American Miles are Best for Ultra-Luxury, United Miles are Best for Premium


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You can increase the value of all your miles by using them for their highest-value uses. You can get more out of this hobby by collecting the right miles for your goal trip.

The first truism is why I started the MileValue Award Booking Service. The second is why I offer Free Credit Card Consultations. And most of the writing on this blog is about one or both of these ideas.

But sometimes I write so specifically that I fail to make helpful generalizations. Let me make one today:

American Airlines miles are best for ultra-luxury redemptions. United miles are best for premium redemptions.

What is the difference and why?

By ultra-luxury redemptions, I mean the absolute finest First Class experiences available with miles. American Airlines is the best type of easily accrued mile that opens up several ultra-luxury options to Americans.

By premium redemptions, I mean a step below ultra-luxury. Premium redemptions are fully flat business class beds or first class redemptions. They’re a huge step up over economy class flights, but they fall short of ultra-luxury in the design of the on-board space, the service, the food, and the ground amenities offered. United offers the best miles for easy premium redemptions all around the world.

(If you want economy redemptions, this article is not for you. You should probably be earning Arrival miles.)

Which Should You Want?

There’s no right answer. Usually ultra-luxury redemptions are only a small percentage more miles than merely premium ones. But some people don’t see the value in spending any extra miles over what it takes to get a flying flat bed. They’d rather take the extra trip.

This hobby attracts all types, and there is no right way to travel, so do what’s right for you.

Comparison of American and United for Ultra-Luxury Redemptions

The ultra-luxury disparity lies in their partners. American partners with several airlines with jaw-dropping First Class products (links throughout this article go to posts about booking that award space with pictures or reviews):

On the other hand, United’s partners’ First Class offerings aren’t as strong. Much of the problem is that the Star Alliance partners that do have an awesome First Class don’t release seats in First Class to United:

  • Singapore Suites is probably the crown jewel of Star Alliance cabins, but you can only get into it with Singapore miles (a Membership Rewards and SPG transfer partner.) Singapore First Class is not available to United miles either except for a few intra-Asia routes.
  • Swiss First Class is awesome, but you can’t get it with United miles. You need (Lufthansa) Miles & More miles.
  • Lufthansa First Class is awesome, and the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt has to be the coolest “lounge” around. You can get Lufthansa First Class space with United miles starting 15 days before departure. So for spontaneous people, Lufthansa First Class is widely available with United miles. For people who need to plan farther out than two weeks, Lufthansa First Class is out of reach.
  • ANA First Class inside the cube looks incredible. The 777-300ER featuring the suite flies to JFK, but award space is incredibly scarce on the route. I can’t remember the last time I saw it.
  • TAM First Class on its new 777s looks fantastic, but I never see First Class award space released to partners.
  • Thai flies only to Los Angeles in the US, and the plane serving that route has no First Class. Thai First Class is widely available on the A380 from Bangkok to Paris and London. The Thai First Class ground treatment includes an hour long massage in Bangkok and the flights get very good reviews, so it’s definitely an ultra-luxury experience available with United miles, but it’s not available on convenient routes for most Americans.

Contrast the ultra-luxury dominance of American miles with the availability of “merely” premium experiences with American and United miles. Here I think United has a strong edge.

