An impressive achievement of the travel hacking community is spreading information about the frequent flyer programs of non-US carriers, which allow Americans to take advantage of their award chart sweet spots, earning rates, routing rules, and even domestic lounge access in the case of Star Alliance carriers.
On the other hand, that's a lot of information. I can't do much more than keep a few rules of thumbs in mind when searching for award tickets: Avios for short flights, American for off-peak awards, Lufthansa for domestic first class.
In the last few weeks two travel hackers contacted me to share tools they've designed to streamline the process of comparing award charts. I told them I'd take a look and share my thoughts here.
Eric Boromisa's Award Calculator
Eric contacted me in September to share his Award Calculator. He's selling the Calculator through a site called Gumroad. If you use the offer code "freequentflyer" you'll get $7 off either the "economy" or "full" version of the product. Full disclosure: Eric gave me a free copy of the file to experiment with.
So what is the Award Calculator? It's an Excel spreadsheet that's been programmed to calculate the cheapest mileage cost for awards between "North America" and another country. The "economy" version can calculate award costs in economy, and the "full" version returns the mileage cost of premium cabin awards as well.
The most important thing about the Calculator is that it doesn't find the mileage redemption which costs the fewest miles (although it does show the mileage cost in all the included programs). It calculates the cheapest mileage redemption using values you yourself provide.
This creates the program referred to in data processing as "garbage in, garbage out." If you don't provide the right values, then the calculating function will generate useless values. Unfortunately, rather than simply telling you to provide you own values, Eric provides default "market" values.
These "market" values are nonsense: Lufthansa and Air Canada are both Starwood Preferred Guest transfer partners, but Eric's default value for Miles & More is 2.8(!) cents each, while Aeroplan miles are valued at just 1.9 cents each. Is it because Aeroplan is also an American Express transfer partner? Maybe, but there's no way to tell.
In other words, if you want to use the "best value" calculating function, be sure to manually assign each program's currency the correct value, which I would argue is the cash value of the manufactured spend you use to generate that currency rather than cash back. If you don't have access to a currency (for example, I don't have any Membership Rewards-earning cards), just assign an arbitrarily high value to that currency.
I've played around with the Award Calculator for a few weeks now and my overall impression is that it's an impressive first step, but it's not a finished product and it's not yet worth $12-$22. A few funny oversights (Air France doesn't fly La Première to France anymore? Someone should tell them!) need to be fixed, and it would be nice if assigning a value to transferrable currencies automatically populated all their transfer partners with imputed values at the correct transfer ratio.
Again, if you're interested in trying it out for yourself, you can buy it at Gumroad for $12-$22 using the offer code "freequentflyer" (I don't receive any compensation if you do, I think Eric is just trying to track where his sales are coming from).
AwardAce is simple and beautiful
Just this morning a reader reached out to share his site AwardAce with me, and it blew my socks off. The site is simple, powerful, and beautiful (also free).
In its current form, you only have to make three selections: your departing airport, arriving airport, and whether your flight is one-way or roundtrip. You can also filter by award program (basically making it a simple, uniform award chart for every included program) or transfer partner (Chase, American Express, Citi, or Starwood Preferred Guest).
Then AwardAce produces a color-coded table showing you the mileage cost in a variety of programs:
The site just launched in August and it's not perfect yet. For example, in my searches the large grid only showed "off-peak" American Airlines and "short-haul" MileagePlus award prices, and the creator doesn't appear to be aware that British Airways Executive Club miles can be redeemed on Alaska Airlines. Additionally, Lufthansa Miles & More isn't shown as a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, which is an easily-fixed oversight.
The site works best on international flights where its database really shines, rather than on domestic flights where there are more moving pieces than it can easily accommodate.
The site is also restricted to nonstop and one-stop flights, so if you are planning a trip that requires two connections, you have to eliminate one or more stops to find the correct cost. For example, the site easily calculates the mileage cost in 7 programs between Detroit and Prague:
But a search between Indianapolis and Prague generates an error, even though Delta flies 7 nonstops daily between Indianapolis and Detroit. That's not a bug, it's simply a limitation built into the tool you need to be aware of.
I'm not sure what the creator's eventual plans are to monetize AwardAce, but for now it's free and awesome.