Selecting the Top Awards
How does one go about choosing the best awards from the thousands and thousands that have been offered over the years by all the assorted frequent travel programs?
As the old punch line goes — very carefully (ba-doom-boom).
In all likelihood, if you put 10 frequent travelers in a room and asked them to write down their top 10 awards of all time, each list would be different.
But we didn’t put 10 travelers in a room. We came up with our own list, based on our own criteria. In our search to determine the highest value awards of all time, we worked backwards — all the way back to 1981. And in the process, we learned a few things that might just be of interest to you.
One thing we learned is that awards have changed since the early days of these programs. After 20 plus years of fine-tuning, you generally aren’t going to find awards as lucrative as those offered in the early years, when programs were more naive — at least not in today’s standard award charts. But what you will find in today’s award charts are many, many more choices than what could be found in award charts from the 80’s. It’s all about give and take.
Here are a few more lessons we took away from our research:
Awards are as Individual as the Members Who Redeem Them — When trying to determine your own “top” awards, shop through the descriptions of the various programs until you find the awards that fit your particular situation. As you will see, there are some that have benefits designed for a family (or group) of four, others that have lower thresholds for business-class upgrades, still others that offer tie-ins with foreign carriers to particular foreign locations, etc.
Pay Attention to Restrictions — In comparing the value of two or more awards, pay particular attention to blackout dates and other restrictions, such as open-jaw and stopover options. A JAL partner award that allows travel to Singapore, but does not permit a stopover in Hong Kong may be of significantly lower value than a similar award offered by another program with fewer restrictions.
Also, read secondary (partner) award descriptions with great care — a one- or even two-level upgrade in a rental car is relatively worthless when compared to a free week’s rental. Likewise, there is a big difference between a 50-percent discount on a hotel stay (off what rate?) and three free upgradeable days to the club floor or the best available room.
Sometimes Big Value Comes in Little Packages — For many travelers, the award that offers the single best value is the “typical” 25,000-mile unrestricted or semi-restricted coach ticket. This often overlooked award has allowed thousands upon thousands of small business owners and people who work for small companies to make business trips on short notice, without a mandatory Saturday-night stay.
Think about this for a moment. A midweek business trip can often run anywhere from $600-$1000 or more, while a pre-planned, stay-over-Saturday-night trip to Hawaii or Europe has about the same dollar value, yet will cost you three to four times as many miles.
The main thing we learned from our research though is that, although we can develop some clear and objective guidelines for identifying the top frequent flyer travel awards, they are, of course, subject to each individual’s needs and circumstances. The top 10 awards we’ve listed below reflect the editors’ value-based perspective, and we expect you will agree with some of our choices and disagree with others. As well, when we considered the best awards of all time, we focused on awards that were part of standarized and published award charts for these programs. Many other awards have equal value to the ones we mention below, but are not listed because they were only offered as part of a promotion. Perhaps in another issue we’ll address those as well.
We hope you enjoy reading about all of them.
(For the purposes of this exercise, we’ve tried to value each award in local currency at the time the award was offered)
The Top Awards Offered by Airline Programs
Program: Delta Frequent Flyer, Medallion Level (circa late 80s to early 90s)
Award Description: One free one-class upgrade from coach class for one-way or roundtrip travel on Delta in the United States (excluded Hawaii), Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean or Mexico. Certain fares did apply. A maximum of 20 MX upgrades could be redeemed during a single year (30 for Royal Medallion members) (award code MX).
Mileage/Point Requirements: 2,500 miles
Maximum Value: $1,750
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $700
Comments: Over time there have been some great upgrade values, but nothing like this. What makes this award even more amazing is that, for most of the years it was offered Delta’s class-of-service bonus was based on where you sat, not the fare you paid. As a result, as long as your flight was greater than 2,500 base miles, you re-earned the mileage redemption for this award.
