Let me start by saying that this post does not contain the secret LifeMiles award chart. But it does contain a convincing case that one may exist.
Update: As pointed out by nfd and SteveH in the comments, there is currently a LifeMiles promo going for up to 31% off on Star Alliance flights. That explains much of the odd pricing in this post and likely shoots down the theory of a new award chart. However, the short-haul sweet spot seems consistent regardless of the chart pricing, leading me to think that is likely a new sweet spot. We’ll see when the sale ends tomorrow/the next day.
On Monday, Greg wrote a post about an average day as a blogger. I got a particular kick out of that post because of this post I’d been working on. Last weekend, I saw a post at Lazy Traveler’s Handbook that mentioned a new close-in booking fee when using Avianca LifeMiles. I sat down to grab a couple of screen shots and spend half an hour or so putting together a simple “Quick Tip” to alert readers to the new fee. And here we are 5 days later. It turns out I have no idea what Andy was talking about (I never did find evidence of a close-in booking fee), but I did stumble on two key facts:
- Avianca seems to have gotten rid of its award chart
- Avianca seems to have kept most of its award chart…but added some secret sweet spots
Variable pricing to Europe
This post got started when I tried to find evidence of Andy’s close-in booking fee. I pulled up a search for a flight from New York (JFK) to Zurich this week.
That was interesting. Not for the reason I expected it to be — there was no evidence of a $40 close-in fee. But the number of miles was interesting: 16,500 miles one-way in economy class. That sounded far too low. I had to look up the Avianca award chart….which I could no longer find. I tried links from many different sites, Flyertalk, the Star Alliance page, etc. They all redirect to this:
We happened to have a couple of screen shots from old posts. Here’s the chart from the US zones to Europe.
Based on the charts, a flight from US 1 to Switzerland (Europe 2) should be 30,000 miles one way. And it fact it is 30K one way….if you fly from Newark.
I decided to check a different European city with a direct Star Alliance flight from New York JFK. The first city that came to mind was Frankfurt.
That result proved two things:
- Business class prices at 63K as would be expected based on the old charts
- Economy class isn’t the 30K expected, but rather 24K miles.
Of note: the screen shots above show direct flights, but the same pricing applied to flights with connections in all of the above examples.
Several more searches and I was scratching my head even more:
- JFK to Vienna on Austrian: 30K miles (as expected)
- JFK to Brussels on Brussels: 22K miles
- Newark to Copenhagen on SAS: 20K miles (as expected to Europe 1)
- JFK to Lisbon on TAP: 23.5K miles
Out of Boston (US zone 1) and Chicago (US zone 2), all European cities I tried priced according to the chart. From Washington Dulles (US 1), Zurich was 25K, but other cities matched the chart. Business class was more standard, though even there I found anomalies.
San Francisco (US 3) priced according to the chart, but Denver (Also Zone 3) did not price according to the chart:
- DEN to Brussels: 23K
- DEN to Zurich: 22.5K
- DEN to Paris: 23.5K
- DEN to Lisbon, Rome, Frankfurt, or Copenhagen: 30K (as per the chart)
It was clear that things are very variable depending on your origin and destination city.
New short-distance sweet spot
I initially tabled the Europe discoveries realizing it wasn’t the 30-minute task I’d intended. A couple of days later, a member of our Frequent Miler Insiders Facebook group was having trouble finding award flights from Asheville, NC to Chicago. Since I have family in Asheville, I knew that Greenville-Spartanburg airport might be convenient enough and I noted that there was availability during her desired dates. Searching for that availability popped up another interesting data point.
That pricing was strange. If you go back to the chart at the top, you’ll see that the Carolinas are in US 1 and Illinois is in US 2. That should cost 10,000 miles one-way. But in the screen shot above, note that it’s 8,000 miles. That’s just a hair more than flights within a single US zone (7,500 miles). And as you can see above, it’s the same 8K miles whether direct or with a connection.
After a lot of trial and error, I’ve come to the conclusion that the US domestic charts are identical to those above with one kind of cool addition: itineraries that cover a distance under 800 miles from departure airport to arrival airport cost 8,000 miles one-way. That’s true whether or not there are connections. For example, Chicago to Hartford, CT (BDL) covers a distance of 783 miles, so it rings it at 8K LifeMiles in economy class whether direct or connecting at Washington Dulles (which makes for a total distance flown of over 900 miles).
Chicago to Providence, which measures a distance of 849 miles, comes in at 10K as would be expected based on the charts (US 2 to US 1 = 10K one-way in economy class).
Interestingly, within the United States, this sub-800-mile pricing only applies to itineraries between US 1 and US 2. Flights between US 2 and US 3 price according to the chart. For example, Fargo to Denver, which only covers 627 miles, costs 12,500 miles one-way in economy or 25K one-way in business as would be expected based on the old charts.
This short-haul sweet spot is not limited to the United States. International flights of 800 miles or fewer also came to 8,000 miles. For example, Tokyo to Seoul came to 8,000 miles one-way in economy class.
Other sweet spots exist
As I dumped hours and hours into searching city pairs, I found plenty of other pricing oddities. For example, Tokyo to Shanghai (North Asia to North Asia) should cost 15K miles one-way based on the old charts (you can find an excellent copy of those old charts here at Loyalty Lobby). However, that route prices out at 11.5K one-way at LifeMiles.com. There are surely tons of these types of examples
A new award chart?
After sharing parts of the above discoveries with Greg, he suggested I try to make a new LifeMiles award chart that is US-centric. That makes a lot of sense as most readers are traveling from the US and it might be useful to know what to expect to pay.
However, as I got deeper into my searches, the form of that chart became less and less clear. As shown above, a flight from New York-JFK to Switzerland costs 16,500 miles, but a flight from Newark airport costs 30K. I could show that flights from US 1 to Europe 2 could cost 16.5K-30K in economy class, but that seems to be of limited utility if you live in Boston, since all city pairs I tried from Boston showed 30K (which is also true for the majority of origin cities I tried in US 1). Given the huge variance between cities in the same region, and sometimes even between airports in the same city, it began to seem less and less useful.
I haven’t completely given up on the idea of creating a new US-centric LifeMiles award chart, but it’s a multi-dimensional task as I found similar city pair pricing anomalies in other regions. Just a couple more examples in economy class:
- US 3 to North Asia: San Francisco to Tapei: 31.5K miles (chart says 35K in economy class)
- US 2 to North of Central America: Houston to San Pedro Sula: 15K miles (chart shows 17.5K)
I can’t seem to find a link to a working LifeMiles award chart. I’m not sure they’ve abolished the chart as many routes price exactly as one would expect according to the old chart. Most of the price exceptions I found are from major gateways / Star Alliance hubs, though even that isn’t standard. At this point, I think the moral of the story is that Avianca LifeMiles continues to be a really intriguing currency. While most of these lower-than-chart prices were in economy class, I did find a business class route pricing lower than expected here and there. Particularly with the current transfer bonus from Membership Rewards (and considering how cheaply Avianca sells miles), LifeMiles is a program worth exploring. The website is still frustrating and availability doesn’t match what you’ll see on United and Aeroplan, so just start your search at LifeMiles.com and expect the unexpected in every sense.