This is a continuation of the series that I am doing on airline programs. You can check out my first post in this series, on Aeroplan, here.
I rank the programs through this process:
These following posts are split into chunks (I considered doing it in one post but then my post was over 3,000 words!!) so I’ve considered their ease of earning, ease of redemption, amount of fuel surcharges, redemption levels, potential for aspirational redemptions, and deals and tricks possible for each program through a completely arbitrary 7-point scale where 1 is the worst and 7 is the best.
For example I would rate a program an arbitrary 7 for earning if there were consistent 100,000 signup bonus credit card offers and the grand slam. So generally no program I think will get a seven. On the redemptions side the program will get a 1 if they have award levels like this (from China Southern Skyteam Award Chart). Look at that chart – only 121,000 km’s for a business class award between Hong Kong and Singapore!
Obviously the programs that I will be reviewing are not going to be as extreme so most programs I think will fall somewhere between 2-5. Note that this is an arbitrary scale and your opinions may differ as we all use miles differently. As always, these ranking are also only relevant to Canadians, as collecting and redeeming miles in Canada is a completely different process than from the US.
AAdvantage (American Airlines)
Ease of earning: 4 (out of 7)
- Feasibility of purchasing miles outright: High
- Credit and Hotel partners: Moderate
- Other Partners: High
With these series I explicitly exclude earning miles from flying because there are too many variables with whether you are close to the border and can mileage run.
AA has the one of the programs that is accessible by credit card spending by Canadians, and while the signup bonuses are not that great, there are still options worth considering. They have partnerships with RBC as well as Starwood. While definitely not as easy to earn in Canadian stores, their mileage mall will offer decent returns for those who can pick up merchandise in the States (whether through a P.O Box or holding US properties). Furthermore, you can also earn AA with Westjet and transfer to AA from Starwood Preferred Guest or RBC.
Recently, they’ve also offered opportunities to top up any miles you need for a redemption at just around 2.15-2.23 cents, which is a pretty good deal. That means 1,500 for two segments of business class to Asia, and when you can find space, that could be around or just slightly more pricey than buying an economy revenue ticket outright, if you can find the award space.
In any case, if you stock up on Starwood points for 2.8-2.6 cents each (when you buy when they have the 20-25% sale promotions), then the 25% transfer bonus reduces the cost of each AA mile to 2.2-2.4 cents. I actually would buy Starwood points because they have that transferability to SO MANY AIRLINE PROGRAMS as well as the ability to redeem at hotels (which could be an excellent value as well) if you have redemptions in mind.
Ease of redemption: 5.5 (out of 7)
- Fuel surcharges: Low
- Flexibility in itineraries: High
- Partner Award Space: High
- Deals/Tricks: Moderate
- Redemption Levels: Low
Their phone agents are generally on par with Aeroplan although their online booking system is a do not show all carriers (so you should be using other engines). They have clear rules, although they’re complex and sometimes can get in the way of booking awards, such as not being able to transit certain regions on awards (future post on AA rules). That means you can’t fly to India via Hong Kong, and that’s a big headache not only because the travel is longer via Europe (especially for west-coast departures), but also because AA redemption options across the Atlantic are generally weaker.
While they do have weaknesses, their strengths are also extremely strong. As I’ve said, I try to make the best redemption on each program possible. So while there might be a range of values on redemptions, I’d rather a program have a few very good and a few very bad redemptions rather than a range of redemptions that provide a decent rate of returns. This is why I hate fixed-value rewards so much. 🙂
However, one of their greatest advantages is permitting one-way redemptions, and having a stopover at the North American Gateway city, as well no implementation for fuel surcharges (except for British Airways). So their best redemptions are definitely Cathay Pacific or JAL to Asia 2, with a stopover at a North American City. That means, you can do a redemption such as LAX-JFK-HKG-SIN, thanks to their 25M extremely liberal routing rules. That means you can go 25% over the maximum permitted mileage on a far and essentially, given your two start-point and end-point are far away enough, you can route anywhere within a region you want, essentially, of course following all the rules.
Other reasons why I like redeeming AA to Asia is because they have very good partner space on Cathay Pacific and JAL, both top-notch Asian carriers. Furthermore, their award redemption levels are extremely reasonable, for only 55,000/67,5000 to Asia 2, with a stopover at your gateway city, compared to 175,000 for Aeroplan (round trip). At a pinch, you can also take American Airlines although their premium product is not as good if you’re not flying their new 777-300ER. But furthermore there are no fuel surcharges, unlike Aeroplan where the airlines with good products, ANA and Asiana, have $200+ in fuel surcharges each way. The only area where they are lacking is across the Atlantic, as British Airways levies huge fuel surcharges, and other carriers such as Air Berlin and AA themselves have a relatively poor premium product. But at a pinch, you can always get a redemption to Europe without YQ if necessary, so TATL awards are roughly the same value as Aeroplan.
While I like redeeming for international first and business class, there are also very good off-peak redemption dates for economy class. Remember that the international segment can come up to one year after booking the ticket while the domestic segments to the international gateway city can be anywhere between that, so that means theoretically you’re getting not only 1 redemption (1/2 international, 1/2 domestic and you could pair the rest off with Avianca or Aeroplan or Avios) but you’re getting this for 20,000 poinst in economy. If you look carefully at the aa chart, that off-peak awards are only 20,000 miles given that you begin travel on the off peak date. What that means is that you book your first redemption to a north american destination (for example new York). Then using other miles to complete the award, you can set the trans-atlantic segment of the award 6 months later during peak season such as during summer or around christmas. That means if the domestic award is 12.5k, the international segment is only 7,500 AA miles. This is a tremendous deal if you pair it up again with other miles.
Finally, AA allows five day holds even without the miles in your account, so you can lock in any space if necessary.
Cost of redeeming: Low
- Points specificity: No
What I mean by points specificity is that AA isn’t really confined to certain redemptions or certain regions, especially that it allows oneways, which means you can use other miles to book the other way, or even use an aa redemption to fill an open jaw.
Oceania to Asia 2, as well as Europe to Middle are good deals especially in first class for under 50k miles. Overall, they’re an excellent general alternative currency with excellent potential if you can fly oneworld and do not require redemptions in domestically in Canada. That is the only detriment, as while you can earn miles with flying Westjet, you can’t redeem on their metal. So with AA it is basically impossible to do domestic redemptions without using two tickets. But otherwise, I think AA is one of the best miles to have and use in Canada, since United MileagePlus is essentially inaccessible to the general public.
Points to note:
Considering the AA-US merger, it’s still possible that some award value might be there. Just not much. It definitely depends on whether they are going to significantly change the current award chart.