Optimized Strategy for Booking Avianca Lifemiles Awards for Domestic US Travel & US-Canada
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Image courtesy The Globe Trotting Teacher
In this post, I wanted to go over some tips on effectively using Avianca Lifemiles for travel on United & Air Canada. I borrow from others in places, and if looking for something by someone else, recommend this article. I also am focusing primarily on economy travel even though there are options with business class. Keep in mind as well that any numbers mentioned below may change at any time.
When to Book
You can book Avianca Lifemiles awards on United flights up to 11 months in advance, and if you do it right at the 11-month mark (for instance, Sep 13 when looking on October 14th), you'll find the best award availability.
For instance, I see:
2 direct & 1 indirect flight from Norfolk VA (ORF) to Newark/New York (EWR) on Sep 13th as of today (October 14).
I also see:
4 options on the 12th,
5 options on the 11th,
no options on the 10th (a Sunday, when award options tend to be in shorter supply),
6 options on the 9th,
1 option on the 8th,
& 5 options on the 7th.
If you don't find availability 11 months in advance, but really want a particular date &/or time, it may come later, and it's best to set up an alert with Expert Flyer so that you know within 24 hrs of that happening. If Adam is giving you points from a real estate giveaway, ask him to set up alerts for you if you don't have an account. Expert Flyer works much better with direct flights than it does with connecting flights, however.
You might also find relatively solid award availability right before departure , & to a lesser extent, a month out, or any number of months earlier than 11 months out even without an alert. Looking again at the example of ORF-EWR, I don't see any options for today (Friday 10/14/22), but I see at least one option every day from Saturday (10/15) through Saturday 10/22. Conversely, October 23rd, 24th, 26th, 30th, November 4th, November 6th, November 10th-13th, Nov 18-19, Nov 21-28, Dec 15, Dec 17, Dec 27, 29, 30, & Jan 5th don't have any availability. Peak times are best booked further in advance, as evidenced by the Monday of Thanksgiving week through the Monday after having no availability & low availability flying to NYC right before New Year's Eve.
Where to Use Avianca Lifemiles in the US for domestic flights (6500-13500)
Avianca Lifemiles pricing is primarily based on zone & based on lower pricing for hubs & other more seemingly random reasons. It's typically best used within zone &/or when departure or destination is a hub in an adjacent zone that's not too distant.
Before trying to price an airport and look for availability, it's best to make sure that United flies there first & if you can readily get there directly or if you would need to go indirectly. To see where United flies, you can use the United Map on the United desktop site or go to Flight Connections' Map. To see indirect destinations, click "show indirect destinations" from the desktop view. From there I see that Norfolk (VA) & Richmond (VA) have direct flights within zone to DC (IAD) & Newark near NYC (EWR). There's also a direct flight to Chicago (ORD) in a nearby zone that's not too distant & well-priced for being in a different zone.
Other miles (i.e. Turkish Airways Miles & Smiles) are better than Avianca Lifemiles for distant zones, though Turkish are more difficult to come by in light of excellent points purchasing options with Lifemiles, more credit card transfer partners with Lifemiles, and more consistent credit card transfer promos with Lifemiles. Turkish are also harder to work with, requiring calling in for bookings for others with reps having varied knowledge about how to do what you want them to do since Turkish reps aren't specialized enough with tasks & handle too many different kinds of things.
Here's a map of the zones, where it's typically best to fly within your zone & with hubs for the lowest pricing, with higher value per point (though lower availability) with multi-leg distant itineraries within zone.
Image courtesy The Globe Trotting Teacher
For example, from Norfolk VA, I can fly a 2 leg flight to Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1 way, for 1 person, for 7500 miles in economy because I'm within the same zone. The pricing is the same whether I'm going from Norfolk or Richmond (the 2 airports that fly United closest to me) to Michigan, Maine, Kentucky, South Carolina, or DC. The pricing lowers if 1 or more of the places I'm going to or coming from is a hub. Rather than pricing at 7500 miles, if I depart from IAD (DC), the same flights are typically 6500 miles. If I go from Norfolk to DC (IAD) or Newark/New York (EWR) it prices at 6500. That's not always the case though. For instance, Norfolk and DC both price the same 7500 miles 1 way economy to Bangor, Maine. It's not because it's multi-leg though, since even multi-leg flights from ORF to EWR price at 6500 miles.
Also from Norfolk, I can fly relatively close in another zone to Chicago (ORD - direct or indirect) for 8000 Lifemiles since Chicago is a major United hub. If I fly to Chicago (ORD) from Richmond (RIC), DC (IAD), NYC (EWR), Raleigh (RDU), or certain other United locations in my zone, the price goes down to 7500 miles. Conversely, however, you'd pay 10,000 miles to fly from Boston to Chicago on a direct flight.
If I were to fly to Indianapolis, which is closer, not only is availability much harder to come by, but also I'd be paying 10,000 Lifemiles.
