Tag: singapore airlines

Why I sometimes earn miles with airlines I’ll never fly

Why I sometimes earn miles with airlines I’ll never fly

At the time of writing this, I recently got off a flight from San Jose to Boston via Denver on United Airlines. I was lucky enough to score a great last minute deal, booking it for just $137, despite it being a nearly 3,000-mile journey.

Now, in a more simpler era, airlines had the very simple policy of giving you one mile earned for every mile you flew. Unfortunately, itineraries like the one I booked above meant that the airline would give away a lot of miles without earning much money. In contrast, (business) travelers who often booked very expensive short-distance (often last-minute) itineraries would not earn very many miles, creating a disincentive against a behavior that is very profitable for the airline.

Consequently, over the past three years, the Big Three airlines (United, Delta, and American) have all made the switch to what is known as revenue-based earning, where the number of award miles earned correlates with the amount of money spent on the ticket, rather than the amount of miles flown. Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Sun Country have always operated this way, leaving Alaska, Frontier, and Spirit as the only domestic airlines that still award miles based on distance flown rather than money spent (though there is rampant speculation that Alaska may be switching away from this, and redeeming miles and Frontier and Spirit is an exercise in frustration).

With the Big Three airlines, they now award you miles equal to five times the price of your airfare before taxes, assuming you don’t have any status. So for the itinerary I booked recently on United, despite flying 2,705 miles, I would have only earned 535 United award miles:

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Considering that domestic one-way awards on United start at 10,000 miles (for trips under 700 miles), this means that I won’t have enough award miles to redeem for a free trip until I’ve spent $2,000 on airfare!

If that sounds like a lot of money to spend in order to book a free flight that often prices for under $100, it is!

The good news is that given United’s membership in the Star Alliance, you can choose to earn miles with any of the 27 airlines in the Star Alliance, or one of their non-alliance partners like Aer Lingus.

And while the other airlines would love to also award miles based on how much you spent on United, for obvious reasons, they do not have that data, nor is United going to provide it to them. So they have no choice but to award miles based on how far you fly. That being said, not all tickets will earn miles at the same rate. And that’s not just whether you’re flying in first, business, or economy – even within economy, not all tickets earn at the same rate.

I’m not going to get into a detailed explanation of airline fare classes given how complex a topic is, but what it comes down to is that airlines sell there tickets in different fare “buckets”. Availability of those buckets varies depending on a number of factors, which is also why the person next do you on your flight may have paid a different amount for the same flight.

Somewhere on your ticket there should be a letter indicating the class; in my case it was “G”:

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Thanks to the very helpful website wheretocredit.com, I can now see how many miles I’ll earn on a G fare on United Airlines:capture

Knowing that my flight is 2,702 miles (which I can see from the “PQM” field above), I know that if I credit to Singapore Airlines, I can earn 100% of those miles flown, or 2,702 miles with Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program. As you can see from the chart, my flight will earn the most miles on Singapore Airlines (as it turns out, almost all United flights will earn 100% on Singapore Airlines).

Of course, that’s not to say you should always credit miles to the program where you will earn the most miles, as intuitive as that may seem. Before deciding where to credit your miles, you should first look at the award chart of the airline you want to earn miles on to see how many miles you would need for an award. In this case with Singapore Airlines’ award chart, I can see that a round-trip flight within the United States (which would be on United) booked through Singapore Airlines is 25,000 miles, or, the same as it would cost if I were booking with United miles:

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But that’s not the only thing to consider. You should also think about how easy it is to accrue these miles. In this situation, I know that I can transfer my Starwood Preferred Guest points, Citi ThankYou Points, AMEX Membership Rewards, or Chase Ultimate Rewards to Singapore Airlines if I encounter a situation where I need more miles to book an award. Furthermore, you also should be aware of any taxes and fees that airlines may add on to your ticket – in this case I know that none would be added for a domestic flight on United Airlines, but Singapore Airlines can sometimes add on thousands of dollars in fees for first-class redemptions on Singapore Airlines.

But let’s say instead this flight earned 75% on Singapore Airlines and 100% on Ethiopian Airlines. Given that there is no other way to accrue Ethiopian Airlines miles other than flying Star Alliance airlines, I might still lean toward earning on Singapore Airlines. Furthermore, you should look to see how easy it is to redeem miles in the program you are earning with. While I know that it is relatively easy to redeem Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles (it does require a phone call if you aren’t booking on Singapore Airlines itself), I might be a little bit more skeptical about doing something like crediting all of my Delta Airlines flights to Czech Airways; while Czech Airways generally earns the most miles for Delta flights (usually 100%), a brief search for stories about redeeming those miles indicates it’s nearly impossible.

