Delta SkyMiles (transfer partner of AMEX Membership Rewards and SPG)
  • United MileagePlus (transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards)
  • Alaska Mileage Plan (transfer partner of SPG)
  • Singapore KrisFlyer (transfer partner of AMEX, Chase, Citi ThankYou Points, and SPG)
  • Asiana Mileage Club (transfer partner of SPG)
  • Air Canada Aeroplan (transfer partner of AMEX and SPG)
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club (transfer partner of AMEX, Chase, Citi, and SPG)
  • Air France Flying Blue (transfer partner of AMEX, Citi, and SPG)

Some of the awards below are listed because they cost very few miles. Some are listed because they present amazing value in a premium cabin. Links take you to longer articles on that award. Any prices listed are one way unless otherwise noted. If no cabin is listed, the award is in economy. If no fuel surcharges are mentioned, the award has none. Remember to check Avios redemptions and cash tickets before booking any awards on these lists.

From United States

To Europe

To Korea or Japan

To China or Southeast Asia

To Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, or Ecuador

  • with 15,000 American Airlines miles each year from January 16 – June 14 or September 7 – November 14 (these off peak awards must be flown on American Airlines metal)

To Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, or Uruguay

  • with 20,000 American Airlines miles each year from March 1 – May 31 or August 16 – November 30 (off peak awards)
  • with 45,000 Virgin Atlantic miles roundtrip on Delta flights
  • in Business Class with 35,000 Asiana miles on United flights
  • in Business Class with 45,000 Alaska miles on AeroMexico flights, try to fly the Dreamliner
  • in First Class with 45,000 Asiana miles on United flights

To Hawaii

To Fiji

To Australia/New Zealand

From Europe

When leaving Europe, don’t fly your longhaul flight out of London. You’ll pay $200 to $300 in taxes for starting a premium cabin itinerary in the United Kingdom. Hop a low cost carrier flight from London to somewhere on the continent and fly your longhaul award to the next region from there.

To United States

  • See From United States to Europe above

To Hong Kong

To Middle East/India/Maldives

To South America

To Australia

  • in Qantas First Class on the A380 with 80,000 American Airlines miles

To South Africa

  • in British Airways Business Class with 37,500 American Airlines miles plus about $550 in taxes and fuel surcharges
  • in British Airways First Class with 50,000 American Airlines miles plus about $550 in taxes and fuel surcharges
From the Middle East

To Europe

  • See From Europe to Middle East above

To Australia/New Zealand

  • in Qantas Business Class on the A380 with 45,000 American Airlines miles
  • in Qantas First Class on the A380 with 60,000 American Airlines miles

To East Asia

  • in Business Class with 30,000 American Airlines miles
  • in First Class with 45,000 American Airlines miles
From North Asia

To United States

  • See From United States to Korea or Japan and From United States to China or Southeast Asia

To Australia/New Zealand

  • in Business Class with 45,000 American Airlines miles
  • in Business Class with 45,000 United miles
  • in First Class with 50,000 United miles
  • in First Class with 60,000 American Airlines miles

To Oceania

From Southeast Asia

To United States

  • See From United States to China or Southeast Asia

To Europe

  • See From Europe to Hong Kong

To Australia/New Zealand

  • with 17,500 United miles
  • in Business Class with 35,000 United miles
  • in First Class with 40,000 United miles, try for Thai First Class
From South America

Flights leaving Brazil cannot have fuel surcharges, so miles that otherwise collect fuel surcharges on most awards are especially well used from Brazil to Europe.

to United States

  • See From United States to Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, or Ecuador and From United States to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, or Uruguay

to Europe

  • See From Europe to South America. Note that traveling South America to Europe is better than Europe to South America because flights leaving Brazil cannot have fuel surcharges.

Intra-South America

to Central America

  • (from Northern South America) with 10,000 United miles

to Africa

to Australia/New Zealand

From Australia/New Zealand

Intra Australia/New Zealand

To Rest of Oceania

To North America

  • See From North America to Australia/New Zealand and From North America to Fiji above

To South America

  • See From South America to Australia/New Zealand above

To Africa

To Europe

  • See From Europe to Hong Kong

Please add your other favorite awards in the comments, and I may include them in this post. Bookmark this post for reference when you want to book a RTW trip.

14

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Repost from February. While the exact award space has changed some, the pattern remains that you want United miles!

