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The Best Airline Programs for Flexible Travelers

[The Points Guy] The Best Airline Programs for Flexible Travelers: Airline award tickets can provide excellent value, especially for travelers who have flexibility in their travels. For example, did you know that it’s possible to visit nine different cities on just one (non-around-the-world) award ticket? While this type of trip might not be feasible for most travelers, flexible travelers may be able to take full advantage of these incredible sweet spots. But also, flexible travelers may want to change or cancel their award flights with low fees if their plans change.
This guide considers six airline mileage programs that are good for these types of flexible travelers. All of the programs covered in this guide have relatively low change and cancellation fees, and many also have stopover and open jaw rules that can be leveraged for creative trip planning. Besides introducing the program policies with regards to stopovers, open jaws, award cancellation and award changes, this guide also tells you how to get the miles you need to book awards with each of the six programs.

All Nippon Airways (ANA)
ANA provides the opportunity to book partner awards on Star Alliance partners as well as on some non-Star Alliance partners including Etihad Airways. Although all partner awards must be round-trip and only one stopover is allowed per round-trip, there’s still value to be found when combining the stopover with allowed open jaws. Plus, changes to departure date and flight number are free.
Award policies to know: ANA has separate policies and award charts for ANA domestic awards, ANA international awards and partner awards (which are awards that include any flights that aren’t operated by ANA). Since most TPG readers will mainly utilize partner awards ? especially for stopovers and open jaws ? only ANA partner awards are discussed in this section. For these partner awards:

Only round-trip awards are available
Itineraries can have up to two transfers on both the outbound and return journeys
Itineraries utilizing non-Star Alliance partners, such as Etihad Airways or Virgin Atlantic, may only use that partner

ANA adds surcharges to some awards, but reduced these dramatically in 2016.
Award cancellation policy: 3,000 miles (which TPG’s latest valuation values at $48) per person as long as the cancellation is prior to the departure of the reserved flight and no flight segments have been used.
Award change policy: The departure date and flight can be changed until the ticket’s expiration date free of charge. Changes can only be made before the departure of the originally reserved flight and at least 24 hours prior to the departure of the new flight.
Stopovers/open jaws on partner awards: One stopover is permitted per round-trip award. Open jaws are allowed at both the origin and destination, but there are some restrictions.
Transfer Partners:


American Express Membership Rewards: transfers in about two days at a 1:1 ratio
Starwood Preferred Guest: transfers in about four days at a 1:1 ratio (new Marriott at 3:1 ratio beginning in August)

Credit cards to sign up for:


The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee): Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,140, after you make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months. However, check CardMatch to see if you’re targeted for a 100,000 point welcome bonus. See the full card review here.


Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $195): The public offer is for 25,000 Membership Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $475, after you make $2,000 in purchases within the first three months. However, check CardMatch to see if you’re targeted for a 50,000-point welcome bonus. See the full card review here.


The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express ($0 annual fee): Earn 10,000 Membership Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $190, after you use make $1,000 in purchases in your first three months.

Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles isn’t a simple program. However, a stopover is allowed even on a one-way award. Plus more stopovers and at least one open jaw are allowed on round-trip awards. So, if you value stopovers and open jaws on awards ? and are willing to put some time into understanding the Asia Miles program ? there’s certainly value to be found.
Award policies to know:

The standard award chart applies to redemptions for single-carrier awards and two-carrier awards when Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon is one of the two carriers.
The Oneworld mixed carrier award chart and policies apply to round-trip award tickets that include:

Two Oneworld airlines, when Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon doesn’t operate any of the flights
Three or more Oneworld airlines, where Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon operates at least one flight


There are nuanced rules that determine the turn-around point on standard round-trip awards. At most two segments are allowed in each direction (inbound and outbound).
Richard Kerr’s posts introducing the Asia Miles program and describing how to maximize 60,000 Asia Miles may help.

Award cancellation policy: $120 before the ticket expiration date.
Award change policy: $25 per fight sector per passenger for changes of flight date or flight number when done online ($40 per fight sector per passenger when done through other channels). $100 for changes of routing, cabin class or flight award type, although the ticket expiration date and airline must remain the same.
Stopovers/open jaws on awards:

A maximum of one stopover and two segments are allowed on one-way standard awards
A maximum of four segments, two stopovers and one open jaw are allowed on round-trip standard awards
Five stopovers and two open jaws are allowed on Oneworld multi-carrier awards

Transfer Partners:


Citi ThankYou points: transfers in less than 24 hours at a 1:1 ratio

American Express Membership Rewards: transfers in about two days at a 1:1 ratio
Starwood Preferred Guest: transfers in about three days at a 1:1 ratio (new Marriott at 3:1 ratio beginning in August)

Credit cards to sign up for:


The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee): Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,140, after you make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months. However, check CardMatch to see if you’re targeted for a 100,000-point welcome bonus. See the full card review here.


