I am asked often which is the best airline mileage program.
My response is likely to strike some as an evasion: There is no best program, only a program that works best for you, given your travel and consumption behavior.
While there may be no categorically best program, there is a program that is the most generous—in other words, a program that makes awards easiest to obtain. The problem, however, is that we don't know which program that is.
What we do know is what fellow mileage-collectors report around the water cooler. "This airline never has awards available at affordable levels." "Redeeming awards on that carrier is like pulling teeth." "Can you believe how many miles they wanted for business class to Europe?" And so on.
Such drive-by user reviews, especially if taken in sufficient quantity, can be enlightening. They may even be accurate. But they simply don't have the weight of scientific validity.
The latest IdeaWorks report on award availability—the second in what hopefully will be an annual occurrence—is a welcome reprieve from the purely anecdotal.
The company, working with ezRez, test-booked 6,720 award round-trips at the websites of 24 frequent flyer programs for travel on 20 top routes between June and October and issued a report detailing the findings.
The study isn't perfect. It only considers awards booked online. Partner airlines are not included in the searches. The routes chosen differ for the different carriers. And the survey's advance-booking routine may fail to credit airlines that make award seats available closer to the departure date.
On the other hand, most consumers do try to book their awards in coach, using the airline's websites, to popular destinations. And most important, the report shines a light into a corner of the loyalty program world that remains all too opaque. Transparency with caveats is better than no transparency at all.
Following are the results for the nine North American programs included in the report. The percentages reflect the success rates in booking round-trip award itineraries, including the change from last year's report.
- Southwest 99.3% (unchanged since last year)
- Aeroplan/Air Canada 82.1% (-11.5 points since last year)
- JetBlue 79.3% (new this year)
- United 71.4% (+2.8 points)
- Continental 71.4% (no change)
- Alaska 64.3% (-10.7 points)
- American 62.9% (+5 points)
- Delta 27.1% (+14.2 points)
- US Airways 25.7% (+15 points)
It's no great surprise that Southwest scores well. The program has no capacity controls, and the number of points required for an award ticket will vary according to the market price of a comparable paid ticket.
For the same reason that Southwest scores well, JetBlue should as well. Why was there a 20-point difference between them?
The big losers, compared with last year, were Alaska and Aeroplan, both down more than 10 points.
The big gainers were far and away last year's worst performers, US Airways and Delta. They're still at the bottom of the list, but both made significant improvements.
And as I noted in connection with last year's results, I'm surprised at American's middle-of-the-pack ranking. My own experience—and what I hear from others around the water cooler—is that American's award availability is among the best.
That disconnect between the anecdotal and the supposedly rigorous suggests to me that we may not yet have achieved complete clarity on this crucial issue. But we're closer. And closer is better.
Reader Reality Check
How do the study results compare to your own experience?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.