Non-London American Airlines routes to Europe

A few weekends ago I held one of my notorious subscribers-only meetups in Philadelphia, and a long-time reader mentioned that American Airlines was launching non-stop service from Philadelphia to Budapest. I more or less gave up on American years ago since their miles are so difficult to earn and their award availability is so terrible.

But I was at least willing to entertain the possibility that a oneworld route to Europe that avoided London might be a good use of Avios, since it might mean avoiding Heathrow's high surcharges on premium cabin award redemptions. So, I decided to check it out.

British Airways is not showing American award availability

The British Airways search engine is having one of its periodic fits, making it extraordinarily annoying to find American SAAver award space. One trick that worked for me on some searches (but not others) was to click back and forth between dates in your search results, which after 2-20 clicks sometimes makes American award space magically appear.

Iberia is showing American award availability

Fortunately, Iberia Plus is showing American award availability normally, and you can transfer British Airways Avios to Iberia Avios, and now you can even transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points directly to Iberia Plus without using British Airways Avios as an intermediary.

Nonstop Iberia Plus awards cost the same number of Avios as nonstop British Airways awards (adding connections creates complications, and opportunities), but the cash component of award tickets can differ for reasons I don't yet fully understand.

On the flip side, Iberia requires you to book roundtrip itineraries, which neither American nor British Airways does.

Tax and surcharge roundup

With that out of the way, we can compare the value of American miles and Iberia Avios for roundtrip flights between Philadelphia and Europe that avoid London. All these flights cost 60,000 American miles roundtrip in economy and 115,000 American miles in business, so what I want to get at is what additional cost you pay booking using Iberia Avios, a currency that for most folks is much easier to earn than AAdvantage miles.

I searched for business class award availability between Philadelphia and every city in Europe served nonstop from there, avoiding American's close-in booking fee wherever possible, and plugged them into this spreadsheet. Where you see a mileage cost of 87,500 I was unable to find a single business class award seat in one direction and selected a mixed economy/business award instead. I was unable to make Iberia show Shannon itineraries at all.

I've helpfully color-coded the chart, but you can make a copy and sort it differently if you're so inclined. A few things immediately pop out of these numbers:

  • There are still several sweet spots when redeeming Avios for business class to Europe, even after accounting for carrier surcharges. If you have a healthy balance of Avios or Ultimate Rewards points, you should prefer to redeem those for business class flights to Spain and Portugal, since the amount you'll save in transferred Ultimate Rewards more than makes up for the increased carrier surcharges, even if you just redeem your Ultimate Rewards for the cash to pay the associated fees.
  • Paris is a good deal in business, and an even better deal in economy, costing just 42,000 Avios and $390 roundtrip, although if you're flying in economy you'll usually just want to book a paid fare, which can be as low as $579 on this route.
  • The flip side is that some routes cost so much more in both Avios and cash that you should save your AAdvantage miles to redeem for those flights. Basically everything East of the Rhine is better booked with AAdvantage miles or another zone-based currency instead of distance-based Avios. Of course, a $2,000 roundtrip business class ticket to Europe isn't exactly "expensive," but the point here is to use the right currency for the job, and when booking award tickets to Rome Avios are definitely the wrong currency for the job!

Conclusion

I don't think you should hoard your American AAdvantage miles. Heaven knows I don't hoard them, which is why I only have about 15,000 in the bank. But you shouldn't hoard your Ultimate Rewards points either!

So if you do manage to find low-level American award space that works for you, it's probably worth at least popping over to the British Airways (if it ever starts working) or Iberia (if you're booking a roundtrip) websites to see if your itinerary happens to fall into one of their distance-and-surcharge sweet spots.

Foreign airline co-branded credit cards, #8: Conclusions

Reviewing the 7 foreign airline co-branded credit cards issued by US banks that I covered in this series, the cards can be handily arranged into 3 groups:

  • Cards worth getting and keeping for manufactured spend;
  • Cards worth getting for the signup bonus and cancelling;
  • Cards that are probably not worth getting.

Manufactured spend powerhouses

When looking at a card's value for manufacturing spend, it's essential to look at both the earning and redemption rates the card offers. For example, a Marriott Rewards point is more valuable than a Hilton Honors point, but not 6 times more valuable — that makes a dollar spent in a bonus category with the Hilton Honors Surpass American Express more valuable than the same dollar spent with a Marriott Rewards credit card that earns just 1 point per dollar.

Similarly, the two co-branded credit cards in this series that are valuable for ongoing spend are the US Bank AeroMexico Visa cards and the Barclaycard Asiana Visa Signature card. The former earns 3.2 AeroMexico kilometers per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores, which can be redeemed on SkyTeam carriers (with fuel surcharges) and the latter earns 2 Asiana miles per dollar spent in the same categories, which can be redeemed on Star Alliance carriers and their non-alliance partners.

It's especially worth noting that the recent increases in Delta redemption rates on SkyTeam partners make it even more likely that redeeming other SkyTeam partner miles, even ones that pass along fuel surcharges, will be more valuable than earning and redeeming Delta SkyMiles.

Valuable signup bonuses

Three of the cards I covered in this series have signup bonuses you might find valuable, depending on your situation:

  • The British Airways Visa Signature card earns 100,000 total bonus Avios after spending $20,000 on the card within one year. Those Avios can be extremely valuable if redeemed on US flights without fuel surcharges or on certain off-peak sweet spots.
  • The Miles & More World Elite MasterCard offers 50,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 within 90 days, which can be extremely valuable for domestic first class redemptions, including to Hawaii.
  • The "Black" Virgin Atlantic World Elite MasterCard offers 75,000 Flying Club miles after spending $12,000 within 6 months and adding two authorized users. If nothing else, those miles can be moved to Hilton Honors points at a 1:1.5 ratio, earning you 9.4 Honors points per dollar on unbonused spend.

