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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.

Recap

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?

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