That time we used a Colombian airline program to book business class seats to Thailand on a Taiwanese airline
Ryan and I recently booked a trip to Thailand for this fall. I was going to wait to post about how we booked it, but one of the ways we saved even more points than normal is time sensitive so I wanted to go ahead and get this post out.
Avianca, a Colombian airline with an extensive network in South America, has a great frequent flyer program for booking award tickets on certain routes all over the world. I’m guessing a majority of my audience doesn’t collect Avianca miles, but you might have other points that transfer to Avianca. American Express Membership Rewards points and Capital One Venture miles both transfer to Avianca at a 1:1 ratio. You can redeem Avianca miles for flights operated by Star Alliance airlines such as United, Lufthansa, and EVA Air.
Star Alliance has a large presence in Europe, so Avianca miles can be a good way to book US-Europe routes (and with no fuel surcharges!). But this time, we redeemed Avianca miles for flights operated by EVA Air, an airline based in Taiwan and best known for its Hello Kitty plane.
There are no nonstop routes between the US and Thailand at this time, so we knew we would have to route through another country. We booked our outbound and return flights separately with two different types of miles.
Our outbound flights are operated by Japan Airlines and we have a connection in Tokyo. I’ll discuss those flights and how to book them in an upcoming post because it’s an entirely different airline alliance (Oneworld).
Our return flights are operated by Star Alliance partner EVA Air and we have a connection in Taipei. We actually return to Houston instead of DFW, but now that Southwest flies to IAH, I was able to book flights from IAH-DAL for ~4,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per ticket. I did this by transferring Chase UR to Southwest Rapid Rewards. As you’ll see, booking a positioning flight to make this EVA itinerary work for us was totally worth it.
I’m going to show how you can book the business class seats that we booked, but as a roundtrip from Houston to Bangkok, for just $87.49 and 136,000 Amex points. This roundtrip itinerary could also be booked with 156,000 Capital One Venture miles and $87.49. If you don’t have either of those points, it is still possible to pay some out of pocket costs to book this flight for significantly less than the value, which is over $7,000.
I am using dates for next spring for this post, so I looked up the price of the EVA air itinerary as if I was paying for it. The total is $7,374.84 per ticket.
How we redeemed Amex points
There are two ways to redeem Amex points for flights. You can either redeem them at amextravel.com at a fixed value of 1 cent per point or you can transfer points to 19 airline partners. Most of the airline partners have a 1:1 transfer ratio. Transferring to airlines often results in a value higher than 1 cent per point.
When you transfer Amex points to a partner airline, your Amex points become miles in that program. You can redeem them according to policies and prices of that program.
EVA Air is in the Star Alliance. This means that the frequent flyer programs of other Star Alliance airlines can be used to book flights operated by EVA Air. Amex has a few transfer partners that are in the Star Alliance but we’re going to focus on Avianca because that is the Amex partner with the best redemption price for this particular route.
You can redeem Avianca Lifemiles (their program’s name) for flights operated by EVA Air and other Star Alliance airlines. The redemption price for Houston to Bangkok in business class is 78,000 Lifemiles each way (156,000 roundtrip) or 39,000 Lifemiles each way in economy (78,000 roundtrip). But we were able to book for even less.
Avianca is also a transfer partner of Capital One Venture and the ratio is 1:1.
From now through May 31, 2021, Lifemiles is adding a 15% bonus to transfers from American Express. This bonus is on Lifemiles’ end, so you will not see it reflected when you’re on the Amex transfer page. To book two one way tickets (like Ryan and I) or one roundtrip ticket in business class, you need 156,000 Avianca Lifemiles. 136,000 American Express Membership Rewards points transferred to Avianca yields 156,400 miles after the 15% bonus. That makes each way 68,000 instead of 78,000. Lifemiles does not collect fuel surcharges, so the only out of pocket costs on award tickets are government taxes and fees. For the roundtrip Houston to Bangkok itinerary in business class, those fees are a total of $87.49.
Let’s compare the totals for a roundtrip ticket:
- Total Value: $7287.35 (ticket value minus fees $7374.84-$87.49)
- Amex Membership Rewards points needed: 136,000 (because of the 15% when transferring to Avianca)
- Cents per point value:
- 0.054 X100=5.4
Like I’ve stated before, high cents per point values are exciting, but I wouldn’t actually pay for these tickets, so it’s not really accurate to say I’m saving over $7,000.
There is currently no bonus promotion when transferring Capital One Venture miles to Avianca, but you could transfer 156,000 Capital One Venture miles to Avianca to book this itinerary.
Earn 60,000 Amex Membership Rewards points by opening an American Express Gold Card
The American Express Gold Card earns 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines and on purchases at amextravel.com, 4 points per dollar at restaurants and, 4 points per dollar at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 in purchases annually. Also, earn 4 points per dollar on Uber Eats purchases. For restaurants and US supermarket spend, this is one of the highest earn rates available.
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The annual fee is a little steep ($250)[See rates and fees], but there are statement credits and benefits that help offset this fee. First, you can receive up to $120 annually in dining credit. Also, you can receive up to $120 annually in statement credit on Uber rides or Uber Eats. Enrollment required. Terms apply.
3 points per dollar on flights is as good or better than most of our other favorite travel cards, but the categories that really stand out here are 4 points per dollar at restaurants and US supermarkets.