Cards that are worthless, or at least worth less

Finally, the LANPASS Visa Signature Card and SKYPASS Visa Signature Card, both from US Bank, offer minimal signup bonuses and weak earning rates, so even in the case of SKYPASS, where points can be valuable on certain routes, their co-branded credit card is unlikely to be the most efficient way to earn them. However, it's worth being aware of the cards and their potential redemption opportunities in case the signup bonuses on either card are temporarily or permanently increased.

Foreign airline co-branded credit cards issued by American banks, #4: British Airways by Chase

Continuing last week's series on the co-branded credit cards of foreign airlines issued by American banks, today's edition is the British Airways credit card issued by Chase.

British Airways by Chase

Chase issues one co-branded credit card that earns British Airways Executive Club Avios:

  • the British Airways Visa Signature card has a $95 annual fee (not waived the first year) and a tiered signup bonus: 50,000 Avios after spending $3,000 within 3 months, 25,000 additional Avios after spending $10,000 total within your first year and 25,000 additional Avios after spending $20,000 total with your first year. It earns one Avios per dollar spent everywhere except on British Airways purchases, where it earns 3 Avios per dollar. The card also earns a "Travel Together" ticket each calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases.

Travel Together Tickets

The Travel Together Ticket allows you to book two award tickets by paying the Avios cost of one ticket and the taxes and fees for both tickets. The only restrictions other than that are that travel must originate in and return to the United States, it must be exclusively on mainline British Airways flights, and there has to be award availability for both passengers. Other than that, you can fly anywhere British Airways flies.

Importantly, the Travel Together Ticket is earned on a calendar year basis, so it's possible to earn 2 Travel Together Tickets while paying a single annual fee (assuming you plan to cancel the card after the first year) by signing up for the card far enough into the year (for example, April) and putting $30,000 in purchases on the card in the first calendar year, then $30,000 more in the second calendar year. If you squint at this just right it seems like you're earning 2 Avios per dollar, since you can double the value of your Avios by redeeming them on a Travel Together Ticket.

Curiously, the terms and conditions of the offer include this language: "Once your Travel Together Ticket is issued, credits to your British Air credit card account will not cause forfeiture of your Travel Together Ticket" [emphasis mine].

The Travel Together Ticket has rightly earned a bad reputation due to British Airways' high taxes and fees ($250 in carrier surcharges in economy, $956 in business or first on a simple roundtrip between New York and London), and for simple, cheap trips you may find the Travel Together Ticket price and the cash price are nearly identical. Two paid economy New York-London roundtrip in May cost $1,130, while a Travel Together Ticket redemption would cost 26,000 Avios and $815, or just about 1.21 cents per Avios.

On the other hand, a business class Travel Together Ticket redemption between Seattle and London in August (the earliest I was able to find award space) would cost 150,000 Avios and $2,514, while two paid tickets would cost $8,093, giving you roughly 3.7 cents per Avios. If you earned 130,000 of those Avios by spending $30,000 on Chase's credit card, that's a $4,810, or 16%, rebate on your spend (this isn't the usual way I calculate these values — this is for illustration purposes only).

Ultimately, the value of the Travel Together Ticket comes down to your preferences and your alternatives. If you plan a special trip just because you've earned a Travel Together Ticket, then the ticket won't save you money, but instead will cost you many hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile if you are already planning a trip, especially in a premium cabin, that requires travel on British Airways anyway, then the carrier surcharges and UK Air Passenger Duty are simply a fact of life. The only question then is whether fares are high enough and award availability good enough to justify redeeming Avios. If an Avios redemption is a good deal without a Travel Together Ticket, then it's certain to be an even better deal with one.

Earning British Airways Avios

Due to the tiered signup bonus, the Chase British Airways credit card has the equivalent of 4 different earning rates during the first year:

  • 17.67 Avios per dollar for the first $3,000 you spend;
  • 4.5 Avios per dollar for the next $7,000 you spend;
  • 2.8 Avios per dollar for the next $10,000 you spend;
  • and 1 Avios for each dollar spent above $20,000 (and in all subsequent years).

Redeeming British Airways Avios

British Airways has a distance-based award chart, so award flights can price out radically higher or radically lower than awards booked with zone-based loyalty programs. This creates a few popular sweet spots:

  • short-haul redemptions on partner airlines like American Airlines and Alaska Airlines in the United States;
  • short-haul oneworld partner redemptions, like on LAN within South America or on partner airlines within Southeast Asia;
  • long-haul redemptions at the upper end of a distance band. Aer Lingus awards between Boston and Ireland were a popular choice until Boston was artificially moved 8 miles west. Off-peak awards on Aer Lingus can still offer good value, however.

A less well-known sweet spot is British Airways' "two or more oneworld airlines" award chart, which offers awards based on the total distance traveled instead of calculating the Avios required for each segment. That award chart is particularly valuable for premium cabin redemptions, since business class and first class awards cost 2 and 3 times the cost of economy, respectively, instead of the 3 and 4 times charged on the standard Executive Club award chart.

For example, the 5,488-mile flight between Los Angeles and Tokyo would cost 25,000 Avios each way if booked in economy on American Airlines. Meanwhile, the roundtrip flight, at 10,976 miles, would cost 90,000 Avios on the two-or-more chart. However, the roundtrip distance band goes all the way up to 14,000 miles, which means for no additional Avios you can add up to 3,024 additional flights miles on another oneworld carrier. For example, flying on JAL to Seoul would use 1,566 of those miles. In economy you'd still be better off booking the award separately, since the two 783-mile segments would cost just 15,000 Avios roundtrip.

