I recently booked a family of four an economy award from Miami to Buenos Aires with their Membership Rewards. It was an interesting award that I think demonstrates the complexities and fun of booking with American Express points.
I won’t talk about that award specifically, but I’ll use it as a jumping off point for discussion since it illustrates a typical Memberhip Rewards situation. Imagine you have a family of four trying for an economy roundtrip from Miami to Buenos Aires for two weeks in October with 300k Membership Rewards.
Membership Rewards are awesome because they can be transferred to any of the three airline alliances, so you can use them to book on almost any airline in the world.
But Membership Rewards are frustrating because they transfer to programs with which you may be unfamiliar like ANA or programs with major drawbacks like British Airways’ fuel surcharges.
I would approach an award like this looking first at the flying options, then at the transfer options. I know if I could find award space, I can probably find a transfer partner with access to that space. And if I find several ways to get to Buenos Aires, I cancompare the transfer options to see which is the best deal with Membership Rewards.
From checking the Buenos Aires international airport’s (EZE) wikipedia page, I know there are direct flights to/from Miami on American, LAN, and Aerolineas Argentinas. Of course, United and Delta also fly to Buenos Aires from their hubs.
Aerolineas Argentinas is the state-owned flag carrier of Argentina. I haven’t heard too many kind words about it, but it does have a direct flight from Miami to Buenos Aires. The best way to search for the space is on ExpertFlyer.
ExpertFlyer only displays economy award space on the airline. The space that Aerolineas’ SkyTeam partners like Delta have access to is T class space.
Aerolineas Argentinas flies twice daily between Miami and Buenos Aires–its only US route–once in the morning and one redeye. Up to seven seats are widely available on each!
The return is also wide open.
This was a promising start!
American has direct flights from Miami to Buenos Aires also. The best place to check for space on those flights is aa.com.
I can look at the whole month of October in just a few seconds with AA’s awesome calendar view. Unfortunately there is no MileSAAver outbound space–the low-miles-price space open to partners– in October, though there is some space on return flights.
Outbound: No Saver Space
Return: Some Saver Space
LAN is another oneworld airline with direct flights from Miami to Buenos Aires. I go to ba.com to check for LAN space to Buenos Aires, since aa.com doesn’t display LAN space.
I ca’t find any LAN space on ba.com, though it did pick up the same American Airlines space I’d seen on aa.com.
ba.com not finding any LAN space
…but it did find the same space on American Airlines
Yes, it seemed like a complete longshot that Delta would have space for four from Miami to Atlanta to Buenos Aires at the low-miles-price because Delta has putrid availability to South America, but I checked anyway.
Green shows low-miles-price itineraries. There actually are some returns possible.
While oneway tickets with Delta miles are a huge mistake since Delta charges the roundtrip price for all awards even oneways, I kept the returns in mind because AMEX has some transfer partners like Flying Blue that can be used to book oneway Delta awards reasonably.
United, TACA, Copa
The final place I checked was united.com to see what United, Copa, or TACA award space there was that I could snag with a transfer to a Star Alliance partner.
Green and yellow days have an award with four economy seats.
I found a few more possible awards to add to the bounty.
I found space in both direction on Aerolineas Argentinas’ two daily flights. I found space in both directions on connecting United and Copa (via Panama) flights. I found return space on American Airlines and Delta, but no outbound space. I found no space on LAN.
We can transfer Membership Rewards to Delta to book the Aerolineas Argentinas space and/or the Delta space. Delta charges 60,000 miles roundtrip to Argentina in economy class whether you fly it or one of its SkyTeam partners like Aerolineas Argentinas.
Although Delta does charge fuel surcharges for awards on a lot of its partners, it does not collect fuel surcharges on Aerolineas redemptions.
That means a transfer to Delta would mean the transfer of 240,000 Membership Rewards to 240,000 Delta miles. American Express charges $7 per 10,000 miles transferred to US-based airlines, with a maximum charge of $99, This transfer would incur that $99 charge. The award itself would have government taxes of around $75 per person, meaning a total cost of 240,000 Membership Rewards and approximately $400 for four people.
In return for that outlay, the family could get direct flights in each direction or could sub a one-stop itinerary on Delta on the return if they really didn’t want to fly Aerolineas Argentinas.
Air France’s frequent flyer program, Flying Blue, is not always the best option because it levies heavy surcharges on several partners. But it doesn’t levy surcharges on Delta or Aerolineas Argentinas. And it’s price from the US to Argentina is 25,000 miles each way.
I’m not sure why the taxes collected exceed those collected by Delta by $15 per person, but that’s a minor concern. Flying Blue costs 25,000 miles each way, and it can be used to book oneways, which is a far better deal than Delta’s 60k miles roundtrip, which is the price whether you book oneways or roundtrips.
That means for 200k Membership Rewards and $360, a family of four could get on the same flights as with Delta miles: Delta and Aerolineas Argentinas flights.
We can transfer Membership Rewards to British Airways Avios, but that would only enable booking the return leg in this case. Avios can be used to book American or LAN flights. We found only space on American, and only on the return.
The good news is that it’s only 25,000 Avios from Buenos Aires to Miami.
That means the return would be 100k Membership Rewards and $300.
I recently sang the praises of All Nippon Airways as a Membership Rewards transfer partner. ANA has a distance based award chart. You add up the distance of all the segments and see how many miles that trip will cost. Here is the economy chart.
Miami to Houston to Buenos Aires roundtrip is just over 12,000 miles. That works out 60,000 ANA miles (60,000 Membership Rewards) roundtrip. That’s not fantastic or awful.
But Miami to Panama to Buenos Aires is under 9,000 miles, meaning it is only 43,000 ANA miles roundtrip. That’s the lowest miles total we’ve seen.
image from gcmap.com
In neither case would there be fuel surcharges. ANA never charges fuel surcharges on United or US Airways flights, and Copa doesn’t collect fuel surcharges on this routing.
No fuel surcharges on Copa from Miami to Buenos Aires, so ANA won’t collect any.
That means ANA miles used to fly Copa would be 172k Membership Rewards and about $480 in taxes.
Transfer Options Summary
- All the options here receive 1:1 transfers from Membership Rewards and incur only government taxes–no fuel surcharges.
- Transferring to Delta is a bad idea. Why pay 60k Membership Rewards for a roundtrip when the same flights are 25k each way via Flying Blue? Total: 240k + $400
- ANA is the cheapest option overall at 43k roundtrip if we route through Panama on Copa. Total: 172k + $480
- British Airways and Flying Blue are the cheapest direct options at 25k each way. Total: 200k + $300
If you really value direct flights, take the Aerolineas Argentinas flight one direction for 25k Flying Blue miles and return on the American Airlines flight for 25k Avios.
If you really value the cheapest flights or want a free stopover in Panama, look for Copa flights for 43k ANA miles.
Membership Rewards have awesome versatility, which also means it’s more work to figure out the best deal. For a simple Miami to Buenos Aires roundtrip, all three alliances are possibilities.
Because some transfer partners have region-based charts, some have distance-based charts, some charge fuel surcharges sometimes, and some never do, you have to investigate every option for the best deal.
For Buenos Aires to Miami roundtrip, the best deals are with ANA miles on Copa to take advantage of the distance-based chart of a combination of Flying Blue miles and Avios to take advantage of their partners’ direct flights.