Best Ways to Use Airline Miles for Domestic Award Tickets
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Million Mile Secrets readers have asked how to make the most of their frequent flyer miles when traveling on domestic award tickets.
Airline frequent flyer programs don’t all charge the same number of miles for award flights within the continental US and Canada.
Depending on the flight, you could get award tickets for fewer miles by choosing the right airline. In some cases, you could save thousands of miles!
So how do you decide which frequent flyer miles to use? I’ll show you!
Which Airline Miles Should You Use?
Link: Airline Award ChartsMost major US airlines charge 25,000 miles round-trip in coach for flights within the continental US and Canada. Their frequent flyer programs are zone-based, which means it’s the same number of miles to fly within a certain geographic region, regardless of distance or paid ticket price.
While that’s a reasonable amount of miles to pay for a longer journey, some folks might cringe at spending so many miles for a very short flight (New York to Washington, DC, for example).
You could pay fewer miles, especially for short-haul flights, by choosing distance-based or revenue-based frequent flyer programs to book your award flight.
Let’s look at what you’ll pay for a round-trip domestic ticket using popular award programs. Note that not all of these programs are US-based! Remember, you can use miles from overseas airlines for award tickets on their US partner airlines.
Don’t forget that to use the fewest miles possible, you may need to depart/return in the middle of the week or during off-peak weekends. Awards can double or triple during peak days, and you’ll have to be flexible if you want to be frugal with your miles.[table id=159 responsive=scroll responsive_breakpoint=phone /]
In general, when considering short or medium-haul flights, you should 1st look at airlines that base the number of miles needed on distance, like British Airways (for flights on American Airlines, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines), or Virgin Atlantic and Hawaiian Airlines (for flights on Virgin America).
And when considering any flight, it’s worth considering programs that are revenue-based (like Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America), because the number of miles you pay depends on the cost of the ticket. So if there’s a seat sale, you could save a lot of miles.Keep in mind that the price of a ticket often increases the closer you get to the travel date. So when booking revenue-based award tickets, it’s best to reserve during a seat sale. Or well in advance of your trip. On Southwest, you can always cancel and re-book for free if the cost of the ticket goes down.
Let’s Look at Some Examples
Link: Great Circle Mapper
1. Short-Haul Flight: Los Angeles to San Francisco Round-Trip in Coach
The distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco is 337 miles (according to the Great Circle Mapper, which is handy for figuring out flight distances).
American Airlines, Delta, and Alaska Airlines all charge 25,000 miles round-trip in coach for this route. That’s a lot of miles for such a short flight!
But on United Airlines, you’ll only pay 20,000 miles. That’s because this flight is less than 700 miles 1-way.
You’ll save miles with distance-based or revenue-based programs. Using Virgin Atlantic points to fly on Virgin America, you’ll only pay 10,000 miles round-trip. Virgin Atlantic doesn’t add fuel surcharges to Virgin America tickets like they do their own.
If you use British Airways Avios points to book an award ticket on American Airlines, you’ll only pay 9,000 miles round-trip. Flights under 650 miles only cost 4,500 miles each way. I’d much rather use 9,000 British Airways Avios points than 25,000 American Airlines miles for the exact same trip!
That said, Emily and I like to use our Southwest Companion Pass for short and long domestic flights, because we only pay miles for 1 person (and the other flies almost free!).
I checked Southwest, which is revenue-based, so if there’s a seat sale you’ll pay less. A cheap round-trip ticket costs 7,554 points. That’s an even better deal!
Virgin America’s frequent flyer program is also revenue-based. An inexpensive Los Angeles to San Francisco only costs 2,512 points each way, or 5,024 points total.
This isn’t as good as it seems if you need to transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Virgin America. It’s a 2:1 transfer ratio, so you’d actually need 10,048 Membership Rewards points for this flight. Still, that’s better than paying 25,000 miles!
I checked JetBlue (also an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, with a 5:4 transfer ratio, although sometimes there are transfer bonuses). You’ll pay 7,000 points for a flight between San Francisco and Long Beach.Note: You’ll pay an excise fee of 0.06 cents per point, to a maximum of $99, when you transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to US airlines.
Clearly, it’s not a good idea to use miles from American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, or Alaska Airlines on this route, because you’ll pay 20,000 to 25,000 miles. I’d rather save those miles for long-haul flights!
