Which airlines are most generous with miles?

Use your United miles and catch unset at the Halekulani in Honolulu (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It’s a lot easier to use United miles vs Delta miles to catch a sunset like this at the Halekulani in Honolulu (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Nearly every airline has futzed around with its frequent flyer program over the last year and a new Mile Generosity Study helps illustrate where we are as summer travel season approaches.

The study, performed by Milecards.com, collected data by making several hundred thousand queries on airline websites for economy class round trips for two passengers between April and December. It did not rely upon the notoriously unreliable program reward calendars.

“We were curious to see how programs compare based on where you want to fly, which we think is an important question to consider when you’re evaluating travel rewards,” Brian Karimzad of Milecards told TravelSkills. 

If you are mileage obsessed, take a read of the full report here. If not, I’ve read through it and cherry-picked some highlights and helpful nuggets:

Sundays after July 4 and Thanksgiving are the most "expensive" when it comes to mileage redemption

Sundays after July 4 and Thanksgiving are the most “expensive” when it comes to mileage redemption

>Sunday is the most expensive day for award trips—tickets cost 34% more on Sundays than on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, which are the cheapest days. Fridays and Saturdays are expensive days for award travel, too. The most expensive days of the year for award travel are the Sundays after July 4th and Thanksgiving. (See chart)

>Award trips to Europe cost 30% more during peak summer months, while domestic trips only run 10% higher. Winter holiday trips are about 15% more expensive, but only if you book well ahead of time. The last two weeks of June are the toughest for award travel to Europe.

>90% of award trips are booked online, even though calling an agent can help uncover deals that are not prominently displayed on airline websites. For example, Delta SkyMiles members can redeem 60,000 miles for round trips to South America on partner Aerolineas Argentinas, but they can only be booked over the phone.

>The report confirms what others like it have found: Among major carriers, United offers more domestic US round trips at the lowest 20,000-25,000 level than other carriers. United offers its lowest price 62% of the time, while notoriously stingy Delta only does so 48% of the time (although a recent IdeaWorks study shows Delta’s slowly getting better in this regard.) Southwest and JetBlue have the lowest average “prices” for domestic round trips.

>Delta’s lowest priced economy award trip to Hawaii (45,000 miles) is only available 1% of the time—the average price paid for Delta award trips to Hawaii is 65, 463 miles. On the other hand, United’s 45,000-mile award is available 37% of the time.

>You’ll get the most bang for your bucks miles for travel to Central and South America—especially on United via its partners Copa and Avianca. JetBlue has the lowest average price for trips to Mexico and the Caribbean.

>American’s lowest rate (75,000 miles) for award trips to distant Australia is available 42% of the time. Delta is also a strong contender if you are able to get to Los Angeles, where partner Virgin Australia has good availability of reward seats, but Delta’s 100,000-mile entry-level price is the highest of the major programs.

What’s the most you’ve ever paid for an award trip? I just paid 100,000 miles to fly in first class on United SFO-BOS for July 4th. Ouch. But the fare would have been close to $3,000. Did I overpay? Please leave your comments below. 

–Chris McGinnis

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  • Deltasegmentflyer

    You did not overpay and got great value for your points at .03 a mile. Well done. My most expensive is the one I am currently on 135,000 skymiles first class to the big island but with a stopover to drop the kids off in SLC.

  • Brandon

    Does Delta ever go below 70,000 miles for roundtrips to Japan from MSP airport?

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Yes, you should talk to my fellow Boarding Area bloggers Ben “Lucky” Schlappig or Gary “View from the Wing” Leff. http://www.boardingarea.com –Chris

  • http://www.hometoitaly.com leelaurino

    can you suggest any of the fee based companies who will find the BEST trip for my RTW ff miles?

  • David Troup

    George Nathan, you’re off by a factor of one hundred.

    You’re right that airline miles are typically valued at about 1¢ each. But that makes 10,000 miles equal to $100, and 100,000 miles equal to $1,000. So if you can get a $3,000 ticket for 100,000 miles, you’re getting 3¢ of value for every mile, or triple what they might typically be worth. That’s a great deal.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    WOW! Now that’s a great trip and very cool you were able to pull it all together. Kudos! — chris

  • Bill n DC

    I ‘paid’ 280,000 Skywards miles to fly First Class Shower suites on Emirates A380 on next RTW trip for 2 14 hour segments SYD-DXB-JFK. Actual cost was about $2,000 to come up with the necessary miles after transferring all my available AmEx MR & SPG (bought some SPG points to reach 40K to get the 10K bonus,) then transferred 25K of Hubby’s AmEx MR to his Skywards then pd to transfer to my Skywards, + bought 17K Skywards. Once in a life time trip so reasonable :-) Used 97,500 AA miles to go First DCA-ORD-PVG then Cathy Business to SYD to ‘position’ for EK. I’m calling the trip: “Shanghai, Sydney, & Showers”

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Good advice and that trip sounds NICE! — chris

  • Bruce “Grumpy” R

    I splurged for the 50th birthday and cashed in 450K miles on Star Alliance for a first class around the world ticket. 7 Weeks around the world was great but I do have to admit I would not recommend cashing in for first. Most carriers now only offer two cabin flights and the business award would have been just fine. :)

  • George Nathan

    10,000 miles is the equivalent of $10,000 at $0.01/mile. Did you overpay? Yes, but still better than $3,000 cash.

  • jim6555

    When I first saw the headline “Which Airlines are the most generous with miles”, my first thought was “is none of the above an acceptable answer”? Airline generosity with miles has gone the way of free hot meals in economy class.

  • Arthur H

    I spent 280,000 SkyMiles for a Round the World business class trip starting in Dec.

  • Bob S

    Chris – you are right about calling the airline. Two years ago, by calling Delta, I was able to fly two of us ATL-CDG then to Stuttgart. Then back from FCO via CDG – with a stopover in Paris. It was Business Class all the way via AirFrance on 3 of the 4 segments. CDG to ATL was Delta – all for 100,000 pts each.

  • Ray

    I paid 295,000 for first class flight in June on United from SFO to Frankfurt + business class on Lufthansa to Venice, Italy.

  • walkpl

    I paid 365,000 miles on DL to get from Florida to Bangkok in Business in May. Ouch

  • Kevin

    I recently (Feb) flew United Business IAD to LHR, TG First LHR to BKK, TG First BKK to NRT and NH First NRT back home to IAD. 120,000 USAir Miles – Sadly my last StarAlliance award. I OneWorld airlines CX and JAL but nothing beats TG ex-BKK and NH out of NRT.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis


  • RichW

    I’m a Global Services-level flier with United, and their new mileage award policies prohibit immediately confirming an upgrade, even using my Global Premier upgrades, even when I pay for a full-fare economy ticket. It appears to me that CEO Jeff $mi$ek has complete disregard for even the most high-dollar passengers. I think that most of the mileage award programs have become a farce.