With all three legacy carriers now utilizing dynamic award pricing, most of the best "sweet spot" awards come from foreign carriers. Learning how to navigate a foreign airline's frequent flyer program can be daunting, but the payoff is often massive. This holds especially true for Colombian airline Avianca and its LifeMiles frequent flyer program.
LifeMiles has some of the most attractive redemption rates for Star Alliance awards, as well as several other unique features that make this program worth your time. Let's take a look at everything you need to know about Avianca LifeMiles.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Avianca LifeMiles used to be a relatively obscure program, but it's risen into the limelight recently. Avianca even offers two credit cards: Avianca Vuela Visa® Card and Avianca Vida Visa® Card.
The information for the Avianca cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Avianca also partners with every major transferable points program except Chase Ultimate Rewards. As such, you can transfer rewards at a 1:1 ratio from American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One, Citi ThankYou Rewards and even Brex Rewards. You can also transfer Marriott Bonvoy points at a 3:1 ratio and you'll get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Bonvoy points you transfer (thus, 25,000 LifeMiles at the end of the transaction). If you're looking to top up your transferable points balances, you can do so by applying for these top offers:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months of card membership.
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 120,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card within the first three months of card membership.
- Citi Premier® Card: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening.
- Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card: Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
Avianca also frequently sells LifeMiles at a discount. We've seen prices drop as low as 1.2 cents per mile in the past, though the typical sale is around 1.3 to 1.35 cents per mile. This purchase rate is significantly below TPG's valuation of LifeMiles at 1.7 cents each. Buying points speculatively is usually a bad idea. But if you're just short on the miles you need for an award ticket, this can be a good option to top up your account.
If you frequently fly on paid tickets with Star Alliance carriers, you might also consider crediting your miles to Avianca. Doing so could be a good idea if you find more value in the LifeMiles program than you do in, say, United MileagePlus or Air Canada Aeroplan. Crediting your miles to Avianca is also a great option if you don't travel enough to earn elite status but still want to maximize your redemption opportunities.
Sign up for our daily newsletter
Related: Where to credit paid flights in each alliance for the most possible points
Avianca is a Star Alliance member, meaning you can use your LifeMiles for flights on the Colombian flag carrier or any of its Star Alliance partner airlines. Avianca also partners with Aeromexico and Iberia, allowing you to earn and redeem LifeMiles on select flights operated by those two airlines.
LifeMiles uses a standard zone-based award chart, though flights within the U.S. have been pricing out at variable rates that don't always match the award chart for the last year or so. While dynamic pricing is usually bad, many of these discrepancies have been beneficial to travelers.
Look at this one-way economy flight from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Newark (EWR) that prices out 1,000 miles cheaper than Avianca's award chart would suggest.
In most cases, redeeming LifeMiles is as simple as logging on to the LifeMiles website and searching for the award you want.
While Avianca should have access to the same Star Alliance award space as United and Air Canada, the truth is that Avianca's information technology leaves a lot to be desired. Over the years, I've seen plenty of phantom award space (i.e., award space that shows up online but isn't bookable).
On the flip side, Avianca often doesn't show award space that United or Aeroplan do. As such, you should double-check your search with another Star Alliance search engine or ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) before transferring points to Avianca.
Related: LifeMiles improves Canadian award prices, makes awards more valuable
LifeMiles sweet spots
Generally speaking, you often have to choose between low award rates and high fuel surcharges or spending more miles to save money. LifeMiles is one of the few programs that excel in both areas. Not only does it offer incredibly competitive rates for Star Alliance awards, but it also doesn't pass on fuel surcharges. As such, you'll seldom pay more than $100 in taxes and fees on an award ticket.
Let's dive in and look at some of the best uses of Avianca LifeMiles.
Lufthansa first class from the US to Europe
Lufthansa's first class is a bucket list experience for many award travelers, and it holds a special place in my heart because it was my first international redemption.
United charges sky-high redemption rates for Lufthansa first-class awards, while Asiana and Lufthansa charge high taxes and fees. Avianca, on the other hand, offers quite the sweet spot. For just 87,000 miles and minimal taxes and fees, you can fly Lufthansa first class from the U.S. to Europe.
