Why the game isn’t as fun as it used to be (on the redemption side)…

Every year we seem to see more promotions than the prior year for earning miles, which is great. Almost anyone can become a mileage millionaire with a little bit of effort. 75,000 miles for a credit card here, 25,000 miles for a checking account there, etc.

Beyond that, there are still plenty of great opportunities out there to burn miles. I help people do it every day through my award consulting service.

But when it comes to burning miles for my own travels, I find it harder than ever before. While Lufthansa has incredible award availability and a great product, there’s only so many times I want to fly them before trying something new, or at least flying an airline I haven’t flown dozens of times. And trying something new just isn’t as easy as it once was.

Let’s face it, SkyTeam has never been great for burning miles, so let’s exclude them. Let’s start with OneWorld. They have some fantastic airlines — British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas. Well, it used to be tough to burn miles on British Airways using American miles, since miles couldn’t be redeemed for flights between the US and Europe. So that meant going through Mexico City, Toronto, or Vancouver. While that’s no fun, at least the cost of an award ticket was reasonable. While they lifted that silly restriction at the beginning of the month, American flyers now need to pay fuel surcharges for award tickets on British Airways. Add that to London’s ridiculous taxes, and you’re looking at an “award” ticket in first or business class that’s going to cost you close to $1,000. No thanks. While that’s a great deal for a first class product, I’m not sure whether I’d prefer that or buying a coach ticket and earning the miles and elite qualifying miles.

Qantas was never great when it comes to award availability, but they were decent, with some flexibility. Lately, I’ve found space on them to be virtually non-existent, in either first or business class. While Qantas is a great partner to have, they’re of limited usefulness if they rarely release award space.

Cathay Pacific has actually been pretty great lately in first class, given how small their first class cabins are (six to nine seats). While it’s not easy to find space on them, there’s actually a lot more space than pre-recession. And LAN also continues to have good award space. But for me, that means American only has two “real” partners: Cathay Pacific and LAN.

The same is true at the Star Alliance. Lufthansa remains excellent when it comes to award availability. Swiss used to be excellent about releasing seats as well. I remember seeing flights from New York to Zurich last year that had a total of eight first class seats in the cabin, and all eight were available for award redemption. Now space between the US and Europe on them is virtually non-existent. While they still have acceptable availability between Europe and India and Europe and Asia, I really loved flying them to the US. I always loved flying from Frankfurt to the US via Zurich, since Swiss first class gives you access to the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, but at the same time Swiss’ superior in-flight product.

Then take Singapore. They were never great for award space, but they’ve taken one of the most arrogant approaches imaginable to their new product. They don’t release award seats to partner airlines on their “new” product, which really limits the routes on which miles can be redeemed. I mean, how much longer will this product be considered “new?” There’s still Los Angeles to Singapore via Tokyo on Singapore, where they tend to release award seats four days out, but there’s almost nothing in first class before that. So for all practical purposes, Singapore Airlines won’t be in your travel plans if you want to plan a redemption more than four days out in first class.

Asiana used to be the Asian airline that probably had the best award availability in first class. They used to have two first class award seats on almost every flight. Now I find it rare to be able to find a single seat. It’s by no means impossible, just much, much harder than it used to be.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but I don’t want to sound all “doom and gloom.” It’s not that bad, and the added opportunities out there to earn miles more than make up for the loss of many great redemption opportunities. And heck, we’ve even seen a lot of gains, like Turkish Airlines’ leased 777s, which boast one of my favorite first class products, and even have excellent award availability.

But I am finding it tough to get the best of both worlds nowadays — a great product to a destination I really want to visit. So for my next redemption I’ll have to make a sacrifice, for once. I want to hit Buenos Aires and Santiago, so I’ll do so in one direction on American in first class, and in the other direction on LAN in business class. I don’t remember the last time I’ve burned miles for a US carrier on a longhaul segment or for business class, but it’ll be more than worth it for the destination, I’m sure.

Filed Under: Awards
  1. Even you say Skyteam is difficult to redeem on which is why I wholeheartedly stand behind my use of Delta miles for a TV.

  2. @grace Not crazy! but at that point, Jeff Robertson has won! I say burn those Skypesos for Air France business (ugh) or V Australia business (not bad). And Vietnam Airlines, though when you’re originating a trip outside the US there’s the international origination surcharge..blech.

    Ben, I agree that Swiss availability North America-Switzerland has become awful (and isn’t even great in business, either). And that Singapore availability is pathetic, though it was never great. From 2006 – 2008 ANA First Class pretty much didn’t exist, the same way that Singapore doesn’t. But now in Winter months it’s possible, so that’s a gain.

