- Tips and Tricks for Booking Awards via Avianca and Asia Miles, and why I’ve Fallen in Love with Amex Membership Rewards
Why I Converted Chase Freedom to CSR, and Why Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal is a Mess
Choosing the Best Mileage Option to Hawaii: the Good, the Bad and the AAdvantage
If you’ve read my previous post on redeeming miles for our trip to Hawaii/Japan, you’ve probably noticed that I didn’t take advantage of any crazy routing rules, Excursionist perk etc. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to show you how to go to Japan and back with a stopover in Hawaii for 40k miles total (See this neat challenge on Frequent Miler blog) I wish! It actually cost me a bit more than 90k miles all-in per person in economy. Yup, I was going for mediocre.
The truth is, I didn’t have the right type of miles or flexibility to pull off an elaborate redemption scheme. What I did have was a random medley of mileage currencies and some flexible points to do the job. Overall, I’m very happy with how things have turned out. To buy our tickets with cash would probably cost my family close to $10k for all seven of us. Instead, we paid a fraction of that amount. And I got the dates and flights we needed with almost no compromises.
One of the reasons was the fact that back in the day I took a chance on an obscure currency called Avianca Lifemiles. I also recently signed up for Synchrony Cathay Pacific credit card X 2. Both programs were invaluable in pulling off this heist… err redemption. Let me share why you should consider investing in these programs despite a few quirks.
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
First things first. When I say you should invest in them, I don’t mean collecting miles via flying or credit card spending. However, it could make sense to apply for a co-branded card in order to collect the initial sign-up bonus. The current offer will give you 50k Asia Miles after spending $8k in the first six months. The annual fee of $99 is not waived. Non-affiliate link
To be clear, this is definitely an offer for those who are running out of options. If you are new to this hobby, don’t even think about it. But grizzled hobbyists like myself should absolutely look into it. Here is why:
1) Asia Miles program is your best bet/deal for flying JAL in business class from Seattle or Honolulu.
There are two reasons for that. JAL Airlines releases awards 360 days in advance. As soon as they become bookable, they are loaded into Asia Miles program, JAL partner. In my experience, this happens around 9 PM Eastern. Aside from JAL miles, which are very difficult to earn, Asia Miles will give you the earliest access to JAL seats.
By comparison, British Airways Avios program gets access to the same awards 353 days in advance, and AAdvantage 331 days. Btw, JAL awards are now bookable online via AAdvantage.
But what about fuel surcharges? Right now you will pay around $86 for one-way ticket in economy or business class from Seattle to Tokyo, and only $49 from Honolulu to Tokyo/Osaka. The cost is 25k miles in economy and 50K in business class for either route.
Other routes to Japan are available, but they cost more (40k economy and 75k miles in business). That’s why I’m focusing on Seattle and Honolulu. Note that Vancouver also has the same price via miles, but may be more expensive to get to via a positioning flight.
By comparison, AAdvantage charges 35k miles in economy and 60k miles for business class. Sure, there are no fuel surcharges, but so what? You are paying an extra 10k miles to save $86 and have to wait an extra month to get access to award seats. Of course, if you are flying beyond Seattle, 60k miles might be a better deal assuming you can find sAAver business award on American. Good luck.
For economy it’s not quite so simple. You see, this is where “married segments” rigamarole on AA.com actually works to your advantage. You may get from Tokyo to New York via Seattle for 35k AA miles, with an overnight stop. Well, assuming the award seats on JAL are still available. The choice is yours.
2) Ability to book certain awards, including Alaska, online.
This won’t usually be a hot deal, but if you have a small balance in Asia Miles program, it could make sense to top it off. For example, San Diego to Honolulu flight will run you 17,500 Alaska miles for low-level award. Alternatively, you can use 13,000 Avios or 15,000 Asia Miles. Sure, the former is a better deal. However, if you don’t have any Avios, it could make sense to use up existing Asia Miles. Plus, you can book the latter award online.
3) Lower fuel surcharges on British Airways awards.
Not sure why that is, but fuel surcharges via Asia Miles are hundreds of dollars lower than what they are on Ba.com Keep in mind that the mileage rate will often be higher via Cathay Pacific, especially during off-season.
The website is buggy, so here are a few tips to conquer it and get the award you want. As I’ve said earlier, make sure to be ready at 9 PM and start refreshing, especially when searching for a highly desirable award, like business class from Seattle to Tokyo. If you are going during Olympics, I would set aside the whole evening and start checking around 8 PM, just in case.
And believe me, there is competition for these awards, even in economy. I was looking to book Honolulu-Osaka flight and logged in at 9:15 PM. Guess what? Someone has already snapped up two economy seats. I had a choice of either transferring an extra 50k MR points and booking two seats in business class or flying the following day. I chose the latter, and this time I got all four seats in economy.
For some reason, when I used my Visa credit card, it wouldn’t go through. I ended up calling and booking two seats over the phone. The next time I used MasterCard for the other two seats, and it went through fine. A fluke? Maybe, maybe not.
There is another serious bug in the website when you try to book an award, and I’ll show you how to overcome it. Very often, you do a search and get this result:
Go to “modify date” at the top right corner and click on it. Go back a few weeks, until you see this interface.
Start clicking forward, one day at a time. Voila! See how the same flight all of a sudden became available? So, my point is, you may have to play around with the website until you get what you want. You can call instead, of course, but wait times can be quite long.