It’s already May. Summer starts next month, 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 stays.

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 2.48.55 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 3.14.37 PM

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 $50 to $150 range. 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 $3,000 in the first three months, 5,000 bonus miles for adding an authorized user. 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 58,000 miles after spending $3,000.

  • 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.

  • Ink Plus business card: 60,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.

This card should be 65,000 points (which transfer 1:1 instantly to United) after spending $5,000.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 6.40.36 PM

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 card I like in Europe is:

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.

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.

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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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

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I just booked myself a five city, four country award for 15,000 United miles + $73. Let’s back up a little bit before I explain my current award.

My 2013 Euro Hopper

Two years ago, I flew a Seven City, Seven Flight, Six Country Award in Europe for 12,500 United miles plus taxes. I was able to get all that flying in because United allowed unlimited connections within Europe, so I added six between Zagreb and Munich.

Source: gcmap.com

The huge drawback on such awards is that a connection is a layover of less than 24 hours, so I had less than a day in each city. United doesn’t allow any stops greater than 24 hours on one way awards. I made clear in every post about that award that I knew it wasn’t for everyone because not everyone would enjoy such rapid travel.

But I had a blast.

  • It was my first trip to Dubrovnik, and I achieved a dream of cliff jumping into the Adriatic under the centuries old city walls. I have to go back.
  • It was my first trip to Rome, and I got to see the Colloseum and Forum, places I’d wanted to see since Latin I. I have to go back for longer.
  • I had never been to Brussels, Oslo, or Amsterdam, and while I enjoyed my time knocking off 2-3 of the top sites and activities in each, I learned that I don’t need to go back for longer trips any time soon.
  • Finally I got to Munich in time for Oktoberfest and my flight back to the United States.

As a break from my slow travel routine, I really enjoyed my week of breakneck speed. It was also a useful sorting mechanism. Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Rome, and Munich need extended visits. Brussels, Oslo, and Amsterdam don’t.

Two things have changed since that week in 2013.

  1. United now only allows four segments on a one way award.
  2. United has increased the price of an intra-Europe award to 15,000 miles one way.

My 2015 Euro Hopper

Fast forward to 2015. I’m about to spend four months in Europe that I have mentally divided into four parts, each of about one month.

  1. Madrid, Spain
  2. Helsinki to Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius (the Baltics)
  3. Belgrade, Serbia
  4. Bucharest and Romania

I plan to end the main trip in Bucharest, but my return flight to the United States is an award that flies two segments in Emirates A380 First Class and begins in Zurich.

How to get from Bucharest to Zurich?

Another Europe hopper with 23 hour layovers. This time four segments between five cities and four countries.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.44.03 AM
Source: gcmap.com

I start in Bucharest and end in Zurich. My only hard requirement was to fly direct flights only because when you have less than 24 hours on the ground in each place, you don’t want a tough journey to get there.

Because of schedules and interest, my trip ends up being Bucharest to Athens to Dubrovnik to Zagreb to Zurich.

  • This will be my first time in Athens, and I am ecstatic to see the Acropolis.
  • This will be my second time in Dubrovnik. Last time I only had about three hours of sunlight for cliff jumping. This time I plan to jump and hang out on the rocks at least twice that long!
  • This will be my second time in Zagreb. It’s a great place to be on a Friday night.
  • Finally I get to Zurich on Saturday afternoon, my favorite time to arrive in a new city, a few days before my flights back to the United States.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.42.34 AM

The entire award costs only 15,000 miles and $72.80 in taxes that I paid with my new Citi Prestige® Card. Its $250 annual airfare and airline fee credit will give me back the $72.80.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 11.47.54 AM

Searching and Booking the Award

Searching the award took me about 20 minutes. It involved a lot of Wikipedia consultation, searching all the possible routes, and writing down the flight times to make sure the scheduled landing time of one flight is less than 24 hours before the scheduled departure time of the next.

Finding award space is the easy part. Intra-Europe award space is usually a gimme, available on almost every flight in economy.

I started at the beginning and checked out the Bucharest airport Wikipedia page to find the direct Star Alliance flight options. There are a lot: Athens, Vienna, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Lisbon, Copenhagen, and Istanbul among them.

