Many points and miles blogs focus on the aspirational experience of flying in business or first on top notch carriers. This is a fantastic use of miles, but those trips aren’t for everyone. For the average traveling family, earning the number of miles required for 4, or 5, or *gasp* 8 business class tickets is a virtually insurmountable challenge. Maybe you’re fortunate to be in a unique situation where you can leverage business spending to earn enough for family trips in lie-flat seats with champagne. But that is not everyone’s ability.
For the average John Doe family, they’re just looking to travel, and economy will do just fine. But are miles the way to go?
Flexible points typically yield a better return than miles
I will always argue that flexible bank points are the most lucrative for most people in the award travel hobby. The main currencies (Chase UR, Amex MR, Citi TYP) offer a value of greater than one cent per point when you book through the respective bank’s travel portal. Waiting for fare sales and booking through a travel portal will typically provide better value than transferring to miles (SEE: The folly and fallacy of using miles for economy tickets). For instance, a $450 ticket to Europe can be purchased for 30,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards, which is half the required number of miles for an equivalent ticket, had you transferred your UR to United.
However, there are instances where using miles for economy tickets is still the more attractive option. This is typically when you are traveling to a destination that either (a) is always expensive to fly into, or (b) can be reached with a very low number of miles. These 10 economy award sweet spots offer a mix of both:
The Arctic: Aeroplan’s secret sweet spot
Aeroplan has some unique arctic airline partners not shared by any other airline: First Air, Calm Air, Canadian North, Bearskin Airlines and Air Creebec. These serve various regions of the remote northern reaches of Canada, places where flights are often outrageously expensive.
For example, if you want to fly from Ottawa to Iqaluit, Nunavut, you’ll have to shell out $1,000 or more. Interested in visiting Resolute? The current sticker price is $5,500. Planning a visit to the Arctic won’t come cheap.
Except it can with miles. Contrast these outrageous prices with 15,000 miles plus taxes for the Ottawa-Iqaluit round-trip. The route qualifies for Air Canada’s intra-region short-haul awards, thus the reduction from a standard 25,000-mile price. Even the standard price is a bargain.
You can mix any one of the Canadian partners with Air Canada flights for an award ticket. You will have to call in to book these awards, though, as Aeroplan does not show availability for any of these airlines. The one time I called in to check prices and surcharges, the agent quoted me 15,000 miles and about $30 for a flight from Winnipeg to Churchill on calm air. If you’re interested in seeing polar bears, this is a sreamin’ deal. Just don’t expect your lodging or excursions to come cheap.
Alaska using…you guessed it: Alaska miles
It makes sense the Alaska airlines would have both good coverage and decent award prices for flights within their namesake state. What doesn’t make sense is that the airline is headquartered in Seattle. But that is something to ponder for another day.
The issue at hand is that Alaska Mileage Plan is the program of choice if you’re interested in visiting rural Alaska. Given that Alaska miles are amazing and offer a stopover on a one-way award, you can really stretch your miles to see a lot of America’s Last Frontier. Take the following itinerary for instance:
You can fly from the U.S. West Coast and visit both Anchorage and Fairbanks for 10,000 miles. This cash one-way ticket costs $220, so you’re getting ~2.1 cents per mile. Not business class, but it’s better than other options.
I’m not sure what is up with the pricing at the moment, but something seems off. I used to be able to price out better one-way tickets to rural Alaskan destinations for 12,500 miles with either a stop in Anchorage or Fairbanks, but everything seems to price at 20,000 miles one-way. For destinations like Dutch Harbor or Barrow, this can still make sense. But it’s not the golden deal it was. I don’t think the award prices have technically changed; it seems more likely the way the computer calculates the award “buckets”, and it prices most flights to rural Alaska at a higher price. There are unfortunately hardly any flights available at the cheapest end of the award range.
Oddly, the one flight I could find from Dutch Harbor to Medford, Oregon for 12,500 miles included a segment on American Airlines:
Alternatively, you can book a cash ticket to Anchorage, and then use Alaska miles to hop around once you’re there. Many intra-Alaska flights are available for 5,000 or 7,500 miles one-way.
Intra-Japan using United miles
One of the best deals in terms of absolute number of miles for a flight is the intra-Japan pricing with United. United MileagePlus offers awards for 5,000 miles one-way anywhere within Japan on ANA.
If you are traveling between the major airports of Japan, you may find that cash is still the way to go, even at this amazing award price. Flights are just that cheap on budget airlines. However, if you are traveling between two smaller airports, United miles are the way to go. Here is an award between Sapporo-Chitose and Hiroshima:
Cash fare? Typically $150 one-way. Easy 3 cents per mile here. If you are planning a multi-city itinerary in Japan, United miles are the way to go. Also notice the complete lack of taxes or fees. This is truly a 100% free flight with miles.
American Airlines reduced mileage awards
If you don’t know about these awards, let me tell you that you are missing out. You need to be talking about them. They are one of the best deals in domestic economy travel, especially if you fly from a typically expensive regional airport.
For example, say you want to fly from Eugene, Oregon to Burlington, Vermont in September to see the fall foliage. Cash airfare will run you an easy $600. At 25,000 miles round-trip, using miles for a typical saver award with any of U.S. “Big 3” Airlines is already looking like an attractive option. But what if I told you that you could get this award for a mere 17,500 AAdvantage miles round-trip? This is the beauty of the American Airlines reduced mileage awards.
All you need to have access to these awards is a co-branded American Airlines credit card. Then head to the reduced mileage awards web page to see the cities currently eligible for the reduced mileage pricing each month. You then call American Airlines reservations, ask to book a reduced mileage award, provide the code associated with your card, and you’ve saved yourself anywhere from 1,000 mile to 7,500 miles per round-trip.