However, in business class the same itinerary (Los Angeles to Tokyo, Tokyo to Seoul, and back again) would cost 195,000 Avios on the standard award chart, while costing just 180,000 Avios on the two-or-more chart. Basically, for roundtrips at the top of a distance band on the two-or-more chart, premium cabin, multiple-segment redemptions are often cheaper than on the standard Avios redemption chart.

Is it worth it?

This card is great for anyone who regularly transfers Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways in order to book expensive, short-haul flights, or longer flights with relatively low fuel surcharges. For that person, this card offers the equivalent of 120,000 Ultimate Rewards points for $20,000 in spend. Even in the final stage of the signup bonus earning the equivalent of 2.8 Ultimate Rewards per dollar of unbonused spend is a good value compared to other unbonused opportunities.

Whether or not it's worth hitting the $30,000 threshold once or twice in order to trigger the Travel Together Ticket in your first two years is a much more individual judgment. Are you planning a trip on British Airways? Do you anticipate that there will be award availability on the entire itinerary for two travelers? Are you planning to book a premium cabin? Are paid flights expensive enough to justify redeeming Avios? If the answer to all those questions is yes, then the Travel Together Ticket provides a straightforward opportunity to save money. If not, then you're more likely to find the Ticket expiring before you come up with a worthwhile way to redeem it.

British Airways devaluation got you down? Book with Iberia instead!

The 4,500-Avios, short-haul British Airways Executive Club award has long been one of the most valuable things about the program for North Americans. On flights within the United States you pay neither fuel surcharges nor close-in booking fees, and your Avios are refundable up to 24 hours before departure (you forfeit only the taxes and fees).

Starting February 2, 2016, the same short-haul flights originating or ending in North America will cost 7,500 Avios per segment, although there's no indication the other two features will change.

The good news is that as far as I can tell Iberia hasn't announced any changes yet.

Iberia is still a weird program

The two key things to know about booking North America Iberia award flights are:

  • Awards have to be round trip. You can't even search for one-way availability; you have to use a dummy return date (or search for availability on American Airlines' or British Airways' website first);
  • Award prices are based on total trip length, adjusted by cabin.

What do I mean, "adjusted by cabin?" Hopefully the following example will illustrate the idea: a flight from Chicago (ORD) to Louisville (SDF), a 574-mile roundtrip, costs:

  • 11,000 Avios and $18.70 in Blue Class (economy);
  • 22,000 Avios and $18.70 in Blue Class one way and First on the return;
  • and 33,000 Avios and $18.70 in First in both directions.

The same itinerary connecting in Charlotte (CLT) in each direction (1,868 miles roundtrip), costs:

  • 17,000 Avios and $24.70 in Blue Class;
  • 23,109 Avios and $24.70 in First on one of the CLT-SDF legs (17.9% of the total distance) with the remainder in Blue Class;
  • 27,891 Avios and $24.70 in First on one the ORD-CLT legs (32.1% of the total distance) with the remainder in Blue Class;
  • 29,218 Avios and $24.70 in First on both of the CLT-SDF (35.9% of the total distance) legs with the remainder in Blue Class;
  • 38,782 Avios and $24.70 in First on both of the ORD-CLT (64.1% of the total distance) legs with the remainder in Blue Class;
  • 34,000 Avios and $24.70 in Blue Class one way and First on the return;
  • and 51,000 Avios and $24.70 in First in both directions.

The total number of Avios required very closely corresponds to the sum of the percentages of the total itinerary flown in each cabin multiplied by that cabin's roundtrip Avios award cost.

Observe two key things here:

  1. Under today's award chart, a roundtrip, nonstop flight between Chicago and Louisville in First is cheaper if booked with Iberia (33,000 Avios) than if booked with British Airways (36,000 Avios), and an itinerary connecting in Charlotte is also cheaper with Iberia (51,000 Avios) than with British Airways (72,000 Avios — no, I'm not kidding);
  2. After the February 2, 2016, British Airways devaluation, Blue Class nonstop flights booked with Iberia will be cheaper (11,000 Avios) than if booked with British Airways (15,000 Avios).

Takeaways

Here are a few things to take away from this post:

  • You can only use Iberia to book roundtrip partner itineraries;
  • Do not use Iberia to search for partner award availability;
  • Once you find North American award availability with American Airlines or British Airways, check their prices against Iberia's;
  • Iberia's online booking system is very frustrating but very flexible — it's easy to book short legs in Blue Class and longer legs in First for potentially big savings, because of the "cabin adjustment" mentioned above.

Conclusion

Using Iberia Avios instead of British Airways Avios for short-haul North American flights isn't a silver bullet to solve all of your award booking problems. But it is another tool you can use to let your miles take your further, faster.

Avios and cash followup: booking that Air Berlin flight

Last month I wrote about an Air Berlin flight from Berlin to New York City, for which I was planning to redeem British Airways Avios. I had 24,000 Avios in my account, but since British Airways allows cash to be substituted for Avios at relatively favorable rates, I had to decide how many Avios to redeem (including transfers in from Chase Ultimate Rewards) and how much cash to pay for the two tickets I wanted to buy.

Here were my Avios and cash options for purchasing the tickets:

 

As I wrote then,

"ultimately, I fall on the side of redeeming my Ultimate Rewards points for 1.5 cents each. That's because I'm points-rich and cash-poor: if I "saved" my points by redeeming 20,000 or 14,000 of them against the Air Berlin itinerary, instead of transferring in 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points, I would then redeem the corresponding Ultimate Rewards points for cash at just one cent each."