I should also mention that this strategy should only be used by people who are not trying to attain status with a particular airline. In order to do so, you need to be crediting all your flights to the same airline, and then based on how many miles you fly, you may be able to earn status with that airline, even if you don’t earn nearly as many actual redeeemable miles. As someone who rarely pays for a flight though, airline status (which requires paid flights) has never been something I’ve prioritized too much. Furthermore, all of the calculations about miles earned are assuming you don’t have status – if you do have status, then you’ll need to factor in any multipliers when determining miles earned.

 

Did I miss something? Have a question? Let me know!

 

Cover image: Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, courtesy of marinabaysands.com

 

How to book a free flight to Hong Kong on the best airline in the world using your Virgin America Elevate points (or, all the cool things you can redeem Elevate points for besides Virgin America flights)

How to book a free flight to Hong Kong on the best airline in the world using your Virgin America Elevate points (or, all the cool things you can redeem Elevate points for besides Virgin America flights)

So far in my series of writing about booking award travel with the various domestic airlines, I’ve focused on “legacy carriers” that are part of broader airline alliances, and have set amounts of miles they charge for award flights based on the regions one is traveling between.
The next airline whose award bookings I’m going to explore however, is a bit different. They are not part of any alliance, and the amount of points directly correlates with the cost of the flight.
Chances are that if you live in San Francisco and take a few domestic flights a year, you’ve probably flown Virgin America at least once. Since being formed in 2008, they’ve done an amazing job at both prioritizing an amazing in-flight experience, while also being careful to not expand too quickly. Though I would give JetBlue a slight edge in amenities, I still overall prefer Virgin America given their amazing on-time record, not to mention the fact that their ample leg room, free TV, wifi, and ambient lighting go far beyond any other domestic carrier besides JetBlue.
So if you’ve taken a few Virgin America flights, you probably have a good-sized stash of Elevate points, their frequent flyer program. While it’s not exact, 10,000 Elevate points is worth roughly $200 in Virgin America flights.
And if you want to use these points for Virgin America flights, it’s pretty easy. Just select your flight like you would normally, through their slightly unusual booking system, first selecting the cities:

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then the dates:

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and then select Elevate points:

 

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Just as the first flight costs almost twice as much as the second flight if one were booking in dollars, it costs almost twice as many Elevate points. After you select your flight, you can then continue to enter your information, and book an award flight. Easy enough, right?

Well, despite Virgin America making significant strides to expand their network, they still are primarily a domestic carrier (other than a few flights to Mexico), and there will probably be times when you want to fly internationally. Luckily, you can do this with your Virgin America Elevate points!
While they don’t publicize it very much, if you click “Redeem Points” from the Elevate homepage, like so:

redeem

and then scroll down, you’re then presented with a screen you may not have noticed before, showing you an opportunity to choose a route from two cities that a partner airline flies between:

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In short, Virgin America partners with five other airlines, all of which are excellent: Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines. (While Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and Virgin America are all affiliated with Richard Branson’s Virgin brand, Virgin America, for legal reasons, still has to essentially be operated independently of the other Virgin airlines).
Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always a good idea to use your Elevate points on these airlines. As you can see in the above screenshot, Virgin Atlantic adds on huge fees for economy award redemptions, essentially rendering them useless for award redemptions, unless you’re booking a first class ticket, where $1,150 is trivial for a ticket that would normally cost $8,000. Emirates also adds on similar fees.
Luckily, the fees are minimal on Hawaiian and Singapore, and only a little bit higher on Virgin Australia, and can offer some great values, such as 40,000 Elevate points and $40 for a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong on award-winning Singapore Airlines:

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As you may notice, one-way trips cost a little more than half of the roundtrip price. Unfortunately, this page only serves as an award chart letting you know how many miles it costs and what the fees will be, it is not an award search engine where you can see which days have award flights available, or book award flights.
In order to check award availability, you’ll either have to search online through an award search engine that indexes that particular airline, or if you’d rather someone else do the work, you can call the Virgin America award booking center (which you’ll have to do anyway to book the award), and ask them about availability on different dates.
While this process is certainly more onerous than booking an award flight with United miles per se, it certainly is a great way to make your hard-earned Virgin America Elevate points go a lot further.

Have a question about something? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.

How to book award (free) flights with your United miles

How to book award (free) flights with your United miles

Over the next few days, I’m going to go over how to book award travel with the various frequent flyer programs of the major U.S. airlines (this will not be about how to decide which is the best one to book an award flight with or how to earn United miles; those will come later).

As SFO (San Francisco) has been my primary airport for most of the past 7 years, I figured I would start with United, which is the only of the “Big Three” U.S. airlines (United, American, Delta) to have a hub there.

