The best way to get optimal value from airline miles is to use them to book partner award flights, which will give you maximum luxury and absolute value against the cost of cash tickets. If you use miles from another airline to book, you can get some of the top luxury airline experiences. This can be confusing for newcomers to the game. This guide will walk you through the process of searching for your first partner award flight.
A reader recently sent in a question and this guide will walk you through the basics of searching for partner awards.
I live in Traverse City, MI which has a very nice but small airport (TVC). We only have American, Delta, United and Allegiant flight options. How do I utilize transfer partners? I’ve tried searching flights out of TVC on partner airlines but don’t have success. Would I need to search from a major airport like ORD or DTW and then figure out how to get from TVC to ORD or DTW separately? Any insight you have into maximizing miles when you don’t live near a major airport would be very helpful. Thanks,
Most major international airlines partner with other airlines to sell tickets together because no single airline flies everywhere. It makes sense for airlines since it increases their business. If you want to travel to Germany without an airline alliance, you would not be able to buy a ticket. There is no airline that flies between the US and Germany. That is where alliances come in. You can find results that combine United with other airlines, or that combine American with other airlines, or that combine Air France with other airlines.
The power of alliances is demonstrated by the fact that United can carry someone from Chicago to Chicago and either United or the other airlines can take them to Germany. Both airlines can reach those customers in Traverse City and Dusseldorf instead of being limited to carrying passengers between major cities.
The nice thing about alliances is that we can use our United MileagePlus miles to fly on any of United's partner airlines. We can use miles in a foreign partner program to book flights on United, and sometimes that can be a better deal than using United miles for their own flights!
Being aware of alliances is the first step in understanding partner award travel. There are three major world alliances.
You can use miles from any airline in the alliance to fly any other airline. You can use United Mileage Plus miles to fly on any of the airlines in the alliance.
Many major airlines have partnerships with airlines that are not members of their alliance. In addition to the 25 other Star Alliance members, United also partners with Hawaiian airlines, Aer Lingus, Azul, Air Dolomiti, and quite a few other airlines. This is good business for the airlines because it means that United can sell you a ticket to almost any corner of the world, but it is also good news for award travelers because it means that you can use your United miles to fly on airlines that may provide a better onboard experience.
United and Star Alliance are not the best games in town, but I use them to demonstrate that point. The same logic applies to your American Airlines miles, Delta miles, Capital One miles, or Citi ThankYou rewards points, since those points can be transferred to other rewards points.
You can use your United miles to fly on United or to fly on any of its other partners, even on combinations of more than one partner on a single ticket, for the purposes of this section. If you have Turkish miles, you can use them to book travel on many Star Alliance airlines.
The concept is the same for all alliances. You can either use your American Airlines miles to fly on American Airlines or you can use them to fly on some of the best airlines in the world, like Qantas, and Cathay Pacific.
Someone looking to fly on United to Hawaii is an example of the value of partner awards. When there are the lowest regular-level saver awards available, United will typically charge you 22,500 miles to travel to Hawaii. The example is from New York-Newark to Honolulu, Hawaii.
United awards are dynamically priced, so they occasionally run specials priced for less miles, but generally a saver award costs more than 20,000 miles.
Awards labeled as "Saver Award" should be made available to partners for booking. Air Canada Aeroplan could alternatively book the same flight for the same amount of miles.
Since Aeroplan charges a $25 partner booking fee, booking through Air Canada may be preferable if you don't have United miles, since you can transfer to Air Canada Aeroplan from American Express, Chase, Capital One, or Bilt rewards.
You can do even better if you have some of those currencies. Since Singapore is a Star Alliance airline, you could book that United flight from New York to Honolulu for 17,500 Singapore KrisFlyer miles.
Transferring American Express Membership rewards points, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate rewards, or Citi ThankYou points to Singapore will save you 5000 miles over what United would charge for the same flight.
You can do even better if you have Capital One miles, Citi ThankYou points, or Bilt rewards points. The United Airlines flight from New York to Honolulu can be booked for just 7,500 Turkish miles.
The Turkish Airlines website does not function well, so I was unable to find a picture of that nonstop flight, but the itineraries that connect through San Francisco on another day confirm the concept. I can confirm that I have booked the nonstop for the same price.
If you transfer your Capital One miles or Bilt rewards points to Turkish Miles & Smiles you can save 15,000 miles per passenger one way over what you would need to pay United.
Turkish is one of the most difficult programs to book and it helps to show why you should care about partner awards. You could save 15,000 miles per passenger each way if you used the right partner.
It is possible to book some of the most luxurious experiences in the world with the help of mastering partner awards.
