I am going to cut right to it, award availability is out of control. I have never seen the airlines jack-up award costs across so many months with such frequency.
If you are just getting in the points-game some of these terms may sound foreign. In limited words, airlines adjust the amount of points needed for said flight. These point tiers are called ‘award levels’.
An airline is supposed to release ‘low-level’ awards on the majority of days. These low-level awards are usually spotted on Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and Saturday’s. On non-peak weekends, airlines used to release low-level awards here and there.
The standard low-level award rate for the big-three is 12,500 miles for a one-way within the lower 48. Additionally, each airline has their own short-haul one-way rates, if you can find availability…
Short haul one-way rates:
Delta — as low as 5,000 miles (short-haul rates vary)
United — 10,000 miles (under 700 miles from A to B, regardless of total flight distance)
American — 7,500 miles (under 500 flight miles)
Where did they go?
I ran some sample award itineraries for the summer months. I checked across the big three airlines and from a few major hubs. Keep in mind, I am only checking for one passenger, if you are looking to travel as a couple, award availability becomes even more scarce.
SFO to MIA
LAX to NYC
SFO to NYC
LAS to BOS
American Airlines (remember, low level awards are 12.5k):
As you can sadly see, I could only find ONE day between June and July at the sAAver “low-level”. This is absolutely disgraceful, American.
If you earn American miles by flying, it will take a long time to earn a free one-way. You only earn 5x points per dollar spent on the base fare of your ticket. You would have to spend roughly $4,500 in American Airlines tickets to earn 20,000 award miles. Is that what you call a loyalty program?
Spend $4,500 to earn a free one-way ticket worth roughly $175? Embarrassing.
If you spent that same $4,500, prior to the revenue earning switch, on ten round trips from LAX to JFK, you would have earned nearly 50,000 American award miles. Now, that same $4,500 spent earns you roughly 20,000 miles.
Days shown with the blue-bar are low-level saver awards. United has a bit more low-level availability, still not great. If you look at the San Francisco to Miami route, there are just TWO days in economy for all of June and July. That is rather pathetic if you ask me.
San Francisco is a United hub, that means a lot of business passengers fly United, earning miles, and thus want to spend them on free airfare. The two low-level days are from SFO to MIA and within 21 days, that means you’ll have to pay the close-in fee of $75.
If you want to fly in “saver” business/first class, the blue dots, there are just FIVE Days between June and July. So out of a combined 244 days, United gives saver business availability on 5 of them.
Delta is not doing much better. Out of the total 90~ days displayed, Delta released just FOUR low-level dates. What rubbish.
The one saving-grace is that Delta’s “tier 2” awards are only 17,500. Compare that to United’s 25,000 and American’s 20,000 miles for tier 2 economy one-way flights.
The other “benefit” you get with Delta is no close-in booking fee. With American and United, you’ll pay $75 if you book an award flight with 21 days of departure. Why do they do that?
Delta also has the most generous baggage policy on their “basic economy” fares. You are still allowed two pieces on-board with Delta Basic Econ.
With United and American’s basic economy, it is limited to a backpack or purse (IE; you are likely paying to check a bag, or hopefully you have a credit card checked bag waiver)
Southwest (NYC replaced with Newark and Miami replaced with Fort Lauderdale):
Southwest, like JetBlue and Virgin America, uses a fixed value for their Rapid Reward points. Each Rapid Reward point is worth roughly 1.4-1.8 cents a piece. That means a $100 flight will require roughly 5,700 points.
I counted, and there are only 20~ days, of the 120~ total days displayed, in which Southwest requires over 20,000 points for a one-way. Better yet, there are over 20 days in which Southwest offers flights for under 15,000 points one-way. Compare that to American’s ONE day under 20,000 points.
Southwest also earns you more points per dollar spent on airfare. Wanna-get-away fares earn 6x points per dollar spent on the base fare. So not only do you earn slightly more per dollar spent, the availability for one-way flights under 15,000 points is FAR better.
In addition, Southwest has no booking fees, no cancellation fees, no checked bag fees, and no change fees.
What are you to do?
This is really depressing if you think about it for too long. Airlines are making it very expensive to travel coast-to-coast using award points. (or most places for that matter).
Don’t be afraid to find a cheap cash fare. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is NOT blow your points. If you spend 20,000 American points on a flight that costs $200, you are only getting one cent per point. That is pretty low, you should aim for at least 1.5 cents per point.
You can use 20,000 American points to fly one-way from Europe to the Middle East/India in economy. A one-way on the partner Qatar Airways from Dublin, Ireland to Male, Maldives would only require 20,000 American award miles. That is over 5,000 flight miles, more than double the distance of Los Angeles to New York. The cash price from Dublin to The Maldives is over $400 one-way, that is over 2 cents per point by redeeming 20k American miles!
Things to help save money or find additional award availability:
— Consider driving to another airport (If you live in New York, there may be low-level availability from Philly)
— Find a cheap positioning flight. If you can’t find award space from Los Angeles, try catching a $40 flight to Las Vegas then use your points from there)
— Remain flexible, having rigid dates and a rigid destination will certainly kill your chance of finding low-level award space this summer
— Consider the Barclay Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture card which can be used to erase travel purchases. (plus they earn 2x points per dollar spent)