To complicate matters further, award pricing tends to be slightly cheaper from Richmond than it is from Norfolk in some cases, even though both Norfolk & Richmond have the same number of United locations (5 at the moment) for direct flights. Here are some 1 way per person examples:
There are many anomalies with the Lifemiles pricing. For instance, a direct or indirect flight from Richmond (RIC) to DC (IAD) is 12,500 miles (99 miles in distance), while the same would be 7500 miles from Norfolk (157 miles distance) or Charlottesville (CHO - 77 miles from IAD).
Before trying to price an airport and look for availability, it's best to make sure that United flies there first. To see where United flies, you can use the United Map on the United desktop site or go to Flight Connections' Map. From there I see that Norfolk & Richmond (VA) have direct flights within zone to DC (IAD) & Newark near NYC (EWR).
How to Locate Award Availability
One of the most user-friendly means of locating award availability is by going to the United.com website and looking up "saver awards". If you are not signed into United, & a "saver award" is available on United.com, it's often available for booking on Lifemiles.com . While United.com doesn't require sign-in to price bookings and has a full-blown calendar feature, Lifemiles.com requires sign-in to look up award booking options and doesn't have a full-blown calendar feature. You'll generally find higher availability in shorter distances (even outside of your zone) than longer distances & from bigger airports more than smaller airports. Generally you'll find more availability mid week and less availability Friday-Monday.
Examples of Viable Itineraries from SE VA domestically (Richmond is RIC & Norfolk is ORF) (& typically you'll find similar pricing from larger nearby airports in Raleigh or DC, though I'm not typically checking them all) in alphabetical order of destination city name for US travel, with Richmond typically having more options than Norfolk & DC having more options than both:
RIC/ORF-Asheville, NC (AVL) 7500 miles [limited availability, but 50 minute drive to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the only national park that made this list of top 10 National Parks on the East Coast as of 10/14/22 & the top East Coast national park on this list of the top 25 by Travel & Leisure]
DC (IAD), Norfolk (ORF), Raleigh, NC (RDU), Richmond (RIC)-Bangor Maine (BGR): 7500 miles [1 hr drive to Acadia National Park, 2nd only to Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the East Coast according to this list of the top 25] [2 hr from #6 top skiing destination on East Coast according to SnowPak as of 10/14/22] [nearby Bar Harbor is #16 best place to visit in the US according to US Travel as of 10/14/22]
RIC/ORF - Boston, MA (BOS): 7500 miles [#22 best place to visit in the US according to US Travel as of 10/14/22]
DC (IAD) - Boston, MA (BOS): 6500 miles [#22 best place to visit in the US according to US Travel as of 10/14/22]
RIC-Buffalo, NY (BUF): 7500 miles (limited availability; 35 minutes to Niagara Falls)
RIC/ORF-Burlington, VT (BTV): 7500 miles [50 minutes from #9, 1 hr from #3 & #5 top skiing destination on East Coast, 1.5 hrs from #4 on & 2.5 hrs from #7 according to SnowPak as of 10/14/22]
RIC/ORF-Charlotte, NC (CLT): 7500 miles
Richmond (RIC)/ DC (IAD)-Chicago (ORD): 7500 miles
Norfolk (ORF)-Chicago, IL (ORD): 8000 miles [#19 best place to visit in the US according to US Travel as of 10/14/22]
RIC/ORF-Charleston, SC (CHS): 7500 miles
RIC/ORF-Cleveland, OH (CLE): 7500 miles
RIC/ORF-Columbus, OH (CMH): 7500 miles
ORF-Detroit, MI (DTW): 7500 miles
RIC-Detroit, MI (DTW): 6500 miles
ORF-DC (IAD): 7500 miles [#13 best place to visit in the US according to US Travel as of 10/14/22]
RIC/ORF- Grand Rapids, MI (GRR): 7500 miles
RIC-Hartford, CT (BDL): 6500 miles
ORF-Hartford, CT (BDL): 7500 miles
RIC/ORF-Myrtle Beach, SC (MYR): 7500 miles
Richmond (RIC)/Norfolk ORF-Newark/New York (EWR): 6500 miles [#10 best place to visit in the US according to US Travel as of 10/14/22]
ORF/RIC-Philadelphia, PA (PHL): 7500 miles
RIC/ORF-Pittsburgh, PA (PIT): 7500 miles
Examples of Where I typically wouldn't recommend using Lifemiles due to significantly superior options with other kinds of miles:
RIC-Atlanta (ATL): 10,000 miles
DC (IAD)/RIC- Houston (IAH): 10,000 miles
ORF- Houston (IAH): 13,500 miles
RIC-Miami (MIA): 10,000 miles
RIC/ORF/IAD-New Orleans (MSY): 10,000 miles
RIC-Orlando (MCO): 10,000 miles
Most other places outside of zone 1 within the US
US to Canada Pricing (6500-13500)
Examples of viable options from SE VA to Canada
Norfolk (ORF) or Richmond (RIC) - Calgary (YYC) 13500 miles
Norfolk (ORF) or Richmond (RIC) -Edmonton (YEG) 13500 miles
Norfolk (ORF) or Richmond (RIC) -Halifax (YHZ) 12500 miles
Norfolk (ORF) - Montreal (YUL): 7500-12,500 miles depending on connection with 7500 costs connecting via IAD or EWR and 10k connecting via additional options. [1 hr 15 minutes from top skiing destination on East Coast according to SnowPak as of 10/14/22]
Norfolk (ORF) - Ottawa (YOW): 7500-12,500 miles depending on connection with 7500 costs connecting via IAD or EWR and 10k connecting via additional options.