Citi ThankYou Premier ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $95): Earn 50,000 bonus Citi ThankYou points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $850, after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. See the full card review here.


Cathay Pacific Visa Signature Card ($95 annual fee): Earn 35,000 bonus Asia Miles, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $455, when you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days of account opening. See the full card review here.


Japan Airlines (JAL)

 
Japan Airlines Mileage Bank provides very generous award ticket change and cancellation polices ? so if you’re booking a Oneworld award that needs to be flexible, this might be the way to go. Plus, it’s possible to build multiple stopovers and at least one open jaw into most award itineraries.
Award policies to know: JAL Mileage Bank has many different sets of award charts, each with its own rules: JAL domestic, JAL international and partner awards. You can also brush up on program basics with Richard Kerr’s guide to JAL Mileage Bank and his revelation that JAL Mileage Bank provides excellent transatlantic award opportunities.
Award cancellation policy: Miles can be redeposited for a ¥3,100 ($28) fee before departure of the first flight and within a year of the date the ticket was issued.
Award change policy: The flight number and flight date may be changed for free online up to 48 hours before departure or by phone until departure for $20 per ticket ($50 per ticket from December 19, 2018 onward).
Stopovers/open jaws on awards:

On JAL-operated awards:

An open jaw is allowed at the origin and destination, as long as the open jaw airports are “in the same area and within the same country,” although various countries (such as all countries in Europe) are considered one country
Stopovers in Japan aren’t permitted


On partner awards:

A maximum of three stopovers, or two stopovers and one open jaw, are permitted on partner awards. Up to seven stopovers and one open jaw are permitted on Oneworld partner awards.
One-way awards are allowed.
Multiple stopovers at the same city aren’t allowed, although you may transit the same city up to three times (one of which can be a stopover).
The distance of the open jaw segment will not be included in total mileage, although itineraries with some open jaw segments will be disallowed.



Transfer Partners: Starwood Preferred Guest at 1:1 ratio (new Marriott at 3:1 ratio beginning in August). The transfer usually takes about four days.
Credit cards to sign up for:


Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card ($95 annual fee): Earn 75,000 Bonus Points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $675, after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Credit Card ($450 annual fee): Coming August 2018. See initial information here.


Lufthansa (Miles & More)
Miles & More has reasonable change and cancellation fees on awards, but fuel surcharges can be high. Despite the fuel surcharges, value can still be found in two stopovers and two open jaws on round-trip awards and potentially in the round-the-world option.
Award policies to know: Miles & More basics are laid out in this post, and the award chart can be found here. There are often economy awards available between the US and Europe for just 30,000 miles round-trip, but be wary of high fuel surcharges on most awards.
Award cancellation policy: ?50 ($59) per person to cancel a flight award.
Award change policy: ?50 ($59) per person to change the date and time of the flight.
Stopovers/open jaws on awards: Two stopovers and two open jaws are allowed on round-trip awards. Stopovers cannot be in the region of departure and are only allowed on award tickets that include two or more regions.
Miles & More also offers a round-the-world option that allows up to 10 flight segments and seven stopovers. This option costs 180,000 miles in economy, 325,000 in business class or 480,000 in first class.
Transfer Partners: Starwood Preferred Guest at 1:1 ratio (new Marriott at 3:1 ratio beginning in August). The transfer usually takes about four days.
Credit cards to sign up for:


Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card ($95 annual fee): Earn 75,000 Bonus Points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $675, after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

Miles & More Premier World MasterCard ($89 annual fee): Earn 20,000 bonus Miles & More miles after your first purchase and another 30,000 miles after you spend $5,000 in the first 90 days. In total, the 50,000 bonus miles are worth $700 based on the latest TPG valuations.
Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Credit Card ($450 annual fee): Coming August 2018. See initial information here.


