Milecards

Mile Reward Generosity Online – Summer & Fall 2014

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Not all miles are created equal, and reward prices have seen dramatic changes this  year, with nearly every major airline in the U.S. raising the prices of many rewards.

About 90% of rewards are booked online according to our recent survey of over 1,600 frequent flyer program members, so with the new award prices in place, what are U.S. airline mile programs really charging for awards online and how often are they making seats available at their lowest advertised prices for reward travel for this Summer and the rest of 2014? We regularly query reward availability online, and here’s a snapshot:

Award Mile Availability

Mainland U.S. / Canada

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 37,696
  • Delta: 32,669
  • JetBlue: 23,065
  • Southwest: 20,969
  • United: 34,470
  • Typical airfare: $317

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 55% (25,000)
  • Delta: 48% (25,000)
  • JetBlue: N/A
  • Southwest: N/A
  • United: 62% (20-25,000)

Cheapest Day

  • American: Tuesday (32,116)
  • Delta: Tuesday (28,463)
  • JetBlue: Tuesday (20,867)
  • Southwest: Wednesday (19,132)
  • United: Tuesday (30,898)

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: Sunday (45,692), +42%
  • Delta: Sunday (36,932), +30%
  • JetBlue: Sunday (26,115), +25%
  • Southwest: Sunday (23,221), +30%
  • United: Sunday (39,779), +29%

Hawaii

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 82,246
  • Delta: 65,463
  • United: 69,941
  • Typical airfare: $874

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 20% (35-45,000)
  • Delta: 1% (45,000)
  • United: 37% (45,000)

Cheapest Day

  • American: Wednesday (73,031)
  • Delta: Tuesday (64,738)
  • United: Tuesday (68,653)

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: Saturday (101,625), +39%
  • Delta: Saturday (66,962), +3%
  • United: Saturday (78,459), +14%

Europe

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 77,049
  • Delta: 82,387
  • United: 84,797
  • Typical airfare: $1,125

% of Days at Lowest Price level 

  • American: 61% (40-60,000)
  • Delta: 34% (60,000)
  • United: 59% (60,000)

Cheapest Day 

  • American: Tuesday (63,066)
  • Delta: Tuesday (78,891)
  • United: Tuesday (76,634)

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: Friday (93,897), +49%
  • Delta: Saturday (86,438), +10%
  • United: Saturday (91,691), +20%

Mexico/Caribbean

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 56,068
  • Delta: 56,660
  • JetBlue: 32,679
  • United: 52,693
  • Typical airfare: $572

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 39% (25-35,000)
  • Delta: 9% (35,000)
  • JetBlue: N/A
  • United: 49% (35,000)

Cheapest Day

  • American: Tuesday (46,579)
  • Delta: Tuesday (54,931)
  • JetBlue: Tuesday (28,387)
  • United: Wednesday (47,917)

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: Sunday (69,630), +49%
  • Delta: Sunday (60,207), +10%
  • JetBlue: Sunday (26,115), +35%
  • United: Sunday (55,671), +17%

Asia

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 113,776
  • Delta: 125,277
  • United: 104,470
  • Typical airfare: $1,343

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 46% (50-90,000)
  • Delta: 10% (70-85,000)
  • United: 64% (70-85,000)

Cheapest Day

  • American: Wednesday (103,437)
  • Delta: Tuesday (122,089)
  • United: Tuesday (95,318)

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: Friday (124,954), +21%
  • Delta: Saturday (126,736), +4%
  • United: Sunday (110,897), +16%

South America

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 92,616
  • Delta: 87,275
  • United: 89,645
  • Typical airfare: $1,148

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 31%
  • Delta: 4%
  • United: 36%

Cheapest Day

  • American: Wednesday (81,603)
  • Delta: Tuesday (85,046)
  • United: Tuesday (82,033)

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: Friday (106,339), +30%
  • Delta: Saturday (90,679), +3%
  • United: Saturday (95,739), +16%

Australia

Average Reward Price (Miles)

  • American: 75,000
  • Delta: 133,025
  • United: 149,023
  • Typical airfare: $1,912

% of Days at Lowest Price Level

  • American: 42%
  • Delta: 33%
  • United: 23%

Cheapest Day

  • American: N/A (all flights one price on partner airline)
  • Delta: Tuesday, 127,075
  • United: Tuesday, 126,238

Most Expensive Day (% vs cheapest)

  • American: N/A (all flights one price on partner airline)
  • Delta: Thursday, 138,154, +9%
  • United: Friday, 154,423, +22%

What is the worst day to use miles?

