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Alternatives to United for Star Alliance premium awards

by on Mon November 4, 2013 • 2 Comments

The beauty of Star Alliance is its great award seat availability on long haul routes from its broad partner base to destinations all over the world. United and US Airways are the only programs that give you access to awards on those flights without nasty fuel surcharges.

But now that United is significantly increasing the cost in miles of Business and First Class awards on Star Alliance partners, and US Airways may soon leave Star Alliance to join One World, how do the alternatives of using other Star Alliance programs like ANA or Aeroplan, which are accessible via American Express Membership Rewards stack up?

The short answer: American Express Membership Rewards just became a more important program for these awards if Asia in First Class is in your travel plans. But for most other awards, United seems to have found the equilibrium price that makes us indifferent between using extra miles or paying a fuel surcharge. You’re still better off sticking with them on many awards, even vs Delta and American.

Here, we compare the number of miles required for premium awards on Star Alliance using United, ANA, or Aeroplan. ANA and Aeroplan are Star Alliance point transfer partners of American Express Membership Rewards, but the downside is you have to pay fuel surcharges on most awards. Discussion on the assumptions is after the table.

United vs ANA vs Aeroplan

Chart assumptions

Fuel surcharges can vary widely but we assumed redeeming on Lufthansa for awards that typically transit Europe and on ANA or Thai for those that typically transit Europe. They tend to be the most expensive airlines for the respective regions with respect to fuel surcharges.

If you are clever and patient, or use an award booking service, you might be able to take advantage of partner airlines that have few or no surcharges like: US Airways, Brussels, LOT, Asiana, EVA Air, Air China, Turkish, Swiss, Air New Zealand, Ethiopian, Egyptair, or Scandanavian. In this case using ANA or Aeroplan via Membership Rewards is a no brainer when the number of miles is lower than United, save for the fact that transfers to ANA can take a few days and you can’t hold awards with them in the meantime.

ANA charges awards based on the total miles flown. ‘Low’ calculations were based on leaving from the closer of Los Angeles or New York to a region, and ‘High’ calculations from the further. Transit via Europe included a stop in Frankfurt. Transit via Asia included a stop in Seoul. Australia assumed going via Bangkok due to no viable partners flying direct except United. You may end up with a shorter or longer routing based on available flights, these are just guidelines.

Also note for Aeroplan the ‘North Asia’ region includes several destinations United considers part of ‘South Asia’ such as the Philippines and Thailand.

When should you avoid United miles?

We highlighted in orange situations where the expected fuel surcharge divided by the savings in miles vs using United to redeem was less than one cent per mile. These include First Class travel to:

  • Most parts of Asia from the West Coast
  • North Asia from nearly all of the United States
  • Europe, India/Central Asia, and the Middle East from the Midwest / East Coast.

In these cases you may be better off with transferring to ANA / Aeroplan rather than redeeming via United.

The unfortunate part of United’s devaluation is that these choices aren’t crystal clear. You need to decide whether you value cash or miles more, and how quickly you are able to earn Membership Rewards points vs United miles or Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

Or, consider buying Avianca LifeMiles for about 1.5 cents each (under $1800 for a Europe Business Class roundtrip) when a 100% buying bonus comes up and eschew earning via credit cards for these rewards.

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2 thoughts on Alternatives to United for Star Alliance premium awards

  1. Geoff

    Good to know – not the easiest choices any more, but will pay a lot closer attention to Amex points now as first class to Japan is a frequent award for me.


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