There are many things to know about partner awards.
It is a common area of confusion. The price you pay for the flight to Hawaii depends on which airline miles you have. If you use United miles, you pay the United price, so you can't transfer those miles to Turkish to take advantage of lower pricing.
If you want to pay the cheaper Turkish price, you will need to transfer your Capital One, Citi or Bilt rewards account to your Turkish Miles & Smiles account. You will be buying a ticket to fly on United Airlines, but you will also be buying a ticket from Turkish Miles & Smiles. There are some challenges in booking awards via Turkish Miles & Smiles, and this is just one example.
You might want to buy a 32oz Coca Cola. You can buy Coca Cola at any place that sells it, but the price you pay depends on where you buy it. It might cost you a buck or two to buy it at a gas station. If you want to buy it at a sports stadium, it will cost you between five and ten bucks. The product is the same, but the point of purchase is more important. The worker at the sports stadium won't care that you can buy it at 7-11 for 99 cents, you can't get the 7-11 price if you're buying from the stadium concession stand, and you have to go to 7-11
When traveling on an award ticket, you will need to pay taxes. Taxes are different by country of departure. You will typically pay $5.60 in taxes when you leave the United States. Many countries around the world impose a departure tax of around $100. Everyone pays that tax regardless of whether it is rolled into the price of your cash ticket or charged in addition to the miles on your award ticket.
There are additional charges on award tickets. The airlines that impose these fees began collecting them because of the rising fuel prices. When fuel prices decreased, those surcharges weren't eliminated, proving that they weren't really about the cost of fuel. It is more accurate to refer to these surcharges as carrier-imposed surcharges.
For example, American, Delta, and United never impose surcharges on their own flights. United and Avianca are two programs that never collect fuel surcharges on partner awards. British Airways is an example of an airline that imposes surcharges on most of their partners.
The most expensive airlines that impose surcharges are British Airways and the Lufthansa Group, though booking through Star Alliance programs that do not pass on surcharges like United, Avianca, and Aeroplan can be avoided. If you are new to award booking, you should be aware that there will be some cost beyond the miles and that the associated cost can vary quite dramatically between airlines.
Finding long-haul flights is the first step to finding partner awards. You need to find the dates where the long flights across oceans are available since those are the flights carrying you most of the way. This is especially true for those of us who are primarily focused on booking premium cabin seats since we want those long-haul flights in comfortable / flat-bed seats. There are situations where this methodology may not work best. It is a good idea to check the long-haul routes.
The difference in price between economy class and business or first class award tickets is often less than the difference in cash price if you were to buy a ticket, which is why many who use miles and points focus on flying business and first class. A one-way economy class ticket to Europe would cost $500, whereas a one-way business class ticket would cost $2,000. Economy class award tickets can be found for a lot of miles. Business class award tickets to Europe from the United States can be had for as little as 34,000 miles one-way.
Jen, our reader from Michigan, wants to go to Germany. I would start by figuring out which airlines serve the city. You can find all of the nonstop flight options from any given airport on the website FlightConnections.com. Almost all of the major European airlines serve Dusseldorf.
The good news is that we can search for all of the major alliances if we book via oneworld, Star Alliance, or Air France.
My next step is to find the easiest US gateways to reach for someone who is from the area. It's good news for Jen that she could easily fly from Traverse City to Chicago, Detroit, or Boston if she wanted to go to an international flight.
Jen has easy access to multiple US gateways.
I would look for awards from those US gateways to Europe. If you live in a smaller city, you may be able to get a separate positioning flight to get to the international gateway. I would search from the US gateways to find the availability to start the long-haul flight.
To save time, I will sometimes start by searching from the major US gateways to the final destination. If I can't find any flights that fit my criteria, I might narrow the search to just long-haul flights like Chicago to Frankfurt or Boston to Amsterdam to see if I can find the longest sections of the award.
It can be difficult to find a partner. Some airlines make partner availability easy to see online, others require a phone call to search and book awards. If you use the right site for each alliance, you can get a good idea of what's available.
The American Airlines website is pretty good when it comes to searching for oneworld partner awards. You can find partner awards on AA.com.
The American Airlines website doesn't show all oneworld partners and it is known to sometimes show phantom availability, which is seats that show up in an award search but aren't actually bookable.
British Airways.com and Qantas.com are more reliable than others when it comes to searching for oneworld award availability. You will need to create a British Airways Executive Club account to log in and search for awards at the British Airways website and the same is true for the Qantas website.
To use the "Use Points" option on Qantas.com, you need to select flexible dates in the search tool on the home page.
You can see award availability at a glance for a month at a time with an easy key to see which dates have seats in economy, premium economy, business class, or first class.
