A Ranking of Miles from Most Broadly Useful to Most Niche

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I naturally categorize miles and points into two groups:

  1. Broadly useful
  2. Niche programs

The first type of miles are the miles you want to stockpile if you’re hoping to follow a simple mile-accumulation strategy to meet all your future travel goals. Ideally these miles benefit from cheap award charts across all classes of service and to all regions without incurring fuel surcharges on awards.

By contrast, niche programs have some great values on their award charts, but lots of flaws. Maybe the program collects fuel surcharges on most awards, or charges too much for redemptions in premium cabins, or simply doesn’t release much Saver award space on flights.

Niche programs can be ignored my those who merely dabble in miles collection, but serious miles collectors should  know the strengths of and collect miles in niche programs too.

Which miles do I consider broadly useful? Which programs do I consider niche programs? What are the niche programs’ strengths?

Broadly Useful

None of these programs is perfect, but I consider all the following programs to be broadly useful programs in which a person could exclusively collect miles and still get a fair deal on the vast majority of potential redemptions:

United

Even after February 1, 2014, I still think United is the most broadly useful airline mile to stockpile for a few reasons:

  • Award space is good on United and partners.
  • United is a member of the Star Alliance, the largest alliance in the world, with good coverage of every continent.
  • United never imposes fuel surcharges.
  • You can book one way United awards for half the roundtrip price.
  • United’s economy awards are fairly priced.
  • United’s business class awards on its own metal are not outrageously priced after February 1.

Of course, the big problem with this program going forward is that partner First Class awards are basically going to be out of reach, since the miles price is surging on February 1.

Still, I’ll almost always be happy when folks come to my Award Booking Service with a stash of United miles.

US Airways

This program has all the same positives of United, since they are both Star Alliance members for now. And US Airways has a far cheaper award chart than United at the moment, a difference that will only increase after United’s devaluation.

Pay close attention to the negatives though:

  • US Airways is leaving the Star Alliance 3/30/14 for oneworld. I prefer the Star Alliance to oneworld for most–but not all–redemptions. I will consider the change of alliances to be a small hit to US Airways miles’ value.
  • US Airways is currently blocking some access to Lufthansa awards that all other Star Alliance partners can book.
  • US Airways prices one way awards as roundtrips.
  • The program will disappear in 2015 completely. (This isn’t really much of a negative since the US Airways miles will become American Airlines miles.)

American Airlines

American Airlines miles offer good value on most routes in all cabins. The oneworld alliance is small, but it has some great members like Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and LAN.

Furthermore, American Airlines miles are by far the best miles for a round-the-world trip.

There are some weaknesses with American Airlines miles:

  • American Airlines collects fuel surcharges on British Airways flights. British Airways award space is the most available award space to Europe and the vast majority of oneworld award space to Africa. If you avoid booking British Airways flights with American Airlines miles, you are hamstrung to Africa especially.
  • I anticipate a devaluation when the AA and US charts are combined. The best case scenario is the devaluation is no worse than the recent United and Delta devaluations. But I wouldn’t collect more American Airlines miles than I could quickly burn in case it is far worse.
  • Awards to the Middle East and India are overpriced.

Ultimate Rewards

Since Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 instantly to United miles, Ultimate Rewards are at least as useful as United miles. With the added flexibility of transferring to niche programs like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest, and Korean plus hotel programs, Ultimate Rewards are the second most flexible currency overall.

Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints

The most flexible and broadly useful points are Starpoints, which transfer to American, US Airways, Delta, and 27 other airline programs mostly at favorable rates. (A notable exception is the poor 2 Starpoints to 1 United mile rate.)

There are two drawbacks with Starpoints:

  • The two best transfer partners–American and US Airways–are becoming one, potentially much worse, partner.
  • Most transfers take days.

Intermediate Usefulness

These three programs have bigger warts than the programs above, but are too broadly useful for me to call “niche” programs.

  • Delta
  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Express Membership Rewards

Delta

Delta has some definite strengths:

  • There are good value awards and decent space to Australia (Virgin Australia), Africa (Air France), Europe (various partners), Asia (various partners), and South America (AeroMexico). Very few of these awards have fuel surcharges.
  • The often-times higher prices are offset by the ease with which you can earn Delta miles from Delta cards, Membership Rewards-earning cards, and Starpoints-earning cards.

