How To Maximize Value Redeeming LifeMiles
I often write about LifeMiles’ promotions on purchased miles, and other opportunities to earn LifeMiles. While I talk about how best to redeem them, I often don’t go into great detail.
In this post I wanted to share where I see the value in the LifeMiles program — how do I earn LifeMiles, when do I choose to redeem LifeMiles rather than other Star Alliance miles, how do I do the math on that, etc.
Best ways to earn LifeMiles
There are quite a few ways to earn Avianca LifeMiles. First of all, LifeMiles frequently has promotions on purchased miles. For example, at the moment there’s a promotion for a 165% bonus on purchased miles, which is among the best offers we’ve seen from the program (see this post for all the details on that, as registration is required).
That’s not the only way to earn LifeMiles, though:
I primarily earn LifeMiles by buying them directly, though I supplement that by transferring points from transferable points currencies, especially when there’s a transfer bonus (and we see quite a few of those). However, with the low cost at which LifeMiles often sells miles, I typically just buy them outright, and safe my transferable points for other redemptions.
Important things to understand about LifeMiles
Before talking specifically about how I redeem LifeMiles, I wanted to talk about some aspects of LifeMiles that are important to understand before buying any miles, both for better and worse.
There are no carrier imposed surcharges
LifeMiles doesn’t have carrier imposed surcharges for travel on any partners, which is fantastic. Some other Star Alliance frequent flyer programs do have fuel surcharges, and those can really add up, especially for first & business class tickets.
For example, the Lufthansa Miles & More program does have fuel surcharges. Want to redeem those miles for a one-way business class ticket from the US to Germany on Lufthansa? Expect to pay over $800 in addition to the taxes and mileage requirement. Ouch.
LifeMiles isn’t for complicated itineraries
If you’re looking to book a complicated itinerary with several layovers, or are interested in stopovers, the LifeMiles program isn’t for you.
I don’t think I’ve ever booked a LifeMiles award ticket that included travel on more than two segments on a one-way itinerary. Some report having luck emailing LifeMiles to ticket reservations, but that seems mighty complicated, and my goal with this advice is to be practical. For me, LifeMiles is a program that’s about simple, point-to-point travel.
If you want to book complicated itineraries (especially with stopovers), I’d highly recommend going through Air Canada Aeroplan, which is another great program.
Buy miles at ticketing at a reasonable cost
One thing that makes LifeMiles unique is that the program lets you buy up to 60% of the miles needed for a ticket at the time of booking. The cost per mile doing this varies anywhere from 1.5 cents to 3.3, though if you buy around 40-60% of the miles needed at the time of booking, you can expect to pay 1.5 cents per mile.
That’s marginally higher than you’ll pay if you outright buy miles during the best promotions, but it’s still a good option.
LifeMiles award availability discrepancies
There are some discrepancies between the award space that LifeMiles has access to and the award space that other Star Alliance frequent flyer programs have access to. Some people report this being a huge issue, and claim that the program is useless due to lack of availability.
I absolutely don’t want to dismiss those claims, but that largely doesn’t match my experience. Perhaps it’s the type of redemptions people are trying to make. As mentioned above, I usually use LifeMiles for nonstop, point-to-point travel, especially across the Atlantic (where the relative pricing is the best). Personally I don’t notice many availability discrepancies.
Just to make sure things haven’t changed recently, I just did four random award searches for flights I could see myself using LifeMiles for:
- LOT Polish business class from Chicago to Warsaw
- Lufthansa business class from Miami to Frankfurt
- SWISS business class from Montreal to Zurich
- United business class from Newark to London
In each case LifeMiles displayed exactly the same award availability as other partner programs. One important thing to keep in mind is that on LifeMiles’ website there are different search options. There’s a drop down where you can select “Smart Search,” “Star Alliance,” or the name of any individual partner airline.
I generally find availability is best if you search the exact airline that has availability, as there are sometimes differences in what’s displayed depending on how you search.
So award availability discrepancies is something to be aware of and something to do your own research on, but it’s not something I personally consider to be a major downside to the program, at least based on the types of awards I book. Others obviously feel differently, and I respect that.
LifeMiles change fees & expiration policy
It’s always important to understand the change fee and expiration policies for frequent flyer programs, so what are the policies for LifeMiles?
