MMB Expert

MMB Expert

In a nutshell, all the actions you take in playing MMB categorically fall into two either acquiring miles or redeeming miles. But since you inspire to become a MMB expert, I am going to pitch in a third element before you go too far without it: planning.

Planning is the key ingredient that will elevate your MMB game to the next level, by helping you acquire the RIGHT airline miles for YOUR travel needs and maximize the value from the miles you have attained. Planning lets you see through the maze of complex rules and limitations in MMB game ahead of time and sets your foot on the path of least efforts to your travel goal.

Alliance, Partnership, and Transferable Points

Rarely do you see airline operating in silo there days. To gain competitive edge, airlines form alliances to serve travelers around the world. There are three major airline alliances:

  • Star Alliance, featuring ADRIA Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Avianca, Avianca in Brazil, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Airways, Juneyao Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, SWISS, TAP Portugal, THAI, Turkish Airlines, and United Airlines
  • OneWorld, represented by airberlin, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LATAM, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines
  • SkyTeam, which includes Aeroflot, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines and Xiamen Airlines

In general, frequent flyer miles earned in any member airline account can be used to redeem on flights operated by other airlines in the same alliance. Therefore, even if you are eyeing a trip on, say, American Airlines, you can attain your goal by collecting British Airways Avios or Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles without a single mile in your American Airlines AAdvantage account. In addition, airlines may partner with other airlines outside their own alliance or even belonging to a rival alliance, offering further opportunities to broaden redemption options and enhance value proposition.

Borrowing some geometry concept, I like to compare OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam to three parallel lines on a graph paper that are sometimes crisscrossed by non-alliance partnership lines.

Along the same analogy, transferable points are perhaps best viewed as adding a third dimension to the network that together render the game of Miles Moneyball as one that’s utmost confusing and yet lusciously rewarding.

You can find multiple transferable point systems in today’s market place. For the sake of simplicity and practicality, I will only discuss the four most utilized programs. They merit the distinction because these points can be transferred, often at 1:1 ratio, to several airline frequent flyer programs across different alliances:

  • American Express Membership Rewards, points transferable to Air Canada, British Airways, Delta, Cathay Pacific, Alitalia, Ethihad
  • Starwood Preferred Guests Star Points, points transferable to Aegean Airlines, Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air China, Alaska Airlines, Alitalia, All Nippon Airways (ANA), American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Asiana Airlines, British Airways, China Eastern Airlines,     China Southern Airlines, Delta Air Lines,     Emirates, Etihad Airways,  KLM/Air France, Hainan Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Korean Air, Avianca, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Virgin Atlantic,  Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand, Gol, LATAM Airlines, United
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards, British Airways, KLM/Air France, Singapore, Southwest, Korean Air, United, Virgin Atlantic
  • Citi ThankYou, JetBlue, Turkish, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, EVA, KLM/Air France, Garuda Indonesia, Jet Airways, Malaysia, Qantas, Qatar, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic (update Nov 12, 2017, Citi added Avianca Lifemiles as transfer partner)

If you are not lost on the maze of lines, 2-D planes, and 3-D mesh yet, how are you going to take advantage of the multifaceted dynamics? Let’s look at an example. Say you live in Los Angeles and you plan to go to Hawaii. This route is served by Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and Virgin America. Virgin America has been acquired by Alaska Airlines. For all intents and purposes, they are considered one airline. To earn free travel for this trip, in a simple “get what you see” approach, you might end up applying for one or more of the following credit cards:

  • Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
  • Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
  • Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard
  • American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card
  • Barclay Hawaiian Airlines WorldElite MasterCard, or
  • Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card.

But when alliances and partners are taken into account, your choices are all of sudden widened. You might also consider, in addition to aft mentioned, these airline co-branded credit cards:

  • Synchrony Bnak Cathay Pacific Visa (Cathay Pacific is a member of OneWorld alliance and a partner of Alaska Airlines)
  • Chase British Airways Visa Signature (OneWorld)
  • US Bank (LATAM Airlines) LANPass Visa (OneWorld)
  • US Bank Korean Air Skypass Visa (SkyTeam)
  • Banco Popular de Puerto Rico Avianca Vuela visa (Star Alliance)
  • Barclay Lufthansa Premier Miles & More Mastercard (Star Alliance)

You probably could have guessed by now, the four transferable points systems I mentioned earlier will join the foray, too, thanks to their partnership with airlines from all three alliances. Not to be mistaken as a complete list, transferable points can be earned from these credit cards:

  • American Express Membership Rewards: Amex EveryDay card, Amex Premier Rewards Gold card, Amex Platinum card
  • Starwood Preferred Guests Star Points: Amex Starwood Preferred Guest card,  Amex Starwood Preferred Guest business card
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: Chase Freedom card, Chase Sapphire card, Chase Sapphire Preferred card, Chase Sapphire Reserved card
  • Citi ThankYou: Citi ThankYou Preferred card, Citi ThankYou Premier card, Citi ThankYou Prestige card

With so many choices in credit card offerings and so many ways to construct mileage trips, are you convinced that planning is the key to MMB success? Just like Moneyball seeks secret formula in identifying hidden values of baseball players, Miles Moneyball helps acquiring miles at the lowest cost and redeeming miles and points at their maximum values.

Evaluating Airline Loyalty Programs

If you start from scratch, on top of the order is to decide which airline program you will build upon. Even though miles can be cashed in across alliance members and partners, redemption policy is sanctioned by the airline loyalty program you deduct miles from, not the operating airline(s), if they are different. Therefore, it’s to your advantage to become knowledgeable about the program before you pour in your efforts.

