Best and worst airlines for free travel with miles – 2013
One of the most frustrating things about miles is the lack of availability of free seats when you want to travel, or more common today, availability, but at sky high mileage prices.
An annual study simulates what many of us try to do — book a free ticket for two on popular routes, hoping for the ‘low’ or ‘saver’ mileage level to have seats available. The results for 2013 are in from Ideaworks and there is a lot of variation, but the most reliable airline mile programs in the U.S. are:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards – Free flights available 100% of the time on the routes, days they checked
- United Mileage Plus – Free flights at ‘saver’ levels available 80% of the time on the routes, days they checked
|Southwest Rapid Rewards||100%|
|JetBlue True Blue||89%|
|Air Canada Aeroplan||66%|
|Alaska Mileage Plan||56%|
|US Airways Dividend Miles||36%|
- Delta SkyMiles – Free flights at ‘low’ mileage levels available just 36% of the time, but an increase from just 27% in 2012
- US Airways Dividend Miles – Availability just 36% of the time
Which credit card works best
Southwest Rapid Rewards
- Simple to understand – your points are worth 1.6 cents each toward travel on ‘Wanna Get Away’ fares
- Low priced flights cost few points — since the price in points is based on the price of the flight, cheap flights cost few points. A $200 flight costs you just 12,500 points versus a minimum 25,000 miles in traditional mile programs.
- Limited international options — Southwest doesn’t fly to many international destinations, nor does it have a lot of partners. If you want to buy an international ticket you will get a less attractive value for your miles than Southwest flights.
- No ‘jackpot’ values — Since the value per point is fixed at no more than 1.6 cents per point you’re never going to get an outstanding value free ticket, but you’ll always get a decent deal
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus – Earns miles directly in your Southwest account. Useful if you already have some flight miles from Soutwest to top off.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred - Transfer miles 1:1 instantly in your Southwest account. Earn 2 points per dollar on dining and travel spend. Also transfer miles to United, Marriott, Hyatt, and more.
United Mileage Plus
- Lots of global options – United miles will get you to more places than any other U.S. airline mile program. With good availability and a great web booking tool that shows lots of partner options finding options to global destinations is easier with United than any other. Partners include Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, US Airways, Air Canada, and more.
- First / business class – Southwest won’t get you anywhere in first class. So if you want premium cabin options go with United.
- ‘Jackpot’ value rewards – United miles aren’t based on the price of the ticket — they are based on where you want to travel. So for example a roundtrip to Europe can cost 60,000 miles regardless of whether the price of the ticket is $900 or $1,500. Business and first class travel can yield big bargains versus the cash cost of a ticket.
- Inventory controls. While United is the leader in availability among traditional mile programs, you will find they do restrict the number of seats available at ‘low’ mile levels, so no guarantees you’ll find a seat on the days you want to travel.
- High minimum price. Since United doesn’t set the price in miles based on the price in dollars, trips that cost relatively few dollars in cash are less attractive values in miles. For example, a domestic roundtrip ticket costs 25,000 miles regardless of whether the underlying ticket costs $250 or $500.
- United Mileage Plus Explorer – Earns 1 mile per dollar, plus 10,000 mile bonus when you spend $20,000 each year.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred - Transfer miles 1:1 instantly in your United account. Earn 2 points per dollar on dining and travel spend. Also transfer miles to Southwest, Marriott, Hyatt, and more.
- United Mileage Plus Club – Earns 1.5 miles per dollar, plus United Club membership.
So why did Delta and US Airways perform so poorly?
- Lousy partner search on websites. Both do not display availability on most of their partner airlines via their websites. That means many options are hidden unless you call an agent and know where to prod them.
- 3 tier award pricing. Instead of 2 levels like United — ‘low’ and ‘high,’ Delta and US Airways have a ‘mid’ level price. That means they offer fewer awards at the very low level, and more at the mid level which was not counted in this study.