You will pay up on Sunday within the U.S. About 70% of reward travel takes place within the mainland U.S. and for travel here Sunday is the most expensive day of the week by far on American, Delta, United, and US Airways, with reward flights costing 34% more on average than the cheapest day of the week, Tuesday.

It’s already an in-demand day for airfare, with business travelers looking to get a head start on the week, while leisure travelers and people using miles are keen to maximize their weekend and avoid taking Monday off from work. American charges the highest premium, thanks to its new award pricing which added a 5th top price tier which is often in effect on Sundays. Beach destinations in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are also tough on Sundays, with short flights  making returning on Sundays popular to maximize weekends.

You will pay up on Friday or Saturday for many other regions. When overnight flights are involved, business travelers tend to travel on Sunday or Friday to get settled in a new location before the week starts, and that makes Fridays and Saturdays particularly competitive if you’re trying to use miles to Europe or Asia.

Even Hawaii is challenging on Saturday because people like to maximize vacation time and minimize taking days off work. That means leaving on Saturday during the day. And when returning many flights are overnight red-eyes, which means departing late Saturday is the primary option for getting back home before Monday morning.

worst best day use miles

 

Tips for getting the lowest reward prices

If you’re pressed for time and not able to make your schedule work around the very best deals, there are still ways to make miles work for you.

You can read our get started guide for quick recommendations and follow us on Twitter to keep abreast of changes, in addition to these tips:

Earn transferable points. Not relying on a single mileage program is the best way to improve your award flight chances. The easiest way to do that is to earn points you can transfer to multiple airline programs. For example Chase Ultimate Rewards points can transfer to your United and Southwest mileage accounts among others. American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest are other large transferable points programs.

You can compare and rank dozens of cards using our CardFinder tool, where you can input your spending habits and where you want to fly.

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.

Avoid travel on Sundays. This is a prime day for business travelers getting a running start on their week, and airlines hold back the cheapest mileage seats as a result. While deals can be found if you look hard enough, you’re least likely to find a good mileage deal on a Sunday when traveling in the U.S., particularly using American AAdvantage miles, which recently introduced 5 levels of award prices.

Try earning with a smaller program. Alaska Airlines MileagePlan miles can be more rewarding to you even if you never step on an Alaska flight. Thanks to partnerships with American and Delta you can earn and use miles on both American and Delta flights, as well as many international partner airlines.

All reward seats available at the lowest mileage prices on American and Delta flights are available to Alaska MileagePlan members. This will give you the kind of flexibility you can enjoy from transferable points. A caveat is you can only fly one partner each direction of an award, so for example you can’t fly American Airlines to connect to a Delta flight.

Leverage intro offers. With enough miles, any trip is possible. The fastest way to earn them is to stop being loyal to one card, and signing up for good intro deals throughout the year. Many offer 50,000 or more points for signing up and spending for a few months. You’re often earning 10 points or more per dollar this way and you’ll have stashes of points in several programs at your disposal when it’s time to book your trip. Banks know you will have more than one card in your wallet, and it’s common to switch around as your needs change.

You can follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.

Consider a ‘double miles card.’ If you are simply traveling within the U.S. and earn few miles from actual flying, a basic ‘double miles’ card that can be used to buy tickets on any airline may be a better value than airline miles. Travelers who are very flexible or who want an ‘emergency fund’ for last minute expensive fares can find better deals with airline miles. But those who aren’t flexible, plan ahead, and don’t fly to expensive destinations will generally find better value in cash for travel options, which avoid airline prices which can result in 1 cent or less per mile in value.

Recommendations by destination

Mainland U.S. / Canada. If your only goal is simple domestic travel and you plan ahead, Southwest points are a great option. You’ll pay a lot less than with the big global airline programs and can change your plans at any time with no fees.

‘Double miles’ cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Capital One Venture that let you buy a ticket on any airline and earn miles from spending at a 2%+ cash back rate also tend to provide better value than the big global airlines for many domestic flights.

The strength of big global carriers like American, Delta, and United lies in sometimes reasonable reward prices for last-minute tickets, which can be very expensive when paid in cash. They also give you the flexibility to use miles for expensive international flights. You can’t do that with ‘double miles’ points from a bank or Southwest miles without spending hundreds of thousands of points. United is the most generous among the global carriers for domestic flights, making entry level reward seats available 62% of the time.