    Asiana first class is tough, though not terrible Frankfurt – Seoul, and still occasionally available LAX-Seoul though not every day like it used to be. The point of reference here, depths of the financial crisis, probably isn’t a reasonable point of comparison. Big problem with Asiana is that the Chicago flight has gone 2-cabin. The JFK flight has become tough, I admit, to find more than 1 seat.

    But oooh that wonderful Cathay availability ex-SFO and YYZ. Really incredible, and a really great product. And that’s a huge win compared to the past.

    Sure, BA redemptions are expensive. But the $1000 I just saw was on a South African redemption with LHR stopover, usually it’s more like $700 (hah!).

    And don’t forget that Thai offers those Jet Airways 777s CDG-BKK with REALLY GOOD availability, especially going Paris – Bangkok (less good Bangkok – Paris).

    For South America why not try TAM first class one direction using UA’s new one-way partner awards? Alright, the availability’s not great there either but at least you’ll avoid American and try out a new product, if you’ve got the flexibility to play with it.

  3. @Ben

    I know mileage millionaires like you and Gary are usually in First or sometimes biz but a lot of us, myself included, are usually flying coach on our award tickets.

    This post is about a 75/25 split between first/biz availability which I certainly find interesting but just not very relevant to myself (and many readers I would imagine).

    I think it would be really helpful if you had a similar post that perhaps did a 75/25 split between coach/biz availability.

  4. Spot on Lucky. Mrs Baggageinhall and I are off to NYC from London at the end of the month using our bmi miles. I assumed that we would take our usual favourite, LX First via Zurich but I struggled to find two seats on any reasonable date pairing.

    So I redeemed 180k miles for two seats on Virgin in Upper Class.

    BA might charge a fortune in YQ but at least I can get 2 F seats with a little bit of forward planning!

  5. 2 First seats are tough but I managed a booking last week. I booked 1 award using Dividend Miles and then added an award using Mileage Plus. I had lots of trouble with USAirways and eventualy opted for a simple open jaw.

    ROC-DCA-LGA|JFK-IST-BKK-HKG || HKT-BKK-FRA-ORD-ROC all international segments in F on US, US, TK, TK, TG, TG, TG, LH, and UA. Phuket to BKK in C. I nearly matched the itineray with most international segments in F. The second itinerary is ROC-IAD-JFK-IST-BKK-HKG || HKT-BKK-FRA-ORD-ROC on UA, U, TK, TK, TG, TG, TG, LH, UA. Bummer — the JFK-IST segment is in C.

    As 1K can I simply change the TK C to TK F should it become available without risking the rest of the itinerary?

    Dealing with US was awful. I practically give them the itinerary but when they go to price it they start claiming that there are too many stopovers, layovers, segments, etc. It took four calls with the first 3 lasting an hour each. I was disconnected on the first call and told the itinerary was invalid on the second. I think it’s best to let them pick flights and dates so they understand better about layovers.

    Called UA’s 1K line was had great service ticketing the award. I did not encounter StarNet blocking.

    Thanks to your blog and Gary’s — lots of info on getting the most for one’s miles.

  6. @RDimperio “As 1K can I simply change the TK C to TK F should it become available without risking the rest of the itinerary?”

    Actually, anyone can.

    As a 1K you can make fee-free changes as often as you wish. But any member without status can change the date and time of a segment but not operating carrier at no fee, and there’s no fee to simply bump up from business to first on a first class award if O space opens up.

  7. Noooooo! Redeem on Jet Airways or Emirates to an Indian destination like Kerala or Delhi. You won’t regret it! Reply please.

  8. I am also quite disappointed by the near-total loss of F availability between North America and Switzerland on LX. I’m based out of San Francisco, and while availability out of LAX is sometimes there, I have to say that I’ve not once seen a first seat available on the new SFO route. Maybe it’s the strong high tech industry (which I’m sure where most of the first passengers work) but really…not a single seat, LX!?

    UA lost thousands of dollars of clothing that I checked in (yes, stupidly) on SFO-LAX when connecting to ZRH earlier this year. Sigh.

  9. I guess you guys on the East Coast can complain about poor LX availability being a new phenomenon, but out here on the West Coast, I’ve never seen a single seat in C or F on LX’s LAX and SFO flights. Pathetic. That said, I really like LX when I flew their new A333 from ZRH to DEL in F. It was alittle boring being the only pax in the cabin though.

    Thank heavens for LH’s great availability.

  10. With regard to BA’s fees/taxes I personally don’t have an issue with them. I don’t do much travel, generally a couple of long haul trips each year and I’ve never had an issue getting availability with BA in either F or J using a companion voucher and paying significantly less in texes than I would buying a ticket in economy.

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