I’m going to stake out a prediction for the US Airways-American Airlines merger that I haven’t seen anyone else make yet — it spells the death knell for the ‘double mileage award’.
Most US Programs Used to Charge ‘Double Miles’ for a Seat When There Wasn’t Award Availability
Traditionally US frequent flyer programs offered to let members book any seat on any flight for twice the miles. That way if there wasn’t any “saver” award inventory, it would still be possible to use your miles.
Now it wasn’t always precisely twice the miles. Up until October 2006 United Airlines Mileage Plus offered awards from North America to Australia in business class at 90,000 miles roundtrip — or 150,000 miles for what they called "standard" or rule-buster style awards where you could have any empty seat instead of constraining yourself to award space.
At the time that award struck me as one of the best in the world. Delta and Northwest at the time both charged 150,000 miles for their capacity controlled awards to Australia in business class. But United would give you any seat at that price.
In general I’ve always held the view that outsized values don’t last, and that award didn’t (it’s now been gone for six and a half years). I also never used that award. In fact, I’ve never actually flown on a double mileage award where I’m buying out of capacity controls. I’ve booked them on several occasions, often as a backup. For instance when I was flying back from London in 2010 during the British Airways cabin crew strike, I booked a ‘standard’ award on United in business class just in case my BA flight cancelled Once the flight landed I cancelled it. It was great insurance.
The great value Australia award United used to offer notwithstanding, most awards that made any seat available really did cost double the miles of capacity controlled awards. But that’s a value proposition that has been gradually eroding.
Three-Tiered Award Charts and a Reluctance to Let Go of Revenue Business Class Have All but Killed the Double Miles Award
Delta, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines introduced ‘three tiered’ award charts (instead of the usual two, capacity controlled and any seat) where the top last seat availability tier is far more expensive than just double miles.
In fact, Delta charges more than triple for last seat availability in some cases, such as business class to Southern South America and to Europe where ‘low’ award space is 100,000 miles roundtrip while they get a whopping 325,000 miles roundtrip for ‘high’. Their award chart shows one-way pricing:
United, adopting Continental’s approach (which always seemed aligned with Delta when they were partners) has bumped up the price of their ‘standard’ awards and no longer offers last seat availability at all to members who are not elite and do not have the co-branded United Explorer credit card.
United charges 100,000 miles roundtrip in business to Europe but gets 250,000 miles — two and a half times the regular price — for their award level with additional capacity. And that’s now a common ratio for travel between many of their regions. From the US to the Middle East or to any of their three Asia regions is 120,000 miles in business class or 300,000 miles roundtrip for extra availability.
That famed 90,000 mile saver Australia award is now 135,000 miles… but the standard award (that no longer offers all members last seat availability) runs 300,000 miles as well. That’s double the pre-October 2006 price.
It’s those premium cabin seats that have attracted the biggest price increases, as airlines have been reluctant to make those seats available on points at anything but the most extortionate levels.
Still, US programs are comparatively generous even with their last seat or almost last seat availability awards compared to their foreign peers (as they are in most compontents of frequent flyer programs).
Most International Programs Are Even Stingier
Beyond North America most programs are far more restrictive or far more expensive for obtaining last seat availability with points. Singapore Airlines offers three award tiers. British Airways restricts those awards to top elites. Air France restricts premium cabin double miles awards to its own elites (and their coach awards are rarely worthwhile since they carry fuel surcharges — you wind up paying nearly as much cash for a coach award as an advance purchase coach ticket, and then have the privilege of spending double miles to still sit in coach).
Singapore Airlines first class awards between Singapore and the West Coast of the U.S. are 107,500 each way for saver awards, 210,000 for ‘standard’ (nearly double miles), and 526,000 for ‘full’. That’s over a million miles roundtrip for first class last seat availability.
Curiously, Alitalia recently introduced double mileage awards and made them available in business class and to all members. While not something I’ve ever booked for myself, it’s great to know that’s an option for spending my Membership Rewards points. Because I know I can pretty much always fly one-way business class from the US to Europe on Alitalia for 100,000 miles plus fuel surcharges. That’s my “worst case scenario.”
American Airlines Has Been the Lone U.S. Holdout Preserving True Double Miles Awards
Here in the U.S. only American Airlines has maintained the double mileage value proposition. And in fact nearly all flights on American Airlines aircraft offer last seat availability for exactly double the miles of a saver award.
Look it up yourself, here’s the award chart for using American miles on American flights.
Just as domestic coach is 25,000 roundtrip at the saver level and 50,000 miles roundtrip for an “AAnytime award” so too are flights between North America and any other region of the world exactly double the saver price (with one exception that I’ll get to in a moment).
The peak (non-discounted for specific dates of travel) roundtrip business class award to Europe is 100,000 miles. Or you can have any seat to and from Europe for 200,000 miles, a whole lot better than United’s 300,000 miles price.
Why I Believe Any Seat Any Flight Availability on American Will Disappear in the Future
One little hint about what the future may hold is that American is introducing a new route — to Seoul, South Korea — and while Japan and China flights charge exactly double miles for last seat availability, the South Korea flight is more…. 100,000 miles roundtrip for business class at the saver level, 270,000 miles roundtrip for last seat availability.
With this new award American has broken the double miles proposition, charging 2.7 times the saver price for business class AAnytime.
And American is the last major airline standing offering double miles for any seat, any flight. Yet they already seem to have been reconsidering it on their own. I suspect that while it’s an amazing option, I truly love the notion of having enough miles that you can go anywhere on any plane at any time, they probably haven’t gotten enough credit for this. Consumers likely don’t realize how much better a value American has offered in this regard.
So when I think about the pending merger with US Airways, and the way in which frequent flyer programs likely combine, the oft-stated notion of “taking the best from each program to create an industry-leading frequent flyer program” (ok, I made up that quote, but it’s what all airlines say in every merger) usually means regression towards the mean, or excising the little pockets of outsized value that one program offers, because it’s usually an anomaly or an historical legacy.
Will American retain double miles for any seat any time awards? My guess is they won’t. Which leaves the last airline coming to mind that does this as Alitalia. Perhaps there are more, that commenters can add to this post. But for all intents and purposes, the double miles award has been dying and may see it’s final goodbye in North America when the American and US Airways frequent flyer programs combine.