Not so fast!

My decision was based on the best alternate redemption of the Ultimate Rewards points I already had, which was just 1 cent each for cash redemptions. However, I still wasn't sure how I was going to fly outbound from the United States to Budapest.

So before transferring 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways, I first checked for award space between Chicago and Budapest, and sure enough the calendar was wide open for economy award travel on Turkish Airlines, United's Star Alliance partner. Suddenly, my alternate Ultimate Rewards redemption wasn't 1 cent each for a cash redemption, but a little over 3 cents each when transferred to United for a transatlantic flight redemption.

British Airways charges variable amounts of cash per substituted Avios

A close look at the Avios and cash chart above reveals something odd: the intervals between the Avios redemption levels are irregular. Here's the same chart, rearranged to illustrate the point:

Now, if I already had enough Avios in my account, I would certainly have redeemed the maximum 40,000 Avios and paid just $178.18 in cash.

But I didn't have enough Avios, which is why I had to ask the question of how many Ultimate Rewards points I was willing to transfer in.

  • Since I had 24,000 Avios in my account, the first 2,000 were a no brainer: I would get the full $60 in cash savings value but pay just $20 in Ultimate Rewards points.
  • The next 6,000 would give me just 1.17 cents per Ultimate Rewards point, less than the points' value when redeemed for paid travel and barely more than their cash value.
  • Finally, an additional 8,000 transferred points would yield 1.38 cents per point, which would be worth considering, except that in my case it would first require the above 6,000-point transfer, averaging out to just 1.29 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

Since I already have a planned redemption that offers more than twice as much value per Ultimate Rewards point — my Turkish Airlines flight to Budapest — I ended up transferring just 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points and saving the remaining 14,000 points for my transfer to United Mileage Plus.

Conclusion

The lesson here is that the value of points and miles varies, not just between people but for the same person over time, depending on their points balances and plans for redemptions.

In my earlier post, I was fully ready to redeem 16,000 Ultimate Rewards in order to save $240 (1.5 cents each). When my plans developed further and I settled on a 3-cent-per-mile Turkish Airlines award, my calculus likewise changed and I became unwilling to transfer more than a nominal number of Ultimate Rewards points.

I was right both times, but the more information I had about my future plans, the better my decision became.

The single best award redemption, by transfer partner: Chase Ultimate Rewards

As my regular readers know, I don't chase "aspirational" redemptions; I earn the miles and points I need to pay for the trips I want to take as cheaply as possible.

But many of you do chase aspirational redemptions! That gets me into hot water whenever I point out that a Chase Ultimate Rewards point is worth 1 penny (its cash redemption value), or that American Express Membership Rewards points are hard to redeem for cash.

So in the spirit of reconciliation, I though it would be fun to put together a list of the absolute best redemption values for the transfer partners of each flexible rewards currency. Since I'm most familiar with Ultimate Rewards points, let's start there.

Airline Partners

As a reminder, here are the Chase Ultimate Rewards airline transfer partners:

  • United MileagePlus
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Korean Airlines SKYPASS
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

United MileagePlus

Two of the best international first class products, Lufthansa and Singapore, belong to the Star Alliance, and United MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for first class on either airline at their partner award prices. But which is the better redemption?

One-way award seats in Lufthansa first class between New York and Frankfurt cost 110,000 MileagePlus miles, plus $5.60 in taxes and fees. Unless you're a MileagePlus elite, you'll also pay a $75 close-in ticketing fee, since Lufthansa first class seats are generally made available to United only a few days or weeks before departure.

At the time of writing, Lufthansa first class seats between New York and Frankfurt cost $11,049 on October 10, a date Lufthansa first class award seats are also available. Less the $80.60 in taxes and fees, that gives a redemption value of just about 10 cents per Ultimate Rewards point.

We can actually do a hair better than this by flying not to Frankfurt, but to Tokyo's Haneda airport via Frankfurt. This itinerary also costs 110,000 MileagePlus miles, but retails for $952 more, at $12,001, giving us 10.8 cents per MileagePlus mile:

By comparison, Singapore's JFK-Frankfurt flight costs a mere $7,108. In any case, since Singapore Air is also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, Lufthansa walks away with an easy victory here.

British Airways Executive Club

A safe choice for best British Airways redemption is a 4,500-Avios American Airlines short-haul flight like Norfolk, VA, to Charlotte, NC, which can get you about 9.9 cents per Ultimate Rewards points.

Knowing that Brazil forbids airlines from adding fuel and passenger surcharges to tickets, I was hopeful that a route like Sao Paulo — London would generate an astronomical value per Avios. But it turns out those flights don't get more expensive by distance in the way that Avios redemptions do! A first class seat from Sao Paulo to London costs just $5,783, which at 120,000 Avios gives a piddling 4.8 cents per point.

You're better off moving to Norfolk.

Korean Airlines SKYPASS

A popular use of SKYPASS is to book cheaper award tickets from the US mainland to Hawaii than those available on domestic US carriers. So, for example, while a Delta Skymiles award ticket to Hawaii from the continental 48 costs a minimum of 45,000 miles roundtrip, a SKYPASS award ticket costs just 35,000 miles.

Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta to Honolulu, so let's use that as our basis for comparison. A roundtrip departing March 8 and returning March 16, on which there's low-level award availability, costs $1,134. Less $11.20 in taxes and fees, that returns a SKYPASS redemption value of 3.24 cents each. That's not bad for SKYPASS miles, but it's not the best.