United generally has one of the better online award travel search engines. You have access to almost all of the Star Alliance airlines, and it’s very easy to use. Furthermore, Star Alliance is the largest of the three major airline alliances, which will allow you award flights to almost (not here) anywhere in the world.

To search, all you need to do is check “Search for award travel” on United.com:

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There are two types of economy awards on United: Saver, and Standard. Saver awards cost half as many miles as Standard awards , and are generally how you want to use your miles. If there are no saver awards available for your date and you have some flexibility on dates, check other dates. Standard awards should really only be used if you have no flexibility on dates and you don’t want to pay for the flight, but it’s not a very good use of your miles.

United used to display Standard and Saver awards in separate columns, but now they combine them, always listing Saver award space first. For example, here is an award search from Boston to Kathmandu, with saver award space on a routing that combines Lufthansa and Thai Airways, and Standard award space on a routing that combines United and Air India:

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In this situation (aside from the fact that Lufthansa and Thai Airways are far better than United and Air India), you want to choose Saver award. Of course, it’s always important to look at the taxes and fees associated with each award. These are generally either charged by the airports that the flight passes through, or sometimes by the airline under the misleading name of “fuel surcharges.” In some situations in which one award might charge you several hundred dollars in additional taxes and fees to book, it might not be a good idea even if it’s less miles. Of course, in this situation, saving $20 in taxes and fees with the second option isn’t worth the extra 42,500 miles.

The problem with United’s online award search:

As I mentioned earlier, United shows most, but not all Star Alliance flights. In particular, there are two airlines that get left out. The first, Shenzhen Airlines, is an airline that you or I will likely never fly unless we live in southern China. The second, Singapore Airlines, is generally considered one of the best airlines in the world, and connects major cities all over the world to Singapore. You do not want to miss a chance to fly Singapore Airlines for free.

While All Nippon Airways (ANA) is generally considered to have the best search engine for Star Alliance availability (in terms of yielding the most results), it’s also extremely difficult to use, and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners. Instead, to make sure you’re not missing out on Singapore Airlines award space, I would recommend using the search engine for Aeroplan, the loyalty program of Air Canada. (Note that you will need to create a frequent flyer account with Aeroplan first before you can search).

Here’s an example of United’s award search engine showing no nonstop flights between Hanoi and Singapore:

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While this itinerary isn’t terrible, it still is frustrating to not fly nonstop between two cities that are so close to each other. But here’s Air Canada’s search engine showing that there is indeed a nonstop flight on that date on Singapore Airlines:

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You don’t have to worry about the 20,000 miles displayed next to the award; since you are booking it with your United miles, you’ll use the United rate for one-way travel in Southeast Asia (17,500 miles). You just have to call up the United MileagePlus service center and have them book the award for you.

“OK, but I don’t plan on flying anywhere near Singapore, so can’t I just search United?”

In theory, yes, but given that Singapore Airlines operates five fifth freedom routes (which is when an airline from one country transports passengers between two other countries), it’s often still important to check.

For example, if you were to use United’s award search engine to look for flights from Houston to Moscow, you would see that the fastest way to get there with your miles is by flying United from Houston to Frankfurt, then making a connecting flight to Moscow on Lufthansa:

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However, by searching on Air Canada, you’ll see that you can fly nonstop from Houston to Moscow on Singapore Airlines:

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Singapore Airlines offers the following fifth freedom flights: (flights that depart the US and go to a country that’s not Singapore)

New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA)

San Francisco (SFO) to Hong Kong (HKG)

San Francisco (SFO) to Seoul (ICN)

Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT)

Houston (IAH) to Moscow (DME)

So if you think there’s a chance that one of those flights might be of use to you on your trip, it’s worth going beyond the United search engine to look for Singapore Airlines award space.

Pro tip: People often use “nonstop” and “direct” interchangeably when describing flights. They are NOT the same thing. A nonstop flight is just what it sounds like – it flies from one city to the other without stopping at any cities in between. A direct flight may stop at a city in between, but and then continue on using the same aircraft and flight number. For example, Singapore Airlines Flight 1 is considered a direct flight from San Francisco to Singapore, even though it stops at Hong Kong on the way. Either the San Francisco to Hong Kong leg or Hong Kong to Singapore leg would be considered nonstop, but not together. In other words, all nonstop flights are direct flights, but not all direct flights are nonstop flights.

The importance of earning frequent flyer miles for all your flights (and how)

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Before reading this page, I highly recommend you read my page on Airline Alliances and Partnerships, as it will make much of the below easier to understand.

For a while, I thought frequent flyer programs were only for business travelers and never bothered to sign up and earn miles. However, given the plethora of ways to supplement frequent flyer accounts with additional miles (which I’ll get to later), not choosing to earn miles on paid flights is like throwing away free money. That being said, most frequent flyer programs will take away your miles if you go a certain amount of time (usually 18 months) without any activity, though this often can be eliminated with a co-branded credit card with that airline.

