Have American miles become more valuable than United miles for premium cabin awards redemptions?

In the comments section of my post today about American offering United flyers status matches, FBKSan left (in part) the following comment:

I was surprised not to see more discussion of using miles, however. I get that the post is primarily about AA and its policies, but the ability to use miles is pretty central. I continue to be underwhelmed by the thought of what my AA miles could do. I realize *A availability has waned somewhat lately, but the sheer number of star partners still really appeals to me. Moreover, BA’s prominent position in OneWorld makes me gun-shy (those surcharges!) I’ve seen you and Gary comment positively about AA award availability and flight experiences, but their hard product in C is a real drag. I’ve come to really value the seat, especially when I’m flying a domestic carrier, so for me UA trumps AA.

For a long time I’ve considered United miles to be the most valuable mileage currency out there by far, given the liberal routing and stopover rules, reasonable award costs, and excellent partners. That being said, everyday the value of American miles is creeping up, in my opinion, while the value of United miles continues to slowly decrease.

Over the past few years we’ve seen the following happen with Star Alliance award availability for United flyers:

  • Swiss has completely stopped releasing first class award space to/from the US more than 24 hours in advance
  • Singapore has more or less stopped releasing award space in first and business class
  • Lufthansa has stopped releasing first class award space more than a week or two before departure (this was the biggest blow, since they were the backbone of Star Alliance transatlantic first class award space)
  • Air New Zealand has become even more stingy with releasing premium cabin award space out of North America
  • ANA is hardly releasing first class award space anymore, even in the winter months when they previously were pretty generous

Of course these are all just trends. Meanwhile, using American miles, we’ve seen the following over the past couple of years:

  • Cathay Pacific has continued to release more and more award space, often two first class award seats per flight
  • American added Etihad as a partner, which has excellent award availability and a very nice first class suite
  • After a long anti-trust agreement, American miles could once again be used for transatlantic travel on British Airways, though with very hefty fuel surcharges

But when you break it down by destination, American miles look more and more compelling (keep in mind I’m talking specifically about premium cabin award redemptions):

Asia — American

American miles are hands down more valuable than United miles for premium cabin redemptions to Asia. American releases plenty of first class award space on their own flights, as does Cathay Pacific and JAL. Meanwhile using United miles, only Asiana, Air China, and United release award space in first class between the US and Asia, none of which have nearly as much space as American or Cathay Pacific.

South America — American

Okay, this one’s not even close. American has one of the most extensive route networks to South America (they fly to at least a dozen places down there that I’ve never heard of), and they also partner with LAN, which has the most extensive route network in South America.

Australia — American

In the past Air New Zealand used to be a great way to get to Australia using United miles, but I’ve just about written them off because I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a premium cabin award seat on them. Compare that to American, which partners with Qantas. While Qantas is stingy with award space, they do occasionally release space, and it’s even possible to redeem for Airbus 380 first class with them. Furthermore, American partners with Air Pacific, Air Tahiti Nui and Hawaiian, which also serve Australia/New Zealand.

Middle East — American

American partners with Etihad, El Al, and Royal Jordanian. Etihad is especially generous with releasing award space and they have a fully flat first and business class product, so you really can’t beat that for getting to the Middle East.

Europe — United

Believe it or not, I consider this one to be at only a slight margin. Why? Because the only first class product you can book between the US and Europe in advance is United first class. In the past you could redeem on Lufthansa and Swiss in advance, in which case I’d say United won by a long shot.

But with American you can also redeem for first class on their own flights with relative ease, with the added option of redeeming on British Airways with very high fuel surcharges. It’s not ideal, but at least you have the option of essentially paying a premium to fly a foreign carrier.

But United does still have the edge thanks to how many partners they have in Europe, including Austrian, LOT, Lufthansa, SAS, and TAP. The only issue is that for the most part they’re not very generous with releasing transatlantic award space. Still, it’s better than what American offers.

Africa — United

United partners with both South African Airways and Ethiopian Airways, so has a much more extensive route network to and around Africa.

