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April 25, 2017
While mileage enthusiasts love saving miles for elaborate international trips in first class, most air travel in the U.S. is on domestic flights in economy class. For flight awards that don’t need a passport, CompareCards.com analyzed award prices on 100 of the most popular routes for award travel in the United States to find which airlines offer the lowest prices in miles for award tickets in economy class.
The study looked at pricing for over 100,000 award travel date and route combinations among the frequent flier programs of the five biggest U.S. airlines: Alaska Mileage Plan, American AAdvantage®, Delta SkyMiles®, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and United MileagePlus®.
Travel dates from March 1, 2017 – October 31, 2017 were used for the study.
Tuesday is the cheapest day to use your miles
At an average of 30,674 miles roundtrip across all airlines studied, prices on Tuesday are 26% lower on average than those on the most expensive day, Sunday. That can save almost 11,000 miles on a roundtrip flight.
Southwest Rapid Rewards and Delta SkyMiles the cheapest for awards in the U.S.
Southwest charges an average of 13,629 miles for a roundtrip award. The catch – Southwest doesn’t fly to Hawaii, or some popular award destinations in the mainland U.S. like Vail and Anchorage. Delta SkyMiles, which operates to more destinations, came in 2nd with an average price of 27,871 miles across all routes studied, and 20,001 miles roundtrip on routes where Southwest operates flights.
American AAdvantage is the most expensive
The lowest priced American AAdvantage awards on the dates studied cost an average of 47,017 miles for a roundtrip award within the U.S. That compares to 42,613 miles for United MileagePlus, the next most expensive program. However, discount ‘Saver’ level awards that cost 25,000 miles or less roundtrip (45,000 miles to Hawaii) are available on 48% of dates for flexible travelers. On routes where it competes with Southwest, American charges an average of 31,096 miles versus United’s 35,678 miles, and 120% more than Southwest charges.
To Hawaii, Alaska Mileage Plan is the cheapest overall
Flights cost 54,618 miles roundtrip on average, with Delta coming in a close second at 57,020 miles. United is best for flexible bargain hunters, with ‘Saver’ level awards of 45,000 miles roundtrip available 51% of days. American AAdvantage charges the most, with an average price of 97,375 miles, and only 6% of dates available at the ‘Saver’ level price of 45,000 miles on its own flights.
For even more savings, CompareCards.com recommends fliers to Hawaii consider partner airline programs that are linked with major U.S. credit card programs to secure flights at even lower prices of 25,000 – 30,000 miles roundtrip.
Why is Southwest so cheap?
Southwest runs a program that’s very accessible to people who don’t have big mileage balances. All Southwest award flights are directly related to the actual cash airfare, so cheaper flights in cash are cheaper in points.
Southwest doesn’t have long haul international flights and doesn’t have first class seats, so its rewards are better geared to fliers who don’t rack up hundreds of thousands of miles a year. It also doesn’t fly to Hawaii, a highly valued reward destination, so it makes up for it in part by offering more value to the destinations it does serve.
And it doesn’t have to bear the expense of offering international premium redemptions like the other programs, freeing up resources for consistent value on domestic awards.
Why is Delta so much cheaper than American and United?
Traditionally, airline mile programs based award prices on a fixed menu of two prices, with a ‘Saver’ and higher ‘Standard’ price possible for a trip.
United MileagePlus still follows this practice, and most domestic economy coach tickets cost 25,000 miles roundtrip at the Saver level and 50,000 miles at the Standard level.
Over the last few years, Delta has stopped publishing a menu of award prices, and widened the range of prices it charges for awards. Now, domestic economy coach tickets can be found on many routes for just 10,000 miles roundtrip, and others at 15,000 miles roundtrip, while others cost more than the old 25,000 mile standard. By doing this, it has better flexibility to come closer to matching the point prices of Southwest, which doesn’t publish a menu of award prices.
The flip side is Delta has aggressively raised the prices of international business class awards that are not part of this study. A business class award to Europe on one of Delta’s partners now costs 170,000 miles roundtrip, up from 125,000 miles a year ago.
Are United and American miles worth earning?
