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The miles you should earn based on where you want to fly

by on Wed March 12, 2014 • 2 Comments

What miles to earn

With all of the talk of rising mile prices and changes to frequent flyer programs it can be easy to think it’s impossible to get a reward flight. The reality is that’s not true, if you’re using the right mile program for the job.

Not all miles are created equal, and where you want to go is the most important thing to consider when deciding what miles you should earn with your card spending.

Below are our recommendations for basic Economy Class travel based on studying the changes and experience redeeming millions of miles. The good news is most of the recent changes make it harder to fly in first class with award miles, but most of us aren’t doing that anytime soon.

They’ll help you:

  • Avoid the frustration of thinking you’ll pay one price, only to be stuck paying a higher one
  • Stay away from hidden fuel charges that can be $500 or more on an award ticket
  • Get almost free travel most quickly just from your credit card spending

U.S. Lower 48

Expect to pay: 20,000 – 30,000 points to save $300 cash

Cash rewards. Airfare is usually only about $300 in the U.S. and this is where cash rewards tend to shine. The Barclaycard Arrival and Bank of America Travel Rewards cards are good choices, earning 2x and 1.5x points each and letting you book any airline ticket you’d like and get statement credit for it. There’s no fee for the Bank of America card. You can use our CardFinder tool to see more based on your monthly spending.

Southwest. Southwest’s program is generous for short trips. You’ll often pay less than 20,000 points for a roundtrip award flight, versus 25,000, 40,000, or more miles with American, Delta, and United. Every seat is available as a reward seat on Southwest and there are no change fees to deal with. Here are cards that earn Southwest points.

Traditional airline mile programs like those from United, Delta, and American advertise 25,000 mile awards, and they do exist, but you often have to take unwanted connections to get that price. For the most convenient flights you should expect to pay 35,000 miles or more. That’s not a great deal.


Expect to pay: 45,000 – 70,000 points to save $700 cash

Cash Rewards. Go this route if you insist on traveling during June, July, or the holidays, the most popular times for families to go to Hawaii. A double miles card like the Barclaycard Arrival will save you money without hassle.

United. They have the most seats to Hawaii, and if you’re planning to go sometime besides the crowded summer and holiday months, they give you a decent shot of an award for 45,000 miles roundtrip. Here are cards that earn United miles.

British Airways. It’s not intuitive, but British Airways points offer the ability to get to Hawaii for almost half the price as with other programs.

With British Airways points via partners Alaska Airlines and American flights from the West Coast are just 25,000 points roundtrip. The catch is these prices are for nonstop flights, so they are really most useful if you live in a city where Alaska or American flies nonstop to Hawaii.

You can earn British Airways points via Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards.


Expect to pay: 60,000 – 90,000 miles to save $1,100 cash

United. Thanks to its partners Lufthansa, Swiss, and more you’ll have the most options to Europe for 60,000 miles using United. You can see cards that earn United miles here, and you can apply for more than one to get more bonus miles

American. If you’re planning travel from October 15 through May 15, you can get there for 40,000 miles with American. The catch is flights on its partner British Airways have a $700 surcharge, so you’ll want to watch out for those. You can see cards that earn American miles here.

Mexico / Caribbean

Expect to pay: 35,000 – 55,000 miles to save $500 cash

Cash rewards. They can be useful here because the value isn’t great for traditional airline miles here. Tickets are cheap anyway and you’re well served with a cash rewards card. But if you must American has the most flights, so consider earning their miles.

Or, if you live in a city with a lot of American flights consider earning British Airways points, which let you fly on nonstop American flights for less than using American’s own miles.


Expect to pay: 50,000 – 80,000 miles to save $1,500 cash

United. You’ll have lots of options with United thanks to its partners ANA, Asiana, Air China, EVA Airways and more.

American. You won’t find many award seats listed on American’s website because it hides its big Asian partners Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. But they have good availability for 50,000 miles roundtrip to much of Asia from October through April if you call in to book. This can save you thousands on airfare.

Latin America

Expect to pay: 40,000 – 60,000 miles to save $800 cash

United. Their partners Avianca and Copa have lots of award seats to Central America, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. They’ll even get you to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, but you’ll need to connect in Panama or Colombia.

American. If you’re trying to get to Argentina, Brazil, or Chile they have the most options, but make sure to call in to book their partner LAN airlines, or use the British Airways website to check availability, as American’s website doesn’t list it.


Expect to pay: 75,000 miles to save $2,000 cash

American. For 75,000 miles roundtrip you can fly with their partner Qantas, and they tend to have seats available about half the time during the year, though the peak winter holiday times are toughest.

Can’t decide?

If you can’t decide where you want to travel our recommendation is to start with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and earn Ultimate Rewards points.

Its points can transfer to both United and Southwest so you get the best of both worlds for domestic and international travel at good prices.

Then, apply for either a United or Southwest credit card to bulk up on more points from their intro offers, depending on whether your next trip is domestic or international.


The following two tabs change content below.

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 the first year, then $95

Annual Fee


Foreign Transaction Fee Waived

Yes - transfer to United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Marriott Rewards, and more

Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?

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2 thoughts on The miles you should earn based on where you want to fly

  1. Rick

    We are aware that all points aren’t equal After researching many of the card options we settled on the BARCLAYCARD ARRIVAL (the double miles per dollar was the main incentative). Most likely we will use the miles for European/Hawaiian destinations. However we are curious as to what airlines are best to use with these miles and the advantages/disadvantages you see for this card.
    Thanks for you insights.


      @Rick – Good choice for easy, no hassle redemption. With this card, any airline redemption is equal, because every point is worth about one cent each. So 20,000 points gets you $200 off airfare or any travel purchase, no matter what airline or hotel you choose.

      The disadvantage of this card is that really expensive tickets can sometimes be had for less points using traditional airline miles. For example, a $1,500 ticket to Europe can often be had for 60,000 traditional airline miles. But that would require 150,000 Barclaycard Arrival miles to cover the whole thing.

      But if you’re not interested in keeping tabs on regular airline mile programs, it’s a pretty safe bet. You’ll always find some use for the points you earn at a straight value. And you don’t need enough points to cover the entire cost of a ticket. Just use as few as 2,000 points a time to erase the cost of travel you buy.


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