On to the best part. In my experience, Amex Membership Rewards points transfer to Asia Miles instantly. This is huge! If you sign up for Cathay Pacific credit card, no need to transfer points speculatively. I did, just in case, but it wasn’t necessary.
Keep in mind that if booking for someone else, you will first have to add them to your redemption group in the profile. But it’s free for the first five people, and only takes a minute. Don’t forget to add middle names because some Asian carriers are strict on that.
I have a love/hate relationship with Lifemiles and you can read this post in order to see why. But I have to admit that the program has its uses. I had 24k Avianca miles in my account, and the same amount in my husband’s account. I wanted to help my in-laws get to Osaka via miles, and my stash came in handy.
I was able to top off one of the accounts via instant transfer from Membership Rewards in order to have 35k miles, and used cash+mies option to book the other two tickets. The cost per mile was 1.6 cents. Not cheap, but way cheaper than buying one-way revenue ticket from Orlando to Osaka. I first had to add my in-laws to travel companions list in the profile (free), similar to Asia Miles.
When I did a search, it showed that there were 4 award seats available on the United flight we needed, so I went ahead and used my miles for the first ticket. When I logged into my husband’s account, the availability vanished. What?! I fiddled with the website and switched from “Smart Search” to “United Airlines” option and there it was again:
Oh, Avianca, you are going to cause me a heart attack one of these days… But we got the awards booked, so all was well in the end. I was glad to put our leftover stash to good use and once again, Membership Rewards program was invaluable.
Non-affiliate link for Avianca co-branded card. Right now you can get 60,000 miles after paying $149 fee and spending $1,000 in the first 90 days, special code required. Onemileatatime blog has all the details. Keep in mind, canceling this card can be a nuisance. Still, 60,000 miles is almost enough to cover two one-way tickets to Japan. You can also snag some very good deals on domestic United flights, as low as 6,000 miles one-way.
I’ve become a Membership Rewards convert
This whole experience has shown me the value of Amex Membership Rewards. Neither Asia Miles or Avianca partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards, and dealing with Marriott Bonvoy is a nuisance. By the way, the miles never showed up, though Marriott refunded the points. Yes, there is Citi Thank You program which instantly transfers to Lifemiles, though it takes two days to transfer to Asia Miles. Citi is just not on the same level as Amex MR program IMO.
The ability to transfer points instantly is critical to me. MR program also has a medley of valuable partners, like Avios and Delta. Speaking of, remember how I was debating on burning 22k AA miles per person on a direct flight from LAX to MCO? I’ve noticed that Delta was charging 15k miles for non-stop flight that left at 3PM.
While not as convenient as American option, I decided that the savings would justify it. Despite all the nonsense that AA program has been pulling these days, I still value AAdvantage miles more than I do Delta SkyMiles. Again, for my personal situation. Anyway, I had 73k Delta miles, so I transferred 2k MR points in order to book 5 tickets. I then remembered that my husband had 5k Delta miles earned long time ago. So, I went ahead and transferred 10k MR points to cover the 6th ticket.
But wait, there is more! I then remembered that my dad has 3k orphaned Delta miles. I added him as an authorized user to my Amex Everyday card and voila, we had the 7th ticket booked. Just beautiful. Did I mention that after booking this trip I’m seriously falling in love with MR program?
Sure, they are confiscating points for various grievances like self-referrals and so on. But I believe that all that stuff won’t affect an average Joe who mainly uses his Amex card for groceries and gas. If you don’t do manufactured spending or any other sketchy shenanigans, I don’t think you should worry too much. I really don’t.
I think every family in this hobby should diversify beyond Chase Ultimate Rewards. You never know when you may need to top off programs like Asia Miles. So, yes, invest in UR points, but don’t overlook Membership Rewards.
I’ve recently converted my husband’s Chase Freedom Unlimited to Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’ll have a post outlining my reasons for that but suffice to say, booking my car rental via Ultimate Rewards travel portal was a super frustrating experience. But that’s a story for another post. My point is, Chase Ultimate Rewards program has its own set of problems, so I wouldn’t rely on it completely.
If you are new to this hobby, I recommend focusing on the “big fish” first, as in targeted 100k offer on Amex Platinum card via CardMatch. Sure, there is $550 fee, but it’s worth it to acquire this giant stash of points. Any blogger who says otherwise is just being ridiculous. Obviosuly, only you know your financial situation.
If you are looking for a good spending card, it’s tough to beat Amex Everyday Preferred ($95 annual fee). You can potentially earn 4.5 MR points on groceries, 3 points on gas and 1.5 points on everything else. I’m seriously thinking about converting my Amex Everyday to this product. My personal referral link for Amex Everyday Preferred (I would get $75 upon approval). You will get 20,000 points after spending $1,000 in 3 months. I believe this is higher than current official offer.
Those who live in a big city should look into Amex Gold card It has a host of random benefits, like monthly credit on GrubHub, Shake Shack etc. Not really useful for someone like me who lives in a rural area, but could be lucrative if you pay cash for these perks as part of your daily routine. It’s also amazing for grocery purchases.
If you have a business and like to keep things simple, you should absolutely look into Blue Business Plus credit card. It earns 2 MR points per dollar on up to $50k in annual purchases and has no annual fee. This is a great card that I personally recommended to my sister-in-law who runs her own business. My personal referral link (I will get $75 upon approval)
Readers, where do you stand on UR vs. MR debate?
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.