Intra-Australia with British Airways Avios
There are some rural destinations in Australia that make for great Avios awards, including Alice Springs and Darwin. Adelaide to Alice Springs will run you 7,500 Avios one-way, while other major Australian cities will cost you 10,000 Avios. You can anticipate getting ~2 cents per point on a redemption.
Other interesting hops include Perth to Broome and Darwin to Uluru, both for 7,500 Avios. You could also consider a splurge on the 4-hour hop between Melbourne and Perth and book business for 20,000 Avios. Oh, wait. I’m writing a post about economy awards. Back to business. I mean…economy.
For hops between the more populous cities, cash fares are quite competitive. I wouldn’t waste any miles on these tickets. You can fly between Melbourne and Sydney for $45 with TigerAir. Jetstar is another great budget choice within Australia. Just know you’re booking low-cost carriers with both size and weight restrictions on cabin bags and enormous fees for anything outside their policies.
Select intra-region short-hauls with United miles
When United killed nearly all of their wonderful routing rules, they rolled out a couple other things, including the terribly-named Excursionist Perk and reduced pricing on intra-region, short-haul flights. Any flight that meets the following criteria qualifies for the short-haul pricing of 8,000 United miles:
- The flight is outside the U.S. and Canada
- The flight is within a single award zone
- The flight is nonstop
- The flight distance is under 800 miles.
This may seem pretty limiting, but there are some instances where it makes a lot of sense to book. I’ve definitely tried some weird ones. Addis Ababa to Gondar, Ethiopia, for example. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get any awards to show. One that does work is Taipei to Shanghai. I don’t understand why this flight of ~400 miles is so expensive, but it is. So definitely put your United miles to use here.
Some other options you may want to look into include some short intra-Africa flights on South African Airways and Ethiopian, select flights on Avianca and Copa within Central and South America, and otherwise expensive nonstop flights within China or East Asia on various Star Alliance partners. Most intra-Europe options will not be worth using the miles, especially considering the high taxes you’ll often still pay.
Southern South America with Delta miles
Delta miles get a bad rap these days given the airline’s tendency to increase award prices without any real notice. Delta threw out their award chart a couple years ago, and it has been a bit difficult to put a real value on their miles since then. But if you know where to look, you can still find some value.
Flights within Southern South America are one of those places. Granted, you will be flying Aerolineas Argentinas, which I hear can be a nightmare. It’s hard for me to believe that they can be worse than United, but maybe that is possible.
In any case, I digress. Say you’re planning a trip to Argentina, Uruguay, or Brazil and decide that you just need to make it down to Tierra del Fuego. Delta miles are here for you. You can book an award from Rio de Janeiro to Ushuaia for a mere 12,500 Delta miles and $29 one-way. And availability is very good. I’ve found whole months showing availability for multiple people.
Central America / Caribbean / Northern South America with United miles
Drew Macomber of Travel is Free wrote an awesome post about the Latin America Hopper. Even though the post is dated, some of the info is still relevant. With two Star Alliance member airlines, Copa and Avianca, covering Central America and northern South America, you have some good options getting around this region. And award flights are generally good value.
Flying within Central America will set you back a mere 10,000 miles one-way in economy. Again, if you’re flying nonstop and less than 800 miles, you’ll only pay 8,000 miles. But for more realistic itineraries, you’ll not pay much more.
Likewise, flying from the Caribbean to the Caribbean costs only 10,000 United miles one way. This seems great until you realize that there really aren’t many (any?) flights wholly within the Caribbean zone operated by Star Alliance airlines. Interestingly, if you route via Central America, you still pay the 10,000 mile price.
Flying between Central America, the Caribbean, or Northern South America (and zone-to-zone combo) will still only set you back 12,500 miles. Consider that you can fly from Roatán to the Galapagos for a mere 12,500 miles and about $65. The same cash ticket would cost over $500!
One drawback is that many Central American countries have high taxes that eat into your savings. Yet, if you’re flying an otherwise expensive routing, miles still make the most sense.
Eastern Russia using Avios
Now we’re getting into the rather obscure. You may or may not know that S7, a Russian airline, is a Oneworld partner. I was unaware that this airline even existed until last year.
S7 operates a number of routes throughout Russia, but they have a significant focus in certain eastern cities. If you’ve ever been interested in visiting Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, you can get there on S7. Ditto for Kamchatka. Sure, these aren’t destinations for every family, but they could make for a very interesting off-the-beaten-path trip.
Avios are the key here. British Airway’s award currency is king for short-haul Oneworld flights without any fuel surcharges. And the best part is that S7 Airlines doesn’t levy any fuel surcharges. You will only be charged a few dollars per segment in taxes.
Now you can say Привет to Eastern Russia. Just don’t ask me about the visa requirements.
Flying Blue promo awards
Although the Flying Blue program just went from simply quirky to on-the-edge-of-utterly-incomprehensible, their promo awards are still somehow an attractive option. For example, you can currently fly from a few places in North American to Europe for some very reasonable rates (some 50% off). There is also an incredible deal to Tehran for a mere 9,000 miles one-way in economy, if visiting Iran is on your bucket list. There are often other attractive options to India and Southeast Asia.
The Flying Blue promo awards change every couple months, and they are worth paying attention to. They are probably the only way I will spend Flying Blue miles, if I ever do, since the promo awards bring otherwise typical (or astronomically high) award prices into *really* good deal territory.
So there you have it. Ten options to help you stretch your miles to fly in an economy seat all over the globe. Sure, being in the back of the bus might not be everyone’s favorite thing, but it is a much more cost-effective option if you’re looking to stretch your miles.