How to save miles when redeeming award tickets

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American Express Membership Rewards (MR) points are a valuable and versatile currency.  They can be transferred to a variety of airlines, including members of all three global airline alliances, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue, and more. This gives travelers dozens of redemption options on almost every major airline in the world.  But if you can transfer to one of several airline partners to make your award booking, does it matter which one you choose?

Savvy travelers know that the best way to redeem Membership Rewards points is for premium cabin (business or first class) travel on airlines.  Many programs would prefer you redeem miles for merchandise, but remember that this is the one way you should never use your miles.

But even when redeeming your miles for airline tickets, not all redemption options are created equally.  Each program has its own award chart, meaning that a United flight booked with Air Canada miles might cost more miles than the same flight booked with Singapore Airlines miles.  Why is this?  In short, each frequent flyer program sets redemption levels independently.  Even partner airlines do not collaborate in this area.  Some airlines charge you miles based on how long a flight is, while others charge you miles based on zones of travel (e.g. North America, South America, Europe, etc.)

The takeaway: When you’re transferring American Express points to an airline in order to book a specific flight, transfer to the partner where it will cost you the least amount of miles.

Here’s a real world example where I saved a client tens of thousands of miles:

Joe Traveler wants to fly from Los Angeles to San Antonio in economy on one of United’s nonstop flights.  He doesn’t have any United miles to book this, but he does have American Express Membership Rewards points.  While MR points don’t transfer to United, they do transfer to United’s Star Alliance partners Air Canada, ANA and Singapore Airlines.  To maximize Joe’s MR points, we need to find which of these three airlines will offer this award for the least amount of miles.  (In this example we’ll assume that award seats are available on the desired flight.)  For this route, here’s how the award costs break down:

  • Air Canada: 17,000 miles
  • ANA: 20,000 miles
  • Singapore Airlines: 12,500 miles

SQ

As you can see, each frequent flyer program requires a different amount of miles for this route, with a spread of 7,500 miles between the low and high options. Remember that these programs are booking into the same pool of award inventory that United offers to all partners, so there is no advantage to booking this ticket with Air Canada or ANA miles – it’s simply a waste.  The savings add up quickly: For a family of four, you’d save 30,000 miles by booking through Singapore’s program instead of ANA’s program.

Again, when you transfer MR points to an airline program to redeem for travel, be sure to transfer to the program with the lowest possible redemption cost for the flights you plan to book.  The example above illustrated differences between Star Alliance programs, but other examples include differences between Cathay Pacific and British Airways (within Oneworld) and differences between Air France/KLM, Alitalia and Delta (within SkyTeam).

Miles are valuable… don’t spend more of them than you have to.

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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