Does LifeMiles play favorites?

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Avianca LifeMiles apparently has favorites.

Greg has written about how Avianca LifeMiles mixed-cabin awards can be advantageous (See: Avianca LifeMiles’ awesome mixed-cabin award pricing. First class for less). In that post, Greg discovered that adding an economy class segment beyond your intended destination could decrease the overall cost of your ticket. But there’s more: Avianca plays favorites and charges more for some partners than others on mixed-cabin awards. How much you save is dictated by which partners you choose.

ANA business class

Quick Review of what makes Avianca unique

I highly recommend you check out the earlier post on first class pricing for a quick primer and/or review. The short story is this: most airline programs either calculate the cost of an award ticket by the distance you’re flying or they charge the same price from anywhere in Region A to anywhere in Region B. If an airline has a region-based award chart, they usually charge the price of the highest class of service for the whole trip, even if you have a mixed-cabin award.

Avianca does things differently, charging a weighted rate on mixed-cabin awards. For example, if 20% of your journey is in economy class and 80% is in business class, Avianca will charge you 20% of the cost of an economy class ticket between your start and end region plus 80% of the cost of a business class ticket. Again, read that previous post for more as I won’t re-hash the entire thing here.

Playing favorites: United over Air Canada

This post was born when I stumbled on this first example. I was searching for Star Alliance flights from Montreal, Canada to Johannesburg, South Africa. I found two itineraries from Montreal (YUL) to Washington, DC (IAD) to Johannesburg (JNB).

Map courtesy of GCMap.com.

A business class ticket from North America to South Africa would ordinarily cost 75K Avianca LifeMiles based on the airline’s award chart.

If you fly United economy class from Montreal to DC and then South African Airways business class to Johannesburg, you’ll pay 3,950 miles for the United flight + 71,210 miles for the one on South African Airways. Oddly, that’s a total of 75,160 miles.

However, if you choose to fly Air Canada for the first leg from Montreal to DC in economy class and then on to South African Airways business class, LifeMile charges miles more for the flight from Montreal to Washington (5,200 miles) …and a little less for the flight to Johannesburg (69,460 miles) for a total of 74,660 miles.

The second itinerary will save you about 500 LifeMiles. That’s a negligible difference, but why the difference? In both cases, the itinerary goes from Montreal to Washington (IAD airport) to JNB. That means the flights should be equal in distance, yet it would seem that LifeMiles is giving an incentive to fly Air Canada.

Saving a few thousand miles with the right partners

That first example I found, while kind of interesting to me, isn’t very exciting. But it illustrates the point that even on the same route (YUL-IAD-JNB), the price of an award with Avianca varies depending on which partner operates your segments. While choosing Air Canada would have saved you a few hundred miles, the right partner can sometimes save you several thousand miles.

Our next example is flying from Europe to Asia. Ordinarily, Avianca LifeMiles charges 75K miles for a one-way business class flight from Europe 2 to North Asia. For example, you’d pay 75K to fly from Frankfurt to Beijing in business class. As Greg previously discovered, adding an economy class segment beyond Beijing and within North Asia can reduce that price. The savings would then vary depending on the length of the economy class flight — but it also varies depending on which partner you choose – even between the same airports.

For example, flying from Frankfurt to Beijing in business class and then adding an economy class segment from Beijing to Osaka, Japan can save you some miles. Again, that’s flying:

  • Frankfurt (FRA) —> Beijing (PEK) —> Osaka (KIX)
Photo courtesy of GCMap.com

For this example, here are the carriers:

Segment #1: Frankfurt (FRA) –> Beijing (PEK)
Lufthansa or Air China

Segment #2: Beijing (PEK) –> Osaka (KIX)
Air China or ANA

Depending on which combination of carriers you choose, the pricing is different.

Again, to save miles, you’ll book the long haul flight in business class with the segment from Beijing to Osaka in economy class.

If you fly Frankfurt to Beijing on Lufthansa in business class and then continue in ANA economy class from Beijing to Osaka, you’ll pay 73,400 LifeMiles total.

However, if you’re willing to instead fly the long haul leg on Air China, you’ll pay a total of 70,620 LifeMiles.

However, if you want the best deal, you’ll have to fly Air China the whole way from Frankfurt to Beijing to Osaka. If you choose Air China over Lufthansa/ANA, you’ll pay just 68,830 LifeMiles, even though you’re flying the exact same mixed-cabin route (FRA-PEK-KIX).

That’s a difference of 4,570 miles. And it’s 6,170 miles less than you’d pay to fly from Frankfurt to Beijing alone in business class (which would ordinarily be 75,000 miles).

With the current point transfer bonus from Membership Rewards, a business class ticket from Frankfurt to Beijing would cost 66,000 Membership Rewards points (66,000 + 15% bonus = 75,900 LifeMiles).

If you instead book Frankfurt to Beijing to Osaka mixed-cabin with both segments on Air China, you would save you 6,000 Membership Rewards points over booking a business class ticket from Frankfurt to Beijing. Here’s how that works out:

  • Frankfurt to Beijing in business class = 75,000 Lifemiles
  • 66,000 Membership Rewards + 15% bonus = 75,900 LifeMiles
    vs
  • Frankfurt to Beijing in business class + Beijing to Osaka in economy class all on Air China = 68,830 LifeMiles
  • 60,000 Membership Rewards 15% bonus = 69,000 LifeMiles

That’s not a huge savings, but every few thousand miles counts.

Bottom line

Is it worth flying Air China over Lufthansa to save a few thousand miles? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it illustrates a point that I found repeated in other region combinations: Avianca plays favorites in terms of charging more or less depending on the partners you choose. This trick is most useful in parts of the world where Avianca has a concentration of partners flying the same routes (i.e. Asia, some routes in Europe). The next time you’re looking to book an Avianca mixed-cabin award, look for chances to save with cheaper partners.

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