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Best award bargains for 2005: Get more from your miles

SmarterTravel

Whether you log hours in cramped coach seats or shell out for first-class perks, you most likely value your frequent flyer miles highly. If you’re going to save up for your dream vacation, you should make sure you get the best use out of your miles before you set foot on an airplane.

Although many airlines have similar award programs, not all awards are created equal. Certain airlines offer discounted off-peak awards, while others charge fewer or greater numbers of miles than the industry average for free flights to certain destinations. Find out which airline offers the best award for your future trip, and you can can begin to accrue miles on that airline and earn a free flight faster.

Best awards for 2005

We compared the award options of 10 U.S. airlines to create a list of the best awards your miles can by. The following chart lists which airlines charge the fewest miles for flights from North America to key destination areas, as well as the average price of those award flights for comparison.

And the best awards are:

Destination Airline(s) with lowest cost Miles cost Cost on most airlines
North America America West, Frontier 15,000 [1] 25,000
Mexico American, Frontier, US Airways 25,000 [2] 30,000-35,000
Caribbean American, US Airways 25,000 [3] 30,000-35,000
Hawaii American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United 35,000 35,000
Central America US Airways 25,000 [4] 35,000
South America Continental, Delta, Northwest 35,000 [5] 40,000-50,000
Europe American, US Airways 40,000 [6] 50,000
Asia American 50,000 [7] 60,000
Australia United 60,000 100,000
Africa Delta 50,000 [8] 90,000

[1] Short-haul flights only on America West
[2] Off-peak travel only, from September 7 to November 14, on American and US Airways
[3] Off-peak travel only, from September 7 to November 14
[4] Off-peak travel only, from September 7 to November 14
[5] Flights to northern South America only (Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela)
[6] Off-peak travel only, from October 1 through April 30 on US Airways, and from October 15 to May 15 on American
[7] Flights only to Japan for travel October 1 to April 30
[8] Flights to northern Africa only (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia)

Results breakdown

Many of the best awards are for travel during off-peak seasons. American and US Airways made our list of best awards more often than any other airline because of their extensive off-peak award programs. Although other airlines may not discount awards, you will have a better chance of finding an available award seat if you choose to travel during less busy travel seasons.

Also, low-cost airlines made our list several times, even though many of these airlines only offer award travel within the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean. Frontier and America West have some of the cheapest domestic awards in the business, with Alaska following closely behind with a 20,000-mile award. Although America West’s 15,000-mile award is only for short-haul flights, all three airlines make these cheap awards available at any time during the year. If you’re looking for the best domestic award, a low-cost airline may be your best bet. And as these airlines continue to develop partnerships with the legacy airlines and international carriers, you will not be limited to using your miles for flights within North America.

Additional ways to maximize your miles

If your preferred airline doesn’t fly to your intended destination or is sold out for the dates you want, you can also redeem your miles with partner airlines. Because they operate on different schedules, partner airlines can occasionally offer better connections or flight times for an equal number of miles. To determine which carriers partner with your preferred airline, use the SmarterTravel.com Mile Finder.

Also, pay attention to discounted award promotions. Sometimes, an airline will offer award seats on certain routes for fewer miles in order to promote traffic on that route. Currently, you can save between 7,000 and 10,000 miles with award sales on Alaska and American.

If you want to maximize the value of your frequent flyer earnings, it’s often better to use your miles to upgrade a paid fare, rather than to use them for a free ticket. Upgrades can cost anywhere from 5,000 to 60,000 miles, but if you find a good deal on a coach seat, the miles you use for an upgrade could be worth thousands of dollars (the difference between an economy and business-class ticket). Just remember that some of the most deeply discounted tickets are not upgradeable, so if you’re planning to upgrade, check the fare class of your flight before you book.

Plus, don’t forget that some low-cost airlines, such as Southwest and JetBlue, offer loyalty programs as well. These programs are based on credits accumulated per flight, so we could not compare their awards with those of other airlines. Though these programs tout simple rules and quick redemption, credits do expire after 12 months.

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