United vs. Air Canada: Which is the better Chase transfer partner?

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I was wrong.  In my recent post announcing that Chase has added Air Canada Aeroplan as a new transfer partner, I wrote “Often you’ll find Air Canada’s award pricing to be much cheaper than United’s, especially for long distance premium cabin awards.”  It turns out that “often” was a very poor choice of words.

United and Air Canada are both Star Alliance members. This means that you can use either one’s miles to book flights on Star Alliance member airlines when saver level awards are available.  The Star Alliance includes Air Canada, ANA, EVA Air, Lufthansa, Singapore, Swiss, Turkish, United, and many more airlines.  Unlike Singapore Airlines (another Star Alliance Chase transfer partner), United and Air Canada never pass along carrier imposed surcharges.  That can be huge when booking with some partner airlines like Lufthansa or Swiss.

So, now that cardholders of premium Ultimate Rewards cards (Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred) can transfer points to either United or Air Canada, which should they choose?

In order to see which program offers better award pricing for U.S. customers, I ran a number of award searches across both United MileagePlus and Air Canada Aeroplan and I recorded the results.  Here’s what I found…

Domestic U.S.

I looked at a number of one-way routes within the U.S. and recorded economy award prices.  I would have liked to have also recorded domestic first class award prices, but United so rarely makes these available at the saver level that it was difficult to find enough data points.  Note that United’s award pricing is dynamic and so real world results will vary.

Route United Miles Required United Fees Air Canada Miles Required Air Canada Fees
(Converted to USD)
Which is Cheaper?
WAS-NYC 5,000 $5.60 6,000 $37 United
ATL-WAS 6,900 $5.60 10,000 $37 United
LAX-ATL 12,500 $5.60 12,500 $37 United
CHI-LAX 12,500 $5.60 12,500 $37 United
DFW-CHI 12,000 $5.60 10,000 $37 Tie*
DEN-DFW 7,300 $5.60 10,000 $37 United
SEA-DEN 6,000 $5.60 10,000 $37 United

* With the flight from Dallas to Chicago, United charged 2,000 more miles, but Air Canada charged $31 more in fees.  If we assume that you value Chase points at about 1.5 cents each, then the value of the difference in price in miles ($30) almost exactly matches the difference in fees ($31).

As you can see above, United is almost always the better option for domestic U.S. flights.

International Flights

I looked at one-way flights from Chicago to a number of international destinations and recorded award pricing on United and Air Canada.  Here’s what I found…

Economy Awards

From Chicago To: United Miles Required United Fees Air Canada Miles Required Air Canada Fees
(Converted to USD)
Which is Cheaper?
London 30,000 $5.60 35,000 $37 United
Frankfurt 36,000 $5.60 40,000 $37 United
Tokyo 38,500 $5.60 50,000 $37 United
Maldives 46,800 $35.80 70,000 $80 United
Mumbai 42,500 $5.60 70,000 $37 United
Johannesburg 40,000 $5.60 70,000 $37 United
Dubai 56,800 $24.70 55,000 $56 Tie*

* With the flight to Dubai, United charged 1,800 more miles, but Air Canada charged $31 more in fees.  If we assume that you value Chase points at about 1.5 cents each, then the value of the difference in price in miles ($27) nearly matches the difference in fees ($31).

United is clearly the better choice for international economy awards.

Business Class Awards

From Chicago To: United Miles Required United Fees Air Canada Miles Required Air Canada Fees
(Converted to USD)
Which is Cheaper?
London 60,000 $5.60 60,000 $37 United
Frankfurt 80,500 $5.60 70,000 $37 Air Canada
Tokyo 88,000 $5.60 75,000 $37 Air Canada
Maldives 82,500 $35.80 100,000 $80 United
Mumbai 82,500 $47.20 100,000 $37 United
Johannesburg 77,000 $26.90 100,000 $37 United
Dubai 93,500 $24.70 85,000 $56 Air Canada

With international business class awards, the results were mixed.  Sometimes United was cheaper and sometimes Air Canada was cheaper.  Note though that when Air Canada was cheaper, United only charged about 10,000 miles more, but when United was cheaper, Air Canada often charged about 20,000 miles more.

First Class Awards

From Chicago To: United Miles Required United Fees Air Canada Miles Required Air Canada Fees
(Converted to USD)
Which is Cheaper?
Frankfurt 121,000 $5.60 100,000 $37 Air Canada
Tokyo 121,000 $5.60 110,000 $37 Air Canada

I’ll admit I didn’t spend much time looking at international first class awards because award availability can be hard to find.  That said, I did manage to pull up Chicago to Frankfurt in Lufthansa first class and Chicago to Tokyo in ANA first class.  In both cases, Air Canada is cheaper.

Beyond the Price

There are factors beyond the award price that are worth considering:

  • Change Fees: United has permanently waived award change fees.  They have also waived award cancellation fees when cancelling more than 30 days prior to departure.  Air Canada has also waived these fees, but only for flights booked by August 31, 2021Advantage United.
  • Ease of Booking: Currently, United’s website is much better for booking awards.  It offers an award price calendar for finding low fares and it has an advanced search capability for complicated routings.  Air Canada’s current system is very limited.  Hopefully they will unveil a new award search tool soon.  Advantage United (for now).
  • Customer Service: I don’t have enough experience with Air Canada’s customer service to make a call here, but if you prefer one or the other, that can be an important factor when booking awards.
  • Stopovers: Air Canada allows adding a stop-over to a one-way award for only 5,000 additional miles.  Easy.  Advantage Air Canada.  United offers a similar feature (“Excursionist Perk”) for free, but it is much more limited and complicated, and it only works on round trip itineraries.  On the other hand, United’s Excursionist Perk can be used in creative ways to extend your trip and use fewer miles.  See: Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist PerksAdvantage United.

Conclusion

I thought I would find that Air Canada Aeroplan points were usually better than United’s, but the opposite proved true.  For economy awards, I found that United was almost always the better option.  For international business class awards, though, the results were split: sometimes Air Canada was better and sometimes United was better.  And for international first class awards I found that Air Canada was better (but I only compared two routes).

So, which is a better transfer partner from Chase?  There’s no single answer.  My recommendation is to do award searches in both programs before transferring from Chase Ultimate Rewards.  Transfer to whichever one offers the best combination of price and other features (such as waived award change fees).  I realize now that the answer will often be United.

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