Tim Winship, editor-at-large for SmarterTravel.com and author of Mileage Pro—The Insider’s Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs.
How far can a mile take you? That depends on how you redeem it. Frequent-flier programs have been modifying their rules in recent years, and most of the modifications have worked against travelers. Miles have become more difficult to earn and less valuable when redeemed.
Example: The Delta SkyMiles frequent-flier program no longer has set prices for awards tickets at all. To find out how many miles a ticket will cost, program members must enter their itineraries into Delta’s online-booking tool. Often they discover that a round-trip domestic ticket costs 45,000 miles or more, well above the traditional 25,000-mile rate.
But you can do better if you know some tricks. Here’s how to get the most from your miles with various airlines…
American is implementing some major changes to its program starting March 22. Most of these will devalue American miles, but hidden in this bad news are a small number of opportunities. Consider redeeming American miles for…
Domestic flights of 500 miles or less. American will charge just 7,500 miles each way for economy-class awards tickets on these short hops, well below the standard domestic rate of 12,500 miles. Redeeming miles for short hops makes particular sense when the cash price charged for the quick flight is steep. Some short hops are surprisingly expensive when paying with money rather than miles, particularly when a single airline dominates the route with little competition.
Examples: Flights between Atlanta and Charlotte…Austin and Houston…and Chicago and either Indianapolis or Cincinnati all typically have fares that translate to more than one dollar per mile, more than four times the typical per-mile airfare in the US.
Flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Starting in March, American will charge a relatively modest 15,000 miles each way for economy-class tickets to these destinations, a reduction from the 17,500 miles currently charged. The price drops to 12,500 miles each way if you travel during the off-peak season. (Off-peak season is September 7 through November 14 for Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, plus January 16 through June 14 for Central America.) That’s an international trip for the same number of miles you would spend for the typical domestic awards ticket.
Sign up for the Citi AAdvantage credit card to gain access to reduced rates. Airline-branded credit cards are best known for providing an additional way to earn miles. Example: Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard gives two miles per dollar spent with American Airlines, one mile per dollar on other purchases, plus 50,000 bonus miles for making $3,000 in purchases in the first three months with the card. (The $95 annual fee is waived in the first year.) Less well-known is that Citi’s AAdvantage cards also provide attractive opportunities for redeeming miles. Card holders qualify for discounts of 5,000 to 7,500 miles when they redeem miles for round-trip economy or first-class tickets to certain US and Canadian destinations. This list of destinations changes monthly and tends to be fairly extensive—more than 130 destinations were available in February, for example, everywhere from Vancouver to Key West. Enter “Reduced Mileage Awards” into the search box at AA.com for details.
As noted above, Delta no longer publishes an awards price schedule for its SkyMiles program, and many tickets turn out to cost a shockingly high number of miles. Still, some relative bargains occasionally appear…
Fly midweek. Delta sets awards ticket rates based on demand for flights—and demand for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday flights tends to be lower than demand for Friday through Monday flights, particularly with popular tourist destinations.
Example: Delta’s round-trip awards tickets from Boston to Miami tend to cost 45,000 miles on weekends…but 25,000 miles on Wednesdays.
Fly to Alaska. Flights to and from Alaska sometimes are priced at 12,500 miles each way on Delta, the rate normally charged for flights within the continental US. Compare that to United, for example, which imposes an “Alaska Add-on” of 5,000 to 10,000 miles each way above the normal domestic rate. (Not all Delta flights to Alaska will be a good deal, however—here, too, the mileage required for an awards ticket will vary with the demand for the flight.)
Search for appealing awards rates on short-hop flights. Certain short-distance economy-class awards tickets are available for just 5,000 miles each way on Delta. Enter your itinerary into Delta’s booking tool before taking a short hop to see if this rate is available.
Examples: The 5,000-mile rate has recently been offered on certain flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco…Seattle and Portland, Oregon…and Cincinnati and Memphis.
There are two ways to maximize the value of your miles with the third of the big-three US carriers…
Watch for route specials. Most frequent-flier programs occasionally offer special deals on specific routes if the airline is having trouble filling seats. But United’s MileagePlus program does this much more than most. Read the e-mails sent to you by the MileagePlus program to find these opportunities, which might be priced 5,000 miles or more below the standard rate for a round-trip domestic flight.
Use miles for flights of less than 700 miles. Flights less than 700 miles each way are priced at 10,000 miles each way on United, less than the standard 12,500-mile rate. That’s not as low as American’s rate on short hops, mentioned above—but while American’s short-hop rate applies only to flights of less than 500 miles, United’s applies to flights up to 700 miles. That means United’s program stands out for flights of between 501 and 700 miles in particular.
Examples: Flights between Boston and Detroit…Chicago and DC…and Pittsburgh and St. Louis all are too long to qualify for American’s short-hop rate, but they fall within United’s 700-mile limit.
With the Southwest Airlines, Virgin America and JetBlue frequent-flier programs, there are no predetermined awards ticket rates or rate tiers. The number of miles required to obtain an awards ticket is determined by the cash price of that ticket. That means the only way to find a great deal on an awards ticket is to find a great cash price for a ticket and redeem your miles for that. Watch for special fares by signing up for e-mail updates or by checking the airline websites.