But the weaknesses are far greater than with competing US-based airlines:

  • Delta doesn’t offer much Saver award space on domestic flights, making it hard to get to a gateway to connect to partner award space abroad. This is a huge drawback.
  • Delta collects fuel surcharges on a bunch of its partners.
  • Delta collects the roundtrip price on all awards.
  • Delta miles cannot be redeemed for three-cabin international first class.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines has a hodge-podge of partners that fly all over the world.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 2.54.32 AMAlaska has access to some of the world’s most coveted award space like Emirates First Class space with no fuel surcharges.

Some of the award charts are very cheap–their is a different one for each partner to each region–you can book one way awards for half the roundtrip price, and you can even get a stopover on one way awards.

The only thing that holds Alaska miles back from being more widely useful is that you cannot freely combine partners on Alaska awards. Each direction needs to be all one partner’s flights or all one partner’s flights plus Alaska flights. This rule hampers your options incredibly, especially if you don’t live in a city where Alaska flies!

Membership Rewards

Membership Rewards have an incredible array of partners, but none of them is in the most useful category above.

Delta is in this intermediate category, and the rest of the programs are in the niche category below.

Niche Usefulness

The absolute wrong conclusion to draw about the programs in this section is that they are not useful. Each program listed here–and many programs not listed here have some incredible, high-value awards. But most of their awards are a poor value.

You shouldn’t focus all your miles collecting in these programs, but you should know their strengths in case your travel goals overlap with their strengths. Here are some of my favorite niche programs and their strengths:

Of course, each of these programs has major flaws. Southwest points can’t be used for first class or international travel. Any Avios awards with layovers get pricey very quickly. Almost all the international programs collect big fuel surcharges on most awards.

Because of the weaknesses, I rarely collect miles in niche programs unless there’s an extremely attractive credit card sign up bonus, but I constantly consider the programs as transfer options for my Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and Starpoints to take advantage of their one or two sweetspots.

Action Item

If you’re currently collecting niche miles with your day-to-day credit card spending, put more of your spending on cards that earn more widely useful miles and points like the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express with 25,000 bonus Starpoints after spending $5k in the first six months, which earns the most versatile points of all.

Your Take

Are any of the programs listed here mis-categorized for you? Is one of the niche programs perfect for all your awards? Does one of my “generally useful programs” never seem to offer you value? Am I letting United miles off too lightly for the big devaluation?



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43 Responses to A Ranking of Miles from Most Broadly Useful to Most Niche

  1. I don’t understand why United miles would rate higher than Chase Ultimate Rewards if UR can convert to United miles PLUS a host of other flight and hotel partners. If you had to choose between the two, sounds like UR can do everything MR can and are far more valuable/ flexible. What am I missing?

    • I don’t think they’re listed in any kind of order within their category.

      • Within categories, they are not ordered from most generally useful to most niche. SPG and UR are the two most useful in that order. Other than that, I can’t make such fine distinctions.

  2. So after the Feb 1 United devaluation, what are the best transfer options for people who have spare Ultimate Rewards points to transfer, but who don’t want to fly United internationally? That is, if we want to fly business or first class on a 4-star or 5-star airline to Asia or Europe?

    • Probably United and fly business class on those airlines.

      You can transfer to Korean and pay big fuel surcharges on SkyTeam partners or Emirates. You can transfer to Virgin Atlantic and pay big fuel surcharges. Or you can transfer to British Airways and pay big fuel surcharges on oneworld partners.

      I’d rather transfer to United and pay a lot of miles, but not surcharges.

      • How does the cents-per-point value look for United points for the different tiers?

        • Depends on your subjective valuation of business class and first class flights. Formula for CPM on an award is (Value of award ticket – taxes/fees) / (miles used + miles foregone from not buying cash ticket)

          • I would suggest a modification for your CPM formula. You hint at it with the words “your subjective valuation of business class and first class,” but I think it’s important to spell it out:

            (Amount you would reasonably pay for premium cabin – taxes/fees) / (miles used + miles foregone from not buying cash ticket).

            Is it really fair to value an F seat at $30,000 if you’re such a cheapskate you wouldn’t pay more than $1,500 to sit up there?