Singapore Airlines
Singapore Airlines is one of the only airlines that is a transfer partner of all four of the major transferable currencies, which means it will be easy to gain enough miles for a redemption. Change and cancellation fees are moderate for most awards, and there’s some great value to be found in the stopover and open jaw policies for Star Alliance awards.
Award policies to know: Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program offers three types of awards: awards on Singapore Airlines / SilkAir (Saver and Advantage levels), awards on Star Alliance and awards on partner airlines. One-way awards generally require half as many miles as round-trip awards.
Award cancellation policy: $75 to cancel and redeposit miles for Saver, partner and Star Alliance award tickets and $50 to cancel and redeposit miles for Advantage award tickets. In both cases, the award must be unused and canceled before the flight. If you fail to show up for a flight and then request to cancel the award and redeposit the miles, you’ll need to pay an additional no-show fee of $100.
Award change policy: $0 to change the date on Singapore Airlines / SilkAir Advantage award tickets. $25 to change the date on Singapore Airlines / SilkAir Saver award tickets or to change the route, cabin class or award type on Singapore Airlines / SilkAir award tickets. $50 to change the date, route, flight or carrier on Star Alliance and partner awards.
Stopovers/open jaws on awards: On Singapore Airlines / SilkAir awards, two stopovers are allowed on round-trip Advantage awards. One stopover is allowed on one-way Advantage awards and round-trip Saver awards, while no stopovers are allowed on one-way Saver awards.
One complimentary en route stopover is allowed on most Star Alliance round-trip awards. Plus, customers can usually opt to add up to three additional en route stopovers to their round-trip award for $100 per stopover. However, stopovers are disallowed in some cases.
One origin or destination open jaw is permitted for a round-trip Star Alliance award. Open jaws are permitted across different award zones but the higher award level will apply.
A Star Alliance Round The World Award is also offered with up to seven stopovers and 15 segments. This option costs 180,000 miles in economy, 240,000 in business class or 360,000 in first class.
Transfer Partners:


Citi ThankYou Points: transfers in about a day at a 1:1 ratio

Chase Ultimate Rewards: transfers in up to two days at a 1:1 ratio

American Express Membership Rewards: transfers in less than a day at a 1:1 ratio
Starwood Preferred Guest: transfers in about four days at a 1:1 ratio (new Marriott at 3:1 ratio beginning in August)

Credit cards to sign up for:


The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee): Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,140, after you make $5,000 in purchases in your first three months. However, check CardMatch to see if you’re targeted for a 100,000 point welcome bonus. See the full card review here.


Chase Sapphire Reserve ($450 annual fee): Earn 50,000 bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,050, after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. See the full card review here.


Chase Sapphire Preferred Card ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $95): Earn 50,000 bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,050, after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. See the full card review here.


Citi ThankYou Premier ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $95): Earn 50,000 Bonus Citi ThankYou points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $850, after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening. See the full card review here.


Southwest Airlines
Southwest is known for having friendly staff, providing two free checked bags to every passenger and having flyer-friendly policies. Although Southwest’s route map is mostly domestic, it is still an excellent program for flexible travelers due to free changes and free cancellations on both paid and award flights.
Award policies to know: Southwest prices its awards based on the going cash rate. When fares are high, the cost of awards goes up; when fares are low, the cost of awards goes down. Southwest prices round-trip tickets as the sum of the two one-way tickets. Check out TPG’s resources on how to maximize Southwest awards and why Southwest awards are awesome for domestic travel.
Award cancellation policy: No fees for cancellation. Rapid Rewards points are deposited back in your account and you can also get a refund of the taxes and fees. This means you can (and should) book award flights if you think you might need them. You can always cancel if your plans change or if you find a cheaper flight.
Award change policy: No change fees, although it’s usually better to cancel and rebook instead of changing.
Stopovers/open jaws on awards: Stopovers aren’t allowed. However, open jaw awards could be booked as a multi-city ticket for an open jaw at the origin or as multiple one-way tickets for more complicated itineraries.
Transfer Partners: Chase Ultimate Rewards at 1:1 ratio. The transfer is usually instantaneous.
Credit cards to sign-up for:


Chase Sapphire Reserve ($450 annual fee): Earn 50,000 bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,050, after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. See the full card review here.


Chase Sapphire Preferred Card ($0 annual fee for the first year, then $95): Earn 50,000 bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,050, after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. See the full card review here.


Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card ($149 annual fee): Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 25,000 points after you spend a total of $15,000 within your first year. TPG’s latest valuation values these 65,000 points at $975.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card ($69 annual fee): Earn 40,000 points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $600, after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months.

Ink Business Preferred Credit Card ($95 annual fee): Earn 80,000 bonus Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which TPG’s latest valuation values at $1,680, after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. See the full card review here.


Bottom Line
When you have flexibility, it’s always nice to be able to change or cancel award your flight bookings when your plans inevitably change. Southwest is excellent for booking domestic (and some international) flights when you know your plans could change, since it offers free flight cancellations. JAL is also a great place to book tentative plans, since it only costs ¥3,100 ($28) to cancel and redeposit points.
There’s also plenty of value to be found in award programs that offer opportunities for multiple stopovers and open jaws. This is especially true for flexible travelers, who may have the flexibility to fully utilize the itineraries these stopovers and open jaws allow. While it can be difficult to master these program policies, it can be highly rewarding to do so.
Feature image by Nurhadi Cahyono via Unsplash.

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