Program: Continental OnePass (circa 1987/88)
Award Description: Million Aire Reward — The Ultimate Reward. Receive weekly first-class travel worldwide for two. Up to 52 trips anywhere Continental or Eastern flies.
Mileage/Point Requirements: 1,000,000 miles
Maximum Value: $334,568
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $334.57
Comments: The OnePass program was brand new when this award was introduced, having converted from the former TravelBank, and had only recently partnered with Eastern Airlines. The award was offered in an age of no capacity controls on awards — if a seat was available, you could fly it. We estimate that only about 250 members even had enough miles at this time to take advantage of this award, and of those only eight availed themselves of the award (though none of them actually took advantage of the possible 52 free trips). But nonetheless, the option was there and this ranks as one of the all-time highest value awards ever. What made this award even more valuable was that it was transferable. Many other programs in this era such as Delta, TWA, United, Pan Am, etc. did not allow award transfer and if they did, it was only to immediate family members.
Program: TWA Frequent Flight Bonus (FFB Equity Account, prior to June 30, 1989)
Award Description: One TWA first-class ticket, valid for use by the FFB member, and a first-class upgrade, which could be used for a companion flying in coach or by the member at a later date. This award also included “E” Added Value Bonuses consisting of a) four certificates, each worth 50 percent off the regular room rate for any two consecutive nights at a participating Marriott Hotel or Resort worldwide; b) 50 percent off the regular room rate for up to two consecutive weekend nights, upgraded to a parlor and one-bedroom suite, at a participating Hilton Hotel in the United States; and c) free rental of a Hertz compact car for two weekend days, plus three single car-class upgrades (award code TWE).
Mileage/Point Requirements: 50,000 miles
Maximum Value: $9,709
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $194.18
Comments: One of the most popular awards of all time, this one attracted many of the original mileage junkies who had figured out the secret of maximizing award redemption.
Program: TWA Frequent Flight Bonus (FFB Equity Account, prior to June 30, 1989)
Award Description: Two free first-class tickets to any TWA international destination and two free first-class tickets on connecting TWA or Eastern flights to the nearest TWA gateway city. This award also included all the “H” Added Value Bonuses consisting of a) six certificates, each worth 50 percent off the regular room rate for any two consecutive nights at a participating Marriott Hotel or Resort worldwide; b) two consecutive nights free in the most deluxe room available at any participating Hilton Hotel in the United States; and c) four free days on a week-long rental of a compact or full-size car from Hertz, plus four single car-class upgrades (award code TWK).
Mileage/Point Requirements: 90,000 miles
Maximum Value: $16,210
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $180.11
Comments: What made this award so valuable was the fact that members who lived in gateway cities for TWA were able to split the award and use the two free first-class tickets on TWA or Eastern flights separately from the actual international award, thus adding a new level of value.
Program: Pan Am World Traveler (circa 1988)
Award Description: A WorldPass 30 in first class for the member and an accompanying companion. This allowed unlimited first-class travel for 30 days between North America (including the continental U.S., Honolulu, Central America, and the Caribbean) and select European locations.
Mileage/Point Requirements: 225,000
Maximum Value: $31,500
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $140.00
Comments: Pan Am WorldPass offered several flavors of the WorldPass 30 to its members, this being the most valuable as it was only 5,000 miles more expensive than the WorldPass 30 for Clipper (business) class.
Program: American AAdvantage (for AAdvantage members enrolled prior to January 1, 1989)
Award Description: Concorde. Two free Concorde tickets on British Airways between New York or Washington, D.C., and London. The award included free connecting coach-class travel on American Airlines and/or American Eagle between any city the airlines served in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the Caribbean and New York or Washington D.C. One passenger could be ticketed for travel on all or only a portion of the other passenger’s itinerary. Although it was not necessary that both passengers travel together for the entire itinerary, passengers must have traveled at least one segment together. In addition, this award included a) seven free consecutive days’ rental of a full-size car from Hertz or Avis and b) 35 percent off the room rate for Hilton, Inter-Continental, Sheraton or Wyndham hotels (award code 175H)
Mileage/Point Requirements: 175,000
Maximum Value: $19,600
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $112.00
Comments: There have been many Concorde awards over time, most in the 110,000-mile range for a companion Concorde award to the 125,000-185,000-mile range per award. The reason this particular Concorde award is valued higher than the rest is because it required 30-40 percent fewer miles than any other Concorde award ever offered (except for various limited offers of 2-for-1 redemptions). Add in the aspiration value of this award and it likely exceeds $175 per 1,000 miles/points.