            I’m all for using miles on aspirational awards, but I’m beginning to move away from thinking of those redemptions as “great values” and more as “ways to experience existence in a socioeconomic stratum I would not normally have access to.” :)

            As such, you could modify the formula a slightly different way:

            ((Value of a coach award * subjective value multiplier for the premium experience) – taxes/fees) / (miles used + miles foregone from not buying cash ticket)

            For example, let’s say I value business at 1.4x the cost of a coach seat and three-cabin F at 1.6x the cost of a coach seat (and a top product like EK or CX at 2x the cost of a coach seat). However, by the first formula, I’d never consider redeeming a premium cabin, because I wouldn’t spend (in cold, hard dollars) three times the cost of a coach ticket on three-cabin LH F, so redeeming for LH F would be undervaluing my miles. But if I view miles as a currency that grants me the ability to pay for things I wouldn’t normally have access to, I’m willing to bump up the multiplier a bit–let’s say, to 2x for business and 3x for three-cabin first (not coincidentally, the current approximate difference in cost for awards for these products). But if coach tickets to Europe are currently on a decent sale fare of $800 (that I would pay if I had a reason to go to Europe), then the most I can legitimately value my first class redemption is $2,400 ($800 x 3). Subtract out, say, $90 in taxes and subtract out the 20,000 miles I would have earned (as a 1K), and I’m valuing my 135,000-mile award right at 2 cents per mile exactly–not the 10+cpm that many FTers claim their awards are worth, unless they really would spend $15,000 on a F round-trip. :)

  3. Thank you! This “big picture” article helped me figure out where to head next. How long does one have to wait between Chase UR cards? I cancelled my last Sapphire in Nov. 2012.

    • Reports on FlyerTalk indicate the card must be closed for 2 years before you can get the same one again. But you can always get a different one. There’s the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, and Freedom as my top 4.

  4. Can you expand on the topic of “three-cabin international first class”? Coach is coach, but can your write a post about the differences between business and first?

  5. Related “big picture” question: what type of card(s) do you keep and pay the annual fees vs. churn? I’d like my keep/churn arrangement to maximize United miles. Thank you, Scott! This is so very helpful.

  6. Thank you for the excellent rundown on “Miles from Most Broadly Useful to Most Niche.” I was able to burn all my United Miles with a trip from Munich to Tokyo-Beijing- Singapore – Bangkok, Singapore – New York and back to Sarasota. I have only one section left to book and that is r/t Singapore – Bali (SIN-DPS). I have Avios points, USAirways and AA miles. I checked Delta and they fly SIN-DSP on KLM but want 45K r/t in economy. The preferred flight would be nonstop SIN-DPS on Singapore Air. How should I book this flight. Do I use Avios points or what other choices do I have? Any help would be appreciated.

  7. Scott–did you mean 35k R/T using Singapore miles to fly United? Or is there some trick to get it down to 30 like you mention. Thanks.

    • Good catch! It is 35k r/t in economy and 60k in first.

      • Interesting. Just tried to call Singapore Airlines to try to book a one way 3 leg routing on US Airways from Hawaii to Boston. The rep told me it would be 40k because it is first class, not business. I asked him to make sure, he put me on hold, came back with the same answer. I’ll try again but wondering if anyone else has run into this? Thanks.

        • US Airways First Class is fare code “O” which is the normal fare code for int’l first class instead of “I” the normal fare code for domestic first and int’l business. For that reason, many Star Alliance partners try to charge the three-cabin first class price for US Airways first.

          • Got it, thanks. No way around this I assume? I’ve tried explaining it to a few agents with no luck.

            • I’ve seen some claims people have talked Miles & More agents into pricing US Airways First Class at the business class level, but never succeeded myself. Nor have I succeeded with Singapore.

              United two-cabin first will price at business class if you can find that space.

  8. Although interesting in a general way, much of this for me is moderated by being held hostage to the Minneapolis Delta hub. A vast number of supposedly awesome award trips on American and United are rendered basically useless by the low number of connecting flights to MSP. The upshot is typically a forced overnight stay in some other airline’s connecting hub town going both ways or a maddening cross-town airport change (JFK to LGA or even EWR). Delta miles and MR points end up being more valuable here and other miles and UR points somewhat annoying.

  9. How does this change if all I care about is domestic flights? I have just recently completed the 110,000 point SW deal to get the companion pass, and it seems to me from the couple SW flights I have booked that availability of “wanna get away” rates are fantastic compared to my past experience with a few other airlines (mostly Delta).

    • All Southwest flights are available to Southwest points. The points price is 60 times the base fare. That goes up to 70 times the base fare 3/31/14. Southwest points and Arrival miles are what you want for domestic economy –> http://milevalue.com/barclaycard-arrvial-world-mastercard-2-22-cash-back-card-with-444-sign-up-bonus/

      • Speaking of the Barclaycard, this is a little off-topic, but for non-bonused spending, would you recommend the Barclaycard Arrival, the Starwood Preferred Guest by Amex, or the United Club Card?

        I ask because in that link to your review of the Barclaycard, you mentioned the SPG card and United Club Card as being “better for spending on non-bonus categories” because you value one SPG point and 1.5 United points more than the 2.2% rebate rate of the Arrival. Is that still the case now? Or is it better to earn and use Arrival miles for economy domestic travel vs United or SPG points?

