People have different opinions when it comes to booking award tickets with frequent flyer miles. I, for one, love booking award tickets and enjoy the challenge that comes with doing so. Booking award tickets are like puzzles to me and I love solving them. Other people hate booking award tickets, consider them too much of a hassle, or even go so far as to believing their frequent flyer miles are completely worthless. I’ve decided to put a guide together for those of you who fall in between – people who want to book award tickets themselves but feel like they need some pointers. This guide will assume some basic knowledge, namely, that you know how to log in to your frequent flyer account and check your mileage balance. Other than that, the guide is here to help you through the process – hope you find it useful! Feel free to refer to the index at the bottom of the page for other entries.
In this installment, we will take a look at the three main types of airline specific award miles you might have and get a better understanding of which types of miles are best for what situations. While this is by no means meant to be completely comprehensive, it should serve as a base to help you evaluate what type of miles you should use (or need to get) to find your perfect award redemption. I’ll also include some links to award charts to help you figure out which awards will cost what prices.
Award Mile Type 1: Region Based Award Charts
Examples: United, US Airways/American Airlines, Delta, Air Canada Aeroplan
The first type of award mile is a staple for many of the traditional airlines: the region based award. Region based awards charge a certain mileage price that depends on the location of your origin and destination coupled with the class of service (first, business, coach). Although there are generally rules for how many segments you can use to get to your destination, essentially all that matters is what continent you are traveling from and to (generally).
Since your award price is based solely on region, there are chances to get great or terrible value out of an award. Take travel solely in the United States, which is considered one region by almost all award charts (Hawaii and Alaska excepted). You could fly from Boston to Charlotte round trip for 25,000 United miles – OR you could fly from Boston to San Francisco round trip for the same 25,000 United miles. Obviously people value miles in different ways, but for me, I’d much rather use 25K on a longer trip than a two hour flight that would only cost me $200 (the holidays are an obvious exception).
Every region based award chart has their “sweet spots”, places where travel between two regions is cheaper using one airlines miles than the rest of the pack. For example, US Airways currently charges 90,000 miles round trip in business class to North Asia (ex: Hong Kong). The same trip would currently cost 110,000 miles round trip on American Airlines, 140,000 miles on Delta (120K before June 1st), or a whopping 160,000 miles using United miles on partner airlines! The key to finding a great award is to take advantage of those sweet spots – the key to avoiding a terrible one is to at least stay in the middle of the road. Below I’ve linked the region based charts for Aeroplan (Air Canada), American Airlines, Delta, United, and US Airways. Note that AA and US will likely create a new chart sometime after the merger completes (end of March).
Award Mile Type 2: Distance Based Award Charts
Examples: British Airways Avios, ANA Mileage Club
Distance based award charts are exactly what they sound like – the price in miles is a function of the distance you travel. Going back to the previous example, on a distance based award chart like British Airways, flying from Boston to Charlotte would definitely be cheaper in miles cost than flying to Los Angeles, because Charlotte is so much closer. A distance based award program such as British Airways Avios is excellent for redeeming short haul flights. If you wanted to fly from Boston to JFK that could cost you almost $200 or more on the weekend in economy, but that same seat would only cost you 9000 Avios. Compare this to the 25,000 American Airlines miles you’d have to pay for that same seat and you can understand the value of distance based programs.
I’ve spoken at length elsewhere on the blog, but it should be noted again that Avios are great for economy flights to Hawaii from the west coast (on American Airlines), short haul flights (less than 650 miles each way), or business class flights from Boston to Ireland on Aer Lingus. ANA Mileage Club can offer great value too, like 68,000 miles round trip between much of the east coast and Europe, though you have to watch out for fuel surcharges on many of ANA’s partners. The Avios calculator link can be annoying to use, I recommend using the chart below and gcmap.com to calculate your flight distances.
Award Mile Type 3: Fixed Value Miles
Examples: Jetblue, Southwest
The newer US carries use fixed value miles, which are pretty simple to comprehend. Each mile you earn with these carries is assigned a monetary value – for example, 70 Southwest points count to $1 of a Wanna Get Away fare. Fixed value miles are the most like real currency since they have a specific value and are directly tied to supply and demand (since if a flight costs more money it will cost you more miles). Still, with programs like Southwest’s companion pass or lucrative mileage earning promotions, fixed value miles can still be very useful – they just won’t get you into anything truly aspirational like Lufthansa first class.
Unfortunately, neither Jetblue nor Southwest seem to advertise their point values on their websites. Still, it boils down to this more or less:
Southwest Wanna Get Away Fares before 3/1/2014: 60 points per $1 (1.67 cents per point)
Southwest Wanna Get Away Fares after 3/1/2014: 70 points per $1 (1.43 cents per point)
Southwest Anytime Fares: 100 points per $1 (1.00 cents per point)
Jetblue True Blue Award Tickets: around 75 points per $1 at best (~1.33 cents per point), around 105 points per $1 at worst (~ 0.95 cents per point). Note these values are approximate
It’s important to know the award types and where to find award charts so you can make sure you are getting the best value out of your points. This also is a reminder that it is good to have a divers points portfolio – Avios may be great for one redemption, whereas US Airways miles might be better for another. Remember inPart I I said airlines are trying to cut their losses by offering you their empty seats – don’t make it easy on them by wasting more miles than you have to! Next time, we’ll talk about how a deep knowledge of airline alliances and partners is essential to success for booking award tickets.