There are more ways than ever to earn air miles in the UAE – from shopping at The Dubai Mall to staying at Atlantis The Palm to booking a Careem car. Credit and debit cards linked to the Etihad Guest and Emirates Skywards programmes promise sign-up bonuses, high earn rates and additional perks.
Loyalty programmes are a popular way to earn upgrades or discounted tickets, but when it comes to spending those miles, are customers really getting bang for their buck or, rather, miles for their dirhams?
“One million miles 10 years ago and one million miles today is not the same in terms of the real value,” says Vladyslav Tyschuk, co-founder of the New York-based RewardExpert, a free service that helps users take full advantage of credit cards and travel rewards.
UAE airlines have followed the global trend, with the number of miles needed for flight tickets and upgrades increasing in recent years. Credit cards have also added restrictions on certain spending categories, such as utility bills and groceries, so they may not qualify to earn the full miles-to-spend ratio.
At the same time, developments such as the merging of the Emirates and flydubai rewards programmes, new codeshare agreements and family accounts can help customers boost their miles balance.
Earning miles on flights
The number of miles earned depends on the distance travelled, the class, the type of ticket and your frequent-flyer status. An easy way to calculate this is by using the miles calculators on the Emirates and Etihad websites.
Emirates Skywards, which has been combined with flydubai's Open Rewards programme, has a global membership of 23 million, of which 1.6 million are in the UAE. A Dubai-London economy ticket earns between 900 miles on a special ticket and 6,000 miles on flex plus (these are not counting the tier miles that determine one's frequent flyer status). In business class, the same route earns between 6,000 miles for special and 11,400 for flex plus.
The 14-hour Dubai-Sydney route offers between 2,200 miles for the cheapest economy seat to 28,300 for the most expensive business seat.
These calculations are based on the lowest status on the airline; these increase as a passenger moves up the ranks. On Emirates – which has blue, silver, gold and platinum levels – that Dubai-Sydney business class ticket earns a platinum customer 39,500 miles instead of 28,300.
Etihad Guest has about 6.5 million members, with a quarter of them in the UAE, according to Yasser Al Yousuf, Etihad's vice president of commercial partnerships.
An Abu Dhabi-London economy round-trip ticket earns around 1,700 miles for a deal ticket and up to 6,800 miles for a flex ticket. For a business ticket on the same route, the number of miles earned is roughly doubled.
For the Abu Dhabi-Sydney route, flyers can earn between 3,700 and 15,000 miles on economy or between 17,000 and 30,000 miles in business.
Etihad also has different status levels – guest, silver, gold and platinum – so a platinum customer earns 41,300 miles instead of 30,000 for the Abu Dhabi-Sydney flight.
Partnerships and codeshare agreements
When Emirates and flydubai combined their loyalty programmes, about 500,000 flydubai Open Rewards members enrolled in Skywards. Since then, more than 125,000 Skywards members have earned almost 300 million Skywards Miles from flydubai flights, according to Emirates.
“Before Emirates Skywards became the loyalty programme for both airlines, Emirates Skywards members would earn miles only for the sector flown on Emirates on a codeshare ticket with flydubai,” says Jeyhun Efendi, flydubai’s senior vice president of commercial operations and e-commerce. “Skywards members now can earn miles for all sectors on a codeshare ticket with flydubai.”
Emirates Skywards members can also earn and redeem miles on 12 partner airlines, including Air Mauritius, South African Airways and Qantas.
Etihad has more than 20 partner airlines, including American Airlines, Oman Air and Philippine Airlines.
In May 2018, Emirates relaunched its family rewards programme, allowing up to eight family members including a nominated "family head" to pool up to 100 per cent of their miles.
The catch is that flights not marketed by Emirates (flights without an EK flight number) and miles earned through other ways, such as credit cards, go to the individual accounts instead of the family account.
Some aspects of this may change, says Nejib Ben-Khedher, senior vice president of Emirates Skywards.
“Miles earned on flydubai marketed flights will be included as part of the ‘My Family’ offering later this year and our members can expect further opportunities to consolidate miles earned through our partnerships in the near future,” says Mr Ben-Khedher.
Etihad has offered Family Membership, allowing members to pool their miles, since the start of the Etihad Guest programme 12 years ago, says Mr Al Yousuf.
Credit and debit cards
Both airlines have partnerships with credit and debit cards to help members earn miles. The cards have annual fees ranging from Dh400 to Dh3,000, and correspondingly offer a range of miles earned per dirham spent. The miles-to-spend ratio is often quoted in US dollars, starting at 0.33 miles per dollar and up to 5 miles per dollar. Usually, foreign spend or spend on the airlines' websites offer more miles than spending locally.
Note that cards may have a monthly miles cap and restrictions on which purchases qualify. Categories like "grocery/supermarkets" and "real estate" may only earn 50 per cent while "utility bill payments" may earn 10 per cent or nothing at all.
Emirates Skywards has linked up with Citibank, Emirates NBD and Emirates Islamic. Emirates NBD has launched a debit and savings card that offers the highest Skywards mile earnings in the market of up to 5 miles per dollar spent. But the minimum balance to open an account is Dh500,000, and the highest earn rate applies to accounts with a balance of at least Dh1 million for spends on international and Emirates purchases. The annual fee is Dh2,500 for the first year and then Dh200 monthly.
“If you give strong value, the fee typically justifies itself,” says R Siva, head of retail banking products at Emirates NBD. “It will pay off maybe four to five times over.”
Etihad Guest has deals with First Abu Dhabi Bank, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank.
To determine which credit card is right for you, Mr Siva recommends calculating the potential miles earned based on your monthly credit card bill.
Both airlines have a list of retail, hotel and car rental partners on their websites that is worth studying.
Shopping at The Dubai Mall will earn one Skywards mile per $1 spent and a Hertz car rental earns 3.5 miles per $1.
At Pan Emirates furniture you can earn two Etihad guest miles for every Dh1 spent and a trip to Warner Brothers World in Abu Dhabi will earn one Etihad mile per $1.
Using miles wisely
When it comes to redeeming miles, Mr Tyschuk of RewardExpert advises only using them for flights or upgrades, rather than vouchers or at the airlines' online shop.
“It’s not a good idea to buy anything with your miles except to exchange it for a ticket,” Mr Tyschuk says.
For example, it takes 8,000 miles from a Skysurfers account, the Emirates programme for children, for a Dh100 voucher for Wild Wadi. But it can only be used on the non-discounted rate of Dh336 per person, and not the UAE residents' rate of Dh149.
“There are many options for our members under the age of 18 years to utilise Skywards miles, including the most popular flight and upgrade rewards and cash+miles,” says Mr Ben-Khedher of Emirates.
The leisure and lifestyle reward options, such as Arabian Adventures and Ski Dubai are “especially attractive to members based overseas when holidaying in Dubai or stopping over en route to their final destination”, he says.
When miles are about to expire and it is a minimal amount, Mr Tyschuk suggests donating them to a charity or using them for a gift card. But if it is enough for a flight, he says to book a ticket “with the possibility to change a date, as far advanced as possible".
Using miles in higher classes is also a good idea, says Chris Chamberlin, from Australian Business Traveller, a website dedicated to business travel.
“I often find that the number of miles needed to fly business class is only double what you’d need to fly economy, but if I were to purchase a business class airfare on the same flight, it’d be closer to three to four times the price of economy, so I’m getting better value from my miles,” Mr Chamberlin says.