United MileagePlus is better geared toward travelers who want to save their miles for international travel. Travelers who are able to earn enough miles for these bigger rewards can do well with a program like United’s, and get more value than using the miles for basic domestic flights.
For example, a 60,000 mile roundtrip economy ticket to Europe with United MileagePlus could save a traveler $1,200 or more depending on the prevailing airfare at the time. And a 140,000 mile ticket to Europe in business class on one of its partners could get $5,000 or more in flight value. Delta SkyMiles charges 170,000 miles roundtrip for a similar ticket.
Using miles for 1 or 2 domestic trips instead often yields less than $1,000 in flight value.
American AAdvantage has the most inconsistent online search experience. Partner airlines like Alaska and Cathay Pacific are an important part of the value proposition of American miles and many are not readily visible when searching the AA.com website.
For example, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and LATAM Airlines flights are not shown on AA.com, according to disclosure on the American Airlines website. And while Alaska Airlines flights can be shown, users have to search from an ‘advanced search’ page to find many of these results, as they don’t all display by default when searching from the AA.com home page.
While outside the scope of this study, AAdvantage also causes headaches for international travelers by passing on large carrier surcharges from its primary partner to Europe, British Airways, which can add $700 or more onto a basic Economy Class award.
One area where AAdvantage is user friendly is on changes. Members can change the date of any AAdvantage award free of charge, as long as the award is booked 21 days or more before departure and the new flight has the same award price available.
Cash or miles? Are you better off with cash back?
We recommend airline-specific credit cards for travelers who:
- Want a sign-on bonus to reach an award
- Fly often enough to cover the annual fee with value from checked bag fees or other airline-specific perks and earning
For travelers who take at least 2 trips a year, with some international trips mixed in, transferable point cards, which let users transfer points into the airline miles of several programs, are often the best value.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve® allow users to transfer points into miles with both United MileagePlus and Southwest Rapid Rewards, giving access to both Southwest’s cheap domestic prices and United’s global options.
For travelers who fly just once or twice a year only on domestic flights, cash for travel or cash back cards are often a better choice.
A family spending $2,000 a month on purchases eligible for a credit card would earn $480 in cash back using a $0* annual fee, flat-rate cash back card like the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer which allows cardholders to Earn 2% cash back on purchases 1% when you buy and 1% as you make payments for those purchases.
The average lowest available airfare on the dates and routes in our study was $335, and $480 in cash back would cover the cost of 1.4 tickets a year on average.
For comparison, a family spending $2,000 a month on a Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® would earn 24,000 miles in a year. In our study, the average award ticket with American AAdvantage miles costs 47,017 miles.
The 24,000 miles earned in a year is enough for just one half of a roundtrip award at the average price in our study, or about $168 in value. That’s before considering the $95 annual fee on the card.
All award prices are in miles, roundtrip.
Award prices: Sample popular routes
|New York – Los Angeles||31,667||38,621||29,661||23,709||40,204|
|Los Angeles – Maui||47,664||92,977||54,108||N/A||59,510|
|Chicago – Denver||31,122||38,135||24,976||15,501||39,082|
|Boston – Washington||32,933||22,624||17,094||8,051||37,388|
|Dallas – Honolulu||59,357||96,816||61,594||N/A||69,796|
|Los Angeles – Seattle||16,571||25,102||14,469||9,446||33,265|
|San Francisco – Kona||54,033||83,882||51,129||N/A||63,000|
|New York – Chicago||31,444||27,100||11,347||9,036||37,245|
Award prices: All U.S. routes studied
Award prices: Hawaii
Award prices: Mainland U.S.
CompareCards.com looked at 50 of the routes with the greatest number of award tickets, including busy routes such as Chicago to San Francisco and Los Angeles to New York, as well as 50 of the routes with the highest percentage of award tickets. These are routes not as heavily traveled, but high in demand for award tickets like Kahului to Dallas, Bozeman to Chicago, and Seattle to Tucson. Award ticket volumes for each route were estimated using airfare data in the Department of Transportation DB1B database, which represents a 10% sample of airline tickets from reporting carriers, representing over 70 million flights. Award prices were collected using airline websites for travel dates March 1 – October 31, 2017, with availability for at least 2 travelers per flight. Partner airline flights that do not display by default when searches are conducted were not included in the study.