That's because Korean Airlines SKYPASS miles can also be redeemed for first class on Korean. On April 4, 2016, a first class flight from New York JFK to Seoul Incheon costs $10,032, but just 80,000 SKYPASS miles plus $104.20 in taxes and fees, giving 12.4 cents per SKYPASS mile, the highest transfer value for Ultimate Rewards we've seen yet!

It should be possible to kick that up another few cents per point by booking a single first class award from New York to Sydney for 120,000 SKYPASS miles, but I cannot for the life of me get the Korean Airlines website to price out such an award.

Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer

Remember the disappointing, $7,108 New York - Frankfurt flight operated by Singapore that I mentioned above? The good news is that it costs just 57,375 KrisFlyer miles (after their 15% online booking discount) and $203.30 in taxes and fees, or just over 12 cents per KrisFlyer mile.

There are more expensive Singapore Airlines routes, but they cost many more KrisFlyer miles such that you're unlikely to do better than the above. For example, it costs $984 to continue in first class to Singapore from Frankfurt, but 36,125 more KrisFlyer miles. At 2.7 cents per mile, that's a pretty good redemption in its own right, but it drags down the overall redemption value significantly.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

Since Southwest is a revenue-based program, you're not doing to do better than 1.6-1.7 cents per Rapid Rewards point unless you have the Companion Pass. If you do, congratulations, you can get up to 3.2-3.4 cents per Rapid Rewards point when booking Wanna Get Away fares.

For example, with the Companion Pass you could fly two passengers from Baltimore, Maryland to Aruba for 11,620 Rapid Rewards points and $31.20 in taxes and fees, a $407.60 value, giving you 3.24 cents per Rapid Rewards point.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Virgin Atlantic has a number of partner airlines that could potentially offer some value, like South African Airways. Their website even contains this mysterious language:

"Economy Class Mileage* 40,000
Business Class Mileage* 50,000
Between Dakar and New York***"

Mysterious because South African Airways does not fly from Dakar to New York, although it's possible to book itineraries connecting in Washington Dulles. Maybe that's what they mean?

Virgin Atlantic does partner with Delta, which basically makes it a poor man's Skyteam partner. You can fly from the US to Europe for 100,000 Flying Club miles roundtrip, as long as you can find Delta low-level availability, compared to 125,000 Skymiles for the same awards. You can fly anywhere in Africa for 120,000 Flying Club miles roundtrip in business class, compared to 140,000 Skymiles to northern Africa and 160,000 Skymiles to South Africa (I think — no award charts, remember?).

I couldn't find any low-level availability on Delta metal to Johannesburg, but a roundtrip business class flight with award availability between New York and Dakar priced out at $3,375. Assuming Virgin Atlantic charges the same taxes and fees as Delta, $127.60, you could get about 2.7 cents per Flying Club mile on such an award.

Hotel Partners

Here are the Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel transfer partners:

  • Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Marriott Rewards/Ritz Carlton Rewards
  • IHG Rewards Club

Hyatt Gold Passport

There are two places you can look for the highest redemption values in a program like Hyatt Gold Passport. You can look at properties in the highest categories during the property's high season (after all, they're there because they're expensive!), or you can look at properties in the lowest categories during major events. So, which approach yields the highest redemption value?

I looked at a range of top-tier properties, and the best I could do was at everyone's favorite aspirational beach resort, the Category 6 Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa, where rates go up to $2027 in early January, or 8.1 cents per point. Then Grant pointed to a May 29, 2016, stay at the Park Hyatt Milan, when the Hyatt Daily Rate is $4577 — and rooms are still available for 30,000 Gold Passport points, or 15.26 cents per point.

Other top-tier properties offer fine redemptions, but nothing like that: the Category 7 Park Hyatt Sydney charges about $814 on January 25 (the day before Australia Day), or 30,000 Gold Passport points, for about 2.7 cents per point.

What about on the low end? During CES in Las Vegas, you can book the Hyatt Place Las Vegas for 8,000 Gold Passport points or $338, about 4.2 cents per point. My main problem searching for these low-end redemptions is that enough people have obviously had the same idea that room rates are extremely difficult to find during the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500, and other high-profile events! So if you want to secure an outsized value during those events, book as early as possible!

Marriott Rewards

Obviously the best Marriott Rewards redemption will involve a Hotel + Air Package, which allows you to buy much more valuable airline miles at a deep discount. Since we've already established that 110,000 MileagePlus miles are worth 10.8 cents each ($11,880), let's use that as our baseline and figure out where to redeem our 7, Category 5 nights.

The most expensive Category 5 Marriott Rewards property I found is the Courtyard Paris Saint Denis, where you can redeem your 7 nights for a stay that costs $3,027, bringing your total return on 250,000 Marriott Rewards points to $14,907, or 5.96 cents per point. That's true, however, If and only if you begin your 7-night stay on July 4, 2016.

Award rooms are not available for those dates. Marriott Rewards is a terrible program.

IHG Rewards Club

IHG Rewards properties get so exorbitantly expensive in points, so fast, that the best awards will invariably be on their PointsBreaks list. I've spent a couple lovely summers in Brno, Czech Republic, so I was pleased to see that I could get 3.6 cents per IHG Rewards point at the Holiday Inn Brno on October 13, which would otherwise go for $180.12.

The best rates found on Hotel Hustle's Hot Rates page top out at 1.94 cents per point (exclusive of taxes), so if you're looking for outsized value from your Ultimate Rewards points, stick to the PointsBreaks list (or look elsewhere).