I immediately eliminated many of the cities because I’ve spent extended time there recently, they were too far away, or I didn’t have interest. My clear top choice was Athens. I was flexible about the date of arrival in Zurich at the end of my award, so I searched Bucharest to Athens on a few days and noted the flight times.

I searched united.com, here’s how, because all the relevant United partners in Eastern Europe are searchable on united.com. The only European partner not searchable on united.com is Brussels Airlines. Search it on aeroplan.com.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 12.40.01 PM

From Athens, I had a ton of options since it is the hub of Star Alliance carrier Aegean. (To make things easier on yourself when constructing these awards, plan a hub at least every other city.)

I only wanted to go to Dubrovnik. Athens to Dubrovnik is served by both Aegean and Croatia Airlines, but even combined, is not served daily. There was only one day and flight that worked for me. I noted its time.

From Dubrovnik, I had to get to Zurich in two more segments, so I opened the Dubrovnik airport Wikipedia page and Zurich airport Wikipedia page to find cities in common. There are actually a ton of cities in common because Croatia Airlines flies many seasonal routes from Dubrovnik.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 12.51.00 PM

I zeroed in on Zagreb and conveniently there are several daily Croatia-to-Zagreb and Zagreb-to-Zurich flights. I picked the ones that gave me closest to 24 hours, without going over, in each city.

Booking

I put the first segment on hold on united.com with the PayPal trick. Then I called United web support at 866-211-1861. I told the agent I just needed to add three segments to my itinerary and fed her the date, cabin, and flight number of the other segments. She never mentioned or charged a phone booking fee. That’s the advantage of starting the award with an online hold.

I paid with my Citi Prestige® Card to take advantage of its $250 airfare/fee credit. The whole call took about seven minutes. In less than thirty minutes I searched and booked the award.

In the end I get:

  • 22 hours in Athens
  • 20 hours in Dubrovnik
  • 19 hours in Zagreb
  • 3 days in Zurich (before my Emirates flight)
  • (2 days in Dubai as a free stopover on an Alaska Airlines award)
  • (arrive in Houston for a wedding)

It’s going to be a heck of a week!

Other Possible Itineraries

The Star Alliance dominates Europe. These are the European Star Alliance members and their hubs:

  • Adria Airways (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
  • Aegean Airlines (Athens, Greece)
  • Austrian Airlines (Vienna)
  • Brussels Airlines (Brussels, Belgium)
  • Croatia Airlines (Zagreb)
  • LOT Polish Airlines (Warsaw)
  • Lufthansa (Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf, Berlin)
  • Scandinavian Airlines (Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm)
  • Swiss International Air Lines (Zurich)
  • TAP Portugal (Lisbon)
  • Turkish Airlines (Istanbul-Ataturk)

All these options make a four segment, five city itinerary very easy to create. Put the cities that you want to explore the most first and last because the three middle cities will only have 23 hours or less of exploration time. Also be sure to check the ease of getting from the airport to the city. Frankfurt is about a 15 minute train while Paris is about a one hour train. That matters a lot when you only have 23 hours.

Other Regions

This award may be possible in other regions, but Europe has some major advantages:

  1. No other region has close to the 11 European partners.
  2. No other region has cultures change over such short distances–short flights are nice when you only get 23 hours in a place.

Bottom Line

I’m taking the long way from Bucharest to Zurich, taking advantage of all four segments United gives you on a one way award with daylong stops in Athens, Dubrovnik, and Zagreb.

I searched on united.com with the help of Wikipedia. I put the first segment on hold and called in to book the award.

The award cost me 15,000 United miles and $73. I paid with my Citi Prestige® Card. Because of its $250 annual airfare/fee credit, I will have the $73 credited back to me. I’ve used up my free $250 for 2015 in the first month of having the card. I’ll get another free $250 for airfare and award taxes in January 2016, so I’ll get $500 in free money for the card’s first $450 annual fee. That’s in addition to the card’s 50,000 bonus points, 3x category bonuses, and free American Airlines and Priority Pass airport lounge access. Read my full review of the Citi Prestige.

There’s no excuse not to have 15,000 United miles. Right now the United card is offering 55,000 bonus miles.  You can get the United card and Citi Prestige on the same day.

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Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 3.34.07 AM

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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.

CKANbanner_300x250_v6b

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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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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 11.37.32 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.27.12 AM

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.)