More savvy point earners may find good value in smaller programs like British Airways Avios which allows redemption on American, Alaska, and US Airways for as few as 9,000 points round-trip, though with more expensive pricing for connecting flights. Alaska Airlines is also a good compromise with the ability to earn and use miles on both American and Delta.

Hawaii. This is a challenging destination to use the most popular mile programs, as prices reflect high demand for rewards, and you may want to keep things simple with a double miles cash for travel card.

While United tends to make the most seats available for the lowest priced awards, American AAdvantage members have the option of using Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines flights which often have generous availability.

However most of these flights only operate from West Coast cities, and finding a combination of connecting flights with availability at the lowest mileage level can be challenging if you are not living on the West Coast.

British Airways Avios also offers access to Alaska Airlines and American Airlines flights from the West Coast for 25,000 miles roundtrip. Chalk this up as another win for Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which transfer to British Airways in addition to Southwest and United, and also give you the option to fly Hawaiian Airlines flights with good availability for 30,000 miles.

Mexico / Caribbean. Flights to Mexico and Central America are most accessible with United MileagePlus thanks to an extensive network of its own and partners Copa Airlines and Avianca / Taca with good reward seat availability.

Caribbean flights are tough rewards in general, but American / US Airways and United are least challenging if you are looking for rewards at the lowest advertised prices.

Later this year Southwest will become a stronger option to the Caribbean as its program is fully merged with AirTran, letting you take advantage of flights to the most popular destinations at attractive prices with few restrictions. We’d start saving there.

Europe. While American and its partners have the most seats at the lowest advertised mileage price, they come with a catch: taxes and fuel surcharges that amount to about $700 on Trans Atlantic flights using American’s biggest partner, British Airways. We have an illustrated guide to help you avoid them.

But most people don’t have time to deal with that, so we recommend Economy Class reward seekers focus on United MileagePlus as a first choice for travel to Europe, with generous  availability at its entry level 60,000 mile level thanks to partners Lufthansa and Air Canada, but with no fuel surcharges to deal with.

Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan also has excellent availability thanks to access to American, British Airways, Delta, and Air France / KLM, with better access to Air France than its SkyTeam partner Delta.

Alaska miles have some caveats though. They are more difficult to earn for the half of consumers who earn more miles on the ground than air, and you can only fly one partner airline each direction of an award (other airlines let you mix partners). But if you’re a frequent American or Delta flyer you may want to consider banking to Alaska to take advantage of its wider partner network for using miles.

Asia. American and United are both strong options to Asia and offer you good value.

While not prominently disclosed when using American’s website to book, AAdvantage members also have access to Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific flights to North and Southeast Asia using AAdvantage miles by calling in, which means the results above would score closer to United. You can also check availability using the British Airways website.

You can also use AAdvantage miles to Central Asia destinations like India via Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways not available on the American Airlines website. US Airways members have the same options.

For members who want to stick to online booking, United and its partners have generous availability to most of Asia. However a major partner, Singapore Airlines, is not available for online booking. You’ll have to call in for those flights.

South America. United MileagePlus is a strong option to popular northern South America destinations like Colombia and Peru, thanks to its partners Avianca and Copa Airlines.

For Southern South America, all of the U.S. carriers are challenging, though we recommend considering American AAdvantage miles due to AAdvantage’s partnership with TAM Airlines to Brazil and LAN to Chile.

LAN and TAM flights are not available online and must be booked over the phone. Delta’s partner Aerolineas Argentinas offers service to the United States that may be an option for members for 60,000 miles roundtrip, but also must be booked over the phone.

Australia. With Australia’s flag carrier part of American’s One World alliance, AAdvantage miles (and until the merger is complete, US Airways Dividend Miles) are the most reliable for Economy Class travel to Australia. Delta is also a strong contender if you are able to get to Los Angeles, where partner Virgin Australia has good availability of reward seats, but Delta’s 100,000 mile entry level price is the highest of the major programs.

 

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 TruBlue. 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).
  • 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. Reward calendars were not relied upon; several hundred thousand route / date pair queries were made.
  • Airfare data represents the average of lowest available airfares on the days in the study for 7 day roundtrips. Southwest fares are not included in third party distribution systems, and are thus not part of the airfare averages.
  • 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.