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 by 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:

  • American Airlines
  • United
  • Starwood Preferred Guest
  • Ultimate Rewards

American Airlines

American Airlines miles offer good value on most routes in all cabins. The oneworld alliance great members like Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and LAN, and American miles can be redeemed on 24 airlines.

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 Africa. If you avoid booking British Airways flights with American Airlines miles, you are hamstrung to Africa especially.
  • I–and the experts–anticipate a devaluation announced in late 2015 for awards booked in early 2016 or later.
  • Awards to the Middle East and India are overpriced.

United

Even after 2014’s devaluation, I still think United miles are among the most broadly useful airline miles 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 on awards.
  • United’s economy awards are fairly priced.
  • United’s Business Class awards on its own planes are not outrageously priced.

Of course, the big problem is that partner First Class awards are basically out of reach. Who has 240,000 United miles for one roundtrip to Asia in First Class?

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

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, Singapore, 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, Alaska, and 27 other airline programs mostly at favorable rates. Every day, 20,000 Starpoints transfers to 25,000 American Airlines or Alaska Airlines miles.

The big drawbacks with Starpoints:

  • Most transfers take days.
  • 2 Starpoints transfer to 1 United mile. Since United devalued, I’d love that transfer to get revalued to 1:1 like with American, Delta, Alaska, and dozens of other airlines.

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
  • Citi ThankYou Points

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.
  • Since January 1, 2015, Delta allows one way award redemptions for half the price of roundtrips.

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 fuel surcharges on all awards originating in Europe. This essentially means that its miles can be used for one ways to Europe, but are a terrible value for one ways home.
  • 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–there 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 a large number of partners, but none of them is in the most useful category above. All are 1:1 partners in case otherwise noted.

  • Delta Airlines
  • AeroMexico
  • Air Canada (Aeroplan)
  • Alitalia Airlines
  • All Nippon Airways (ANA)
  • British Airways Avios
  • Cathay Pacific
  • EL AL Israel Airlines 1,000 MR to 20 EL AL point
  • Air France & KLM Flying Blue
  • Emirates
  • Frontier Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Iberia Plus Avios
  • JetBlue 250 MR to 200 TrueBlue Points
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Virgin America 200 MR to 100 Elevate Points

Delta is in this intermediate category, and the rest of the programs are in the niche category below including Virgin Atlantic, Aeroplan, ANA, British Airways Avios,  Flying Blue (Air France), Hawaiian, and Singapore. The big problem is that all the global partners impose fuel surcharges on most of their awards.

You can creatively mostly avoid fuel surcharges, but you have to work hard enough that this program can’t be in the “Broadly Useful” category.

Citi ThankYou Points

ThankYou Points now transfer to 11 airlines at a 1:1 rate:

  • Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
  • EVA Air Infinity MileageLands
  • Etihad Guest
  • Garuda Indonesia Frequent Flyer
  • Qatar Privilege Club
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Thai Airways Royal Orchard Plus
  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue
  • Malaysia Airlines Enrich
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
  • Qantas miles

I don’t know of a single high value use of the eight programs that are not in bold. But between Singapore KrisFlyer, Air France Flying Blue, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, and the ability to use ThankYou Points for 1.25 to 1.6 cents each toward any flight on any airline, this program belongs in the intermediate category.

Singapore miles allow fuel-surcharge-free awards on United flights often for fewer mile than United would charge for the same award including to Hawaii, Europe, South America, and within the continental US; they’re the only way to book Singapore Suites; and they have awesome stopover rules.

Flying Blue miles allow you to book some Delta flights for fewer miles than with Delta miles, and allow access to Promo Awards like 12,500 miles one way to Europe or Israel.

Virgin Atlantic miles aren’t just about 17,500 mile awards to London or 27,500 mile Premium Economy awards to London. They also allow 45,000 mile roundtrips to South America on Delta and a few other high value awards.

Citi partners with American Airlines. If Citi ever adds American Airlines as a 1:1 transfer partner, ThankYou Points will shoot to the most useful category.

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, and you have transferable points. 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, international travel beyond the Caribbean, or any partners. Any Avios awards with layovers get pricey very quickly. Almost all the international programs collect big fuel surcharges on most awards (but not on the awards mentioned above where there are no or small surcharges.)

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, ThankYou Points, 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.

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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 its big devaluation last year?

 

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