All miles point away from Europe…

Ever since I got into this mileage hobby over eight years ago I’ve been traveling mostly to Asia. There are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, growing up I did a ton of travel within Europe. My family is from Germany so we used to spend several weeks there each summer visiting family, and my parents always made a point to travel around while we were over there so we could experience different countries. Up until I started the mileage hobby I had never been to Asia, so obviously I had a bit of “catching up” to do there. But the other reason is that Europe is so damn expensive, while there are so many destinations in Asia that are cheap.

But over the past eight years I’ve visited most major cities in Asia. Certainly not all of them (I still really want to visit Hanoi, Taipei, and Jakarta), though I’ve been to Hong Kong and Singapore over a dozen times, and have visited Bali, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Nagoya, Osaka, Seoul, Tokyo, etc.

And as I look at places I want to visit I’m realizing that Europe’s on my mind. Growing up I visited most of the “big” cities in Western Europe, and also smaller cities within (easy) driving distance of Germany. But I haven’t done Iceland (which I’m dying to visit, and plan on going to this summer), most of the Northern European countries, as well as Eastern European destinations like Budapest and Prague.

The truth is, though, if you’re trying to redeem miles and are a maximizer you’re at such a huge disadvantage going to Europe and not Asia.

American miles

It’s extremely difficult to feel like you’re getting good value out of American miles when traveling to Europe. There are huge fuel surcharges for travel on British Airways, Air Berlin has a sub-par business class product, Finnair releases very little premium cabin award space, and Iberia releases some space though not much. And, well, they’re Iberia. And while American used to at least have good award space on their own flights, that’s not really the case anymore, and it’s really difficult to find premium cabin award space on them across the pond.

So not only is it extremely difficult to find award space without huge fuel surcharges, but compare all that to redeeming miles for Cathay Pacific’s amazing first or business class without fuel surcharges.

Delta miles

Delta miles used to almost exclusively be useful for travel to Europe. Back when Air France released the same award space to Delta as they gave their own members, award space was extremely easy to come by, and it was one of the few good uses of Delta SkyMiles. However, nowadays Air France only releases a subset of their award inventory to Delta, and at times space is blocked off literally for months at a time. So Delta miles really can’t be reliably redeemed to Europe anymore.

Conversely China Southern started A380 service between Los Angeles and Guangzhou with a very nice business class product, so it’s now extremely easy to redeem Delta miles for that flight. Similarly Delta stopped imposing fuel surcharges for redemptions on Virgin Australia, so their miles are almost most valuable for travel to Australia.

But if you want to go to Europe, Delta simply isn’t a great program.

US Airways miles

You can redeem 100,000 US Airways miles for travel between the US and Europe in business class, and even have a stopover at a Star Alliance hub or transatlantic gateway city. So that gets you two places in Europe for a reasonable cost.

But why not save 10,000 miles and fly to North Asia in business class with a stopover in Europe? It’s extremely difficult to justify not doing that. The issue is that while it gets you one stopover in Europe, it’s not very practical if you want to go beyond a gateway city. For example, if you want to visit Prague or Budapest, you won’t be able to get a stopover there enroute to Asia using US Airways miles. So do I spend an extra 10,000 miles not to go to Asia so that I get one more destination in Europe? As someone that in part reviews airline products for a living, that’s kinda tough to do!

United miles

United is the one program where you can route from the US to Asia via Europe, and actually have a stopover at just about any city you want. The catch is that while US Airways gives you a 10,000 mile discount for continuing to Asia, United charges you an extra 20,000 miles in business class. So it’s still a good deal, but neither is the best value available on their chart.


Given the above, what I’m leaning towards is booking a 100,000 mile US Airways business class award from the US to Iceland via Oslo, with a stopover there. Seems like the best of both worlds given how expensive it is to otherwise get to Iceland in the peak of summer.

But it doesn’t change the fact that I think the tourism boards of Asian countries are bribing the people in charge of airlines’ mileage programs. Anyone else generally challenged with booking awards exclusively to Europe?

