Quantcast
≡ Menu

Making Lemonade: A Guide to ‘Standard’ Awards




While we’d all like to think we can redeem our miles only for Saver Level seats on the best airlines out there with stopovers galore while getting approximately 29 cents per mile point in value, this thing called ‘real life’ often gets in the way. If you’re like us, you’re working around multiple school and work schedules (hello, holiday travel), flying to places you want to visit (never mind aspirational ‘products’), and flying from a secondary airport in the middle of the country (positioning, anyone?). That’s three strikes. We’re out!

So sometimes we have to suck it up and book Standard (United), AAnytime (AA) or Level two or higher (Delta) awards. Not much tends to be written about these since they don’t represent the best value on paper. However, in researching trips for us and others, I see that they are sometimes the best way to actually accomplish that trip we want to take our family on.

I know that some people, seeing the very low fares often found on sites like The Flight Deal or local sites like ours for Central Texas, say that miles are quickly becoming a waste of time. Just get a 2% card, book good deals and go! However, if you don’t live in a city with significant competition from foreign carriers, or a hub city likely to see attack fares from the non-hub airlines, you likely find yourself left out of that party. We certainly do.

Real-life examples

Nearly two years ago, we promised to take our kids to Roatan. We’re finally making good on that promise during March, spending half of their school’s Spring Break week on west Bay beach. Why only half? Because the busiest time of the year for Bonnie ends midway through that week with the March 15 business tax filing deadline. Real life getting in the way, and all of that. So, since we want to spend as much time in Roatan as we can, we had little date flexibility booking the trip. We needed a Wednesday departure and a Sunday return. Fortunately, AA offered SAT-MIA-RTB on Wednesday and UA offered RTB-IAH-SAT on Sunday. No other carrier serves Roatan on those days, as most people seem to do Saturday-Saturday trips. Must be nice!

It's not that far. Map courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

It’s not that far. Map courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

AA had Saver level seats available on this routing last year, allowing us to book for 15K AA miles per person. We could have also booked for 15K British Airways Avios or 17.5K Alaska miles, but we opted for AA miles since we had more of those, and the 10% rebate for holding an AA credit card made that the best deal. After the rebate, our cost was 54K AA miles total for the four of us, one way. Since then, AA cancelled their SAT-MIA Wednesday flight, giving us a two-stop itinerary, and then brought it back. Both of the schedule changes gave us the opportunity to change flights if we had wanted to, but we’re happy to be back where we started.

The return was not so nice. A paid ticket on the one, only flight that worked was like $850. And this is what I saw in an initial search at United.com:

70,000 miles for 3 hours of flying?

70,000 miles for 4 hours of flying?

 

The same search after logging in. Only with United status or a United credit card could I access these Standard level coach seats.

The same search after logging in. Only with United status or a United credit card could I access these Standard level coach seats.

This was still far from ideal, but the best option. So we booked it. As you can see, both segments are ‘YN’ class, only available to UA credit card or status holders:

YN. You can't book that with only Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink cards.

YN. You can’t book that with only Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink cards!

Sometimes you have choices

In the previous case, it was United’s way or no way at all. But it won’t always be so simple. Let’s look at a trip I’m working on now. If we could, we’d go to South Africa. But the schedule is brutal, and it manages to break all of AA’s routing rules.

Depending on how AA prices this, it's 112.5K or 115K AA miles per person.

Depending on how AA prices this, it’s 112.5K or 115K AA miles per person.

I’d consider it for a two-week trip, but for a 9-day trip that gives us only 5 full days in South Africa, it’s just not worth it. So I think we’ll drop the Qatar flights, spend a few days in London and fly to the opposite corner of Africa for 10K Avios and $27 per person. No problem until we start to work on the return. Once again, we are stuck with inflexible dates. But this time, we do have choices. We can fly from Marrakech to Madrid on Iberia for $122, a better deal than 7,500 Avios and $50. And there aren’t enough seats using Avios anyways. We could also fly low-cost carriers to a variety of other European cities. But the only Saver level seats I can find are in coach on an Iberia MAD-MIA flight. Off-peak AA awards, a great value, let’s do it! Surcharges aren’t BA-level crazy on IB,  but at nearly $100 each they do add up. Total Taxes and fees for this are ~$150 per person.

