Unexpected Sweet Spots for International Airline Award Programs

These airlines offer international award flights for fewer miles than their U.S.-based counterparts.
JT GenterMar 31, 2021

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International travel is currently on hold for most travelers. However, thanks to all of the recently added flexible cancellation policies that airlines are offering, now can be a great time to learn how to stretch your miles further for future trips. While we’ve taken closer looks at airline mileage programs that you shouldn’t ignore when planning a domestic trip, here, we’re going to instead look at the best airline sweet spots for international trips.

Remember that you don’t need to fly these airlines or open special credit cards to earn miles to take advantage of these sweet spots. Each of the programs highlighted below is a transfer partner of at least three bank loyalty programs — which include AmEx, Chase, Citi and Capital One — as well as Marriott Bonvoy's extensive list.

British Airways Avios

There are so many British Airways Avios sweet spots, but it takes more effort to find the better international deals. As the British Airways’ award pricing is distance-based, the trick is finding short flights between different regions.

For example, you can fly between the west coast and Japan on American Airlines or Japan Airlines for just 25,750 Avios each way.

American Airlines’ MileSAAver awards on this route cost 35,000 miles during standard dates or 32,500 miles during off-peak dates. However, keep an eye out for Economy Web Specials. You can sometimes catch a deal on this route for as few as 20,000 miles.

Another Avios sweet spot is flying Aer Lingus between the U.S. Northeast or Midwest and Ireland for just 13,000 Avios each way during off-peak dates. To get this rate, you’re going to need to fly a nonstop route that’s less than 4,000 miles in distance. For example, Philadelphia (PHL) to Dublin (DUB).

For context on just how good of a deal this is, American Airlines charges 22,500 during off-peak dates (30,000 during peak dates). United recently ditched its partner award charts, but awards are generally pricing at least 30,000 miles.

You’ll also find deals on shorter routes, such as:

  • Flights from Charlotte or Chicago to Canada for as little as 7,500 Avios each way.

  • Flights from Miami to the Bahamas, Jamaica or Cancun for 7,500 Avios each way.

  • Flights from Charlotte to the Bahamas, Grand Cayman or Cancun for 9,000 Avios each way.

  • Flights from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas for 9,000 Avios each way.

  • Flights from Miami to northern South America from 9,000 Avios each way.

To get the Avios you need to book these awards, you can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards (1:1), Chase Ultimate Rewards® (1:1) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1, plus a 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points) to British Airways Executive Club.

Iberia Plus Avios

Like British Airways, Iberia has a distance-based award chart. But Iberia Plus has some different rules and prices. One notable improvement is that Iberia looks at the total distance flown instead of pricing flights per leg — this makes Iberia great for itineraries where you have to connect.

One of the best sweet spots around is on Iberia, which has flights from the U.S. East Coast or Midwest to Europe that are just 34,000 Iberia Avios in business class or 25,500 in premium economy.

To get the incredible 34,000 Avios rate, you’re going to need to fly on Iberia during off-peak dates on a route totaling under 4,000 miles one-way — such as between New York and Madrid.

Another sweet spot is for short nonstop flights between the U.S. and the Bahamas, Caribbean, Mexico and Canada. Routes up to 650 miles each way cost just 6,000 Avios each way, and it's just 9,000 Avios for trips that are between 651 and 1,151 miles in distance each way.

That means that to take advantage of this sweet spot, you're going to have to stay close to home. However, this is great for those who live in an American Airlines hub. For example, round-trip flights between Miami and Grand Cayman are just 15,000 Avios round-trip.

You can transfer points to Iberia Plus from American Express Membership Rewards (1:1), Chase Ultimate Rewards® (1:1) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1, with a 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points).

Emirates Skywards

Generally, Emirates Skywards doesn’t provide a ton of value for U.S.-based travelers. One big exception is for flights between the U.S. and Europe. For these flyers, Emirates Skywards has very enticing rates.

Emirates operates two routes between the U.S. and Europe: Newark (EWR) to Athens (ATH) and New York Kennedy (JFK) to Milan (MXP). Round-trip award flights on these routes cost:

  • 45,000 miles round-trip in economy.

  • 90,000 miles round-trip in business class.

  • 135,000 miles round-trip in first class.

The big downside — besides the limited routes — is the high taxes and fees charged on these awards. Emirates charges $1,103 in taxes and carrier-imposed surcharges. The only way to cut these surcharges down is by originating in Europe and flying round-trip to the U.S. However, most U.S.-based travelers don’t have that level of flexibility.

It’s really easy to accumulate enough Emirates Skywards for these awards. Skywards is a transfer partner of every major bank program: American Express Membership Rewards (1:1), Chase Ultimate Rewards® (1:1), Citi ThankYou Points (1:1), Capital One Miles (2:1) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1, with a 5,000 mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points).

Avianca LifeMiles

Avianca LifeMiles are worth considering if you’re looking to limit out-of-pocket costs for award flights to Europe. The Avianca mileage program has become known as the wholesaler of Star Alliance award tickets. In addition to reasonable award rates, LifeMiles sets itself apart by not charging carrier-imposed fees on awards.

That makes LifeMiles excellent for flying top-notch products like Lufthansa first class for 87,000 miles and around $30 in taxes and fees.

Business-class awards are even more reasonable, with award rates of 63,000 miles each way between the U.S. and Europe. Even Istanbul, Turkey is included in the Europe region.

Avianca LifeMiles is known for its frequent buy-miles promotions, during which you can buy miles for as little as 1.32 cents each. LifeMiles is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1), Capital One Miles (1:1), Citi ThankYou Points (1:1) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1, with a 5,000 mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points).

Etihad Guest

Etihad, another Middle East carrier’s mileage program, is a non-alliance partner of American Airlines and several other airlines around the world. It has a separate award chart for each of these partners, so it can be hard to understand without some digging.

Long-time followers of American Airlines’ AAdvantage program may recognize some similarities with Etihad Guest’s award chart for American flights. That’s because this chart is the exact match of American's award chart before its March 2016 devaluation.

You can book awards in business and first class to Asia Region 2 — which includes China and Hong Kong — and the South Pacific for much cheaper than American now charges. For example, American first class MileSAAver awards from the U.S. to Australia currently cost 110,000 AAdvantage miles each way. That same award costs just 72,500 Etihad Guest miles.

If you’re interested in visiting Casablanca on points, Etihad Guest should be your go-to. All Royal Air Maroc flights over 2,000 miles in distance cost just 44,000 Etihad Guest miles in business class. That means that you can fly Royal Air Maroc business class from the U.S. to Morocco for just 44,000 Etihad miles each way.

The downside is that you can’t search and book awards through Etihad’s website. Instead, you’re going to have to find award availability on another website and then call Etihad to book.

Etihad Guest is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards (1:1), Citi ThankYou Points (1:1), Capital One Miles (1:1) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1, with a 5,000 mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points). So, it’s easy to accumulate enough miles to make these redemptions a reality.

The bottom line

Keep your eye on domestic and international airline sweet spots for award redemptions. Because of these airlines' transfer partnerships with popular bank points programs like American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, Capital One Miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards® and Marriott Bonvoy, you can take advantage of these ideal redemption options without necessarily flying on the airlines.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:

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