        • For domestic travel, it’s the Arrival card by a mile.

          • I feel differently. I value Starpoints at about 2.2 cents/point for use booking hotel stays. Using this valuation, if you’re staying in a high cost city such as Manhattan, you can often get decent lodging with points at a much lower cost than spending cash. So if you use your cash to pay for the domestic flight, and use points to pay for your hotel, you can be well ahead with SPG.

  10. What about Avianca?

    • Intermediate. Being in Star Alliance and having access to all that space is huge. But not being able to mix cabins is a nightmare if you want to fly a premium cabin award.

  11. Scott,
    Love your blogs and your MV booking service!
    Two questions:
    Why do you value SPG points so high when they are so hard to accumulate for most of us? They have two cards…SPG and SPG business….bonuses of 25,000 or 30,000 each..churnable every couple of years so only an easy 25,000/ 30,000 per year……that doesn’t support many business, FC flights!…normal earnings of just over one cent on day to day spends isn’t much….takes a long time to get anywhere with that….
    transfer from AMEX is 1,000 MRs/333 SPG’s….again, not a good swap…..I love the value of the Cash & Points of SPG but I don’t want to use my SPG points for air flights….sucks up way too many per RT…so I can’t rank SPG value that high in the fly world…they are way too hard to replenish! Chase UR’s have five or six cards that you can get 40,000+ sign up bonuses on so you can replenish but not SPG’s…..AMEX as well for UR’s…….
    I squeeze tight on my SPG’s for hotel stays!

    What’s the best way to take advantage of ANA’s mileage charts….i.e. IAD to BRU….68,000 miles for business RT…….do you have to transfer to ANA and then call ANA? is that workable?
    Thanks..keep of the good work!

  12. Scott,
    I should have said “rank” so high rather than “value” so high…I too value them high but I can’t rank them that high as an overall value in my travel toolbox just because they are hard to come by.

  13. I totally agree with Martin. I’m a million mile UA flyer, and value Mileage Plus miles very highly for international travel, for all the reasons you’ve cited. But I value Southwest as broadly useful for domestic travel. One key reason is that Rapid Rewards points bookings are fully refundable, with no cancellation fees or penalties, and no availability hassles. (Southwest revenue bookings have no change fees, but they are non-refundable with some fairly strict rules on when they must be re-used, so points are actually a more valuable currency than dollars for making Southwest bookings.)

  14. There is another good niche for WN points besides the CP. WN points pretty much equal cash. So you can redeem ~8800 WN for a cheap $150 RT and not worry about wasting value, the way you would with a UA/AA/DL 25K redemption. Very useful.

    • Yes, WN’s program is totally “revenue based” – you can spend either cash or points to purchase travel. But points are better than cash in one very important way – points bookings are fully refundable, “Wanna Get Away” cash bookings are not. So my strategy is to book with points when I need flexibility, book with cash when my plans are firm (and for business expenses, since points bookings are not tax deductible).

  15. Totally disagree with:
    “Membership Rewards have an incredible array of partners, but none of them is in the most useful category above.”

    After 2/1, for premium cabin travel, I’d argue that just ANA and Aeroplan together is better than MileagePlus. ANA has a very favorable chart for business class redemptions and Aeroplan is great for Europe and doesn’t impose high fuel surcharges on plenty of *A airlines (Brussels, Swiss, LOT, Turkish, United, US Airways and that’s just for TATL … EVA and Air China across the Pacific as well).

    That all totally ignores:
    -The regular large transfer bonuses to BA that make NA-SA travel a bargain and even TPAC travel reasonable
    -The ability to transfer from Person A’s Amex account to Person B’s frequent flier account which no other program allows
    -Other options including things like Singapore which has some star alliance sweet spots (like Hawaii…), Flying Blue for one way awards on Delta, etc

    IMO Amex MR is alone in a tier with Chase UR in terms of usefulness that is fully above all individual mileage programs and only below SPG.

  16. @Justin- thanks for that input on Amex MR. I have about 300K MR points and have not had much luck figuring out the program for redemptions that pencil out as better than lackluster.
    I love the 2x grocery bonus and some of the other perks.

    I am primarily interested in using the MR points for biz class travel to either Europe or Asia from the west coast. I recently investigated a redemption from LAX to TVL then home IST to LAX, and could not find a good value there. It was a major “fail”. I ended up using AA miles/United miles and a hop to IST with cash for what turned out to be a very tough award booking.

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