I try to get the best value out of my miles, which means not just getting awards at the lowest mileage price but also paying attention to value even then – do I want to pay cash, or use miles? Are there ways of reducing the cost of a ticket? Miles are a currency, and while I have lots of them my supply isn’t infinite.
So it’s strange to be looking at the value of awards that cost more than the ‘low’ or saver price, and actually find myself booking one.
US Programs Let You Spend Extra Miles to Get the Seat You Want
Extra miles award – sometimes referred to as double miles awards, although they could be more or less than double the price – have gone by various names at different times… like Rulebuster (Northwest), AAnytime (American), Standard (United), High (Delta).
One of the greatest value ‘standard’ awards at United used to be 150,000 miles roundtrip for business class between the US and Australia. That was the same miles charged by Delta and by Northwest for their saver awards. And yet I never booked this (price increased in October 2006) because 90,000 mile roundtrip s were doable.
Still, I loved the idea that I could get on any United flight in business class that had an empty seat available for the points in my account.
Up until now I’ve never actually flown on one of these awards. I’d often book them as a backup, for instance I booked a one-way United standard award home from London in case my British Airways flight didn’t take off during their cabin attendant strike. When my BA flight landed, I cancelled the United award.
I didn’t fly them before, and they offer far worse value than they used to overall.
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.
Three Tiered Award Pricing Undermines the Value of Miles
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. United does now as well.
American was the lone holdout, but 18 months ago I predicted that their great value double miles awards would come to an end with the US Airways merger.
Last seat availability for any member at ‘just’ double miles was too much value, and prices of these awards have risen. (United doesn’t even make last seat available to all members at these high prices — only elites and co-brand credit card holders, other members have more limited inventory at the extortion prices.)
What Delta did with multiple award tiers was price each flight based on expected demand. American has taken a different approach. Theirs are based on travel date (and thus average expectation of how packed the system is) rather than individual routes (how busy a given city’s flights will be) or flights (whether a given flight is close to sold out).
American’s Method – Pricing By Date, Not Demand – Means You Can Still Win
It means that even with higher prices, there are sometimes great values. And the lowest tier of AAnytime / Rulebuster awards are a little cheaper than before, but are still sometimes offered on the highest demand dates and flights.
What I confront was a low – price reduced compared to before – day. It was, 20,000 points one-way for coach when tickets started $580, but those flight times were inconvenient, the ones I wanted were more like $780 one-way. That’s still nearly 4 cents a point for a domestic coach award.
And first class one-way was 45,000 miles. That’s a lot, but a paid ticket was over $1700. Again, nearly 4 cents a point for a domestic award.
What’s more, first was 25,000 more than coach — when a confirmed upgrade on a paid fare would have been 15,000 points and $75… of course that wasn’t even available, and this was last seat availability.
In both cases, a relative value compared to cash even at the AAnytime price. Eventually though I have to think that American will figure out how to do it Delta’s way, and then this won’t be as valuable any longer.
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