You’ll pay far fewer miles if you use distance or revenue-based programs like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic / Virgin America, Southwest, or JetBlue.
You can get British Airways Avios points from the Chase British Airways card, or by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points from the following cards:[table id=154 responsive=scroll responsive_breakpoint=phone /]
2. Long-Haul Flight: New York to Seattle in Coach
New York to Seattle is a much longer trip, a distance of ~2,586 miles (depending on which airport you fly from).
Like for any domestic round-trip flight, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines 25,000 miles for a standard award ticket on this route. There’s no discount on United Airlines this time, because the flight is longer than 700 miles.
Because their award chart is distance-based, there’s no advantage to booking an American Airlines award ticket with British Airways points on this route. You’ll pay 25,000 Avios points.
If you want to fly Virgin America, you’ll pay 7,303 miles each way for their cheapest award ticket, or 14,606 miles total. But if you transferred American Express Membership Rewards points for this ticket, you’d need 29,212 points (because of the 2:1 transfer ratio). So that’s not a good deal!
Virgin Atlantic doesn’t publish a price for flights between New York and Seattle on Virgin America, but flights of a comparable distance cost 25,000 miles.
Cheap tickets on JetBlue cost 23,600 points round-trip.
I also looked at Southwest, and a cheap award ticket costs 18,884 points.
So for long-haul flights, it’s still often (not always) a better deal to find award tickets with airlines that are revenue-based. But that’s only if you can find inexpensive tickets, because the higher the ticket cost, the more points you’ll need for an award flight.
Keep in mind, if you don’t have elite status, flying airlines like Southwest or JetBlue could save you money. Southwest gives you 2 free checked bags, and JetBlue checked bag fees are lower than other airlines.
This is a longer itinerary, so some folks might consider flying Business or First Class for a more comfortable experience. Southwest and JetBlue don’t offer Business or First Class, although JetBlue has a First Class called Mint on their New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco routes.
So What’s the Best Deal?
From the previous examples, Southwest can be 1 of the best options for both short-haul and long-haul flights, as long as you can find a cheap ticket. Sometimes (especially closer to the date of travel), their cheapest “Wanna Get Away” fares sell out, and you might be stuck paying many more points for a pricey “Anytime” ticket.
But if you have the Southwest Companion Pass, this becomes a very easy choice. That’s because your companion flies with you for almost free on award tickets! So it’s like getting 2 for the price of one!
That’s why I’ve always said the Southwest Companion Pass is the best deal for domestic travel. Plus, you get 2 free checked bags, and there are never any change or cancellation fees.
If you can’t fly Southwest, consider using British Airways Avios points for short-haul flights. You’ll only pay 4,500 miles each way for flights under 650 miles. But there’s no advantage to using Avios points on long trips.
I don’t mind spending 25,000 miles for long-haul domestic flights on American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta, or Alaska Airlines, but if I can get a cheaper flight on Southwest or another revenue-based airline, I’ll take it. I’d much rather save my miles for international trips!
And here’s another advantage of booking Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America: if there’s a seat for sale, you can get it with points. If you want an award seat during peak travel times, you might not always be able to get it on other airlines, for any number of points!
That said, if you can find a last-minute low-level award ticket for a long flight, airlines with zone-based pricing (like American Airlines) could be a better deal than a revenue-based airline. Last-minute paid tickets can be very expensive and you could pay a lot of points on airlines like JetBlue or Southwest.
But folks with the Southwest Companion Pass will likely still get the best deal.
When booking domestic award tickets, you won’t always pay the same number of miles or points for a given route. So it’s important to choose your airline and frequent flyer program carefully!
It’s much better to use distance-based or revenue-based programs, like British Airways Avios, Southwest, or JetBlue, on short-haul domestic flights. That’s because usually you’ll pay thousands of miles less than you would with airlines like Delta or American Airlines, which charge the same number of miles regardless of route.
On long-haul domestic flights, there’s no advantage to using distance-based programs. But you can still often find a better deal if you can find a cheap ticket on a revenue-based airline.
And if you have the Southwest Companion Pass, you’ll almost always do better booking their award tickets than with any other airlines. That’s because you’ll get 2 award tickets for about the price of one!
Do you have any tips or tricks to share for booking domestic award tickets?
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