The Death of the Double Miles Award: and Why the US Airways/American Merger Will Kill it For Good

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.

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  1. I agree on the trend and raising the obstacles would be not such a good move on AA’s part. The double miles award is rarely good value and I would think American Airlines would want to give as many opportunities as possible for “bad” value with miles. I have heard of many people using the double miles award and getting one cent per point. It can be good value if you’re really working the free one-way stopover (like flying back from the Caribbean the Sunday after Thanksgiving and then to Rio the weekend before Christmas and booking tickets only a month in advance). But the people that know how to do that sort of thing and really want to will jump through the few hoops required to get access anyway (many of us have the United Explorer Card, who are not elite).

    Just having that AAnytime availability makes AA look like they have tons of award space to the untrained eye. It makes it look like people can get free tickets if they just collect enough miles and I suspect it’s a significant draw of business for them.

  2. I have always felt that the AAnytime domestic awards were a great use of miles. Sometimes you just plain need to get somewhere (say for a funeral), and the ordinary coach seat $ price has skyrocketed for the flight you need. It seems a bit scary that the double miles ratio might go away.

  3. I like the warm feeling that I get knowing that I could use my miles anytime I want on the last available seat. But it’s just a feeling. I’d never actually spend double miles — at that point I’d be better off buying the ticket and conserving the miles for another trip where saver is available. I suspect most people feel the same way, so it’s no big loss, really.

  4. I’ve used AAnytime awards many times. They really come in handy for last minute flights or mid-week short trips to Chicago that would cost $1300 given my location in Hooterville. We don’t have the kind of fares available in major markets (no Southwest!), so we get thoroughly reamed on last minute flights. So, $1300 or 50,000 miles? That’s an easy choice!

    I really don’t think AA is going to get rid of the domestic double mile award. It makes a lot of sense, is useful, has a nice value proposition to AAdvantage members, etc. International, maybe a different story.

  5. just curious … how often do people actually redeem for the last seat availability (other than for family emergencies)? most last minute travel is usually business-oriented, so the employer would have no problem paying for that Y fare instead of asking the employee to redeem for YN and JN seats (i’m speaking UA-lingo here).

    Come to think of it, this is where a broad alliance really helps. Back in Nov’12 I had 2 days notice to fly from NYC to TPE for family emergency, but I’ve still managed to find saver J and F all the way NYC-TPE using a variety of Star partners. Didn’t have to dip into “full” awards at all.

  6. @Jackie. They can be very useful. Last year, I flew back from Grand Cayman to NYC the Sunday after Thanksgiving (tickets just one way were $600), did a stop in New York for a month, and flew to Rio on Saturday, Dec 22, also a super high travel period. This is allowed since New York was my gateway city and I can have a free stopover on a one-way award. I booked in October and there was no way to get either date with any kind of saver awards on any airline at all. It cost 54k AA miles (60k + 10% rebate for holding Citi AA card) and saved me at least $1500.

  7. TAM Airlines’ old system – which is in place until May 31st – allows members to redeem flights within South America without capacity controls for 15k (10k within Brazil) one-way, which is the standard price. However, they have some “sales”, which costs fewer miles (some starting at 3k). There is only one caveat – they only allow redemptions for the next three months.
    Now they are “upgrading” their FF program, and they are implementing capacity controls for flights whithin South America, and the price in miles for flight whithin Brazil will cost from 5 to 35k, depending on demand and how early it is booked – 5 to 15k for elites. Now redemptions will be allowed for 12 months.

  8. Will the One World distance based awards be next on the chopping block?

    Who knows with Doug Parker in charge?

  9. “Here in the U.S. only American Airlines has maintained the double mileage value proposition.”

    I guess this means they are “overindexed”!

    Perhaps the idea is to tighten the screws so much that we will welcome a switch to revenue-based redemption. But then how will the programs be able to continue their devaluation Ponzi game?

  10. You’re right, more often than not, people who redeem for the double-mileage awards are not the hardcore frequent flyers and probably are not aware that this is a benefit offered by AA, which is not offered by competitors. The hardcore frequent flyers recognize this as an AA feature but rarely redeem double-mileage awards. So from a business perspective, it makes sense for AA to eliminate it.

  11. United may already be reducing their “Standard Award” availability. Recently, a flight I was reviewing showed availability as “H9 HN0″. (HN is the standard award bucket for non-elites; until now its availability has been the same as revenue “H”.)

  12. There are usually differences in fare buckets when the flight is oversold. They might be willing to take 9 high fare H pax and bump some low fare pax, but they’re not going to overall the cabin on mileage awards in H.

  13. I have used 2x miles on UA when the one-way ticket price was absurd. I have plenty of miles and would rather spend 35k one-way to Mexico at Xmas than spend $1000 per person (particularly for my children who don’t need EQM). So there are times when 2x miles can save $$$ and bring a decent ROI particularly for those of us who have a surplus of miles.

    So I would definitely miss this option on AA.

  14. I’ve averaged more than one double mile award per year for the last 5 years. It’s true that business travel is often last minute, but then redeeming miles don’t come into the picture at all. But I’ve had numerous last minute personal travel needs where redeeming 50,000 miles over spending the $800, $900, or $1000 for the revenue round-trip ticket was a no-brainer.

    It’s remarkable to me how many otherwise sensible people suffer from the syndrome of over-applying “If I don’t do X, then clearly no normal person does X”.

  15. I used AAnytime awards have been extremely useful for AAnything last minute. I’ve needed to change plans at the last minute mAAny times and while most times I’ll get a good ticket price, I’ve used AAnytime awards when i just couldn’t make AAnything else work. If I only had a weekend free and couldn’t afford the time to make a circuitous route via a saver award, I went for an AAnytime award. Of course, it helps that my AA miles are plentiful.

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