Where and how to credit flights

As I’ve mentioned before, while frequent-flyer programs were designed to reward loyalty to a particular airline, you almost always have multiple options when deciding how you’re going to earn miles from a paid flight.

If the airline you’re flying belongs to one of the three major alliances, you can choose to earn miles on any airline in that alliance. However, you can also choose to earn miles on airlines that that airline partners with, whether or not it’s in that alliance.

This is an incredibly valuable resource for figuring out where to credit your flights.

Now, I realize that this can be a lot to wrap one’s head around. An easy strategy is to just credit your all flights to United, American, or Delta. However, while all the airlines used to operate on the relatively uncomplicated idea that you earn one mile for every mile you fly, the big three airlines in the U.S. (United, American, and Delta) have all recently switched to what’s known as revenue-based earning, where the amount of miles you earn for a flight correlates with how much money you spent on the flight. (American was the last holdout, but this change is set to take effect on March 21, 2016). This obviously rewards business travelers and people who spend a lot of money with an airline, but hurts people who find great deals. For example, in the past, if you were lucky enough to find a $500 roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Shanghai on United, then you would earn around 12,000 miles for that flight, the actual amount you flew. Now, unless you have elite status with United, you’ll earn five times the cost of your flight regardless of distance, meaning that a $500 roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Shanghai will earn you the same amount of miles (2,500) as a $500 roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Dallas.

The good news is that many other airlines still award miles based on distance flown. However this is often subject to the fare class that you book in. In short, a fare class refers to different pricing tiers at which an airline sells its tickets. A more in-depth explanation can be found here. However, for beginners, the important part isn’t knowing what your fare class means, but rather just the letter.

For example, the following round-trip flight to Shanghai from San Francisco on United is in fare class K (which means it’s a discounted economy ticket):

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If I choose to earn United miles on this (and I don’t have any elite status with United), I’ll earn 6,280 miles, as they award you miles equals to five times the fare. Given that I’m actually flying over 12,000 miles though, there may be another option for earning more miles with another Star Alliance airline.

In particular, Singapore Airlines is often a favorite for United travelers since United changed their earning structure, given that Singapore Airlines will award 100% of miles flown for almost all fare classes (except N, the absolute lowest, heavily-discounted fare class). So if I were to enter my Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer number (the name of their frequent flyer program) when making this reservation, I would earn over 12,000 miles on Singapore Airlines. Of course, how valuable 12,000 KrisFlyer miles are on Singapore Airlines and what you can do with them is also another factor to consider (in particular, they are known for levying very high taxes and fees on award redemptions), but that’s for another post. Recently, I’ve been crediting my paid United flights (which I actually got for free with the use of my American Express cards) to Air Canada’s Aeroplan program, as I already had existing miles with them.

Below is how one would select the frequent flyer program when making a United reservation online; most airlines offer a similar interface.

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Help, I forgot to enter a frequent flyer number (or entered the wrong number) when making a reservation! 

While it’s always best to enter your frequent flyer number when making a reservation, sometimes you will forget (or sometimes if you make a reservation while already logged into your frequent flyer account, it will automatically associate that frequent flyer account with your reservation.

The good news is that you don’t have to decide before your flight where you’re going to credit your miles (though it’s a good idea to do so). Depending on the airline, you usually have up until 3-6 months until after the flight to request mileage credit for the flight you took provided that you were a member of the frequent flyer program before you took the flight (and given that frequent flyer memberships are free, there’s no reason to not sign up for as many as make sense. Some will even send you a cool membership card in the mail). For example, if I want to credit my Emirates flight from Cape Town to Boston with Alaska Airlines (for reasons which I’ll get into later), I can request credit as long as I was a member of Alaska Airline’s Mileage Plan program before I took the flight. However, this can often be a very time consuming process which is better handled before the flight. Usually, you can input or change your frequent flyer number by logging on to your reservation online in advance, though if not, you can always ask the check-in agent when you get to the airport.

As I mentioned, at a later point I’ll get into a post about when it makes sense to credit to different frequent flyer programs, but this is more intended as a how-to. In short, learn which airlines you can credit your flight to (either via alliances or partnerships), learn the fare class of your flight, and then check the earning requirements of the eligible frequent flyer programs.

Pro tip: If you tend to fly America and Delta a lot (but aren’t trying to get elite status with either), I strongly recommend crediting them both to Alaska Airlines, as 50,000 Alaska Mileage  Plan miles will get you a lot further (like a one-way award flight to South Africa on Emirates from the US!) than having 25,000 miles with American and 25,000 miles with Delta.

 

Still not sure how this works? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.