Lots of people will tell you that currency with such and such loyalty program are worth a certain amount. Maybe 2.5 cents for SPG’s Starpoints, or 1.5 cents for British Airways’ Avios. But value is about more than just “cents per mile.”
Utility. That’s what I consider most important. What can you actually do with those miles? My dad was frustrated because he couldn’t find any British Airways award space for his Travel Together Ticket. Delta might offer award space for its SkyMiles, but the cost is now unknowable in advance. American still has a decent award chart, but they clamped down on stopovers.
That last feature of American AAdvantage really annoys me. I value miles very highly because you can do all sorts of things with them that are difficult, expensive, or impossible with regular paid tickets. Sometimes it can be worth it to purchase miles rather than pay cash even if the miles aren’t inexpensive. Their utility might — just might — be greater than cash in certain cases.
The two most useful loyalty programs these days are United MileagePlus and Alaska Mileage Plan.
1. Both programs allow you to book one-way awards.
This is becoming much more common but still worth remembering. Sometimes award space for both directions isn’t available on the same day.
2. One-way awards also let you book open jaws, so you can fly into (or out of) one city and return from (or to) another city.
Again, it makes it easier to work with the award space you have rather than wait for the stars to align.
3. Both programs allow for stopovers on award travel.
United allows one stopover if you book a round-trip award, and Alaska allows one stopover on one-way awards (so a round-trip would mean two stopovers). Stopovers let you visit more than one city on the same ticket, and that’s important if you’ve been saving miles and vacation days for a big blowout. During my honeymoon I nested two itineraries within each other, each with a stopover and open jaws, to visit five cities.
4. Finally, both programs have fairly good online search tools and good international partners.
These features make the booking and travel experience better. They are difficult to quantify, but I hope most of you agree with me. However, a few of the best partners, like Singapore Airlines (United) and Cathay Pacific (Alaska) do require you to call in.
Buy Miles on Sale
If you have an upcoming need for more United or Alaska miles, both programs are offering them for sale right now. United is offering a targeted bonus of up to 50% (my own offer was 40%), and Alaska is offering 40% to everyone. United places a cap of 150,000 purchased miles per year, resulting in a total of 225,000 miles. Alaska has no annual cap, but this particular promotion is limited to 40,000 miles per transaction, resulting in a total of 56,000 miles.
These miles aren’t cheap. The 50% United bonus works itself out to 2.33 cents per mile, and the 40% Alaska bonus works itself out to 2.11 cents per mile. If you’re considering buying lots of miles, that could mean several thousand dollars. But think about it: for a little more than regular round-trip in economy class you could instead book a complex routing in business or first class on an award. If you have elite status, you could even change or cancel that award without penalties.
Alaska Airlines offer — 40% bonus miles through April 3
United Airlines offer — up to 50% bonus miles through March 23
Buy Miles with a Ticket
If you plan to purchase any paid travel, too, then even cheaper options might be available. Both United and Alaska offer the chance to purchase miles at a discount when you book a flight, and United will make this offer again before departure if you visit your itinerary online and when you check-in.
As Mommy Points indicated, you can often get United miles for 1.9 cents each when purchased this way, and the number of miles varies with the ticket you purchased. Alaska Airlines routinely sells miles for about 2 cents each ($200 for 10,000 or $100 for 5,000) during the booking process regardless of distance.
Sometimes you may not get the chance to buy as many miles as you need, so unless you plan to purchase multiple tickets you may still be better off using the limited-time offers above.