Conclusion

When I started writing this post I thought this would be an easy and fun exercise. It turned out to be difficult, time-consuming, and boring, which I hope speaks to my basic point: seeking the "best" value from your miles and points is a thankless chore.

You'll always be better off redeeming your miles and points for the trips you actually want to take, rather than the ones some blogger tells you are the best.

Is the 100k British Airways Avios offer the worst major signup bonus?

[Editor's note: I'm currently traveling so responses to comments and e-mails may be slightly slower than usual. —FQF]

Regular readers know I don't chase signup bonuses any more, for two simple reasons:

  • if I need some particular loyalty currency for my strategy, then I can't wait until an elevated signup bonus comes along to start earning it;
  • and if I don't need that loyalty currency for my strategy, then I don't need a lot of points any more than I need a few of them!

Think of signup bonuses as temporary bonus earning rates

The appeal of large signup bonuses to travel hackers is that they offer much larger earning rates than even the bonused earning rates of cards you'd otherwise use to manufacture spend.

For example, signing up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card with a 40,000 Ultimate Rewards point signup bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months produces a net earning rate of 11 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent for the first $4,000.

Since the next-highest earning rate is 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores with the Chase Ink cards, if you value Ultimate Rewards points highly enough you might rationalize applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (but please product change to Freedom as soon as possible!).

Comparing bonus earning rates

Before we can say whether a particular signup bonus is good or bad, we have to establish a frame of reference. So here are 11 popular signup bonuses and their associated earning rates (data from Frequent Miler's Best Offers page). These aren't the absolute best offers out there, just what I hope is a representative sample; in other words, the cards I'd apply for if I were building a strategy from scratch.

The mean signup bonus from these cards is an earning rate of 21 miles or points per dollar spent meeting the minimum spending requirement.

The British Airways bonus is tiered — but only the first tier makes any sense

The 100,000 Avios signup bonus for the Chase British Airways Visa is earned in three stages:

  • 50,000 Avios after spending $2,000 within 3 months;
  • 25,000 additional Avios after spending a total of $10,000 within 12 months;
  • 25,000 additional Avios after spending a total of $20,000 within 12 months.

Since the card earns 1 Avios on every dollar spent, that means this card has three bonus earning rates:

  • 26 Avios per dollar on the first $2,000;
  • 4.13 Avios per dollar on the next $8,000;
  • 3.5 Avios per dollar on the next $10,000.

In other words, the signup bonus is slightly above average for the first $2,000 you spend (although there's an identical offer with the annual fee waived the first year), but radically below average for the next $18,000 in spend.

Even if you relentlessly chase signup bonuses, you should use the $18,000 in spend this bonus requires meeting the minimum spending requirement for the signup bonuses of other, better cards.

The second and third bonus tiers are better than manufactured spend for earning Avios and only Avios

Spending $18,000 on the Chase British Airways Visa, above and beyond the $2,000 bonus tier, will earn a total of 68,000 British Airways Avios.

Spending $18,000 on the Chase Ink Plus at office supply stores will earn 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to Avios at a 1-to-1 ratio.

That leaves you with a 22,000 Ultimate Rewards point surplus. If your cheapest method of manufacturing non-bonused spend costs $7.90 per $1,000 in spend, and office supply store manufactured spend costs $34.75 per $1,000 in spend, you'll spend $483.30 manufacturing spend at office supply stores instead of putting your cheapest manufactured spend on the British Airways Visa.

Since 22,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth $220 when redeemed for cash, you'll end up with a $263.30 surplus using the British Airways Visa instead.

Is that worth doing? You already know my answer: it's worth doing if you have a specific, high-value use in mind for those Avios.

Conclusion

Avios are a valuable, but not versatile, rewards currency. If you can find domestic low-level American or Alaska award space, Avios will almost always be the best way to book it.

Many bloggers will tell you that Avios are best for nonstop flights, and they're right: they're best for nonstop flights, but you'll often end up paying the same or fewer Avios even on itineraries with connections.

Likewise, if you can fly on Iberia metal to Spain and then connect to your final destination (or just visit Spain!), Avios provide a cheap way to get across the pond.

But since Avios are only rarely the best way to book long-haul awards, unless you have a plan for such a large balance, you're better off not earning them.

Booking Iberia award tickets for fun and profit

Before I get started today, it would be irresponsible of me not to state that your Avios are fine. You see, the last time I wrote about Iberia, the travel hacking blogosphere exploded with speculation about an upcoming British Airways Avios devaluation. While British Airways Avios have since been devalued, they weren't devalued in the specific, weird way that Iberia was pricing out oneworld partner awards.

So promise you won't freak out.

Iberia charges lower fuel surcharges on their own flights than British Airways does

Once you've initialized your Iberia account, you can freely transfer Avios between a British Airways, Avios.com, and Iberia Plus Avios account.

The obvious reason to do so is that on identical Iberia-operated flights, you'll be charged lower fuel surcharges using Avios in an Iberia Plus account than Avios in a British Airways account.

For example, here's an Iberia Plus Avios redemption between Chicago and Madrid in early January, pricing out at 20,000 Iberia Plus Avios and €74.20 ($85.54):

And here's the exact same itinerary pricing out at 20,000 British Airways Avios and $275:

Did you see my sleight of hand?

I'll give you a hint: one of the fuel surcharges I cited had to be converted to US dollars. One of them was converted for me.

British Airways has a funny approach to currency conversion

Here's a British Airways-operated flight between Chicago and Budapest in June, 2015. With Great Britain's passenger charges, as expected there are some substantial taxes and fees on such a ticket. It prices out at 19,500 Avios and $321:

Here's the same ticket priced out on Iberia's website, costing 19,500 Avios and €264.34 ($304.70):

I understand, you're not impressed with my saving you $16.30 in surcharges. Now watch this.