Filed Under: Advice, Awards
  1. I’m confused by the pricing – Iceland air is constantly offering flights to Europe with a free stopover for $600-$800 (in smelly coach) hardly expensive?

  2. @ Matt — You see those kinds of prices in the summer? If so I’d be all over it. I’ve only seen those prices in the off season.

  3. Not as useful for you, since you’re based in SEA, but ANA is obviously an amazing value for East Coast to Europe travel if you don’t mind flying the TATL portion on UA, US or AC…

  4. @ Justin — Sadly they do impose fuel surcharges for UA and AC, and that leaves US, which doesn’t release much space in the high season.

  5. I remember that you’ve been to Shanghai and Beijing? But these places are so touristy. I’d recommend Chengdu, which is the capital city of Sichuan Province. It’s rich in culture, e.g. the tea houses, mahjong, Sichuanese opera with the famous face-changing trick. It’s long been called “The land of abundance” in Chinese. It offers amazing food, not just the spicy kind. It’s also very close to the nature, just one hour away from the famous Qingcheng Mountain. A magical land, some might say. There’s also a saying in Chinese, “Chengdu is a place that once you visit, you’d never want to leave.”

  6. I’m booked IAD-AMS w/ ANA and If there’s any fuel surcharge it’s under $30 per ticket. Also have the EZE-YYZ leg on hold as part of an award and cash co pay is pretty minimal there too…

  7. Most of my redemptions have been to Asia as well. That seems to be where you get the most bang for your miles.

    Europe also doesn’t need to be that much more expensive unless you want to go to Paris or London and stay at 5 star hotels. Certainly most of Europe is no more expensive than a city like Tokyo. One of the nice things about Europe is that the city tourism offices work hard to provide a variety of discount cards which can be a good value. Typically they offer things like unlimited public transport, discounts to museums and attractions, sometimes restaurant discounts. And those offices also offer hotel discounts like book 3 nights for the price of 2.

  8. Lucky,

    I go through the same thought process as you — “if you could go anywhere in the world in business class for free, where would you go?” Well Asia is cheap and far, so it just makes sense.

    I operate under the assumption that someday we will run out of miles and points — there’s just no way this hobby can last forever as it is. I really have no objection to flying E+ on UA or something like that to Europe (flew NW A330 bulkhead economy DTW-FRA round trip back in the day, and it was perfectly acceptable) so my miles have taken me/us to Asia several times.

    That said, we actually want to do Europe this year, and we’ll be gone for 24 days. We used UA/UR miles to fly IAD-CPH-(stop for 12 hours, see CPH) on SK, then SK to AMS. 4 nights in AMS, then train to CDG. 4 nights CDG, then AF (cash ticket) to MAD. 5 nights MAD, then train to BCN for 5 nights. The home stretch is OS BCN-VIE-IST, then 6 nights IST, and then TK home from IST-AD. The OS flight was booked as my “stopover” on the UA award.

    Europe is expensive, but I have the hotels for everywhere but IST covered on points. (Andaz AMS, one of the Radisson Blu hotels in CDG, Westin Palace in MAD, and either the Le Meridien or Sheraton 4P in BCN, not sure yet.) The only one that is up in the air is IST — I don’t have the points I need yet, but my backup is a cash booking for less than $150 at one of the better-ranked hotels on tripadvisor.) So, Europe is expensive, but points and miles have gone an extremely long way to defraying the cost.

  9. Lucky,

    Back to the Asia thing… I am *stoked* that MH is now a one-world partner. For those of us that like the region, MH blows open all kinds of possibilities, particularly if one is interested in the Explorer award.

    Next March, as part of our “Adios to HHonors” trip to MLE, we booked DCA-AA-ORD-JL-NRT-MH-KUL-MH-MLE-MH-KUL-MH-SDK-MH-BKI-MH-HKG-CX-JFK-AA-DCA. All flights are in J. We’ll stop in NRT for three nights, MLE for 5, and SDK for 4. That trip cost 150k miles and $88 in taxes, per person. That’s hard to beat.