Related: It just became much easier to book Lufthansa first-class awards
ANA first class from the US to Asia
Even before it stunned the aviation industry by introducing its redesigned first-class cabin, "The Suite," on a limited number of 777-300ER aircraft, ANA first class was already considered one of the best in the skies. Again, United charges significantly higher award rates, but Avianca will let you book this luxury long-haul ticket for just 90,000 LifeMiles.
Related: The best first-class seats between the US and Asia
Business class from the US to Asia
Many frequent flyer programs separate "Asia" into several regions with significantly different pricing. Avianca does this, too, but in a much more generous way. For example, the "North Asia" region includes countries like Japan and South Korea, along with China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and as far south as the Philippines.
One-way business class awards from the U.S. to North Asia cost just 75,000 miles each way. If you continue to South Asia, you'll only pay a 3,000-mile premium, or 78,000 miles total. You have plenty of routing options to consider here, including some combination of United, ANA, EVA Air, Air China and Singapore Airlines.
Even if you were to fly to Australia or New Zealand, business-class awards top out at 80,000 miles, which is an absolute steal.
Related: Sweet Spot Sunday: Round-trip business class to Asia for 75K miles
Avianca appears to be using a primarily distance-based award chart in the U.S., though some routes don't quite follow that logic. Still, pricing on domestic United-operated flights is normally quite low, with most flights pricing out below the industry average of 12,500 miles each way. In the past, I've even found flights between LAX and EWR for 10,000 miles or less one-way.
Related: 3 reasons your family needs LifeMiles for domestic travel
Quirks of the LifeMiles program
Before getting into a few of my favorite aspects of the LifeMiles program, it's important to level with you about the abysmal information technology and customer service Avianca offers. I had to cancel an award flight at the end of February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic really hit full swing. Avianca kept me on hold for four hours and transferred me between three different departments that could not cancel my award.
Avianca told me I could only cancel the award during business hours, which is the most absurd limitation I've ever heard. I wish I could say this was a one-off experience, but this has happened to me several times over the years. While you may save thousands of miles booking with Avianca, be aware that canceling your ticket could end up being very tedious. You typically can't cancel award bookings online, and slow refunds from Avianca have been one of the most disparaged travel headaches of the pandemic.
Mixed-cabin awards are relatively common when traveling in long-haul first or business class. Most airlines don't operate first class on shorter routes, forcing you to connect in business or economy. Or there might not be premium cabin award space on the flight you need.
Most programs base your award rate on your highest cabin of service. LifeMiles, on the other hand, prices each leg separately, based on the class of service you book. As such, you'll often get a discount for booking a mixed-cabin ticket.
What does this look like in practice? Instead of just booking a business-class award from the U.S. to Tokyo for 75,000 miles, if you tack on a connection in economy class to Okinawa, Japan (OKA), your total price drops to just 68,930 miles -- a savings of 6,070 miles. The flight from Tokyo to Okinawa is barely three hours, but it's a customer-friendly gesture on Avianca's part to give you a discount for dropping to a lower class of service.
Related: Book this, not that: Star Alliance award tickets
As if its already low award rates weren't good enough, Avianca occasionally runs additional award sales on select routes. These sales are only valid between certain city pairs (and sometimes only on certain airlines), but the good news is they're easily bookable online. You might even stumble upon one by accident.
For example, I previously reviewed Air China's 747-8 first class from Beijing (PEK) to JFK. That award would normally cost 90,000 miles (already a great deal for a $10,000 ticket), but Avianca ran a 10% off sale on that route. So I only had to pay 81,000 miles – or just 6,000 miles more than the business-class price. People often complain that first-class awards are so expensive that it's hard to justify the premium over flying business class. In this case, it was an easy choice.
Related: Sweet Spot Sunday: Fly from Florida to Montana and everywhere in-between for 7,500 LifeMiles
Avianca LifeMiles has become one of the most important tools in my award travel arsenal. If you're not familiar with the program, I encourage you to spend some time studying its quirks (both the good and the bad).
There's a good chance you already have access to LifeMiles through one of its many transfer partners. Whether you're looking for long-haul premium cabin awards on some of the world's top airlines or surprisingly cheap domestic tickets, LifeMiles has something for everyone.
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.