Home > India, Singapore Airlines, Star Alliance, United Airlines, US Airways > Redeeming Miles for India (Star Alliance)

Redeeming Miles for India (Star Alliance)

Since this is something that I have spent so much time doing for the past few months, I thought I’d write a post on ways to utilize miles for India. Hopefully, for people who have miles in certain programs, this can give you an idea. Similarly, for people who are looking to head to India, this can give an idea on what types of miles to accrue. Just as a note, these are what I consider the basics; I don’t want to make things too complicated and involve methods of redeeming that might seem complex, intimidating, and time-consuming. I’m starting off with the Star Alliance, which has different methods of redeeming miles.

General Information about the Rebel Star Alliance (as it pertains to travel to India)

The Star Alliance is the largest of the 3 airline alliances in the world, and includes members such as United, Lufthansa (Germany), Swiss, Austrian, Turkish, EgyptAir, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air China, Asiana (South Korea), and ANA (Japan), all of which serve at least one city in both the United States and India with decent connections.

If you don’t live in a city with international service, United and US Airways awards will allow you to fly United and US Airways to get you to the international gateway city in the USA. However, because there are no alliance members within India, the Star Alliance can only take you as far as the international gateway to the country using your miles. After that, you’ll need to book another ticket or find other means of getting to your intended destination. Below is a list of all the international gateways in India served by Star Alliance, and what airlines fly there. You’ll notice that Delhi and Mumbai are the cities with the most service. My family prefers to fly to Pune, but only Lufthansa serves it, and only 4x a week. If I can’t find availability to Pune, I look for a flight to/from Mumbai (after which I book a car) or a flight to/from Delhi (after which I book a flight to PNQ with ample connection time).

Delhi (DEL): Air China (via Beijing – PEK), Asiana (via Seoul Incheon – ICN), Austrian (via Vienna – VIE),  Lufthansa (via Frankfurt – FRA and Munich – MUC), Singapore Airlines (via Singapore – SIN), SWISS (via Zurich – ZRH), Thai (via Bangkok – BKK), Turkish (via Istanbul – IST), and United (via New York/Newark – EWR)

Mumbai (BOM): ANA (via Tokyo Narita – NRT), Austrian (via Vienna – VIE), EgyptAir (via Cairo – CAI), Lufthansa (via Frankfurt – FRA and Munich – MUC), Singapore Airlines (via Singapore – SIN), SWISS (via Zurich – ZRH), Thai (via Bangkok – BKK), Turkish (via Istanbul – IST), and United (via New York/Newark – EWR)

Bangalore (BLR): Lufthansa (via Frankfurt – FRA), Singapore Airlines (via Singapore – SIN), and Thai (via Bangkok – BKK)

Chennai (MAA): Lufthansa (via Frankfurt – FRA), Singapore Airlines (via Singapore – SIN), and Thai (via Bangkok – BKK)

Pune (PNQ): Lufthansa (via Frankfurt – FRA). (Personal experience note: this is only 4 days/week, and operated by PrivatAir subsidiary on 737 aircraft with no First Class).

Ahmedabad (AMD): Singapore Airlines (via Singapore – SIN)

Hyderabad (HYD): Thai (via Bangkok – BKK)

Kolkata (CCU): Singapore Airlines (via Singapore – SIN), and Thai (via Bangkok – BKK) until 27 October 2012 (after which service will begin on its low-cost subsidiary, but no clue if mileage availability will exist).

The Various Mileage Programs

There are plenty of mileage programs in the Star Alliance, but there are a few that make it easier for non-road-warriors to accumulate enough miles and redeem them easily.

1) United Airlines Mileage Plus

In my opinion, this is the best program in all 3 alliances for getting to India. United bases their mileage prices for one-way tickets: 40,000 miles each way for coach, 60K for business, and 80K for first class. You can mix-and-match each leg of the journey, so flying coach to India and business back would cost 100K miles (40K + 60K). Here are some of the pointers of using UA’s miles:

  • United’s website: One great thing about United’s recent merger with Continental is that they kept Continental’s brilliant online booking engine. It is extremely easy to search routes online and even book online without having to spend hours on the phone.

A functioning award calendar (I’m looking at you, Delta …)