British Airways and Iberia both let you buy Avios at deep discounts

Instead of paying 19,500 Avios and $321, British Airways will let you book the same itinerary for just 6,700 Avios and $481, letting you buy 12,800 Avios for $160, or 1.25 cents each:

Meanwhile, Iberia will let you buy 9,750 Avios for €90 ($103), or 1.06 cents each:

At this point you might start to admit that this currency conversion business is at least worth being aware of. Now watch this.

British Airways and Iberia both let you buy lots of Avios for premium-cabin awards

I've been showing you economy cabin redemptions so far. But British Airways also operates premium cabins!

Here are the same Chicago-Budapest flights in business class, priced out at 62,750 British Airways Avios and $491, allowing you to buy 30,950 Avios for $805, or 2.6 cents each:

And here's the same flight priced out for 62,750 Iberia Plus Avios and €412.26 ($475.82), allowing you to buy 30,100 Iberia Plus Avios for €510 ($588.63), or 1.96 cents each:

Conclusion

I would never suggest earning, let alone buying, rewards currencies speculatively: if your account balances are high enough, you'll be better off simply transferring your Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points to Avios and booking traditional award tickets.

On the other hand, if you're diligently keeping your flexible balances as low as possible, and especially if you're planning trips involving high-value Hyatt redemptions (or if you have a Southwest companion pass), you may well find that buying up the Avios you need to complete a redemption makes sense compared to transferring the points in from Chase Ultimate Rewards.

If you happen to find yourself in that situation, do yourself a favor and see if an Iberia Avios redemption will save you a couple hundred dollars.

Onward from Madrid, Dublin, Berlin

Last week I wrote about the three transatlantic British Airways partners that, due to the distances involved and the fact that taxes and fees are low on these routes, make even post-devaluation Avios redemptions competitive with cash or (depending on your other balances) award redemptions using other loyalty currencies. Those routes again are:

These redemptions — even post-devaluation — are great values in business class compared to cash (between 2.45 and 9.8 cents per Avios) and decent values compared to other airline miles. If nothing else, you should be aware of them because it's an additional option if you can't find award availability on your first-, second-, or third-choice airlines.

Judging by the comments to that post, you might think travel hackers are indifferent to this problem, on the grounds that it's better to build a trip around award availability on airlines you actually want to fly.

But for people with more restricted schedules (not me, but my understanding is this applies to most people in the working world), being aware of as many options as possible maximizes the chances of scoring a cheap award flight instead of being stuck paying retail to sit in economy.

A whole different problem, however, is the very real issue that you may not want to go to Ireland, Germany, or Spain!

Searching for cheap onward connections

A good first stop when thinking about Avios redemptions is the Wandering Aramean's Avios Map. Type in an airport code and you'll see all the possible non-stop Avios redemptions. Be sure to cross-check those flights with Google Flights or another flight search site, however; Seth's data are often out of date or inaccurate.

The Avios Map tool has two drawbacks: it doesn't show the taxes and fees for the route, and it only goes up to the 12,500 Avios distance band (so flights between New York and Germany don't appear, even though they're terrific values on airberlin). Still, if you're piecing together a multi-stop itinerary, you're likely sticking to shorter routes anyway, since Avios prices increase so rapidly with each additional leg and distance band.

After finding the routes you're interested in, plug them into British Airways' Avios calculator (and Iberia's if your flight is operated by Iberia) and look for the taxes and fees you'll incur. Don't forget to check the return as well; departure taxes vary wildly between airports.

This is basically brute force work, but if you're rich in Avios (or cheap Ultimate Rewards points), it's also a great way to travel around the world for next to nothing.

A few fun finds

These are literally just the first couple of options that jumped out at me in 30 minutes of clicking around using the exact procedure I described above:

  • Berlin-Abu Dhabi. 12,500 Avios in economy, 25,000 Avios in business (will be 37,500). $48.24 in taxes and fees outbound, $21.78 in taxes and fees return. From Abu Dhabi, continue on Etihad virtually anywhere in the world.
  • Dublin-Prague/Vienna. 7,500 Avios in economy, 15,000 (unchanged) Avios for intra-Europe business class. $51.90 in taxes and fees outbound from either, $68.25 return from Vienna, $53.86 return from Prague.
  • Madrid-lots of places!

Take Iberia everywhere, but beware Iberia weirdness

Once you get to Madrid, you have a ton of great options, but you need to beware of Iberia's intense weirdness. For example, here's an Iberia-operated flight to Tel Aviv booked with British Airways Avios:

Here's the same flight booked with Iberia Avios:

I'm not going to get into an argument about whether 7,500 Avios are worth more or less than $45.59 (more), I'll just point out that this Iberia flight, unlike ones departing New York and Boston to Madrid, incurs more taxes and fees using Iberia Avios than British Airways Avios.

When the Iberia devaluation takes place on April 1, and the British Airways devaluation on April 28, 2015, it'll become even more important to check, every single time, which currency makes your awards cheaper overall.

Here's another cool option to Moscow's Domodedovo airport, booked with British Airways Avios:

And the same flight booked with Iberia Avios:

Conclusion

Obviously these flights are only a small sample of those operated out of Berlin, Dublin, and Madrid by British Airways partners, but I hope they illustrate the possibilities of plugging together Avios flights as a way to navigate to, from, and around Europe. If you spot any other long-distance, low-fee gems, feel free to share them in the comments!