But there are two major caveats I should emphasize. If you can wait till the last minute to book, United miles are very valuable, since Lufthansa, Swiss, and often even ANA do open up award space close to departure. Second, United does have very liberal routing rules which American doesn’t. So in many of the above instances if you’re willing to travel “the long way” you’ll have better luck with United than American. For example, with United you can travel to Australia via Asia, or to Asia via Europe.

But the average person doesn’t want to fly the long way and doesn’t want to wait till a few days before departure to finalize their trip. So which points currency is more valuable really comes down to your travel needs and flexibility. I think one thing is clear, though — the value of American miles has been on the rise over the past couple of years, in both absolute terms (thanks to their new partnerships) and relative terms (thanks to the decreasing value of miles with other programs).

What do you guys think?

Filed Under: Advice, American
  1. It is worth mentioning that LAN is merging with TAM and rumors are that the new company will stay with Oneworld.

  2. Does your evaluation change significantly if you look only at economy class availability?

    What are your thoughts on AA’s oneworld explorer award and how it changes the value of AA miles?

  3. I booked last night a one-way award in business/business first through United yesterday on the following route for 60K miles:


    With extended connections of less than <24hrs in DOH, KUL, and SIN.

    Plan to book a return when I have my dates solidified routing back through ICN and NRT at the same price.

    I think that makes United redemptions to Asia, since you can route through other region, pretty valuable. The flexibility is a pretty awesome perk.

  4. You’ve really only talked about First Class in your premium cabin comparison; would love to see how Business Class availability compares in these two alliances if you get a chance?

  5. If you can forget about premium space, there is quite a bit of space on Air NZ and even Air Canada in economy to Australia. On the flip side, as you mention, there are way more routes with QF, HA, Air Pacific, etc.

  6. @lucky

    Where/when do you see JL F availability TPAC? I’d really like to try their product and would be willing to fly out of JFK/ORD/LAX but have never once seen a single seat available, whether 330 days in advance, 1 week, or 1 day.

  7. The key diff is that UA has true flat-bed J in most of their long-haul international fleet, so the need to fly on a partner airline is not as high. AA is only about to get their first bird.

    Service wide, there are quite a few Star alliance partners with better J class reputation, but in terms of hard product, definitely on par.

  8. In my experience, ANZ and AC premium cabin to SYD isn’t all that uncommon, at least close in booking.

  9. Respectfully disagree re: Australia. TN is pathetic, HA even more so. And QF has virtually no availability unless you book at or near the beginning of the schedule. With UA, given the flexibility to route through Asia, you can almost always string something together. With AA, that’s simply not true.

  10. I think US miles are pretty damn valuable. They allow pretty much the same routings as UA but the number of miles required for many awards is a good 20k lower.

    I live in fear of devaluation….

  11. Can you clarify the best way to get first class redemptions on JAL? Which tool to use and timing (330 days out or last minute, etc) Thanks

  12. AA only charges 30,000 miles for a one-way business class seat on LAN Chile from Lima Peru to LAX. British charges 50,000 miles for the identical flight on LAN.

  13. For middle East, you favored American because of Etihad, El Al, and Royal Jordanian. What about Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines on star alliance?

  14. Thanks for the extended analysis, Lucky, it’s helpful. I don’t disagree with you in general, but I think there are a couple important caveats that you mention but downplay. You’re focusing primarily on first class, even when you say premium cabins. I get that; we all prefer F. But often I’m happy to fly C on miles and I’m *never* flying F paid (I occasionally fly C). Paying $800 in surcharges on BA for C or dealing with JL’s subpar product (I flew the 787 this week, and the hard product is really lagging) reduces the relative value of AA miles. And then of course there’s AA C (at least for now). I’ll grant you that Cathay is a gem in almost every way.

    As @label notes, there’s also economy to consider. Most of us don’t want to redeem for economy, but it happens, especially when buying tickets for others. There *A wins, I think, since I have many more options and few surcharges.