    This was a rather seamless trip until we got back to JFK. We’re actually on separate flights coming home that day because there was a max of only one F seat available, and no Y seats. That still requires an overnight at JFK, so we may very well just take the Megabus home at 1am.

    One quick question: In Tokyo, staying at the Park Hyatt: Elite stay certificate for $329/night (or whatever the current rate is) or 22,000 UR points?

  10. @lucky Why do you think that Air Berlin business class is sub-par? I haven’t flown with them, but looking online their new business class looks decent and the seats are fully horizontal. What in your opinion makes it different from let’s say Brussel Airlines?

  11. For Europe I tend to book BA in WT+ and use Avios to upgrade to Club World. With current 20k promo the upgrade is almost free. I can’t justify the miles needed for Europe. I used my 110k US miles to go SAA to South Africa as that seemed better use now, planning next 110k to Sydney.

  12. One salient point is that for people on the East Coast, a flight to Europe in coach may be tolerable, while a flight to Asia in coach, at around twice the length, may not be. So you can go to Europe roughly twice as often with the same number of miles. Also, flights to Europe are so quick that it doesn’t seem like a crazy idea to jet off to Europe for a long weekend. Whereas when I fly to Asia it takes so long that I want to stay for two weeks or so.

  13. I the retrofit for the AB lie-flat J and I heard the swaps are very frequent except for TXL-AUH, so it’s really hard to get lie-flat TATL.

    Lucky, isn’t ANA not charging YQ for AC and UA? I wrote a post on it earlier… although I’m not sure if it’s still there.

    If you really want Europe you could do SQ Suites with AMEX or mini-RTW with AP or even AF First! 😛

  14. @Philatravelgirl BA award avail PHL-LHR makes me wanna cry, since I’m based in SFO. I haven’t used the method you suggest yet, because forking out $2k for upgradeable WT+ is something that I try to avoid if I can get by on miles only, but I do think that it’s an amazing value.

    Does cash+avios still earn you avios for the class that you paid for (WT+ in this scenario), thus offsetting a good chunk of the avios you’ve redeemed (about 8k out of the 20k)?

  15. This is almost exclusively a US problem. In fact, for me, based in Australia, there is the opposite problem as points are compartively useless for travel to Asia.

    Why spend 90k or 120k for travel from SYD to BKK or NRT (in J or F respectively) when I can fly to the US via Europe for 20k more or just to Europe for 30k more?

  16. Ditto what Sean said.

    Go to Africa! There are some great first class options to South Africa, and from there you can connect to most of the continent.

  17. Iceland is my favorite destination, but I’ve never bothered to burn miles getting there. It is only 5 hours from BOS or JFK. Even I can stand that in coach, and I’m a completely spoiled traveler. Icelandair is not bad, with decent IFE, USB power ports at all seats, and reliable service. Be prepared for prices in Oslo…I hear it is just as expensive as Stockholm, which I just returned from last week. It was the most expensive city I’ve ever seen…made Tokyo, London, and Zurich look reasonable and the Cayman Islands look like shopping at Wal Mart.

  18. Nathan, Oslo is more expensive than Stockholm. Oslo is probably on par with Swiss cities. Personally I don’t see the point in visiting major cities. The all blend together. Oslo is among the least interesting part of Norway. Norway is all about NATURE.

  19. Lucky, you are lucky to have plenty of time. For others, the idea of saving 10K miles to go to Asia with a stopover in Europe doesn’t make sense, let alone difficult to justify Not doing it.

    For you and even for me, 10k miles is nothing. I go to Asia a lot because I like it, and because it’s cheaper, and primarily because I can get Cathay F from LAX. But the miles have very little to do with it.