Yet another loyalty program trap: airline companion tickets

In the last few weeks I've done a bit of a deep dive into the annual free night certificates offered by various co-branded hotel credit cards (IHG (and here), Marriott, Hyatt), with the general theme that a single annual free night certificate has to be looked at in the framework of your overall miles, points, and travel strategy.

For example, a $75 Hyatt free night certificate can either save you 8,000 Ultimate Rewards points if redeemed as part of a short Category 2 stay (good deal!), or cost you tens of thousands of Ultimate Rewards points if you let its presence in your account convince you to spend your vacation at a Category 4 Hyatt property rather than, for example, a Club Carlson property where your last night (or every other night, depending on your credit card portfolio) is free.

In other words, it's not enough to say the Hyatt Visa Signature credit card gives a free night when you pay the $75 annual fee. That "free" night might be very cheap or very expensive, depending on your travel plans and overall miles and points strategy.

Are airline companion tickets too good to be true?

Many airline co-branded credit cards offer an annual companion ticket, which are (with a few important exceptions) valid for economy travel in the continental United States and Canada, on flights operated by the issuing airline (excluding their partners and, in US Airways' case, their own sister airline American).

Here's a quick glance at some of those companion tickets:

  • Barclaycard US Airways MasterCard (for new and current cardholders in 2015 only): $99 plus taxes and fees for each of up to two companions traveling with the cardholder, when the cardholder purchases an economy ticket fare of $250 or more. Valid in the continental United States and Canada. $89 annual fee. You must pay with your US Airways MasterCard.
  • Barclaycard American Airlines Aviator Silver MasterCard (beginning in the second quarter of 2015): $99 plus taxes and fees for each of up to two companions traveling with the cardholder, when the cardholder purchases a ticket for $250 or more. The cardholder must spend $30,000 each cardmember year to receive the companion tickets. $195 annual fee.
  • Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature: $121 for one companion to travel with the cardholder, when the cardholder purchases any economy ticket. Valid systemwide on flights operated by Alaska Airlines. $75 annual fee. The primary cardholder must be traveling or the ticket must be booked with a card in the primary cardholder's name.
  • American Express Delta Platinum (economy) and Reserve (economy or first): pay only the taxes and fees for your companion when purchasing a ticket in eligible fare classes. Valid in the continental United States and Canada, except for residents of Hawaii, who can originate there. $195 (Platinum) or $450 (Reserve) annual fee. The terms and conditions state that the ticket must be paid for with your American Express Delta Platinum or Reserve card, although a reader reported that he was able to use a different American Express card.
  • Chase British Airways Visa: you pay only the taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges for a second award ticket in any class of service booked entirely on British Airways-operated flights, originating in the United States. $95 annual fee. The primary cardholder must be traveling.

Who are companion tickets right for?

I often write that there are only two reasons to even consider using travel-rewards-earning credit cards, rather than earning a straight 2% cash back using a card like the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express:

  • You travel for work and have reimbursable business expenses;
  • Or you manufacture spend furiously.

That's because even if you (not unreasonably) value Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, or Citi ThankYou points at more than 1 cent each, you have to earn a huge number of them to "make up" the $95, $175, or $450 annual fees incurred by premium rewards-earning credit cards.

The same logic applies to companion tickets. If you're reimbursed by your business or employer for your travel expenses, then the annual fees of these credit cards really might be cheap methods for bringing a travel companion on a domestic trip with you.

That's because when the cost of the revenue ticket is taken out of the equation, the credit card annual fees may be a relatively small fraction of the cost of paying for a second revenue ticket: $217 (Delta Platinum) is 25% of a $868 ticket, $210 (US Airways) is 25% of a $840 ticket, $196 (Alaska) is 25% of a $784 ticket. While those hypothetical prices are currently high for leisure fares (I haven't paid $784 for a domestic ticket in years), if your travel companion wants to come with you on a route heavy with business travelers, they're not inconceivable.

The problem with companion tickets

With that out of the way we can come to the crux of the problem: companion tickets are a bad deal because they require you to purchase a revenue ticket directly from the airline.

And if you're a travel hacker, that's vanishingly unlikely to be the cheapest method of buying tickets — even revenue tickets. Leaving award tickets completely aside, here are a handful of straightforward methods for buying revenue tickets on the cheap:

  • Redeem US Bank Flexpoints at up to 2 cents each, earned at up to 3 Flexpoints per dollar spent on charity. Maximum discount: 83.3%.
  • Redeem Citi ThankYou points at up to 1.6 cents each on American Airlines or US Airways flights, earned at up to 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent at gas stations. Maximum discount: 83.7%.
  • Redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points at up to 1.25 cents each, earned at up to 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores. Maximum discount: 46.3%.

Compare that to a revenue ticket purchased directly from the airline, and a companion ticket paid for with your annual fee plus any required taxes, fees, or co-pays. Even the unusually high prices I cited above (with savings of 75% on the companion ticket compared to revenue fares) produce savings of just 37.5% when you're forced to buy the first ticket at retail price.

Exceptions worth considering

While the Bank of America Alaska Airlines companion ticket and the British Airways Travel Together ticket do have to be booked directly with their respective airlines (over the phone, in both cases), the terms and conditions of the tickets do not require them to be booked with the corresponding credit card. That means you can use a Barclaycard Arrival+ card to pay for both tickets, potentially securing a discount comparable to what you'd get booking using a more lucrative points currency.

Personally I prefer to use my Arrival+ miles for non-chain hotels and taxi and Uber rides, but if you're earning them cheaply enough, an Alaska Airlines or British Airways companion ticket might make sense — again, depending on your own miles and points strategy.