    And oh those surcharges. Sure, it’s “premium to fly a foreign carrier,” but it’s a LOT Of money (compared to $50-100 on many UA tickets) and then only to fly BA, which I gather is no Cathay, right? Plus, OneWorld = no LH FCT, Thai ground, ANA catering, etc, right?

    Obviously everyone has different needs, but from an *earning* and redeeming perspective–especially taking C into account–AA’s lead isn’t so clear to me, although you’re right about the relative trends.

  15. I think you forgot to add Egyptair to Africa! 🙂 I was planning my trip to Africa and I realized that even though AA require less miles than UA from Europe, I pretty much can’t do any flights within Africa. The only OW partner that serves intra-Africa is Comair (owned by BA) with a handful of destinations ex-JNB. The good news is it only requires 10k AA miles for a one-way flight within Africa in Y 😉

  16. Also, air Canada has decent business class availability to Asia… And I actually really like their business class. Full flat bed, and their lava cake is pretty delicious 🙂

  17. Lucky, will AA let me use miles to fly BA from BKK-LHR-BOS on an F award in January 2013? I’ll pay the fuel charges to fly BA F. I am having trouble finding a way back from BKK to BOS transpacific. Its no problem getting BKK-HKG-JFK on CX F but none of the connecting flight times work on AA to get from JFK to Boston the same day. So I’m trying to figure out a way to go thru Europe instead. Would prefer 1-2 stops max. I don’t want to do JAL C. I have 170k AA miles, 54k UA miles, 114k UR miles, 95k US miles, and 35k SPG points. Should I consider an SA Award? I’m using 125k BA miles to go BOS-HKG-BKK on CX F. Thanks!

  18. Love this analysis since I have 4mil AA miles to use and only 1 mil star alliance. I confess though that I always seem to have trouble finding available “C” award space to use on oneworld (even w AA Concierge Key status). Also, you gotta love oneworld’s RTW in “F” for 330k miles with up to 16 stops! (I haven’t found anything comparable on star and skyteam). I’m planning one now and finding great availability.

  19. •American added Etihad as a partner, which has excellent award availability and a very nice first class suite

    – Can you search for award space using the AA site? Are the redemption rates the same as other oneworld partners? Thanx Lucky.

  20. sjs said,

    Respectfully disagree re: Australia. TN is pathetic, HA even more so. And QF has virtually no availability unless you book at or near the beginning of the schedule. With UA, given the flexibility to route through Asia, you can almost always string something together. With AA, that’s simply not true.

    True – and TG has dones of availibilty and flies to SYD, MEL, BNE (and more?)

  21. Do you have any plans to travel (First Class) on Air China? I have an option to book a first class award with them from Singapore to LAX (Connecting in Beijing), but am reluctant to do so without the wisdom of your review.

  22. @Stuart Falk: CA First is not a bad product–good service, English skills a bit lacking like Asiana, food is good (multiple western and eastern choices), depends on aircraft but seat is like UA’s old F seat. Good amenity kit and decent pajamas (business class gets pajamas as well), pretty lackluster IFE.

    In other words, it’s sort of like UA with slightly better service on average. First is first, but not as memorable as SQ, NH, CX, LX, or LH.

  23. @Rebecca- Why don’t you HIRE Ben (lucky) for his booking service? He does this for a living you know?

  24. @John, trust me, I’m about to! 🙂 I was trying to make myself proud and book this trip on my own using all I have learned from Lucky and others but the various options out there coupled with the points I have are getting the best of me. Oh well, let the learning continue! Lucky, I’ll contact you on Points Pros.

  25. So what do you guys think – if I want to fly First to Asia this summer (and need 2-3 award seats – all in First preferably) – do you think I’ll have a better chance with AA miles? BA miles? or United miles?


  26. Oh… and I’ve flown Biz to NRT on AA but never First….how does their first class product compare to JAL first class product on the LAX-NRT route? Thanks!

  27. Ben,

    I have to agree with FBKSan, at least in part. You say “premium cabin” but focus on F. My wife and I actually give a rip about the destination (at least somewhat) but my only real rule for now is “not coach.” If I can get a flat bed to my destination 20 hours away (with good lounge access on the layover) I’m totally happy.