    For decades, my travel pattern was Italy, France, someplace else, repeat (every three years). And for folks who want to enjoy Western life, it’s the best. It’s only when I decided I really wanted to see the world that Asia became that interesting.

    I will say that status on AA helps, I get seats on LAX-LHR (J not F), so I’m going over Thanksgiving. (But that’s after my May trip to Asia0.

  20. @ Papa Smurf — Their new business class looks good, though to the best of my knowledge they only reliably operate that to Abu Dhabi. All other routes seem to only have the old business class product, which is angled.

  21. You have to go to Stockholm. I love that city, it is so trendy and beautiful. Summer time it is alive, and days last forever. ( Did I say every other guy looks like Channing Tatum and girs look like Charlise Theron?)

    Copenhagen is amazing, trendy too. Personally I find Oslo small but charming. And while it appears to be expensive it is not more expensive that NYC. Hotels offer good discounts as well.

    I guess I am doing your opposite since Asia is new to me and am eager to explore some of the cities you have visited.

  22. I alternate between Asia and Europe for vacations. While I’ve flown premium cabins to Asia have never done it to Europe. Even from the west coast. Like other posters have said Europe doesn’t have to be expensive. I very rarely travel to western Europe anymore, other than maybe a stopover on my way somewhere else. Romania was dirt cheap. Sarajevo is a great city and while it’s been a few years since I’ve visited it was really cheap. Add that with a holiday in Croatia. Krakow was another city I loved.

  23. I second the vote for more trips to Africa. As an American living in Central Africa, I promise you it’d be quite an adventure!

  24. @ Antonio — Nope, you can do US to Asia via Europe, but not US to Europe via Asia.

    @ Jamison — Whoops, left that out. Have been to Beijing and Shanghai.

  25. A slightly different issue is trying to find decent AA Y fares on which to then use SWU’s.AA fares out of LAX/PSP seem to always be in the highest 1/3 of airlines serving a destination be it FRA/CDG/NRT/DUS.Even if you go ahead and book the higher rate the best you can hope for is to be waitlisted for the UG.
    The good news is that US fares out of Cali seem to be pretty good so maybe we’ll see a new price model post merger.

  26. The only time I go to Europe is a stop over en-route to Asia. You are correct it’s insane expensive, so I choose to avoid. Cathay F for one-way award just can’t be beat.

  27. Europe doesn’t have to be expensive if you look for boutique hotels and B&Bs. Being German you should know that “Zimmer” are a super deal and many smaller hotels are good value if you go outside the big centers. My wife and I go every year and do a mix of expensive urban hotels and many smaller places where you really experience the country and its people. There are lots of good small hotels. You need to expand your travel itins – rent a car and just drive to smaller places – there are so many cool places that people never see because they are so focused on doing the big cities and then they think they’ve been to Europe and done it all.

  28. Booked DL JFK-KEF in June for $617 all inclusive. Economy comfort not biz class, but pretty good value for Iceland summer flight.

  29. Lucky-I almost exclusively book award tickets for myself and my family to Europe. When doing this, I of course have to mix travel across the 3 alliances and I almost always can snag a seat. I have a strict personal policy of only low level business class and no fuel surcharges. Annually I book around 4-6 round trips. So while I have a fairly low number of flights, I assume I have been very lucky about grabbing the seats I need. Flexibility is obviously a key factor, but so is how far in advance I book and my relentless work and follow up.

  30. You must, absolutely must visit Prague. I would add Vilnius and Riga to this list too. While Iceland is great Oslo? I can see Stockholm or Copenhagen but some places I have been to (Helsinki, Turku, Oulu, Oslo etc) are an easy pass. Admittedly I know very little about miles and points and am generally happy if I can book open jaw to nearest a major destination and use local flights/ trains…..

  31. Booked lax-Lhr 9 months ahead for this summer. Premium award seats to Europe are hard to find due to a huge number of people fighting for space. With people earning tons of miles, Europe is tough.