  • One-way awards: United allows you to book a one-way award at half the price of a round-trip award (unlike other airlines such as Delta and US Airways). This means that if you can find mileage redemptions available on one leg, but not the other, you can use United miles to book the available flights, then book the other flights using cash or another program’s miles. For example, I needed to find a ticket to India for a relative who was adamant about leaving a certain day and returning on a specific date. Flexibility is not the friend of low airfare prices. A paid round-trip in coach was coming to $2040! Yikes! I was able to find mileage availability for 40,000 miles on United on partner Singapore, and then bought a one-way ticket for the return for $940. Those 40,000 miles saved us $1100, or 2.75 cents per mile!
  • Stopovers and open-jaws on round-trip awards: A stopover is defined as a layover that’s over 24 hours in one city, while an open-jaw means that you either depart from a different city than where you arrived (ex. LAX-DEL, open-jaw, BOM-LAX), or arrive in a different city than where you departed (for example LAX-BOM, BOM-SFO). The stopover can be great if you want to check out a European or Asian city for a few days on the way to or from India. The open-jaw is great if you need to fly in one city and fly out another.
  • No fuel surcharges (knock on wood): Many other programs charge fuel surcharges, meaning your trip could cost 80,000 miles, but also hundreds of dollars in fees! In fact, if you book coach, it sometimes makes more sense to pay for the ticket than to use miles. United’s fees are not bad at all: earlier this year, I paid 140,000 miles + $79 in various airport taxes for a trip from Los Angeles to Pune (via Frankfurt) in Lufthansa Business Class + Mumbai to Los Angeles (via Bangkok and Tokyo) in Thai and ANA’s First Class Suites.
  • Award fees: Even as a general member, you can change your trip for free as long as it is outside of 21 days before the trip, and if you do not change origin or destination. This is useful if you want to change the routing after more options open up. Booking inside of 21 days or making changes within 21 days will cost $75, while canceling a ticket and getting your miles back will cost $150.

Lots of availability, bookable directly through United.com

  • Routing options: United allows you to transit either the Pacific or the Atlantic each way, so the options are plentiful! Like my example above shows, you can fly to India via the Atlantic and Europe, then return from India via Asia and the Pacific!
  • Holding awards: United will generally allow you to hold an award for 1-3 days, even without the miles in your account. This is great if you want to hammer out other details before making plans and transferring miles from Chase (see below).
  • Ease of Earning Miles: United is partners with Chase – currently, the United Explorer Card earns you 50,000 miles on first purchase, and gives you a 10,000 mile bonus after spending $25,000 each calendar year. However, my favorite way of earning United miles is through Chase Ultimate Rewards, which includes the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, and the Chase Freedom (by pairing it with either of the first two cards). You can read about these cards here. *note, I don’t partner with credit card companies, so I don’t get referral credit for credit card signups. Those links are public links and there for your convenience.

2) US Airways Dividend Miles

If I don’t have United miles, US Airways miles are the next best option. US charges the same mileage prices as United, but only allows round-trips: 80K miles round-trip for coach, 120K for business, and 160K for first.

  • Reservations only over the phone: Because you’ll have to book on partner airlines, you will have to call the US Airways line (1-800-428-4322). The line is open 24 hours a day, so I like to call later at night on the west coast when the wait isn’t long. Do note that not all US Airways agent will know exactly where your destination is (since US doesn’t fly to India) and may not know exactly what airlines are Star Alliance partners. All of the airlines I listed above, with their connection cities, are valid options from the USA to India. If you get a problem agent, hang up and call again.
  • Only round-trip awards: You can book a one-way ticket, but you will be charged the round-trip rate. I have only come across a couple of instances where a one-way ticket made sense to book with US Airways miles.
  • Stopover OR Open-Jaw: Unlike United, which allows both on a round-trip, US Airways allows only one or the other.
  • No fuel surcharges: Finally, a positive feature of the program! 🙂
  • Award fees: Well, that high didn’t last long. US charges some pretty annoying fees, including a $50 “award processing fee.” You’ll also pay $75 if you’re booking within 14 days of departure. Changes and cancellations cost $150. You cannot make changes once travel has begun. Note that there is usually a $30 phone booking fee, but because awards to India are not bookable online, you will be exempt from this.
  • Routing options: US will allow going by either the Pacific or Atlantic. Both Europe and Asia are along direct pathways to India, and inside the maximum permitted mileage. If you get an agent who’s having trouble with their geography, hang up and call again.
  • Holding awards: Agents will allow you to hold an award for a few days. If you don’t have miles in your account, they might put up resistance, but just assure them that you have the means of getting the miles (which you should!).
  • Ease of earning miles: The only transfer partner of US Airways is Starwood, the hotel program. For every 20,000 SPG points you transfer, you can get 25,000 US Airways miles. Barclays has a US Airways Mastercard that gives 40,000 miles on first purchase (and is churnable, meaning you can apply for the bonus a few times per year!). US Airways is also known to sell miles for very cheap during bonus promotions, up to 100,000 miles per year per account. However, my favorite way of earning US Airways is through its Grand Slam Promotion. This promotion is basically a game for mileage junkies to earn loads of US Airways miles for cheap by performing activities with partners (renting a car with Hertz, buying something through the US Airways Online Shopping Mall, etc.). Last year, I earned 184,000 US Airways miles for about $700 of incremental spend, which is less than half-a-cent per mile. It ran from mid-September to mid-November 2011 … I hope it returns in 2012!

3) Singapore Krisflyer (for flights on Singapore Airlines)

Singapore’s program is great because they tend to open up more availability to people using their Krisflyer miles than to those using partner airlines’ miles. However, they do charge a nasty amount of fuel surcharges. If you’re keen on flying Singapore (either for their fantastic product or because they serve a great deal of Indian cities), I would first check availability through United’s website; if you can’t find what you’re looking for, head on over to Singapore’s website and see if there is better availability there for people using Krisflyer miles. Make sure you look for awards at the saver level to get the best price. Note that saver level awards can only be booked as far as 6 months out.