IMG_0051
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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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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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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Yesterday I wrote that Citi ThankYou Points had added Air France Flying Blue as a 1:1 transfer partner.

That’s big news because there are some amazing high value uses for Flying Blue miles, and ThankYou Points are so easy to earn from the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card with its 50,000 point sign up bonus and 3x category bonus on travel and gas purchases.

When I was researching that post though, I couldn’t find Flying Blue’s complete award chart. All I could find was an award chart for awards originating in Europe:

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 11.56.17 PM

I took it upon myself to compile an award chart for awards departing the United States, which I believe to be the only Air France/KLM Flying Blue award chart online for awards departing the United States. I priced out awards from the continental United States to every region on the Flying Blue award chart.

  • What is the award chart?
  • Where is it cheaper than Delta’s award chart?

Here is the award chart in thousands of Flying Blue miles each way from the United States to the listed region, flying on Classic Awards. I didn’t include Premium Economy awards, which are bookable with Flying Blue miles, because the airlines on which you can book them collect fuel surcharges.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 2.44.26 AM

The first thing to notice is that awards in economy are often very cheap, but awards in business class are often 2.5x the price, which makes them extremely expensive.

Here’s the same award chart with awards that are cheaper in miles than the same Delta award in red. (I compare Flying Blue to Delta since both are members of SkyTeam.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 2.46.53 AM

Some of the black numbers are the same price as Delta awards, and some are more expensive.

The near international awards in economy are downright cheap with Flying Blue miles.

  • 15,000 Flying Blue miles each way to Hawaii vs. 22,500 Delta miles
  • 15,000 Flying Blue miles each way to Central America/Caribbean vs. 17,500 Delta miles
  • 25,000 Flying Blue miles each way to Europe or Southern South America vs. 30,000 Delta miles

There’s nothing particularly sexy about flying economy, but paying 30,000 Flying Blue miles instead of $1,000 for a roundtrip to Hawaii–and then enjoying Hawaii–is an awesome deal!

What’s your favorite deal on the award chart?

How to Get ThankYou Points

The easiest way to earn a bundle of ThankYou Points is with the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card, which has a huge sign up bonus and big category bonuses.

My Review of the Citi ThankYou® Premier Card

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening –  redeemable for $500 in gift cards, $625 for airfare, or other great rewards.
  • Earn 3X ThankYou Points on Travel including Gas,  2X ThankYou Points on Dining Out and Entertainment, and 1X ThankYou Points on Other Purchases
  • ThankYou® Points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel through thankyou.com, as compared to gift cards
  • No foreign transaction fees on purchases
  • Points do not expire and earn unlimited ThankYou Points
  • Annual Fee:  $95 (fee waived for the first 12 months)

Application Link: Citi ThankYou® Premier Card

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

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Longtime reader Eddy emailed me:

Do you know of someplace that has the rules of the various frequent flyer programs? I’m looking at trip to China next Spring and there are so many options, so I’d like to know for each program: (1) allow one ways? (2) permit stop overs? (3) charge for fuel? Any idea if this info is collected in one place anywhere? Thanks.

This seemed like something I absolutely had to put in one place, so this is the place.

This chart represents the rules for using the type of miles listed in the far left column.

Click the image to enlarge.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 2.28.55 AM

I’ve included 10 of my favorite programs on the chart. I toyed with how best to present the information of the chart, at one point including footnotes next to almost every entry. I ditched that, and instead will put longer form answers for each airline and explanations of the color-coding after the Continue Reading link.

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

Let me clear up one of the most common types of questions I get from beginners.

There is no transitive property of miles.

Just because Airline A partners with Airline B and Airline B partners with Airline C does NOT mean Airlines A and C are partners.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 11.51.54 AMFor instance, in yesterday’s post Fully Flat Business Class to Europe for 25,000 Miles, I wrote:

I searched award space on Aer Lingus’ routes from Chicago, Boston, and New York to Dublin for one passenger next April through July.

I searched on united.com. Any space seen here is bookable with United or British Airways miles.

Often when I write such things I’ll get a comment or an email like, “I have American Airlines miles, which is a partner of British Airways. Can I use those miles to book Aer Lingus flights as a British Airways award?”

  • Well, can you?
  • What about using a partner’s more favorable fuel surcharge rules?
  • Can you use American Airlines and US Airways miles to book all the partners of either airline?

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