Norfolk (ORF)-Quebec (YQB) 10,000-12,500 miles depending on connection
Norfolk (ORF) - Toronto (YYZ): 7500-10,000 miles depending on connection with 7500 costs connecting via IAD or EWR and 10k connecting via ORD.
Richmond (RIC)-Toronto (YYZ): 6500-10,000 miles depending on connection with 6500 costs connecting via IAD, 7500 connecting via EWR, and 10k connecting via ORD.
Norfolk, Richmond, or other United destinations on the East Coast to Vancouver (YVR): 13500 miles
Viable Miles Alternatives to Lifemiles for flights from the US domestically or to Canada
Those in the US looking to go to Canada should also consider the following miles:
1. Air Canada Aeroplan miles (for, in some cases, slightly better pricing also based on distance, though without as good of transfer promos or points purchasing options as Lifemiles; pricing gets even better with certain credit cards with aeroplan). For instance, 6k +$47 CAD from RIC-IAD-YYZ (Toronto) vs 6500 Lifemiles. Conversely, Lifemiles comes out better on the same date from Norfolk to YYZ with 7500 Lifemiles vs 10k Aeroplan miles since it's slightly over 500 miles flown from Norfolk.
Here's their award chart within North America:
2. Turkish Air Miles & Smiles (for more distant options priced at their flat rate of 7.5k within country (including Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Ric, & the US Virgin Islands) or 10k between 2 countries in the same region). If not booking for yourself, you'll need to call in for others, even if you're on the same itinerary.
3. British Airways Avios - for single leg flights on AA under 600 miles for 7500 miles in economy when you have status or other perks on AA or there isn't availability on Lifemiles but there is with AA; A niche here is flights 601-650 miles still at 7500 miles where it prices the same as Lifemiles if direct, & there's typically better credit card transfer promos for British Airways than there are with Lifemiles.
It's worse for 651- 800 since it prices the same for 651-1151 for 9k miles & 1152-2k miles for 11k miles.
4. Qantas Miles (applicable award chart) - for multileg flights on AA under 600 miles for 8000 miles in economy when United/Aer Canada when you have status or other perks on AA or there isn't availability on Lifemiles but there is with AA
Viable Miles/Points Alternatives to Lifemiles for flights from the US domestically only
Jetblue miles, especially during their sales & if you have a Jetblue credit card with an annual fee granting free checked bags; also typically better pricing for direct short hauls since pricing is based on the $ rate.
Southwest miles, especially during their sales; also typically better pricing for direct short hauls since pricing is based on the $ rate. If you're checking up to 2 bags, they're free with SouthWest
Virgin Atlantic Points for short-haul Delta flights
United Miles (especially if you have a United credit card that grants you enhanced mileage options)
Delta Miles, especially during promos and sales with them pricing close to the cash price.
AA miles, despite how hard it is to acquire them unless you either get a lot of Bilt Rewards (a 1:1 transfer partner with AA) or took advantage of the best points purchase error of the decade like Lucky did with One Mile at a Time. In either case, AA miles would move up closer to the top of the possibilities here due to some excellent pricing on domestic long-haul travel that's not as good as Turkish, but closer than many alternatives. For instance, think a 3 leg journey from the small airport in Newport News to Orange County Airport (SNA) for as low as 6.5k miles, pricing even better than Turkish Air Miles & Smiles without the Turkish Air hassle. I don't put this one higher because it's typically so much more difficult to acquire AA rewards than it is most of the other options I'm recommending.
Alaskan Airways if you're going on an Alaskan Air flight (no options from SE VA)
Frontier miles if you're going on a pricey & distant fair and can get their lower pricing tier for that journey.
Chase Sapphire Reserve Pay with Points for 1.5 cents per point, though it's easy to get a lot more than 1.5 cents per point using Chase Ultimate Rewards with partners like Hyatt.
Amex Centurion card for 2 cents per point with pay with points (invite only, & if you're reading, you probably won't get an invite due to how rare it is with spending levels required typically in excess of 1 million USD)
Mixed Cabin Pricing
Mixed cabin pricing can be an excellent use of Lifemiles, especially if the higher class cabin is on a significantly shorter itinerary granting you the bag perks throughout the itinerary since higher cabins are priced based on the percent of miles flown on the trip.