- LifeMiles expire after 12 months of inactivity, though LifeMiles only counts mileage earning activity (and not mileage redemption activity) for these purposes; so if you accrue miles with the program at least every 12 months, they won’t expire
- LifeMiles has change and cancelation fees, and changes will cost you $150, while cancelations will cost you $50-200
How to decide whether to redeem LifeMiles
I very much view miles as a currency, as I have a value I attach to each program. I have lots of transferable points between various currencies, but I sometimes still find myself buying and redeeming LifeMiles.
Why? Well, during a promotion I view my acquisition cost of LifeMiles as potentially being under 1.2 cents each:
Does it make sense to redeem a transferable points currency that I value at 1.7 cents per mile, when I could instead buy points for under 1.2 cents each? Now, sometimes there’s a bonus when transferring points from another currency to LifeMiles, so that could change the math.
This is often the situation I find myself in, so in general, my approach is:
- If LifeMiles and other programs are charging roughly the same number of miles, or if LifeMiles is charging fewer miles, I’ll book through LifeMiles (I factor in any carrier surcharges through other programs when doing the math)
- I compare the cost in LifeMiles to the number of transferable points I would have to transfer, so any transfer bonuses could also impact the math on that
- Typically the best alternative would be transferring Amex, Capital One, or Chase points, to Air Canada Aeroplan, since that’s the most competitive Star Alliance program
This isn’t an exact science for me. Sometimes I just don’t want to spend cash buying miles, while other times I’m happy to conserve miles based on my current mileage balances with various programs.
Examples of some LifeMiles redemptions
Just to give some real-life examples, let me take a look at some of the LifeMiles redemptions that I’ve made in the past few years, and I’ll share the logic for using LifeMiles compared to another program.
Frankfurt to Chicago in Lufthansa first class
My family frequently travels between the United States and Germany, and I’ve used this redemption several times. The most Lufthansa first class award availability across the Atlantic is between Chicago and Frankfurt.
I considered three options for booking this:
- 87,000 Avianca LifeMiles
- 100,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles
- 121,000 United MileagePlus miles
Booking through LifeMiles is a no-brainer. And at a mileage acquisition cost of under 1.2 cents, that’s like paying under $1,000 for a one-way first class ticket across the Atlantic.
Miami to Frankfurt in Lufthansa business class
A couple of years ago I needed to fly from Miami to Frankfurt, and Lufthansa had nonstop business class award availability, so I wanted to book that.
I considered three options for booking this:
- 63,000 Avianca LifeMiles
- 70,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles
- 70,000 United MileagePlus miles (now significantly more expensive)
LifeMiles was the lowest cost option, so that seemed like a no-brainer.
London to Brussels to New York in Brussels Airlines business class
In late 2019 I flew Brussels Airlines’ A330 business class from Europe to the United States, and on the surface, I considered three options for booking this:
- 63,000 Avianca LifeMiles
- 55,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles (that was the cost at the time, now this award would cost 70,000 Aeroplan miles)
- 70,000 United MileagePlus (now significantly more expensive)
On the surface, Aeroplan was the best deal, but the reality is that Aeroplan couldn’t actually book the ticket. This was a case where married segment logic meant that one program could book it but not the other, due to the systems they use — it kept erroring out on Aeroplan’s website, while it booked without issue with LifeMiles.
Bangkok to Milan in Thai Airways business class
In the summer of 2019 I flew Thai Airways’ A350 business class from Bangkok to Milan, and I considered three options:
- 78,000 Avianca LifeMiles
- 75,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles plus $120 in surcharges (that was the cost at the time, now this award would cost 80,000 Aeroplan miles)
- 100,000 United MileagePlus miles
LifeMiles was once again the best value.
I’m not suggesting that LifeMiles is the very best program for every single Star Alliance redemption. There are many redemptions I book through other programs instead (in particular Air Canada Aeroplan, which I find to be an immensely valuable program). However, I’ve consistently gotten great value from LifeMiles, and am always happy to have a mileage balance with the program.
If I can pick up miles at a real cost of under 1.2 cents each, and if redemption rates are roughly comparable between programs, I sure think that’s a solid alternative to transferring points from another currency.
For example, I could buy LifeMiles for under 1.2 cents each, and then redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card (review) for 1.5 cents each toward other travel purchases, and I would come out ahead (compared to transferring to Air Canada or United in situations where costs are comparable).
Anyway, that’s my take on the value of the LifeMiles program, so hopefully, that provides some inspiration for others…
What has your experience been with redeeming LifeMiles?