Avianca is a Colombian airline that might fly below the radar but is an open secret in the world of points and miles. Their loyalty program, LifeMiles, frequently sells additional miles at discounts of 50% or more, makes it easy to buy even more during the booking process, and also allows transfers from Citi ThankYou Rewards. Along with relatively low award prices (at least compared to United MileagePlus), LifeMiles is a good way to book travel on Star Alliance carriers.
It’s one of those situations where simply buying miles and booking an award is probably cheaper than paying for a ticket outright. LifeMiles doesn’t even collect fuel surcharges on partner carriers, just standard taxes and fees.
The downside is a persistent bugginess that makes working with LifeMiles a hassle. It used to be that mixed cabin awards were forbidding, so you couldn’t fly in a mix of coach and first class if that’s all that was available, even if you were willing to pay for first class for the whole journey. This has since been fixed. But the website continues to have glitches, and the call center gets poor reviews.
In other words, LifeMiles is an affordable option for booking travel with miles, but you should prepare for some aggravation.
Avianca operates flights primarily within South and Central America, so if your travel plans are taking you elsewhere, you are likely to book a flight on a partner airline. Currently, Avianca LifeMiles can be used to book flights on all Star Alliance partners, as well as non-alliance partners including Iberia and Aeromexico.
- Adria Airways
- Aegean Airlines
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air New Zealand
- ANA (All Nippon Airways)
- Asiana Airlines
- Austrian Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Scandinavian Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- TAP Portugal
- THAI Airways
- Turkish Airlines
- United Airlines
Award travel on nearly all of these airlines (except Iberia) can be booked online. However, keep in mind the glitches I mentioned before. I would definitely use a different resource like the United Airlines website, Aeroplan website, or ANA website to confirm award space if I have trouble booking something on LifeMiles. Those other websites might be easier to use, especially for checking multiple dates. Then you can go back to LifeMiles with the knowledge of which dates have specific flights. It will be much simpler to piece together and book your itinerary.
Avianca has separate pricing for its own flights and for flights operated by partner airlines. You can use the LifeMiles award calculator to look up flights on Avianca, but most people are interested in the partner award chart. I’ve also incorporated partner awards into the Award Maximizer so you can compare the prices LifeMiles charges to the prices of other loyalty programs for the same award.
LifeMiles charges a $25 processing fee regardless of whether you book online or over the phone. Other taxes and fees also apply. During the search process you can see the fees accumulate with each flight selection by checking the summary in the right sidebar.
However, LifeMiles does not collect carrier-imposed surcharges (also known as fuel surcharges) that sometimes add a few hundred dollars to the price of a ticket. This puts it on par with United Airlines, which has the same policy but much more expensive awards in terms of mileage.
Changes and cancellations are a different matter. It costs $50 to cancel an award and redeposit your miles, but $150 to change a reservation that’s already ticketed. It makes more sense to cancel and rebook — but only if you confirm that additional award space is available. There’s no guarantee the award space you already have is going to return if you cancel your ticket, and you will need to request a change if you want to keep it and only adjust one or two flights. These changes are handled by the call center at 1-800-284-2622.
How to Find and Book Award Tickets
Begin by going to the LifeMiles website (not the Avianca website) and logging into your account. From there you can select “Use > Airlines” from the top navigation menu. As you can see, no miles are needed to search for award space, but you will need some miles to complete the booking process.
I’ll start with an example of a round-trip flight between San Francisco and Tokyo. You have the option to use a “Smart Search,” to search only Star Alliance carriers, or to search a specific carrier by choosing an option from the menu. In most cases you’ll want to use Smart Search.
Personally, I find the whole system to be very buggy. Half the time my search doesn’t run successfully. If I go back, it might change the airline in the drop down menu without my noticing, so I end up trying to look for award space in Asia on an Avianca flight. Of course that won’t work. (Note: I repeated some of these searches later in the day and got a completely different user experience. It appears they may be doing some site maintenance.)
You can then continue to selecting a flight for the return journey. However, I found that the calendar strip at the top of the page usually disappeared when I got to the next segment. You might find it helpful to begin by searching for one-way flights and only later attempt to make a round-trip or multi-city reservation once you know all the dates that have award availability.
An important detail is that you are now able to mix and match flights in different cabin classes. It used to be that LifeMiles only permitted travel in a single cabin. But as of January 2016, mixed cabin awards are possible. You can see in the examples above that I started with a first class award on ANA and am returning in business class on United Airlines.
Notice also that the amount of miles require has been replaced with a red semicircle. Avianca offers “LifeMiles + Money” awards that let you buy additional miles during the reservation process if you don’t have enough to complete your reservation. Simply adjust the values to match the amount of LifeMiles you want to redeem, or click and drag the black arrow. An example is below.
At this point, you can continue to book the award by entering passenger and payment information.
Booking a multi-city award is a little more complicated than a simple one-way or round trip award. For a start, you really want to make sure you’re using the Smart Search or Star Alliance options. Chances are your award will cross multiple regions and you aren’t interested in sticking to a single carrier.
The other consideration is that LifeMiles doesn’t allow an open jaw. After you enter the origin and destination for your first leg, it will automatically populate the origin for the second leg. After you enter the destination for your second leg, it will automatically populate the origin and destination (your initial starting point) for the third leg. You must complete a circle trip that goes back to where you began. On the plus side, you are allowed a stopover and can visit two cities on the same ticket.
It appears that you can book more than three legs with fewer restrictions if you are trying to arrange a multi-city award on Avianca only. However, I don’t know how common that is since most readers of this blog are not in South America. I also suspect the itinerary would simply be priced as a series of one-way tickets with no real cost advantage.
By the time I get to the final portion of my journey, all of the different flights are listed on the right-hand summary. Again, I have the option to adjust the number of miles and the amount of money I want to pay with a LifeMiles + Money award.
LifeMiles + Money Awards
As mentioned above, LifeMiles + Money awards let you book a ticket with a combination of cash and miles. You are essentially purchasing some of the miles and redeeming them immediately. You can do this even if you already have enough miles in your account, letting you stretch them further for use in future redemptions.
How so? LifeMiles + Money awards require you to pay for at least 40% of the award using LifeMiles, which means if you need to book two awards for 50,000 miles each and have 60,000 miles in your account, you should not book the first award using all miles. You’ll only have 10,000 miles left over for the second award to book later, and this is 20% of the amount required. Too few. A better strategy is to book each award using 30,000 miles (60% of the amount required).
LifeMiles + Money is a good deal. Look at the example above for a flight from Chicago to Tokyo. You can either redeem 165,000 miles and pay $71.06 in fees, or you can book a LifeMiles + Money award with 100,000 miles and $1,102.16 ($71.06 + $1,031.10). You’re paying 1.59 cents per mile. Others have reported it goes as low as 1.5 cents per mile. This compares well to the normal price of 3.3 cents each. However, some promotional offers can bring the cost down to ~1.3 cents.
I definitely recommend waiting to buy LifeMiles when they go on sale, and compare that price to LifeMiles + Money to decide if you should stretch them further.