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Best and worst airlines for free travel with miles – 2013

by on Sun May 12, 2013 • 15 Comments

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

And the worst:

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

Airline% Availability
Southwest Rapid Rewards100%
JetBlue True Blue89%
United MileagePlus80%
Air Canada Aeroplan66%
Alaska Mileage Plan56%
American AAdvantage49%
US Airways Dividend Miles36%
Delta SkyMiles36%

Which credit card works best

Chase Sapphire Preferred CardThere is one card that lets you earn points in both of the top programs – the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It lets you transfer miles 1:1 into both United and Southwest at any time you like, so you can enjoy the best of the two top mile programs. Learn more about it here.

Let’s dig into the top two programs and see their pros and cons…

Southwest Rapid Rewards


Simple to understand  — your points are worth 1.4 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 1.4 cents per point you’re never going to get an outstanding value free ticket, but you’ll always get a decent deal.

Credit card options

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier – Earns miles directly in your Southwest account. Useful if you already have some flight miles from Soutwest to top off.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card  – 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, especially for economy class. Partners include Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, US Airways, Air Canada, and more.
First / business class – Southwest won’t get you anywhere in business class. United can get you there, especially within North / South America and to Europe, though for Asia, American Airlines and its partners currently offer the best value for these rewards.

‘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 good 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 there are 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.

Credit card options

Why did Delta and US Airways perform so poorly?

Two reasons…

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.

At the end of the day, if you have a stash of miles built up in a ‘bad’ program, go ahead and top them off with a credit card to the point where you can use them for a free flight. Then, start earning miles from one of the better programs going forward.

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Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Miles dont expireas long as card is open
Learn more

Partner Offer

50,000 bonus points

Intro Offer

$0 introductory annual fee, then $95

Annual Fee


Foreign Transaction Fee Waived


Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?

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15 thoughts on Best and worst airlines for free travel with miles – 2013

  1. L

    Unfortunately using BA as an American airlines partner to Europe is very costly in taxes. We avoid BA as they charge approx $300 in taxes one way to europe. This is expensive when using miles for a ticket.


      @Dee – The Amex Membership Rewards points can be transferred into Delta miles. Those are pretty useful for getting to Europe, a little tougher to use for travel within the U.S., and very hard to use to Asia at reasonable prices. Another popular option with Amex points is to transfer to British Airways which lets you use the points on American Airlines flights. They charge based on how far you fly rather than the zone you fly, so for short flights you can get very cheap awards as few as 9,000 points.

      Overall though for simplicity the Chase rewards or a program that earns double points you can use on any airline are better.

  2. Doug Miller

    I have been using frequent flier miles for many years now. Typically, I would fly on a partner airline and it was not a problem. That is, until i tried to use British Airways miles to go to South America.

    I was not able to find anything their website and I called and asked why. I would say your partner, American, flies there. There reply was “We do not have an agreement on that route,” I tried with more than one destination and it was always the same,

    I have nearly 200k on them and would love to use them. Any ideas? I live in Seattle


    1. MileCards

      @Doug – You can definitely use BA miles to go to South America on American Airlines flights. Challenge is there needs to be ‘MileSAAver’ space on those flights, which you can check on Unforutnately that availability has been sparse to nonexistent on the flights to South America lately, even for American’s own frequent flyers.

  3. NicoleB


    I have 150,000 Southwest Rapid Reward miles, however our family is planning a trip to Hawaii in January (9 passengers) I am looking for a way to upgrade my parents (at least) into first class since it is such a long flight. Is there any way I can convert my SW Points into United Mileage points and then use those to upgrade them? Should I get a United credit card too? Should I get the Chase Sapphire card? Any help you can offer would be appreciated.


    1. MileCards

      @NicoleB – Unfortunately your Southwest points can’t convert to United miles. To be quite honest first class to Hawaii from the West Coast isn’t worth all that much – the meal is lousy – the better value would be to pay for an Economy Plus or Exit Row seat for your parents. Maybe do it for a grandchild so all three are in one row and no one minds being side by side.

      1. NicoleB

        Thanks for the quick response. We are traveling from Chicago so it will be a pretty long flight and my dad recently had hip surgery so I would like to get them the most room possible.

  4. emmett foster


    Presently have Cap 1 visa signature card with 100,000 miles available. Fly out of DFW. If I get, for instance, an AA card can I use the Cap 1 miles to pay the AA card and get AA miles or is that not possible?
    Fly domestic primarily.
    Want to fly to Greece next summer, my wife and I.
    Like the priority boarding and free bag AA offers. Confused as to what will work best for me. The United offer looks good as you explained it.

  5. Heather

    Which is the best card to use for flights to Australia from New York? We were trying to find a card that we could put all our monthly expenses on each month ($4,000.) and pay it off each month. We have to travel to Australia every 2 years (5 people) and my goal is to rack up enough miles/points to greatly reduce the cost of the flights. Which card do you think could get me to this goal? There are so many ……..I am very confused.

    1. MileCards

      @Heather – It’s pretty much a tossup between United and American, as they have access to the most flights to Australia. In our experience their availability of economy seats is pretty similar. And both charge 75,000 miles roundtrip for a ‘saver’ economy miles ticket. It’s easier to earn United miles more quickly with credit card spending because the cards that earn United miles have more bonuses. Recommend the following to get started:

      1. Get a Chase Sapphire Preferred – it earns points that can transfer to United instantly. And you get 40,000 points as a bonus for spending $3,000 on the card.
      2. Get a United Explorer – you get a 30,000 mile bonus the first time you use it.

      So right there you have 70,000 miles quickly.

      Then, for your spending, put $25,000 per year on the United Explorer. You’ll get a 10,000 mile bonus for doing that. Then use the Chase Sapphire Preferred for the rest of your spending…it also earns 2x points for dining and travel.

      With all that you can earn in 2 years the 70,000 mile intro bonus + 2 United Explorer 10,000 mile bonuses + 96,000 or more miles from your spending. That’s over 250,000 miles, potentially enough for 3 free economy ‘saver’ tickets.

      This page has details on how to apply for the bonuses:

  6. Benny Coulston

    We are planning a trip to Puerto Vallarata soon and would like to buy tickets by this weekend.
    Would it work or be smart to request a United Credit Card tomorrow to purchase the two
    tickets. We have good credit & lots of Southwest Rapid Rewards points but does not work
    for Mexico. Would a card be even approved by this Sat. or Sun. for use in ticket purchase??
    If not, about how long does it take for approval and issue?
    Thanks in advance
    Benny & Diane Coulston

    1. MileCards

      @Benny- Unfortunately the miles points won’t post for another month or so – you have to meet the spending requirement for the bonus (a single purchase for some, a dollar threshold for others), and then the miles post after the statement for that month is generatEd.


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