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Last week we ran a post about the Avianca LifeMiles sale where you could purchase miles with a 140% bonus. If you decided to jump on this, you could potentially buy enough miles to fly business class one-way between the U.S. and Europe for less than $900, which is a pretty good deal.

However, strategies like these are not without their risks. I played around with the Avianca award search engine, trying to emulate what Matthew at Live and Let’s Fly penned about using the LifeMiles sale to fly Asiana first class. I found it far more difficult than expected, and this is mainly due to some of the idiosyncrasies of LifeMiles.

Look before you leap

I’m realizing more and more than having a thorough understanding about a specific loyalty program and currency is critical before moving forward with investing in said currency. Well, for the typical U.S. airlines, it’s hard to go wrong if all you’re looking for are free domestic economy flights now and then. But if you’re hoping to fly a specific airline or visit a specific destination and invest in the wrong mileage currency, it could result in a significant amount of time and resources wasted.

Take this Avianca LifeMiles sale (that is now over), for instance. I wanted to emulate Matthew’s Asiana first class experience (at least the booking part), and went looking for space at united.com since this is by far the most familiar Star Alliance search engine for me. I quickly found a date where there was a seat showing between Seoul and Los Angeles. So far, so good.

However, when I went to look up the same space on LifeMiles (for significantly fewer miles), the search didn’t find anything. At first I thought it was because I was actually searching Delhi to Los Angeles, my actual trip of interest, but when I dropped the DEL-ICN leg and just searched ICN-LAX, the results still didn’t give me anything. No Asiana first class, no business class itinerary through Beijing (also available), no economy options. Nothing.

To ensure United is showing me the correct space, I moved on to Aeroplan, another place I’ll often cross-reference award availability. The business/first Asiana award from Delhi to Los Angeles came up right away. Which makes me think the entire problem is with LifeMiles and not phantom award space.

All of a sudden buying miles to fly Asiana first class is becoming much more of a hassle than I anticipated. If I’d already jumped and bought the miles, I’d probably far more frustrated than I am.

Eventually I *did* get Asiana first class space to come up on one date, by changing my departure point multiple times. I had to also specifically ask the search to look for Asiana space, not “Star Alliance” or “búsqueda inteligente” even though I was doing a really simple search from ICN to LAX (note: it took me keying in HKG to LAX to pull up the space…the nonstop leg never came up by itself).

LifeMiles is quirky

With many programs you can call up an agent, feed them the flight numbers and dates, and they can still piece an award together for you. So even if the computer cannot pull up the space you want, not all is lost. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the award search engine fails to put together all valid itineraries.

Not so with LifeMiles. Good luck calling them and getting anything besides what shows in their online search engine. All reports I’ve heard is that if it’s not bookable online, the phone agents cannot really help you at all (they may even use the same LifeMiles search engine, which I find mind-boggling). THis is is extremely frustrating, as you *should* be able to use your miles for this award, and the only limiting factor is the way the program is implemented.

There is supposedly a backdoor option, but I’ve never tried it. If I was actually interested in this award (I’m honestly not and was simply more interested in the award search exercise), I’d try this last-ditch option to see if I could get it booked and ticketed.

Applying this more broadly

Taking a step back, this lesson can be applied across the board to so many other aspects of award travel. It is critical to do your research during the planning phase, well ahead of time. If you’re expecting everything to work out in the booking process, you’l often be wrong. Whenever I have a trip idea, I make sure I do my research, including flight award options, hotel options, ground transportation needs, and a number of other details. One major oversight almost cost us a trip to Europe back in 2016 (SEE: How to get a passport in one day)!

I’ve heard of people saving hundreds of thousands of points for a special hotel stay, not realizing that the hotel program they are so heavily invested in doesn’t even have a property at the destination they want to visit! Yes, honest to goodness true story. Don’t make the same mistake.

Earning points will always be half the battle. Or less than half. Knowing when and how to burn them for best value is where the real skill comes in. Many people could go out and sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. But there is a huge difference between the person who decides to cash out the bonus for $500 in their pocket and the one that uses it for a one-way business class award to Europe on Delta Airlines.

Conclusion

Before jumping into any promotion or signing up for a credit card, make sure you have an understanding of how to use the points of miles. Even better: have an exact use in mind for them. Don’t just run out and jump on a deal because it is a deal. Avianca LifeMiles can certainly be leveraged for amazing discounts on first and business class tickets, but make sure you’re ready to face the nuance of their loyalty program.

Featured photo courtesy of J Babinski under CC 2.0 license

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