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“What frequent flyer miles are best?”
I get this question ALL THE TIME. And unfortunately, the answer is always: “It depends.” It depends on your own travel goals and expectations. It depends on your home airport. It depends on how many frequent flyer miles you already have. So it’s difficult to give a straight answer.
But now that I’ve discussed the different types of credit card points (Chase, Citi, Amex, Marriott), I’ll start explaining how best to use those hard-earned points and let you determine which frequent flyer program is best for yourself.
My go-to frequent flyer miles are with United Airlines, especially over Delta or American Airlines. I love the United MileagePlus program for a variety of reasons.
1. I live near a major United Airlines international hub
Dulles Airport, outside Washington, DC, is one of United Airlines’ largest hubs. And better yet, being the nation’s capital and a major east coast city means that there are many international destinations from Dulles. More flights mean more options, which is the name of the game when searching for award flights.
And of course, since I live near a United hub, that also means I’m more likely to fly on United Airlines for personal and business travel. The measly frequent flyer miles I earn while traveling on cheap economy tickets isn’t a lot, but every little bit helps eventually earn that business class award ticket.
2. United Airlines’ award chart is very fair
This is where I bring out the eye chart:
OK, let’s make things a little easier. Below is a breakdown of flights from the mainland U.S., Alaska, and Canada to various destinations:
Much better! You’ll see that a one-way flight in economy to Europe costs 30,000 miles and a flight in business class is 60,000 miles. Some airlines may have slightly different valuations, but United’s offering is fairly standard across the industry.
These valuations compare closely with American Airlines’ award chart. Meanwhile, Delta Airlines no longer publishes an award chart at all, which means that they can change the miles required for an award ticket at any time. I’d hate to be stockpiling Delta SkyMiles only for the price to change just before I was able to book the ticket.
As far as an airline goes, Delta is a great choice. Probably the highest quality among the three main U.S. airlines. But the SkyMiles frequent flyer program? Easily the worst.
3. United Airlines has more award availability than American Airlines or Delta
What’s the point of having all these points/miles if you can’t spend them? This is exactly what Capital One has focused on while advertising their Capital One Venture credit card.
And they have a point. Redeeming miles on U.S.-based airlines is notoriously difficult. But American and Delta Airlines take it to a whole new level.
Since Delta Airlines doesn’t have a published award chart, they can *claim* that there are awards available on every flight. But in reality, the exorbitant cost for those award tickets makes them completely unattainable and effectively unavailable.
Award availability on American Airlines is also limited. Before I started strategically collecting credit card points, I signed up for the American Airlines credit card. I thought the 50,000 sign-up bonus would help us earn a free roundtrip economy ticket to Europe. But the only award availability I could find was redeeming American Airlines miles on British Airways flights… which conveniently didn’t include $400+ in taxes and fees. No, thanks.
United Airlines doesn’t offer award availability on all of their flights, but I’ve found it more generous than the other U.S. airlines. And that’s a nice segue into my next reason…
4. United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance
The Star Alliance is the largest global airline alliance with 27 different airlines across six continents. The alliance includes members such as Lufthansa (Germany), Avianca (Colombia), Air New Zealand, Air Nippon Airways (Japan), and South African Airways, plus 20 other member airlines. Definitely a nice club to be a part of!
As we all know, award availability can be hard to find on U.S. airlines. However, other international airlines, especially Asian airlines, are much more generous with award space on their flights.
And having so many international partners makes it much easier to find availability. Keep in mind that United miles can be used for redemptions on their Star Alliance partners. In reality, using United, American, or Delta miles for award flights on their international partners is probably the best way to redeem your miles. U.S. airlines still lag far behind many other global airlines (which is a whole other discussion), so the ability to book award tickets on nicer airlines is a huge perk.
5. Most importantly: low taxes and fees on award tickets
Some airlines charge additional fees and surcharges on certain award ticket redemptions. As I already mentioned, British Airways is one of those airlines. Unfortunately, German airline Lufthansa is another. A roundtrip business class ticket on Lufthansa may cost $1,000+ in surcharges in addition to the mileage redemption. For an award ticket!
But not when you use United miles. United Airlines doesn’t pass along any of the huge surcharges that airlines may charge, so your taxes and fees will be kept much lower. With that being said, some taxes and fees are unavoidable. But $100 is much more reasonable than $1,000.
6. United Airlines is a transfer partner with Chase
At this point, I’m a loyalist to Chase, and the credit card points I earn through Chase can be easily transferred to United Airlines. So it’s much easier for me to compile United miles and take advantage of all the benefits United miles have over the other U.S airlines’ frequent flyer programs.
If you’re curious, Marriott/SPG points transfer to both American Airlines and Delta Airlines. In addition, AMEX points can be transferred to Delta Airlines. But between the award availability, low fees, Star Alliance membership, and transfer partnership with Chase, I’ll continue to focus on the United Airlines frequent flyer program.