MAD-MIAI can’t get home from MIA at any Saver level. So, let’s see about an AAnytime return. AA flies MIA-SAT nonstop.

The timing is good. The price, though?!

The timing is ok. The price, though?!

Now it gets fun. Let’s compare that domestic AAnytime award at 75K to an AAnytime award home from Spain.

That's right. It requires fewer miles to ADD a flight from Spain to Miami!

That’s right. It requires fewer miles to ADD a flight from Spain to Miami! Taxes are ~$50.

The cash price for that MIA-SAT flight is under $400, so I can book it with 20K US Bank Flexperks points (but I only have enough for two tickets), or around 23K Citi ThankYou points from my account with a Citi Prestige card. I don’t expect that price to fall. So, to get home from Marrakech on the Sunday after Thanksgiving on oneworld airlines, I can spend:

20,000 AA miles, $272 and 22,000 TY/FP points per person, to fly in Iberia and AA Economy class on 3 separate tickets.

OR

65,000 AA miles and $172 per person, to fly in Iberia Economy and AA Main Cabin Extra on two tickets.

I haven’t decided yet. If you live in a world where you can always maximize the value of every point, and the additional $400 total doesn’t matter to you, the first one is the obvious choice. None of those conditions apply to us, and I’m 6’3″ so the extra leg room on AA is of some value to me.

Fare classes and seats

This may be kind of a big deal, and it’s frequently overlooked:

  • AA’s AAnytime awards book into the ‘Y’ fare class, which is full-fare economy. All AAnytime awards allow you to select Main Cabin Extra seats at the time of booking, as long as MCE seats are available. Regardless of your status, credit cards or lack thereof.
  • Delta’s level 2 through 5 awards book into NL, ND, NS, and NK, none of which allow for any preferred seating unless you have Delta or partner status.
  • United Standard awards also book into ‘Y’ wherever available and allow you to select Economy Plus seating at the time of booking. However, if only ‘YN’ seats are available like our Roatan example above, you don’t get United Economy Plus seating.

Pricing

Fortunately, pricing is usually easy to see in a simple search at AA.com or United.com. Delta, not so much.

  • AA has 3 AAnytime levels, but their name ‘AAnytime’ is misleading. On spring 2015 trip to Belize, I booked the return at 27,500 AA miles on an AAnytime award. I was able to switch to a UA saver award after a schedule change, but I watched that BZE-DFW-SAT price change from 27.5K to 65(!)K. That change did not coincide with any devaluation, it’s just a simple fact of AAnytime award prices. They are not fixed! I fully expect the November 27 Europe-U.S. 65K AAnytime awards shown above to increase in price, so I won’t wait around for Saver level seats. One way or another, we’ll decide which direction we want to go and pull the trigger.
  • Delta’s N* levels are limited , and as flights fill up prices may increase. If you see seats to Alaska at level 2 (17.5K each way), book them!
  • United still has their old ‘double miles’ system with consistent Standard award pricing on all dates. This winds up offering the best prices of the three on most peak dates and many holiday weekends. It also might tempt you to hold out for Saver level seats. If the trip is important, I would be very hesitant to do this for two reasons: the flight may sell out (ours coming home from Roatan has), and UA may change to variable pricing leaving you with no ticket and no ability to get one. That’s precisely what AA did back in April 2014. Anyone holding out for holiday travel, planning to book AAnytime awards 21 days in advance  if SAAver level seats didn’t open up, saw their award prices triple or more with no warning whatsoever.

Sweet spots

Usually, we reserve the term ‘sweet spot‘ for excellent value awards, not Standard level type stuff. But I’ve been to quite a few spots that are very sweet indeed, and paying extra miles is totally worthwhile if that’s what it takes to get your family there.

Alaska may be difficult to using miles get to in the summertime, unless you look at Level 2 Delta awards.

Alaska may be difficult to using miles get to in the summertime, unless you look at Level 2 Delta awards.