  28. @ Philipp — Indeed, though frankly it won’t even be that much of a loss for Star given that TAM virtually never released any award space.

    @ David — Yes, in coach I’d say United has the edge, though I’ll save that for another time. The reason is that their partners release a LOT more coach award space, while American’s partners largely don’t.

    The OneWorld Explorer chart is also great in many instances, and I covered that here:

    For those looking to make several stops it’s an unbeatable deal and really does differentiate American since United doesn’t offer a similar chart.

    @ Thomas — Don’t get me wrong, United miles *can* be incredibly valuable and still are incredibly valuable. But keep in mind for most people flying that much with all those stopovers sounds like a nightmare and not a perk. Of course we’re different. 😉

    @ CatJo — I’ll make a separate post specifically about business class, since perhaps this was a bit first class centric.

    @ BrewerSEA — JL has decent biz availability, though not very good first class availability. That being said, I do frequently see award space between NRT and LAX (and often 3-4 seats at a time), especially close to departure. Actually, it’s an option for my return from Asia in a few days…

  29. @ MGD — Agree United’s hard product is far superior in business class, though for most people the goal is to stay *off* US airlines since the service is horrible.

    @ Jay — That’s an interesting question. Really the only way to efficiently get United miles is through them directly or through Ultimate Rewards. With American you have SPG, Bank Direct, and some very nice sign-up offers on their co-branded cards. So I tend to pick up American miles pretty easily.

    @ sjs — Keep in mind I added that disclaimer at the end. If you’re willing to go through Asia United miles are great, but for actual nonstop travel between the US and Australia/NZ I’d rather have American miles.

    @ Del — Sadly I agree with you that a devaluation is coming. That being said, I’m not sure I agree they’re more valuable than United miles (or even nearly as valuable). They’re now blocking ALL Lufthansa first class, not just between the US and Europe, but also between Europe and everywhere else, and also only allow a stopover at a Star Alliance hub or US Airways gateway city. So they can be very valuable if you “game” them, but otherwise I find them a lot tougher to use than United miles.

  30. @ Jeff — I use the BA tool. Space is best close to departure with them, in my experience. Award space is much better on Cathay Pacific.

    @ FBKSan — All excellent points. And I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I actually DON’T think American miles are more valuable than United miles, at least for my travel needs. All I’m saying is that maybe two years ago I considered American miles to be substantially less valuable than United miles, and I don’t find that to be the case anymore. I think a reasonable argument could be made either way, and I don’t think that was the case a while back.

    @ Craig — I know the lack of alcohol on EgyptAir is a huge turn off for a lot of my readers. 😀

    @ Rebecca — Unfortunately American won’t let you route from Asia to the US from Europe unless you want to book a OneWorld Explorer award. That being said, if you see space BKK-HKG-JFK, have you considered switching airports and doing LGA to BOS, which should have tons of availability? The transfer is quick and I’d much rather go that route given how good Cathay Pacific first class is.

  31. @ Mike S. — You can’t, unfortunately, though you can search directly on Etihad’s site. See here for a tutorial on how to do so:

    @ Stuart Falk — I’m hoping to fly them soon. They definitely wouldn’t be my first choice, though they’re not a bad option based on what I’ve heard.

    @ stacey — Your best shot at first class for two seats is probably Cathay Pacific. Otherwise you have a shot at space through Europe on United connecting to Thai, but that will prove to be really tough. Either way it’ll take quite a bit of flexibility.

    As far as AA vs. JAL goes, American’s hard product is quite decent with duvets and nice mattress pads, though obviously the food and service is far superior on JAL.

  32. Thanks Lucky. According to AA.com American does not fly a direct LGA to BOS. At this point it probably makes the most sense to just book the BKK-HKG-JFK and then book a cheap Delta shuttle from JFK-BOS. Those one way flights are about $75 (plus the checked bag fee I will have to pay).

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