Economy class awards cost less and are relatively easy to secure unless you’re trying to get to places at the same time everyone else wants to go. On the other hand, awards in business and first are harder to find and are considerably more expensive. Whether you are mostly interested in premium class travel, or if you are working on enhancing one particular trip, you need to think about your goal beforehand, and applying for the right credit card or cards can help you achieve it.
Logistics of an Award: Availability, Mile Cost, Cash Outlay, Routing Rules
There is no such thing as completely free travel. If you are flying internationally, there are always taxes and fees, and these fees can add up to hundreds of dollars depending on your airline and destination. However, there are more considerations than money. Since using one of the U.S.-based frequent flyer programs would be the first obvious choice for most travelers, let’s compare a few factors.
|Average to good|
|Very good from some hubs|
WINNER: United Airlines
American does have decent availability to Europe, but most of it is on it’s on oneworld partner British Airways, which adds over $1,000 in carrier surcharges for flying across the Atlantic/Pacific and should be avoided on these routes.
United has excellent availability on its own metal and partners. Try to choose business class flights on United since you will be paying considerably less than you will for partner flights (look for fares at 57.5K flights in business).
Delta has great availability too, but not from everywhere. For example, it doesn’t have good business class availability from its own main hub in Atlanta. Also be mindful of redeeming Delta miles on Aeroflot, which can add considerable surcharges. On the other hand, Aeroflot is probably the only European carrier that offers a real business class cabin in Europe rather than an economy class cabin with a blocked middle seat.
Mileage Cost (roundtrip)
115,000 in business, 170,000 in first
115,000-140,000 in business, 160,000-220,000 in first
125,000 in business, first class is not available
WINNER: American Airlines
On average American is the cheapest of the three, as it has the same price for its own planes and the partners. United comes in second. It can be as cheap, but partners cost more. Finally, Delta charges the same for its own flights as well as partners’, but at 125,000, it’s more expensive than the cheapest rates on American and United.
Huge surcharges on British Airways, moderate surcharges on Iberia
Taxes only, no fuel surcharges
Moderate fuel surcharges on partner Aeroflot, huge surcharges on Air Europa, and surcharges on Delta flights originating in Europe
WINNER: United Airlines
It’s clear that one should avoid booking British Airways flights with American miles due to high fuel surcharges, but it’s not as straightforward with Delta. Delta doesn’t usually charge fuel surcharges on its metal, but there is an exception for flights originating in Europe. While Delta now allows one-way travel at half the miles, Europe is one region when you should avoid this because you will incur hundreds of dollars in surcharges on the way back. Even if you are not planning to return from the same city you’re flying to, use an open jaw to get back rather than booking two separate itineraries.
Here are the examples.
- Instead of booking JFK – LHR and LHR – JFK separately, book a roundtrip flight JFK – LHR – JFK.
- Instead of booking JFK – LHR and CDG – JFK separately, book both legs as one flight (JFK – LHR, CDG – JFK). This way, there won’t be any fuel surcharges.
|One-way travel is allowed, no third region, the shortest routing possible, and no free stopover|
|One-way travel is allowed, one free stopover, and up to two open jaws|
|One-way travel is allowed, no free stopovers, and one open jaw|
WINNER: United Airlines
American has the strictest routing rules, which won’t allow you to cross to the third region when you fly between the other two (for example, you can’t fly to Asia via Europe), and it doesn’t allow stopovers. On the other hand, United rules are the most generous. You have much greater flexibility to travel between regions and between a free stopover and two open jaws, it’s easy to build your itinerary to visit more places on one award ticket.
OVERALL WINNER: United Airlines
While American wins (barely) in the “Mileage Cost” category, all other categories indicate that the real winner is United. United has better availability, better routing rules, no fuel surcharges ever, and if you use United’s own planes to fly to Europe, the cost in business is the same as American, while the cost of first is slightly cheaper. With the introduction of the Polaris business class cabin next year, the math will be even more in United’s favor.
Now that we’ve determined the winner, the question is how to get these miles fast.
How to Get United Airlines MileagePlus Miles
You can use the following credit cards to earn United miles while on the ground.
- Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Visa Card
- Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Visa Business Card
- Sign-up bonus is 30,000-50,000 miles (you are required to sign in to see your bonus) plus 5,000 for adding an authorized user.
- Spending requirement is $1,000-$2,000 in three months.
- Earning rate is two miles per dollar spent on United tickets, one mile per dollar spent on everything else.
In addition, to the United cards, you can use Chase cards from the Ultimate Rewards family to transfer points to United at the 1:1 ratio.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
- Sign-up bonus: 50,000 miles and 5,000 miles after adding an authorized user.
- Spending requirement: $4,000 in three months.
- Earning rate: Two miles per dollar spent on dining and travel, one mile for everything else.
- Chase Ink Plus Business Card
- Annual fee: $95
- Sign-up bonus: 50,000 miles
- Spending requirement: $5,000 in three months.
- Earning rate: Two points per dollar spent on gas and hotel, five miles per dollar spent at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services, and one point for everything else.
As we all know, the only way to get tens of thousands miles fast is to use credit cards that come with a great sign-up bonus. All the cards listed above offer good-to-excellent bonuses and have their annual fees waived for the first year (except Ink Plus that doesn’t waive the fee, but we believe it’s still worth it).
Please note that Chase has an unofficial, so called 5/24 rule that will deny the above cards for most people if you have applied for more than five cards in the last 24 months. Another rule (official, this time) states that you can only get a bonus if you haven’t received the same bonus within the last 24 months. Keep this in mind when you’re making your travel plans and picking a strategy.