Program: Canadian Airlines Canadian Plus (circa 1990)
Award Description: Two free “Round-the-World” business-class or Club-class tickets on Canadian Airlines or British Airways, with a maximum of six stopovers. In addition, this award included the following partner awards a) seven consecutive car rental days free (luxury car) and b) seven consecutive nights free (suite accommodations) at participating hotel partners including Canadian Pacific, Delta, Ramada and Marriott Hotels (award code RQ2).
Mileage/Point Requirements: 225,000 points
Maximum Value: $21,750
Value Per 1,000 Miles/Points: $96.66
Comments: OK, so the free week of car rental may not be of much value here (we are talking about flying around the world after all) but the suite accommodations at a Marriott for seven nights really adds up. This program offered up one of the first round-the-world awards and offered value far greater than any competitor. For instance, this same award from competitor Air Canada in coach was 250,000 miles. Today, this award runs 440,000 miles and doesn’t include the hotel award.
The Top Awards Offered by Hotel Programs
Program: Holiday Inn Priority Club (circa 1983)
Award Description: Airfare for two to any European destination, one-week stay at a Holiday Inn in Europe and seven days free car rental.
Mileage/Point Requirements: 75 Nights
Maximum Value: $2,850
Value Per Dollar Spent in the Program: $.90 (equivalent)
Comments: Not many remember that Holiday Inn Priority Club was the first of the hotel programs, launching in January 1983. But the program didn’t last long — just a few short years later (October 1986) Priority Club was shelved and replaced with the current version of Priority Club Rewards. Why shelve this program? Because this single award literally could have bankrupted the hotel chain. It proved to be much too lucrative — 75 nights stay at 1983 Holiday Inn rates was equal to spending $3,180 (based on the average daily rate). Imagine spending $3,180 and receiving an award with a true value of $2,850? With few partnerships in place and even fewer reciprocal deals, Holiday Inn found itself paying hard dollars for most of the awards redeemed under this award chart.
Program: Marriott Honored Guest Awards (circa 1987)
Award Description: Three separate 10 day, nine night stays at any Marriott Hotel or Resort worldwide, including suite accommodations. Plus a seven-day European cruise for two on Stella Maris or Stella Solaris (Sun Cruise Lines), four roundtrip coach tickets anywhere in the world with HGA’s air partners (Continental, Eastern, Northwest and TWA), and three separate rentals of a mid-size Hertz car for 10 days each.
Mileage/Point Requirements: 350,000 points.
Maximum Value: $27,800
Value Per Dollar Spent in the Program: $.79
Comments: Hotel programs have consistently offered great value for members and this classic shows how it was done. Essentially this award offered the Marriott Honored Guest Awards member four vacations from a single award — air, hotel, and cruise. The award did not last very long, as Marriott later separated its relationship with Sun Cruise Lines in favor of NCL and those awards were not included in later award packages.
Program: Starwood Preferred Guest (conversions prior to January 1, 2003)
Award Description: A British Airways Concorde award, using Starwood Preferred Guest points converted into Qantas Frequent Flyer miles.
Mileage/Point Requirements: 52,500 points
Maximum Value: $12,100
Value Per Dollar Spent in the Program: $.69/$.46 (elite/non-elite)
Comments: This quirky award selection was among the most popular in recent times, establishing a high value that is not likely to be seen again. Several hundred, if not thousands, of these awards were redeemed between 2001 and 2002.