When Nick wrote about Citi ThankYou adding Avianca LifeMiles as a transfer partner, he discovered an odd thing with their award pricing: they seem to price mixed cabin awards as a blended price rather than the highest cabin price. I immediately realized that there may be opportunities to hack great first class fares. When I finally got around to investigating this, I found that things look good… very good…
Avianca LifeMiles and United MileagePlus have a lot in common. Both are the award programs for Star Alliance airlines, both allow one-way awards for half the price of round-trip, and neither charges fuel surcharges for award tickets. That last point is a biggie.
Suppose you want to fly Newark to Frankfurt in Lufthansa first class. If you’re willing to book within 2 weeks of departure, this is doable (Lufthansa reserves these awards for there own members up until then). One of the cheapest options, in miles, is through Aeroplan (the current loyalty program for Air Canada). Aeroplan charges only 70,000 miles for the one-way trip, but they also charge fuel surcharges. In this example, you would pay over $650 CAD:
Note: In the comments of this post, Paul points out that Asiana would charge only 50,000 miles one-way for the same flight.
Meanwhile, United charges far more miles (110,000), but no fuel surcharges. United charges only $5.60 for TSA fees plus $75 for close-in award booking fees (less for United elites), for a total of $80.60:
Avianca Lifemiles charges a reasonable number of miles: 87,000. For fees, they charge only the standard $5.60 TSA fees plus a $25 award booking fee, for a total of $30.60. As an aside, I find it very interesting that neither Aeroplan nor United shows Lufthansa business class award space on this date & route, but Avianca shows 4 seats available!
Mixed Cabin Awards
Where things get really interesting is with mixed cabin awards. Suppose you want to fly Newark to Turkey in Lufthansa first to Frankfurt, then Lufthansa business class to Istanbul. Many airline programs would charge more for this award vs. the award that ends in Frankfurt since it is a farther distance and/or because it involves another segment. Other airline programs would charge the same for either award since the destination is in the same award zone (Europe) either way.
Aeroplan charges more. By adding the business class segment from Frankfurt to Istanbul, the award price increases by 10,000 miles:
United charges the same either way because United’s zone-based award chart has Turkey and Germany in the same zone, and they charge the amount dictated by the highest cabin-type flown. In other words, they charge for first class rather than business class since one segment is in first class (this is how most zone-based award programs operate):
But Avianca LifeMiles is different. With LifeMiles, the start and end of the trip dictate which part of the award chart is used, but the pricing is determined by how far you fly in each cabin. The total is a weighted average.
By adding in the extra flight from Frankfurt to Istanbul, the LifeMiles award price goes down from 87,000 miles to 81,420!
How does this work?
Great Circle Mapper shows that the flights from Newark to Frankfurt to Istanbul cover the following distances:
- Newark – Frankfurt: 3,870 miles
- Frankfurt – Istanbul: 1,160 miles
- Total: 5,030 miles
The Avianca LifeMiles Star Alliance award chart (found here) contains the other pieces of the puzzle. There you’ll find that New Jersey is in zone United States 1, and Turkey is in zone Europe 3:
And we can see that Avianca LifeMIles charges the following rates for one-way awards between United States 1 and Europe 3: 30,000 LifeMiles economy, 63,000 LifeMiles business class, and 87,000 LifeMiles 1st class:
So, we can now calculate the expected award price as follows:
- Segment price = segment_distance X cabin_award_price / trip_distance
- Award price = sum of segment prices
Using the example above (Newark to Frankfurt in 1st, then Frankfurt to Istanbul in business):
- Newark – Frankfurt: 3,870 miles X 87,000 LifeMiles for First Class / 5,030 miles total trip distance = 66,936 LifeMiles
- Frankfurt – Istanbul: 1,160 miles X 63,000 LifeMiles for Business Class / 5,030 miles total trip distance = 14,529 LifeMiles
- Total = 66,936 + 14,529 = 81,465 LifeMiles
* Note that segment award prices are based on the total trip origin and endpoint, not the price that the individual segment would price if flown by itself. Also note that total distance is calculated as the sum of the segment distances.
81,465 LifeMiles is close, but not exactly what Avianca LifeMiles charges. They charge 81,420 LifeMiles. They may base their calculations on slightly different segments lengths, or they may do the division and rounding in a different way than shown above. Still, the above formula is close enough for planning purposes.
