Accruing and using United / Star Alliance Frequent Flier Miles
Replies: 6 - Last Post: Dec 9, 2012 10:25 AM Last Post By: muteki
Nov 25, 2012 8:47 PM
Accruing and using United / Star Alliance Frequent Flier MilesSo I've started booking flights for my upcoming RTW trip, and thought I'd share my experience so far with using United Airlines / Star Alliance frequent flier miles.
About five years ago, I started a FFM account with United Airlines after a trip to Japan. Shortly afterwards I signed up for their Mileage Plus Visa credit card, which got me a bonus of 45,000 miles at the time (I think it's lower now, but still enough to actually use for a trip). Unfortunately it does have a yearly fee, but the first year was waived and I've sucked it up and paid it.
I put everything on this card, and pay the balance off, in full, at the end of the month. I've flown United and other Star Alliance airlines and racked up miles from that, as well as from every dollar I put on the card, including times when I put a family member or friend's purchase on the card and had them pay me back. I book my family members' flights, too, and get the miles.
Booking with miles:
United/Star Alliances has different classes & price points you can book in, including Saver Awards, which are basically half the 'cost' in miles than standard awards. They also offer one way tickets for half the 'cost' of a round trip ticket - this is HUGE for someone like me who wants to be as open-ended as possible when traveling!
I started out with about 170,000 miles before booking my trip flights.
11/7, I booked:
New York to Sydney, 5/30: 40,000 miles (one way, saver award) & US$32 booking fee.
The availability for saver awards was next to none between June & September, and thinning out around the edges, so I jumped on this sooner than I figured. As much as I hate being too set in stone, this ticket would have cost me US$1,300 if I had to pay full price for it.
Recently, I called United to ask about booking a ticket from Seoul to Lima with a 24-hour layover in San Francisco. I already had been on the website and found a saver award flight that routed through San Francisco, so that made the conversation start off easier. Technically, you can have a layover for up to 24 hours without raising the 'cost' of the ticket, but it took a while for the associate to figure out how to do it (the first person I reached passed me to someone else).
The guy had me create a multi-destination ticket on the website, but that incurred a 'cost' of 52,500 miles (as it was technically two separate one-way tickets) instead of the 42,500 it would be if it was all on the same ticket. We tried with the specific routing he was looking at (4 stops in all) but the website returned an error. He told me that he would have to charge me $25 to book over the phone, but once I got the error message he was able to waive the fee, and I almost booked the ticket. However, I had to set up a PIN number for online booking, and one of the flight seats was dropped in the time it took to set up the PIN, so I decided to try again later.
After thinking it over, I wound up deciding that I wanted a longer layover to break up the 35 hours (ouch) of travel time, so instead I just booked two one-ways on United's website:
Seoul to Seattle, 9/9: 32,500 miles (one way, saver award)
Seattle to Lima, 9/16: 20,000 miles (one way, saver award)
Together, US$64 booking fee. Total cost would have been US$1,800 if I was paying full price for two one-ways or just one ticket.
I hope this info is helpful for someone in the same boat as me. I'll try to update this as I use the rest of my miles, especially when it comes to last-minute booking, but feel free to reply or message me if you have questions, comments or whatnot.
Dec 7, 2012 11:09 AM
Dec 7, 2012 2:16 PM
Dec 7, 2012 4:06 PM
3I have used points in the past that I got when travelling on business. What I learned muteki is that you need to do your homework to determine if using your points is better than paying for the flight. For example, it cost me 75,000 miles for a round trip N. America to Europe flight. But a round trip flight to the UK could be bought for $500 return. While a round trip ticket to Athens return was more like $1000 because there are no low cost airlines flying the route I would take. So I'd buy for the UK but use points for Athens.
The same also applies to short hopes within a country. Using points is not always the best way to go. Compare paying vs. points every time.
Dec 9, 2012 8:44 AM
4TiS, I agree with you completely. The first reason using miles has worked out for me is that the flights I'll be booking are mostly one-way (to be flexible about how long I stay somewhere). Unfortunately, one-way tickets are barely any cheaper than round-trip tickets. Second, I've only used miles for the long haul flights (US-OZ; Korea-Peru). I'll be flying Air Asia between Oz/NZ, Burma/Thailand, and South Korea, which works out to be much cheaper than using miles. Same using Ryanair in Europe. I forgot to mention that important point in the original post, so thanks for bringing it up.
Also, on the cash back option versus FFM, I did a little arithmetic out of curiosity:
I accrue 1 mile per US$1 spent on my credit card, and started with 170,000 miles (80,000 of which are actual miles I've flown, not spent, but let's pretend it was all money spent)
At a rate of 1% cash back, I would have accrued US$1,700, enough to cover my one-way to Australia OR my one-way from Seoul to Lima... so miles won in this situation.
At a rate of 3%, I would have US$5100, enough to cover both flights and have extra money, which would be great. However, I've had trouble finding a card in the US that offers 3% without it being tied to certain types of purchases or buying from certain vendors. Since I don't drive, rarely shop for anything other than necessary items, and don't spend much money in general, I would not be able to accrue enough at that rate.
If you take out the 80k of flown miles, technically I would have only earned US$2700 at 3%, which wouldn't be enough to cover both flights. At 1%, I'd have only earned US$900, not enough to cover even one ticket.
So my conclusion is that if you find a card that gives you 3% or higher on purchases that you regularly make, and you spend more money total per year than a poor, penny-pinching retail worker like myself, it could definitely be more worth it to save for flights that way. As with anything, it depends on the person.
Dec 9, 2012 10:03 AM
5We currently use a card in Canada from President's Choice (major supermarket chain here). They give you ponts that is the equivalent of a 2% cashback reward. About 9 months ago we got a letter saying that since we are such good customers (everything goes on their card and gets paid at the end of the month) they were 'rewarding' us with double the normal points. That makes it a 4% card.
However, there is one caveat, you must spend the points/dollars in a President's Choice store. That is not a problem however since like many large chains today you can not only buy everything from soup to nuts but also everything from clothes to TV's as you would find in a major bigbox retailer like Walmart.
In addition to now getting 4%, when we buy gas at the President's Choice gas bar we get an additional 4 cents per litre off our gas purchase. That amounts to an additional $1.50 per fill up on average.
My point is that being tied to a specific vendor isn't necessarily a problem if you have reason to use that vendor. Even if we only used the points to buy groceries, that is more than a large enough item in our budget to have no problem using up all the points we accrue. Of course the money 'saved' on groceries can then be used to buy flight tickets if that is your end goal. Whether it is points/cashback/air miles is irrelevant.
The best of both worlds comes when we get the points on our credit card and then get airmile points when we fly with an airline to whose 'club' we belong. That's called 'double dipping' of course. Like having your cake and eating it too. Having a credit card that gave us airmiles on every purchase couldn't come close.
Dec 9, 2012 10:25 AM
6TiS, I agree that points cards are worth it if its options work well for what you actually use. That's awesome you get 4%, and that the system works for you.
My miles are with Star Alliance, and my credit card is United's, so I get the points-per-dollar AND the miles when I fly with any Star Alliance carrier (US Air, United and Continental here in the US)... so, I'm double dipping.
(0 star Hotel)
From US$44.03 per night
(3 star Hotel)
From US$142.16 per night
(3 star Hotel)
From US$229.00 per night