Good news or deceptive marketing: topbonus open to earn & redeem miles, reward tickets valid!

In yet another surprising twist in the sage that is the insolvency of airberlin, the carrier’s topbonus rewards program announced today, that award tickets issued on 745- ticket stock are valid and have already been paid AND, topbonus shop is reopening to earn miles on Etihad flights and with ground partners and to redeem miles for vouchers and merchandise. There are a lot of intriguing details buried in the FAQ of the news release, making the Chapter 11 proceedings of United or the last episode of Game of Thrones just…. boring!

I have learned the hard way that when something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. So, let’s analyze this news line by line (full topbonus email here):

  • Redemption of topbonus miles
    News: You can now “redeem miles in the new topbonus pop-up shop
    Starting from 10,000 award miles, you can redeem them, for example, for SIXT, Secret Escapes and HelloFresh vouchers with the following values:
    • 20 € for 10,000 miles
    • 50 € for 20,000 miles
    • 100 € for 50,000 miles (starting next week)
    You can also redeem miles for products with a cash co-payment!
    What it means: I found a Sixt voucher for only 5,000 miles worth EUR10, but the lower minimum redemption is the only good news. I used a VPN to access the German topbonus shop). The redemption value for the vouchers is terrible, ranging between 0.24-0.3 ct/mile – I value airline miles around 1.5ct/m and usually redeem for premium airline tickets at much higher value! This is made worse by the conditions to use these vouchers through the topbonus portal. I was able to find slightly better rental prices elsewhere, reducing the mile value further.
    Example: My current one-way business class ticket from Asia to Europe on Etihad and airberlin with a free stop-over in Abu Dhabi cost me 80,000 topbonus miles, but would cost today $5,000 to replicate. A less convenient two-stop flight without stopover would cost $2,500, delivering a mile value of 3.1-6.2 ct/mile!
    The situation is not much better for product redemptions: While I had predicted that should topbonus reopen, you’d be at best able to get a toaster for 200,000 miles, a toaster is not on the list and the value of the miles is even less! For example the Sennheiser momentum 2.0 on ear wireless headset is available for EUR239 + 25,000 miles – it’s available online for EUR228, giving your miles a negative value!
  • Earning Miles on Etihad Flights
    News: You can now earn miles miles on Etihad’s “worldwide route network” from Germany and Switzerland “to more than 50 destinations“. 
    What it means: You can earn miles on Etihad flights at what appears to be the same rates and to the same destinations as before. It is not the whole Etihad network though, as it only includes routes from 5 airports in Germany and Switzerland, via Abu Dhabi to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.
    The question is, why you would want to earn miles in topbonus on Etihad flights. topbonus is still in insolvency, so they could still go out of business, should they not find a buyer soon! And with redemptions as bad as described above, you are better off crediting your Etihad flights to Etihad Guest or another airline partner!
  • Earning Miles with other Partners
    News: “Miles can also be collected again at a number of partners on the ground.” These include Sixt, Avis, HRS and the topbonus booking portals.
    What it means: Yes, you can earn points with these car rental, hotel and shopping partners (full list here) – but you shouldn’t! In all cases you can credit miles and points to other reward programs for the same activity, receiving much better value at this time!
  • Reward tickets are valid and have been paid for by topbonus!
    News: This is actually the most surprising news for me (and not only because I’m holding a business class reward ticket for Etihad/airberlin flights): Lucky at OMAAT analyzed the situation of topbonus and concluded that the operating carrier of reward flights would not be paid until after the flight is complete. But according to the topbonus FAQ, topbonus has already paid the operating carriers for the award tickets and expects them to honor the reservations as booked! The translation of the FAQ section (full document in German is here) is as folllows: 
    16. Do award tickets remain valid?
    Yes, topbonus has issued valid and executable award tickets. topbonus LTd. Has already paid the ticket to the airline operating the flight. Therefore, you can use the award ticket issued by topbonus as booked.
    The duty of carriage rests with the poperating carrier. Should (the airline) not fullfill its duty, please contact the operating carrier. Also, all conditions of the award ticket continue to apply, incl. no refund of miles, changes to the reservation incur fees.
    For further explanation: If your booking does not include a ticket number, your award booking is not valid. The airberlin and NIKI ticket numbers begin with 745-xxxx. Please be advised that your confirmation number is not your ticket number.
    What it means: The claim that topbonus has already paid the operating carriers for the award flight is counter what Lucky, other analysts and myself believed to be true. It’s unclear, if that was standard operating procedure, if topbonus has now paid all carriers for all open tickets or is just a false marketing claim to keep people quiet. Given the many false announcements by airberlin staff over the last few weeks, I have my doubts about the validity. And, if IATA doesn’t confirm ongoing validity of 745-tickets past September 28th, carriers could still deny transport. 
    But, should it prove to be true, it does put Etihad and other partner airlines on the spot though – it will be hard to deny transportation, both on legal and moral grounds, even after airberlin shuts down, if topbonus has already paid for the flight. It also makes my personal situation very interesting: My business class ward ticket includes a flight on Etihad and it will be interesting to see if they will honor a ticket on their plane, paid for by their majority-owned subsidiary topbonus!

Bottomline: When I read the email, I was first excited. That excitement faded quickly when I looked at the earning and redemption options. I have no plans of crediting any miles to topbonus at this point and suggest you don’t either, unless you are not a member in any other program.
A small flicker of hope remains for (at least a partial) use of my reward ticket. I have reached out to the head of guest experience at Etihad, Linda Celestino, to find out how exactly Etihad envisions the future guest experience of their customers!
Unfortunately, I have a front seat to the show with my open ticket and will continue to watch with rapt attention. I will keep you posted on the developments until the (more or less bitter) end!
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