  32. Lucky, I’m doing Iceland in August. A few months ago IcelandAir was offering SEA-KEF roundtrips for about $850, but now either fares have gone up or availability has changed. (FYI, Icelandair offers one ways for half of roundtrip fare. I’m flying to London on an award, then returning LHR-KEF-SEA on IcelandAir.)

  33. Definitely second the thought of Prague. Absolutely amazing (even though the food is poor, it’s still a top 5 European city for me). Easy to do Prague and Budapest. Great food in Budapest!!

  34. Do you have any Avios? If so then once you’re in Europe it’s only 4,500 Avios + £15 for short hops one way (more Avios for longer flights but no extra taxes/fees above the £15) – it’s one of the best bits of the BA programme, especially as they give free intra-UK and intra-Spain connections! Sadly for those of us not based in the US we don’t get these amazing discounts that you do (and don’t have such massive credit card sign up bonuses!), so I think just take the hit on stopping in Europe then make use of Avios Reward Flight Saver tickets intra-EU on BA/IB, or cheap redemptions on AB.

  35. Hoping to go to Prague from the east coast in business, any strategies? Which airline is best?

  36. @ Margo — Lots of options depending on when you’re going. With Star Alliance you can fly United or Austrian using United or US Airways miles, with SkyTeam you can fly Air France via Paris using Delta miles, or with OneWorld you can fly Air Berlin or Iberia without fuel surcharges using American miles.

  37. @Lucky Delta has 3 daily non-stops between AMS and BOS but each coach award in July has a YR fee of $384. What is that fee (besides highway robbery)? 😉

    @Jorge Agree with you about Stockholm and its vibrant atmosphere as well as beautiful guys/gals! Great city for a summer visit. (Tough to maintain a budget there, however.)

  38. It really depends on your location and travel plans. NYC has hubs among all three alliances and many European airlines that fly to the US have service to New York. Asia isn’t really an attainable destination without at least a full week. When planning a summer weekend, Europe tends to work out well. With a non-stop flight, we can take a redeye and be in Zurich, Amsterdam, London, Milan in 8 hours the next morning, spend 3-4 days and then fly back. I am planning on 1-2 long weekends this summer in Europe with United miles, but will of course be adding a free one-way.

  39. Right now have 2 summer J r/t’s booked SFO-CDG on AF & LAX-FCO on AZ – hardest part is determining which trip to take #maciskillingit.

    Anyway I find AZ & AF can be reliably booked 330 days out. Look at the LAX-CDG A380 for 330 out and its usually not that hard. Also az seems to often be z3 @ t-330.

  40. PS – do you have a prediction for future Skymiles redemptions on VS – am I looking at 800 bones for YQ?

  41. I’d just comment you discounted the value of redeeming Skymiles for Alitalia flights…..that is a big value of Skymiles and you can now do it online.

  42. @THEsocalledfan. No doubt Ben needs to burn some of his half million skypesos from opening checking accounts on an AZ J flat bed redemption. #bestredemptioninskyteam

  43. Interesting post. I wasn’t aware of the US Airways miles European stopover en route to Asia. You’re right, though, about the European gateway cities situation. It’s a toss up.

  44. @ THEsocalledfan — Good point. They do seem to have a really great product, though space over the summer is pretty tough to come by.

  45. @ Mac — I’d be willing to bed good money there will be fuel surcharges on Virgin. Hope I’m wrong, though doubt it.

  46. It’s the other way round for us too. You have to think twice if you want to redeem 105,000 Miles for FRA to JFK or go for another 30,000 till Tokyo (in Business).

    So most people from Europe only redeem for flights to the wescoast.

  47. We just booked business class award tickets to London on American. If you can find an American flight (not British Airways) it is only $5.00 for the flight to London. The flight back is about $300 in fees (they charge on the way out). BUT, you can fly to another country (we are going to Helsinki) for about $80, and it is only $80 in fees to fly back from Helsinki to the states. Plus we get to see Finland.

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