Japan-based carrier ANA recently announced a major change to its frequent flyer program, shifting from a distance-based chart to a region-based one. I asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to take a look at the change and what it means for award travelers.

ANA has one of the best mileage programs out there.

ANA has long been ranked one of the top foreign frequent flyer programs thanks to a distance-based award chart with some amazing redemption values (such as only 63,000 miles round-trip in business class from New York to London!). However, the airline surreptitiously updated the mileage redemption page on its Japanese site to say that starting April 12, 2015, its award chart would change to a zone-based formula like the traditional ones used by US legacy carriers such as American Airlines.

Details are still scant, and the information comes from ANA’s Japanese site. However, the enterprising posters at FlyerTalk have created a thread outlining the changes, and Travel Is Free provided some more details over the weekend.

You might be thinking that changes to a Japanese airline’s frequent flyer program won’t impact many flyers here in North America, but you would be wrong. ANA has a few features that make it a great program to consider in your mileage strategy. Its award search engine is one of the best for finding Star Alliance award availability, and as I mentioned, the current chart has some amazing redemption values.

ANA pulls most Star Alliance award availability into its online search engine. Furthermore, ANA allows passengers up to three stopovers on each round-trip award ticket (with a few restrictions). You’re only allowed to stopover once in Japan if you originate overseas, and cannot stopover in Japan if you originate there (so no flying from Japan to somewhere else, then back to Japan and on to another destination). You can also have an open jaw either at your destination or by returning to a city other than your origin, but the two cities in your open jaw must be within the same region. This page explains it all.

On the downside, the airline does impose fuel surcharges and levies taxes (sometimes quite high ones) on its own awards and certain partner airlines.

In addition to Star Alliance carriers, ANA has several other non-alliance airline partners including Virgin Atlantic, Etihad, Garuda and Hawaiian Airlines, among others.

The final big positive of ANA is that the airline doesn’t charge close-in booking fees or last-minute award booking fees; that can potentially save you hundreds of dollars when booking award travel late in the game.

All this makes ANA’s mileage program a versatile tool for frequent flyers to maximize awards on Star Alliance carriers and its other airline partners.

The current ANA award chart is distance-based. The distances listed are for your entire itinerary, and the mileage requirements listed for each class of service are those for a round-trip award. Right now, there are a few sweet spots to point out.

An economy ticket under 2,000 miles only costs you 20,000 miles in economy and 38,000 miles in business class. That means short-haul domestic flights on a partner like United could be slightly less expensive with ANA than with United MileagePlus (which would cost 25,000 miles in economy and 50,000 in business class).

4,001-7,000 miles – East Coast to London

This range gets a lot of attention, because flights from New York and Boston to London Heathrow fall just within the round-trip window here, meaning you can fly round-trip on Virgin Atlantic for just 38,000 miles in economy and 63,000 miles in business class.

You need just 63,000 ANA miles to fly Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class roundtrip from JFK-LHR.

That is practically a steal considering award flights on Delta (Virgin Atlantic’s main US partner) would cost you 60,000/125,000 miles, and Virgin Atlantic would charge you 35,000/80,000 miles for the same trip. Again, just beware of the fuel surcharges on ANA awards.

7,001-9,000 miles – North America to Europe

Though a bit higher, this mileage range is still a gem in the award chart, since you can get from much of North America to Western Europe for just 43,000 miles in economy(generally the only way to beat this is with AA’s Off-Peak SAAver awards for 40,000 round-trip), 68,000 miles in business class, or 100,000 miles in first class.

  • Economy: 60,000 miles
  • Business: 115,000 miles
  • First: 160,000 miles

And on its partners like Lufthansa, United would charge you the following.

  • Economy: 60,000 miles
  • Business: 140,000 miles
  • First: 220,000 miles

Aeroplan (of Air Canada), the other major North American Star Alliance mileage program, would charge you:

  • Economy: 60,000 miles
  • Business: 90,000 miles
  • First: 125,000 miles

Aeroplan’s award chart has some good values, but ANA’s still beats it.

Again, keep in mind that unlike ANA, United won’t add fuel surcharges or huge taxes, while Aeroplan will, depending on the partner. So even though you’re using tens of thousands more miles through United MileagePlus, you will likely save hundreds or thousands of dollars.

9,001-11,000 miles –West Coast to Tokyo

This distance band can get you from the West Coast to Japan, and comes at the following mileage levels with ANA.

  • Economy: 55,000 miles
  • Business: 85,000 miles
  • First: 120,000 miles

By contrast, United would charge you the following on its own metal.

  • Economy: 60,000 miles
  • Business: 115,000/150,000 miles
  • First: 160,000/220,000 miles

So once you hit Business and First class, you’re looking at potentially huge savings in mileage (but not in taxes/surcharges, so be sure to look into those before transferring miles and/or booking).

There are a lot of changes to consider, especially given that the ANA award chart is changing from distance-based to zone-based, and ANA has one chart for its own flights and another for partner flights. Here’s what is known so far according to the FlyerTalk thread mentioned above.