  • I am a huge proponent of United BusinessFirst (business), which I think represents the ultimate premium product along several dimensions. The fully flat bed is very comfortable. Award space is widely available to all inhabited continents. You will get sleep and arrive refreshed. I also consider United Global First (first) to be in the premium category instead of ultra-luxury, and award space is widely available in Global First to Europe, Asia, and Australia. For even better award availability in United business and first, search for award space just a few days or weeks before departure, when United seems to open the premium availability flood gates.
  • South African business class award space is wide open to Africa.
  • Most Lufthansa business class is on angled lie flat seats. Its 747-8 has fully flat business class seats, and retrofits are coming to other planes.
  • Swiss business class is widely available as a last minute alternative to Europe.
  • LOT business class from New York and Chicago on its 787 looks quite nice.
  • Air Canada business class is fully flat with award availability throughout the world. Don’t forget the Vancouver to Sydney and Toronto to Santiago to Buenos Aires routes.
  • Austrian business class has these people jumping and dancing. I’m looking forward to flying it in October.
  • EVA has widely available business class to Taiwan and beyond with extremely highly reviewed beds and service.
  • Thai‘s newest business class, looks like a very comfortable premium bed.
  • Turkish business class looked incredible as I walked past it sadly on my last longhaul economy flight from Istanbul to Los Angeles.
  • US Airways business class suites on its A330s to Europe and Brazil are the same type of seat/bed as some its more famous competitors offer.

Compare all of those great options to some of the shortcomings of American and its partners.

  • American Airlines has angled lie flats in business class on all of its planes except the 777-300ER. The 777-300ER’s business class does look awesome though, so let’s hope that’s the future of the fleet.
  • Airberlin has the best business class award space to Europe in oneworld. Airberlin business class is recliner seats, which don’t belong in business class in 2013.
  • British Airways has a great business class product and good award space, but American Airlines collects big fuel surcharges on BA flights. Those might be worth it for BA First Class, but there are few circumstances where I could justify BA Business Class with AA miles.
  • I was disappointed with my flight in Qantas business class on the A380. I think United BusinessFirst is a better business class option between the US and Australia.

There are definitely some great uses of American Airlines miles for premium flights that are short of ultra-luxury.


If you want a premium flying experience with flat beds, lounge access, and a few meals with free cocktails, United miles are the most versatile miles to have that experience flying anywhere in the world on United or its partners. I invariably tell people who want two business class roundtrip tickets to Europe to collect 200k United miles.

If you want to step up to the next ultra-luxury level, though, and have an ultra-luxury flying experience, American Airlines miles are far more valuable. American Airlines miles can get you into suites and beds on Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia, Qantas, JAL, and British Airway all over the world.

Let your preferences guide your miles acquisition, and you’ll max out those miles’ value.

All US Airways miles not redeemed on the US Airways chart by the time of integration will become American Airlines miles, and American Airlines has committed to not devaluing its award chart at the time of combination. The two types of miles are roughly equal in value.

Do you collect your miles for ultra-luxury, premium, or economy trips?

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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  1. Disagree. I would say ANA first class availability is basically on par with Qantas, except one release 360 days out, the other releases 14 days or less. The NRT-ORD flight has very good F space.
    Asiana First Class (and Suites) have as good/better availability than JAL (and with JL you need to book F 11 months out). At least with OZ there is sparse space within 4-9 months.
    Thai > Malaysia on award space and routes. TG has F on HKG, NRT, HND, KIX (A380), and SYD, while Malaysia has a very crappy intra-Asia product and ground services.
    I’d rather take Lufthansa T-14 without YQ over BA with AA miles, especially with BA cramming so many F seats in the 747.
    Not to mention UA miles are hugely more flexible, do not have YQ whatsoever, and you can’t connect via Europe to Asia, which means twice as much F flying.
    Very interesting analysis anyways, agree with you that CX has best TPAC space of anyway and I have to give you that. But other than CX star alliance has better f availability than oneworld, and you can only fly CX F so many times before it becomes unaspirational.

  2. I don’t fully disagree, but I had no issues putting together LH/NH/TG F trip back in Feb.

    ANA: I had no problem finding availability in F on 777-300ER on MUC-NRT route earlier this year. It had fantastic service, dare I saw better than SQ and CX (ok, just barely). But bed was a bit weird.

    Thai: TG F is legendary quirky. But one can try new TG F on A380 on select NRT-BKK flights. It was easy to find availability.