Hacking LifeMiles 1st Class Awards
Given the way Avianca calculates mixed cabin award prices, it is possible to reduce the cost of business or first class awards by tacking on long distance economy awards. The trick is to make sure that the economy award segments don’t result in flying to a dramatically more expense part of the LifeMiles award chart. Let’s explore an example…
Suppose you want to fly from the US to Japan in first class. Avianca charges 90,000 miles one-way:
You can reduce the cost of this award by flying further, as long as the extra segments are in a lower cabin. For example, let’s say you want to fly from the US to Jakarta Indonesia. For flights from the US to Indonesia, LifeMiles charges 39K, 78K, and 99K for economy, business class, and first class, respectively.
By adding a segment from Tokyo Narita (NRT) to Jakarta, the entire trip then is based on the more expensive part of the award chart (e.g. first class goes up from 90K to 99K). But if you fly the second leg in economy, you can bring the weighted average down. As you can see below, it is possible to fly US to Tokyo-Narita in first class plus Tokyo-Narita to Jakarta in economy for a total price of 77,110 LifeMiles. We just saved nearly 13,000 LifeMiles by adding the flight to Jakarta!
Theoretically, it should be possible to save more by flying farther in economy. I couldn’t get LifeMiles to price this itinerary, but if you could book an award going from Chicago to Tokyo in 1st class, then Tokyo to, let’s say, Johannesburg South Africa, then the total price should come down substantially. By my calculations, the resulting trip would price under 64,000 LifeMiles.
LifeMiles Skiplagging (advanced flyers only)
As shown above, if your true destination is Tokyo, you can dramatically reduce the cost of a first class Avianca LifeMiles award by tacking on extra segments that you don’t plan to actually fly. This is called skiplagging or, more commonly, hidden city ticketing.
Skipping segments in order to reduce prices is frowned upon by airlines, to say the least. If they knew you were doing this on purpose, they would most likely cancel your flights, and could theoretically even close down your loyalty account. I wrote about my experience with skiplagging paid flights here: Skiplagging for the best flights at the best price. I also covered ethical considerations in that post, so please hop over there to tell me why I’m an evil douche-bag.
I don’t recommend this for the faint of heart, but if you decide to try it, consider the following suggestions:
- The segment you plan to skip must be the last segment of your itinerary. If you fail to show up for an earlier segment, most airlines will cancel the rest of your trip. In general, this means that you should book these flights as one-ways.
- Never check your bags. You do not want your bags to end up at your ticketed final destination. There are exceptions to this rule when flying internationally since you sometimes have to retrieve your bags along the way, but you seriously need to know what you’re doing if you rely on this.
- Avoid gate checking bags. In some cases when gate checking bags, the gate agent may try to check your bag all the way to your final destination. If you are forced to gate check your bags, make sure that it is checked only to your intermediate destination.
- Always have a story ready. In case of irregular operations, the airline may try to reroute you to your final destination. Have a story ready about why you need to get to that connecting airport.
- Don’t try this with kids. I would only do this when flying alone. By myself, if I get stranded somewhere I didn’t mean to be, I can deal with it. I think it would be much harder to deal with if an entire family was traveling together.
Piecing together Avianca LifeMiles awards
The hardest part about taking advantage of Avianca LifeMiles’ mixed-cabin award pricing is tricking their online search engine into finding the awards that you know exist. While researching this post, I sometimes found that I had to restrict a search to a single airline to get the routes I wanted to show up. This can be a useful trick, but only if you really want to fly a single airline. In real life, many would want the award to include a positioning flight on United Airlines to the international gateway for a flight on another carrier. If this positioning flight is in economy, it would bring down the overall price even more. But, good luck to you in getting the online engine to show you this combination.
While I’ve never tried it, many have reported how awful Avianca’s call center is for booking awards. So, I don’t recommend doing that. But, there is another option: email.
Once you’ve verified the flights are bookable using miles, you’ll have to get creative and send an email to support (at) lifemiles (dot) com, and request a manual reservation be created for your desired flights. In the email, you should include the following:
- LifeMiles Number
- Flight Information (Date, Flight Numbers, Route)
- Passenger Information (Name, Gender, Date of Birth)
- Phone Number (they might call you to verify the booking)
- A short message saying the award can’t be booked online due to website error (search engine not showing the exact combination, but flights are available)
- Screenshot of each flight being available on LifeMiles.com
- Screenshot of the desired payment option (the miles/money combination on the booking page)
Please head over to Traveling the World’s post for more details.
The way that Avianca LifeMiles prices mixed cabin awards means that it’s possible to book premium cabin awards for considerably less than their award chart suggests. Mixing business class segments with first class is a way to bring down the 1st class cost a little bit. Mixing economy segments with 1st class can bring down the award price dramatically. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible so far. I’m looking forward to readers finding even better ways to mix and match segments to get incredible award pricing from Avianca LifeMiles. When you find these routes, please comment below!