I usually scrutinize the following attributes in an airline’s loyalty program:

  • Ease to accumulate

Credit card companies offer signup bonus anywhere from 20 to 50K, or occasionally 80 to 100K miles or points. Unless you are a big spender who can rack up tens or even hundreds of thousands more miles from spending, your mile balance will stagnate after bonus miles have been credited. It’s best to avoid small chunks of mileage pool with a particular airline by going after programs where multiple earning channels are available. For example, American Airlines partner with both Citi and Barclay in administering their co-branded credit card portfolios.  In the case of Citi, distinct cards of AAdvantge God, Platinum Select, and Executive all offer American Airlines AAdvantage miles. On top of that, SPG Starpoints can be transferred into AA miles at 1:1 ratio. As a result, it’s relatively easy to collect large sum of AA miles from signup bonus from American Express SPG, Barclay, and multiple products at Citi.

  • Redemption Charts

Airlines publish award charts dictating how much miles are needed for a particular route. With few exceptions, an airline’s chart is based on either region or distance. There is no set rule on which algorithm works in your favor. Again, planning is of essence for your personal situation. With a home base in Chicago, I found region-based charts always come ahead for trans-Pacific trips, even to the closest major Asian hub city of Tokyo, whereas distance based programs sometimes provide savings to western European cities such as Dublin, Madrid, and London. Conversely, due to Chicago’s central location in the US, distance yardstick often comes ahead domestically. For example, you can redeem either British Airways Avios or AAdvantage miles on American Airlines flights, yet BA will charge 7500 miles one way for distance under 1150 miles (think about Chicago/Orlando, Los Angeles/Vancouver, New York/Miami, et al) and 10000 miles for flights up to 2000 miles (Chicago/San Francisco, Los Angeles/Detroit, New York/Salt Lake City, for example), all handily beating AA’s 12500 miles cost within North America region.

  • Program Rules

Here comes another reason why not all programs are created equal and planning may be remarkably rewarding. For example, American Airlines forbid award travel going through a third region, therefore one can’t stop by Europe to visit Asia. United, on the other hand, allows either trans-Pacific or trans-Atlantic route to Asia. I was able to take advantage of United’s routing flexibility and booked a family vacation to Singapore while stopping at Rome for a week-long cruise, two trips for the price of one!

For the most part, you pay miles in lieu of airline ticket charge in award tickets, plus government fees and taxes. It’s up to individual airlines whether they impose other airline fees on top, the most notorious of which is “fuel surcharge”. For domestic flights, the Big Four (AA, UA, Delta, and Southwest) only pass on 9-11 government fee of $5.60 to frequent flyer tickets. On international award tickets, fees vary depending which program you redeem miles from, and in some cases, which airline you fly with. Redeeming AA miles for trans-Atlantic flights on American Airlines incurs no fuel surcharge, but using the same AA miles on British Airways flight will run you up several hundreds of dollars! You have to be mindful of the fees and stay clear from the fuel surcharge landmine.

  • Award seat availability

Just because you have enough mile balance does not guarantee award travel. Before you decide upon a loyalty program, it is good idea to check out their award availability, particularly on the routes you are interested in. Delta used to very stingy in releasing award seats but situation is getting much better recently. On the other hand, American Airlines are heading to the other direction. It’s almost impossible to find simple non-stop domestic award tickets on popular routes. International award seats are not much better either. Consequently, I have become heavily relying on their OneWorld partners for award travel on AAdvantage miles. United has gone through slow deterioration as well, particularly for domestic travel. You have to weigh in availability on the routes you’re interested in taking before committing your investment.

  • Expiration date

With few exceptions (kudos to Delta where points never expire), most airlines attach a point expiration date anywhere from 18 months to 3 years. Among those, most airlines would extend the life of miles with some account activity, either it’s flying or shopping from its portal. You have to watch out for airlines that set hard expiration dates regardless of account activity such as Singapore Airlines. Playing MMB game requires superb organization skills. Keeping good track of your miles balance with each airlines is a must.

Reasons to play MMB

In all honesty, your experience playing MMB will resemble distance running rather than sprinting. You will build up knowledge in piece meals. Your miles and points balance will go up gradually and over time, your award choices multiply. So be patient but be persistent. Just imagine what MMB can get you:

  • See the world far far away

Award travel levels playing field in managing travel costs. Even though revenue tickets are prohibitively expensive to remote places such as Maldives, Cook Islands, and Bora Bora, in MMB world, they are just Africa and South Pacific with defined mileage tags, not an impossible task to work on.

  • Travel in comfort or in style

Here comes a paradox when it comes to long-haul international travel. If you are like me, your body is not as young as it used to be and probably does not appreciate sitting straight up on flights longer than a few hours. Have you ever considered forking over five grands on a business class ticket to treat yourself to a lie flat seat? In geeks’ term, the agony over choosing five ultra-slim laptops, 10 iPads, or a couple of 70″4K TVs versus renting a premium cabin for 15 hours has never been resolved in latter’s favor. MMB has become my saving grace and I haven’t had to make that decision on transpacific flights.

  • Construct alternative, economical itineraries

You can use award tickets to cover your entire trip or combine it with revenue tickets when the outright cash price is reasonable. You might be looking at a round trip between two cities and there is a big price difference between outbound and inbound one way tickets. You can pay for the low price one way and apply miles for the other to bring your overall cost down. If you are planning a trip to Europe, there may be big price variation between different destinations. MMB can be your price arbitrager in that if London is on sale, the whole Western Europe is on sale, as the short hop from London to other places could cost you as few as 4500 British Avios.

There are a lot more to MMB than can be described here in one page. I have learned a lot and continue to learn from like-minded travelers. My successful bookings are testimony to what has come to fruition after being inspired and I wish you best of luck as you work towards your your first free trip!

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