 

  • Europe with AA AAnytime awards on dates that price at 45K. If you can’t get business class seats for 50K or so on any airline, you may find the only Saver option (if any) is a bad routing with additional taxes, surcharges and stops. Would you rather pay 30K United miles and $96 to fly Lufthansa and United economy class VCE-FRA-ORD-DSM over 30 hours, or 45K AA miles and $52 to fly AA with extra legroom VCE-PHL-DFW-DSM over 18 hours? These are the kind of choices that those of us in flyover country frequently face!
  • Alaska with Delta level 2 or 3 awards, at 17.5K or 20K miles each way. These are frequently the best award prices available, anywhere, for Alaska summer travel unless you live in the Northwest.
  • United on many domestic routes, on dates such as the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Every domestic flight is going to be full, prices are going to be stupid high and the double miles Standard award just might be the least bad option. I’d rather just stay out another day or two, but there are only so many school days we can keep our kids out!

Have you ever found a decent sweet (or not-so-sour) Standard/AAnytime/Level 2+ award that made an amazing trip possible? I’d love to add more that may be worthy of consideration!

– Kenny

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • bluecat January 30, 2016, 3:43 pm

    Kenny, I have only read the first paragraph so far and I’m already yelling “Hell yes! THIS GUY KNOWS me!”. The problem of getting the flights to where, from where, and when you need them are the big ones. ….. Okay, gonna enjoy this read now… 🙂

    • bluecat January 30, 2016, 4:11 pm

      Good job, Kenny. You captured a lot of the tradeoffs that many of us have to make when booking tickets. I especially like how you come up with alternate solutions that I sometimes forget about (like using AS to book Delta).

      Something I’ve never seen written up before is the actual step-by-step logic to use when booking flights. For example, should I pay cash or use points? Should I consider a positioning flight to a gateway? Should I consider the cost of moving up a day or extending a day? If cash, should I use my TY points or other “cash-like” equivalent? If points, should I try the account that I have the most points in? Should I try for the shortest time of flights? Etc., etc.,

      If you are trying to book a trip for your family and you have some real life considerations (unlike some bloggers who just book for themselves and can travel any day of the week), the process is not at all simple. For me, it involves a whole bunch of pieces of paper that slowly become filled wiht all sorts of chicken scratch as I explore the various options. I look at it as “fun” and it’s not that bad, actually.

      One thing that’s helped me do all this is to focus on the place I’m going to and the time to travel there, and to NOT focus on the value I’m getting from the points. Of course, the “points value” I’m getting is still there in the back of my mind, but it’s not #1 for me.

  • Laura February 3, 2016, 7:40 pm

    Excellent post. Finally! I’ve been doing this for over 2 years. I usually travel with my husband and my (now) 3 yr old toddler daughter, so we have needs that simply aren’t a consideration for many of the bloggers I follow. Faced with a 27-hr flight to my destination, entailing 3 connections, but at the coveted Saver level OR a 15.5 hr flight with 1 connection at the Standard/AAnytime level, you can bet I’ll book the Standard award, even though it kills me. But I can’t subject my toddler (or passengers around her. Or me) to a grueling 27-hr flight. For what? To then be a walking zombie for two days following our arrival at our destination? No thanks. I also have seen the dynamic pricing of AAnytime awards and it’s a crap move.

  • Brian April 4, 2016, 12:31 am

    Are rules for schedule changes similar across different airlines? I recently tried to improve an Alaska routing booked with Avios and was told I could only switch to another flight with award space.

    • Kenny April 4, 2016, 9:04 am

      Generally you can only book Standard Awards using the miles of the airline you’re flying, and only saver awards are available to partners. If the award you want on Alaska shows up as available on aa.com, it should be available with avios.

      • Brian April 5, 2016, 10:42 pm

        Right, but what benefit does the schedule change trick provide? My takeaway from the linked article was that a multi-connection routing was booked in hopes that a schedule change would open up an opportunity for a more direct routing. Was he only able to do that because he got lucky and enough saver space opened?

        • Kenny April 6, 2016, 12:08 am

          Sorry, I missed the context. Airlines can, and most do, open space on their own flights if there is a significant schedule change. Like when we had an Air Canada return from Israel that had been booked with UA miles and AC changed their schedule, UA put us on all UA flights on the schedule we wanted, even though there was no saver space on those flights.

          They can’t, however, readily open space on partner airlines.

Leave a Comment