Business class on intercontinental flights means that the long-haul flight from Chicago to London would be in economy class, followed by business class on the leg from London to Dusseldorf.
Business class availability on both legs of the itinerary is shown by searching from New York on the same date.
There is a search for two passengers in business class from New York to Dusseldorf. I searched that again at oneworld partner Qantas.com. When booking via any oneworld program, those seats should be available since they are available to oneworld airline Qantas. The program you book will affect the price you pay.
The airline will charge 75,000 miles per passenger.
American Airlines charges 57,500 miles per passenger, British Airways has high taxes and fees. British Airways isn't a great award booking option, it's just an example to illustrate the way things work.
Any oneworld airline could do the same thing.
Jen would have to figure out how to get to New York. There are no nonstop flights between New York and Traverse City. If Jen wanted to travel on that day, she might be better off booking a paid flight to New York.
Since Chicago is a short nonstop flight away that can be booked for a very reasonable number of miles as a separate positioning flight, she might want to look for something that departs the United States from Chicago.
It is worth looking at Star Alliance options if you are going to position with a United flight.
United.com is the go-to site for Star Alliance award space. That is still true, but with a couple of conditions.
First thing to note is the asterisk above. United elite status and credit card holders have access to expanded availability on flights that aren't accessible to partners. If you want to use your United Mileage Plus miles to book your flight, you don't have to worry. If you want to use partner miles, you don't want to look at expanded award availability. If you hit the "x" in the top right corner of the login prompt, you will be able to solve the problem.
The United tool is not as intuitive as it used to be. It is not obvious how to sort results by price in business class.
It can be a good starting point for finding award space.
The method shown in the oneworld section is what I would typically use. I would look for award availability on long-haul Star Alliance flights from Chicago, Boston, etc.
Since I knew that there was award availability for the Traverse City-to-Chicago flight shown in the previous section, I decided to search for it on United.com.
United.com came up with an itinerary that would connect the Traverse City-to-Chicago flight with flights on LOT Air Polish from Chicago to Warsaw for 77,000 miles and $25 one way.
While those awards are listed as “mixed cabin”, note that the only segment in economy is the short flight from Traverse City to Chicago.
In theory, flights on partners like LOT Polish should be available to any Star Alliance partner.
I found the same itinerary bookable via Air Canada Aeroplan.
If you book the same itinerary through Air Canada, you will pay 71 Canadian dollars in taxes and fees, which is about $56USD at the time of writing. The partner booking fee is what Aeroplan has.
The cheapest ways to book the same itinerary are not shown. There are other Star Alliance airline programs that are even better.
It can be difficult to book a partner award. Sometimes you run into phantom space that is not bookable. For more information, see this post.
The itinerary shown above at United.com and AirCanada.com did not show up in my searches at other websites. The Avianca and Turkish websites are known for being quirky and not displaying some flights that should be available.
Most partner flights found at United.com should be available to other partners. I was able to find LOT Polish flights from Dusseldorf to Warsaw to Chicago via LifeMiles.com for 63,000 miles and $12.89.
SkyTeam is more difficult to find partner award availability. SkyTeam members are displayed on Delta.com. Delta prices can be high. I saw that Delta.com showed a number of itineraries on KLM for 120K miles and $23 one way, starting from US gateway Boston.
I was expecting that the same flights would be available to other airlines. Delta and Air France / KLM are partners with Virgin Atlantic. The same flights from KLM to Virgin Atlantic are available for 56,500 miles.
The same flights are available via AirFrance and Flying Blue.
If those flights were the only flights that Jen could find, she would have to consider whether she would like to book a positioning flight to Boston or keep searching for a better option.
We have a series of posts to help you find the best deals on award tickets for travel between the United States and various regions around the world.
If you are flexible on dates and gateways, the above steps can become time-Consuming. There are tools that can help you save time on award searches.
Point.me and Award Logic are two of the most user-friendly options on the market. You can search award availability across multiple airline loyalty programs at the same time. We have written about those tools before.
There are other useful tools on the market. SeatSpy can be useful for searching a year of award availability at a time on select airlines, and ExpertFlyer is a popular tool in the award search community. I think that Point.me is the most user-friendly option of the bunch as it walks you through creating a loyalty account and transferring miles with easy-to-understand animations, but all of the above services have their use cases.
We find the greatest values in the points and miles world at partner awards. It is possible to save miles and/or fly in better comfort and luxury by mastering the art of booking partner awards. We will add this guide to it over time. The amount of information can seem overwhelming at first, but the chances for outsized value are high enough to make the juice worth the squeeze.