Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards program last week was named Program of the Year in the annual Freddie Awards, and a new study from MileCards.com suggests part of the reason why it won.
The study found that the cost of a Southwest domestic reward flight is lower by far than the other four largest airlines, and the availability of the lowest-cost “saver” awards is far greater on Southwest as well.
The study examined award flight costs on 100,000 date/route combinations for domestic economy travel from March 1 through October 31 of this year. It found that the average roundtrip cost of a Southwest award flight was just 13,629 miles; the comparable average mileage cost on the other four largest airlines ranged from 27,871 on Delta to 47,017 on American. (It should be noted that competitors’ mileage costs were lower than average on routes where they compete against Southwest, but still not as low as Southwest’s.)
As for the availability of the lowest-cost “saver” awards, MileCards.com found that Southwest had them on 95 percent of the days checked, vs. 76 percent for Delta, 62 percent for Alaska, and just 48 percent for United and American.
“The catch – Southwest doesn’t fly to Hawaii, or some popular award destinations in the mainland U.S. like Vail and Anchorage,” MileCards.com said. “Delta SkyMiles, which operates to more destinations, came in second with an average price of 27,871 miles across all routes studied, and 20,001 miles roundtrip on routes where Southwest operates flights.”
Speaking of Hawaii – one of the most popular award travel destinations – the study found the lowest-cost award flights on Alaska, averaging 54,618 roundtrip. Delta wasn’t far behind at 57,020. “American AAdvantage charges the most, with an average price of 97,375 miles, and only 6% of dates available at the ‘Saver’ level price of 45,000 miles on its own flights,” MileCards.com said. See the full Milecards study here.
Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program ties award travel costs to the prevailing air fares available at the time of travel, and thus doesn’t issue an award price chart. Delta took some criticism a few years ago when it stopped publishing a SkyMiles awards chart, but MileCards.com suggests that there are positive and negative aspects to Delta’s strategy.
“Now, domestic economy coach tickets (on Delta) can be found on many routes for just 10,000 miles roundtrip, and others at 15,000 miles roundtrip, while others cost more than the old 25,000 mile standard. By doing this, it has better flexibility to come closer to matching the point prices of Southwest, which doesn’t publish a menu of award prices,” MileCards said.
“The flip side is Delta has aggressively raised the prices of international business class awards that are not part of this study. A business class award to Europe on one of Delta’s partners now costs 170,000 miles roundtrip, up from 125,000 miles a year ago.”
As for United, the study suggests that MileagePlus members are better off saving their miles for international rather than domestic award flights because they’ll get more value out of them. The study praised American’s AAdvantage program for allowing members to change the dates of award travel for no fee, if it’s done 21 days in advance and costs the same.
But it criticized AAdvantage for having “the most inconsistent online search experience. Partner airlines like Alaska and Cathay Pacific are an important part of the value proposition of American miles and many are not readily visible when searching the AA.com website.” It added that AAdvantage “also causes headaches for international travelers by passing on large carrier surcharges from its primary partner to Europe, British Airways, which can add $700 or more onto a basic Economy Class award.”
The study turned up one interesting nugget about the best days to travel on award tickets: You’ll find the best deals for flights on Tuesdays, with an average cost of 30,574 miles; the highest average costs were on Sundays at 41,332 miles.
What’s the best “deal” you’ve found using miles recently? The worst deal? Please leave your comments below.