In which I compare frequent flyer programs among major U.S. carriers, and again emerge a United corporate whoreperson

You know who has the best fucking frequent flyer program, at least for the time being? That’s right, United Fucking Airlines. I know, I already told you I love United, and you told me you live in Yorkville and United can eat you because they’re Newark’s bitch, and you would only go to Newark if you had to buy industrial solvents or something. I know, I know.

But hear me out. At least for the time being, United is the best domestic airline for free travel. If that is not what you care about, fine. Go have brunch at E.A.T. and pay $25 for a slice of toast. But it is what I care about, so if you’re still reading, appetize this.

United rules for free travel, because, at least for the time being — who knows for how much longer, but for now — United does old skool frequent flyer award tickets in a completely transparent and understandable way, and it’s possible to get great deals on tickets.

By old skool frequent flyer awards, I mean that they use a simple, visible award chart based on region and class of service. For domestic travel, you’ll either be able to get an economy round trip ticket for 20,000-25,000 award miles (depending on distance), aka saver award, or 50,000 award miles, aka standard award. Standard awards might always not be the best deal, but can be handy in a pinch when tickets are crazy expensive, and they are guaranteed to be available if a) there’s any unsold seats on the plane, and b) you have any level of Premier status, or a Chase United MileagePlus Explorer or Club credit card.

In other words, the number of miles needed for an award ticket has nothing to do with the price of the ticket. There’s a certain number of saver award seats on any given flight, and if those aren’t available, you can get a standard award. This means that sweet deals are available when tickets are otherwise expensive. And even when you have to use standard awards, which aren’t usually the best deal, you might still be happy to blow the miles, if the alternative is a painful $850 ticket to somewhere you don’t even want to go in the first place like your first cousin once removed’s bat mitzvah in Denver, or if a business or first class ticket is crazy expensive.

And you can earn those miles at a zippy fucking clip: a minimum of 1.5 per dollar if you have both a Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Unlimited card, or you have a Chase United MileagePlus Club card. (Plus there are all kinds of bonus ways to earn miles like by using the MileagePlus X app, or buying crap through the Chase or United shopping portals.)

Let’s compare that shit to the competition.

American Airlines award travel is somewhat comparable to United, but they’re creeping ominously into non-transparent awards, where Delta is firmly encamped. They have a similar-ish structure as United for saver awards (15,000-25,000 based on distance), but their standard (“AAnytime”) awards fall into three different tiers based on the date. Naturally, they don’t list which dates get which tier; you just have to check the calendar. The first tier is only 40K, so a little less than United standard, and their second tier is 60K, so a little more. So far, not terrible. But then there’s a third tier — seemingly during weekends over peak periods — where American simply says anything goes, and it’s typical to see round trip award tickets be 100K. Eeew. (And as one website notes, sometimes those days are actually cheaper in business class, where saver seats might be available for 50K.) Those third-tier dates appear to have been influenced by the blackout dates employed by that pustule of airlines that American merged with, US Airways. Danger, Will Robinson.

American had one other thing to recommend them, which is they were the last holdout to award miles based on, you know, miles flown, as opposed to dollars spent. Unfortunately, they’ve recently followed United’s and Delta’s lead, and in 2017, they’ll be awarding miles based on ticket price, and implementing a minimum number of dollars spent on tickets to earn elite status. What cocks.

American also doesn’t have credit card earning options where you can do better than 1.33 miles per dollar spent, and the only way to get that is with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, when you transfer 20,000 points at a time to your AA account. Otherwise, even with AAdvantage credit cards, you’re earning 1 point per dollar, except 2 points when you buy American tickets. And none of those (yet, anyway) provide any way of waiving the dollar spent requirement for earning elite status in 2017. Unlike United, the $450 card does make it possible to earn elite qualifying miles, though you need to spend a hefty $40,000 per year to get them.

So, compared to United, you can’t earn miles on American as quickly, and you need to redeem more miles for travel on many dates. Not as good for free travel.

Ok, next:

Delta has always had shit award redemptions, and now they have diarrhea. They’re not as bad as a cash back or travel back credit card, but their award tickets redemptions are no longer transparent (that is, based on a visible chart). It’s hard to know how they are assigning them; they just vary by day. There are no saver or standard awards. Occasionally there are good deals, comparable to saver awards; but many days are awful, worse than standard awards. Usually it’s somewhere in between. For domestic travel, points seem to correspond to ticket prices, and not terribly favorably. It may be that they use many different pricing tiers, and possibly factor in dates as well, with or without correlation to ticket price. Who knows? Not me or you. Only Delta knows.

If you’re flexible on dates, especially for international travel, you can sometimes do ok. I found a business class nonstop to Paris for 125,000 miles, which is only a little more than a United saver award, for an $8,000 ticket, though it had a stop; nonstop doubled the miles required. With each mile worth 6.4 cents, that’s an excellent redemption, but even 3.2 cents per mile isn’t terrible. However, some dates are horrendous, with redemptions above 400,000 miles. So some reasonable deals can apparently be found, but with no rhyme or reason as to when, and with no obvious cost ceiling. Also, some dates seem unavailable, even when cash tickets are available. (This might be because Delta flights are sold out, and only partner flights are available. Or maybe it’s because Delta eat dicks for breakfast. Who knows? Again, this is part of the problem.)

How fast can you earn Delta miles? Pretty fast, if you have an American Express Everyday Preferred card, and optionally an American Express Premier Rewards Gold card: you’ll get a minimum of 1.5 miles per dollar spent if you rack up 30 charges a month. Or you can get a Delta card, which only earns 1 mile per dollar spent, but it waives the dollar spent requirement for earning elite status if you spend $25K, and earns elite qualifying miles when you hit that amount as well. So, Delta’s pretty good on the earning miles front.

But Delta can change any of this shit any any time without announcement or explanation, and there’s no guarantee of a seat. As an example, their award rates appear to be increasing on October 1, 2016, but you’d never know if Lucky, at One Mile At A Time, hadn’t done the legwork for you. So as far as I’m concerned, Delta is not as good as United for free travel.

In some other post someday, I’ll look at the rewards programs for the medium-sized domestic carriers, like Southwest, Alaska, Virgin Atlantic, and JetBlue. Sneak preview: they’re mostly shit. Are you surprised?

4 thoughts on “In which I compare frequent flyer programs among major U.S. carriers, and again emerge a United corporate whoreperson

  1. A

    You mentioned on lucky’s blog that united hasn’t started changing for awards based on price yet. Did you hear a rumor about that or is it just conjecture?

    1. Ivan X Post author

      You mentioned on lucky’s blog that united hasn’t started changing for awards based on price yet. Did you hear a rumor about that or is it just conjecture?

      A, I was being snarky and a touch pessimistic, since Delta has already gone there for domestic travel, and American has started dipping their toes in the water (with their unspecified “third-level” award pricing on unspecified dates). I figure United will get there eventually, and it will be a sad day when they do, but no, for the moment I have not heard anything that suggests they are deviating from their traditional chart-based award pricing.


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