Milecards

Chicago’s most rewarding airlines for miles

Memorial Day weekend starts summer travel season, and with airfares on the rise more and more travelers are looking to find savings by using miles instead of cash for flights.

We looked at tens of thousands of reward flights from Chicago to popular destinations around the country and world for the rest of 2014 to see which airlines offer mile rewards for the lowest prices, and which deliver on the promises of making reward seats available at their lowest advertised prices.

Best worst days chicago use miles

Key findings

Sunday is the most expensive day to use miles out of Chicago – costing over 30% more than the cheapest day, Tuesday for domestic flights.

United is the most generous for Chicago flyers using miles internationally, with the most open reward seats at the lowest advertised prices to 6 of 7 regions covered.

Southwest has the most affordable mile prices for domestic travel, costing about 37% fewer miles than American, Delta, or United. While Southwest has low fares, its mileage prices are even lower. Why? Because it doesn’t fly to global destinations, it keeps mileage prices lower to stay competitive for frequent flyers.

Winners / losers by destination

Global travel: United has the most reward seats at the lowest advertised prices to 6 of 7 regions for Chicago travelers.

Mainland U.S.:  Southwest has the lowest prices at about 20,000 miles for an average ticket. American is most expensive at about 35,000 miles on average.

Hawaii: United is the most reliable choice, though seats are only available about 36% of days at the lowest prices.

Mexico / Caribbean: United offers award seats at its lowest prices over 50% of days.

Europe: Untied offers seats almost 70% of days at its lowest 60,000 mile price. Delta is worst offering them just 37% of the time.

Asia: United offers its lowest priced reward seats over 70% of days. Delta only offers them on 11% of days, and American 46%.

South America: United gets you there at its lowest price about 50% of days, versus just 4% of days for Delta.

Australia: American is the best choice, offering reward seats at its lowest price on 42% of days.

Results by destination

Mainland U.S. / Canada

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 34,588
  • Delta: 32,227
  • JetBlue: 23,065
  • Southwest: 20,864
  • United: 32,199

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 55% (25,000)
  • Delta: 54% (25,000)
  • Southwest: N/A (prices based on airfare)
  • United: 71% (20-25,000)

 

Hawaii

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 81,164
  • Delta: 65,291
  • United: 69,262

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 20% (35-45,000)
  • Delta: 1% (45,000)
  • United: 36% (45,000)

 

Europe

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 73,493
  • Delta: 81,076
  • United: 77,564

% of Days at Lowest Price level 

  • American: 61% (40-60,000)
  • Delta: 37% (60,000)
  • United: 68% (60,000)

Mexico/Caribbean

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 54,672
  • Delta: 55,997
  • United: 50,796

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 39% (25-35,000)
  • Delta: 11% (35,000)
  • JetBlue: N/A
  • United: 54% (35,000)

Asia

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 112,489
  • Delta: 126,522
  • United: 100,368

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 46% (50-90,000)
  • Delta: 11% (70-85,000)
  • United: 72% (70-85,000)

South America

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 91,399
  • Delta: 86,876
  • United: 79,273
  • Typical airfare: $1,148

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 31%
  • Delta: 4%
  • United: 49%

Australia

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 75,000
  • Delta: 136,891
  • United: 149,364
  • Typical airfare: $1,912

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 42%
  • Delta: 27%
  • United: 23%

Tips for getting the lowest reward prices

Earn United and Southwest points at the same time. With United and Southwest offering the two most generous mile programs for Chicago flyers, one of the best ways to earn free travel fast is to take advantage of Chase Ultimate Rewards points. These points, which are earned from credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, can be transferred to both your United and Southwest accounts at any time, thanks to Chase’s partnerships with both airlines. That lets Chicago flyers get the best of Southwest’s cheap domestic prices for rewards and United’s generous global availability.

Try traveling on Tuesday or Wednesday. Even during the busiest summer months you can often find reward seats at the lowest advertised prices when you travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. The worst day of the week to look for a reward flight is Sunday for domestic travel. That’s because business travelers are trying to get a head-start on their work week, while vacation travelers are trying to avoid using another vacation day on Monday.

Pick up the phone – especially with American / US Airways.  While American generally fared well versus United and Delta in web searches, it comes despite the handicap of having the biggest gaps in partner options online, not displaying major partners like Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Iberia, and LAN on its website. US Airways displays none. Instead, those flights must be requested and booked over the phone. That means actual awards available to American AAdvantage members are more generous than the results above indicate, particularly to Asia and South America. Results within the U.S. and Mexico / Caribbean / Central America are not influenced by this issue.

Unfortunately American does not prominently disclose that these partners are missing during the process of searching for an award, meaning many members pay more than they need to on American’s own flights, thinking the website represents all available options. And phone agents can often overlook options, particularly if you are still dealing with US Airways miles, so spot checking availability on other websites like BA.com or Qantas.com with a user account can be helpful. You can learn more about finding partner options on other sites here.

Methodology

  • MileCards.com looked at award data for 5 U.S. frequent flier programs, which cover about 90% of U.S. airline mile program membership (American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and JetBlue TrueBlue. Searches via AAdvantage covered US Airways flights, with award charts recently re calibrated, though select US Airways rewards remain priced differently during the merger transition).
  • Destinations from Chicago to 7 major award regions were examined, representing over 97% of desired award travel according to a recent survey of 1,600 program members.
  • Data was collected from airline websites for a pair of travelers with partner options included.
  • Identical origin / destination pairs were used for all airlines when possible. Southwest and JetBlue do not serve all destinations served by the global airlines, and a subset was used for their results.
  • Airports covered represent approximately 50% of U.S. airline passenger traffic, and for non-U.S. destinations they include gateways to countries that represent over 50% of travel to the 7 major award regions chosen.
  • Averages factor multiple award price subregions within regions such as Asia and South America.
  • Availability not shown on host airline websites is not included in this data in the interest of replicating the experience of typical consumers and promoting better transparency on airline websites.
  • Data covers April 15, 2014 – December 31, 2014, and the lowest priced option on each day was chosen.
  • Data reflects new pricing imposed by American and Southwest as well as the exit of US Airways from Star Alliance and entry into OneWorld, with availability reflected in American AAdvantage searches.