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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
|Southwest Rapid Rewards||100%|
|JetBlue True Blue||89%|
|Air Canada Aeroplan||66%|
|Alaska Mileage Plan||56%|
|US Airways Dividend Miles||36%|
There 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…
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.
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.
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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