  3. You mention that you think people interested in economy should probably be earning Arrival miles. I had a question about that as I am primarily interested in family economy travel to Europe (and am new to the points world). It seems to me that having a set of Ultimate Rewards cards is better than Arrival since it is not hard to get over an average of 2.22X with all the different category bonuses available. With those points you have the ability to check if there is availability of awards that work for you on all three alliances (via UA, BA and Korean) or you can transfer to Southwest at 1.67 cents per point for domestic travel. If you can’t get all the tickets you need via partner transfer you can book with UR travel and get a 20% discount on points owed (meaning you only need to average 1.78X to equal Arrival miles) for the other seats. Worst case just get a statement credit (that doesn’t even have to be associated with a travel purchase). Every single option seems more lucrative than Arrival points unless you don’t have enough bonus category spend. Am I missing an aspect that leads you to recommend Arrival points for my situation?

      • Thanks for the response, like I said, I am new to this so am still figuring out the ropes. I appreciate it.

        Can you expand on your statement that I would only use United transfers to fly to Europe? Is the issue with BA the fuel surcharges or is it something else? What is the issue with transferring to Korean for SkyTeam?

        I don’t live near a major airport, so I expect I will have to drive my family to either NYC, WAS or PHL when we book award travel. I think that opens up Aer Lingus and airberlin opportunities since they both fly into JFK.

        • Collect as many AA, UA, Ultimate rewards and Membership reward points as you reasonably can, and plan to be flexible on times, dates, airlines and class. AA and UA both offer one-ways so you can piece together an itinerary.

        • Both Korean and BA collect fuel surcharges on awards to Europe on all partners except Aer Lingus and airberlin. Plus United’s partners have way better award availability.

  4. Thanks to you and a couple of other bloggers, I’ll be flying my first rt J flight in November! DEN>IAD>JNB. Your comment about changing into pajamas reminded me to ask, do those who want to change just do so in the head?
    I feel kind of silly asking that question, but I bet there are other newbies wondering the same thing.

  5. I still don’t understand why you always say BA has a great business class product… have you actually taken it? it’s dreadful… the absolutely worst lie-flat business class hard product.

    • But a lot of the airlines they compete with transatlantic aren’t even offering 180 deg flat yet. Of the 3 largest European airlines (BA, AF/KL, LH), only BA has even a majority of their long haul business seats as full flat.

  6. Note that, with United, you can book a sub-optimal award (for example coach, or biz with poor connections) well in advance, then upgrade to a better Biz or First if seats open up a few days or weeks prior to travel. This can address the “flexibility” issue for a lot of travelers. There’s no change fee for Platinum Elites; modest fee for others (up to $100 for general members).

    Arrival points are great for coach if your plans are firm. But if you need flexibility to change or cancel flights, Southwest points are much better (de facto fully refundable with no fee).

  7. Newbie fist time post. Related to UA vs AA, I see you have a past series about the AA Explorer Award. Do you have a similar series regarding the UA RTW award or any idea of its rules? Following your links I am accruing plenty of Chase UR points. Thanks.

    • I don’t have a series. I don’t see as much value in the United round the world award because it costs more and you get fewer stops than the AA award. But if you collect 260k United miles, you can do a biz class rtw award.

  8. John,

    With the Arrival card, you get essentially a 2% cash rebate (assuming you don’t redeem on travel expenses). With Chase, if you redeem for Southwest, you get 1.67% (1 point is worth 1.67 cents for travel) and if you use the 20% discount, you’re only get 1.2%.

    The question for you is, would redeeming for economy travel in Europe be worth more than 2 cents per mile? For example, 50,000 points for RT should net you a ticket worth $1,000 or more.

    This excludes the sign-up bonus for cards, which is absolutely worth hitting at least the minimum spend to receive the bonus. Those bonuses can often net you effectively “10-25%”, or more if you value miles highly (e.g., $3,000 spend to get 50,000 bonus AA miles).

  9. The questions is how do you earn AA miles fast? It seems to me only sign up bonus is the only way to rack up points. I’ve no problem with UA since 2x-5x UR can help you with that. Any advices?


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