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Redeeming Amex points by booking the flight with Amextravel.com is a definite no-go
First of all, the ticket is even more than if I were to book directly with EVA Air ($7374). With Amex, the ticket is $7,778. Redeeming Amex points at a fixed value of one cent per point means you would need 777,785 points to book this flight.
See why I’m always pushing transfer partners??
Another Amex partner also has great pricing for this route
ANA, a Japan-based airline, is also a partner of Amex. ANA actually operates US routes to Thailand (via Japan), and as a Star Alliance member, ANA miles can also be redeemed for EVA Air and other Star Alliance operated flights. Their redemption pricing for US-Thailand is excellent, but the catch is that you have to find roundtrip availability. Avianca and some other programs will let you book a one way which helps with finding availability. Also, there are fuel surcharges, but they usually aren’t terrible.
Houston to Bangkok on an ANA operated itinerary in business class starts at 100,000 ANA miles roundtrip. For business class operated by EVA Air or other Star Alliance partners, Houston to Bangkok would be 136,000 ANA miles. So once this Avianca promotion is over, ANA is a good option for booking with Amex points. The taxes and fees for this EVA Air operated itinerary total ~$218 for the roundtrip
Let’s get the availability disclaimer out of the way
This is an amazing deal, but as always, this is subject to availability. Do not transfer any points from Amex or Capital One to any airline program before you confirm availability. Transfers are permanent. If you were to transfer 136,000 Amex points to Avianca and the flights you want are not available, you cannot get those points back to your Amex account. Instead, the points will remain in your Avianca Lifemiles account.
Avianca is a great program so this isn’t the worst scenario, but I always recommend leaving your transferable points in your Amex, Chase or Capital one account until you’re ready to book. That way, if your dates and route are not available, you can check for options with other airlines.
I’ll show you how to search for availability in a moment.
No points? You can still book this ticket for less than $2,000
There are very few scenarios in which I would suggest buying points. Buying points at a very low price if you actually have a plan to use them is one of those scenarios.
Lifemiles normally cost $33 per 1,000. They often go on sale and right now you can buy them at 2 for 1 pricing, plus they’re giving a bonus of up to 60%. Even if I have 0 Amex points, Capital One miles, or Avianca miles, I can buy 60,000 Lifemiles. With the current 2 for 1 and bonus deal that yields 156,000 Avianca miles. The grand total is $1980. I realize this is a lot but it’s a fraction of the value of the tickets (over $7300).
This promotion ends June 1, 2021. Click here to buy or for more information.
I wouldn’t pay $7,374 for this ticket, but if I did not have the Amex points needed, I would consider buying the miles needed to book the business class seats. At least for a one-way. Another option is to do one way in business class and one way in economy. That would require a total of 117,000 Lifemiles. You can buy 46,000 miles for a total of $1518 to get a total of 117,300 miles with the bonus.
This is also subject to availability since you’ll ultimately be using Lifemiles to book. Miles purchases are usually instant so you can buy as soon as you find dates that work.
Avianca’s Lifemiles website should show availability, but I found that their “smart search” feature and even the “star alliance” option for partner flights missed the EVA Air flights. I personally feel that the best way to search for EVA Air and other Star Alliance availability is with United. United allows you to search with a calendar view if your dates are flexible. I find that searching each way separately is easier but you can search for roundtrip.
By the way, United requires 99k miles each way for this exact Houston to Bangkok itinerary, so Avianca is a much better deal! Do not pay attention to pricing if you’re using United to search. You’re only searching to confirm availability. The pricing will be determined by the program with which you are booking, which is Avianca in this case.
Any EVA Air or other Star Alliance partner itinerary that shows on United should also be available to book with Avianca miles.
Once you find dates that work, you can head to Avianca
You will need to register for a Lifemiles account. It’s free.
Log in to your Lifemiles account.
Like I said in the previous section, when I tried to search Avianca’s Lifemiles website, the Smart Search option did not return results for any dates I searched. Once found availability with United, I had to come back to Avianca and click where it says “smart search” and select the airline (EVA Airways).
This time the flights did show.
Once you confirm availability with Avianca Lifemiles, you can transfer Amex points to Avianca (or buy Lifemiles)
Once you have the Avianca miles needed, you would just select your flights and then you will need to enter your personal information and you will need a credit card for taxes. Our tickets were issued almost immediately. I was able to select our seats by going to EVA Air’s website and giving our confirmation number and names.
The fine print
Amex points transfer to most partners immediately but Avianca is an exception. It can take up to a day to transfer to Avianca, so you run the risk of losing the availability while waiting. It helps to have flexible dates and maybe even a backup date in case your first choice becomes unavailable. When we were booking for October, there were 3 days in a row with availability so I took my chances and figured if our first choice became unavailable, I at least had 2 other options.
Avianca is also great for Star Alliance flights to Europe
For example, Houston to Frankfurt is 63k Lifemiles each way in business class and economy is 30k each way on United operated flights. Just wanted to mention that since Europe is starting to open again! Transferring Amex points to Avianca with the 15% bonus and/or buying Lifemiles could make sense if you’re trying to book a trip to Europe.
Check Avianca’s award pricing if you’re looking to book a trip right now. I only covered Thailand and Europe in this post, but there are several other great routes for redeeming Avianca Lifemiles. The Amex bonus ends May 31 and the Lifemiles sale ends June 1.
Amex Rates and Fees:
- American Express Gold Card [See rates and fees]
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