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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