If you book on Singapore’s metal (meaning, you book flights operated by Singapore Airlines), you’ll receive a 15% discount by booking online. The following are one-way prices, so double for round-trip:

San Francisco or Los Angeles to India: 36125 miles each way in coach, 76500 miles in business, 106250 miles in first (First is only available on flights from San Francisco to Singapore, and select flights from Singapore to Delhi and Mumbai).

Houston or New York to India: 44625 miles each way in coach, 87125 in business, 112625 miles in first (First is only available on flights from Houston to Singapore, and select flights from Singapore to Delhi and Mumbai).

I listed the prices for First class, but they seem to be not as available as business class seats. Singapore is very protective of their first class cabins. However, their business class cabins are amazing – expect a trip report on that in a month or two ;).

You can only redeem miles for flights from these 4 cities in the United States. From Los Angeles, you can fly on the A380 (with seats redeemable in business and economy) with a connection in Tokyo or you can fly the all-business class A340-500 directly to Singapore. From San Francisco, you can fly on the 777-300ER to Singapore via Hong Kong or Seoul. From New York, you can fly the all-business A340-500 directly to Singapore from Newark (the world’s longest flight!), or connect via Frankfurt to Singapore on the A380 from JFK. From Houston, you can fly the 777-300ER to Singapore with a connection in Moscow. (Note that flying from NYC or Houston means you actually fly over India while on the way to Singapore, only to double back. If you’re in business class, this may not be a bad thing ;)).

  • Singapore Airlines’ Website: Like I said, you can book flights online, and actually get a 15% discount for doing so!
  • One-way awards allowed: Singapore Airlines allows some flexibility.
  • Stopovers on round-trip awards: If you book at the saver level, you can get one stopover total in either Singapore or the connecting city (Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, or Moscow, depending on the U.S. city you depart from … see above).
  • Fuel Surcharges: Unfortunately, SQ charges fuel surcharges on awards. For coach awards, expect to pay about $800-$900 round-trip. For business awards, expect to pay $950-$1100 round-trip. Because of this, I don’t see the value in using Singapore Krisflyer miles for Economy class bookings. I personally have a rule that I should always aim for at least 1.7 cents per mile value when booking economy class tickets that you could otherwise purchase with credit card/cash-back rewards. If a round-trip to India costs $1600, and I only save $800 through redeeming miles, I should only use at most 60000 miles roundtrip. However, an economy class roundtrip ticket runs over 70000 miles. Personally, if I had Krisflyer miles, I would save them up for a business class ticket that I would otherwise not be able to afford.
  • Award Fees: There are no booking fees and no fees for changing dates, so long as you stay within the 6 months booking period. Redepositing the miles from a completely unused ticket is a reasonable $30, if done online with at least 24 hours notice.
  • Holds: From what I have learned from using the site, you cannot hold awards. However, you can waitlist yourself for a flight and wait for availability to open up. If you waitlist for a flight, you can also select an alternate flight as backup.
  • Ease of Earning Miles: Singapore Airlines is currently partners with American Express Membership Rewards (1:1 transfer ratio). Since Singapore Airlines is based outside the USA, transfers are tax-free.

SQ Flight Selection. Notice how I can waitlist for an earlier flight to India. True, the stopover is long, but Singapore airport and city are great places to kill a few hours.

Even though the initial price was 90K, with the 15% discount for booking online, it goes down to 76.5K. However, you do have to pay a lot in fuel surcharges. This flight was not bookable through United’s website.

4) The ones that didn’t make the cut

There are obviously more programs in the Star Alliance, but I chose not to write about them. Reasons why:

Air Canada: Personally, I find better value in the other programs, even if they are a partner of American Express Membership Rewards. They charge a high price for US -> India trips: 100K round-trip in coach/150K business/210K first and  fuel surcharges. Air Canada does have generous routing and stopover rules, it’s just that stopping on the Indian subcontinent drives prices up to those levels. They did have one transfer bonus from AmEx, where a trip in business class was 121K AmEx points + fuel surcharges. However, that was right after Aeroplan increased their award levels to those prices and added fuel surcharges, so I don’t know if it was a one-time transfer bonus deal. If it comes back, I’ll detail it in a post.

ANA: ANA actually has a decent award chart, since it’s distance-based. For 18K-20K flown miles round-trip, it’s 75K coach/115K business/180K first, while for 20K-22K flown miles round-trip, it’s 85K/125K/200K. They do charge fuel surcharges, so the most valuable redemptions in there are for business class (which also includes their outside alliance partner, Virgin Atlantic). They are partners with American Express Membership Rewards, but unlike other partners, transfers are not instant. You cannot transfer points back to AmEx if award space is taken up while you wait to do the transfer. Personally, I don’t want to take that risk.

——

So, there you have it. Hopefully that clears things up for people looking to use miles to travel to India. I’ll be writing three most posts on this topic – OneWorld redemptions, Skyteam redemptions, and “free agent” redemptions. I’ll also talk about some great tools to help find flights available for redemption.

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