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Best award bargains for 2006: Get more from your miles

SmarterTravel

Another year has gone by, and airlines continue to tweak their programs and change the rules you’ve diligently memorized. While award prices have for the most part remained stable—it’s your ability to redeem miles for those rewards that is getting worse by the minute—some changes have occurred, especially with regard to the US Airways-America West merger.

So once again, we’ve brought out the charts and spreadsheets to see which airlines have the best award bargains to a variety of destinations. If you want your miles to go the farthest, read on to discover where you should focus your mileage earning to get a free flight the fastest.

And the winners are…

We compared the award options of nine U.S. airlines to create a list of the best awards your miles can buy. The airlines listed below charge the fewest miles for flights from North America to key destination areas.

  • U.S. travel: Frontier wins this category with its restricted domestic award for 15,000 miles. Alaska is a close second with its 20,000-mile award and a 10,000-mile intra-Alaska award on partner Era Aviation. Continental also gets a mention for its short-haul award for 20,000 miles. You’ll notice that the new US Airways has gotten rid of America West’s 15,000-mile short-haul award, and American’s and United’s copycat deals have expired, leaving Continental as the only airline offering this option. Most airlines charge 25,000 miles for domestic flights of any length.
  • Caribbean: American offers an off-peak award to the Caribbean for only 25,000 miles for travel between September 7 and November 14. Its regular restricted award is 30,000 miles, the same as Delta and US Airways. Other airlines charge 35,000.
  • Mexico: Frontier takes this category as well, with its 25,000-mile award. American is the runner-up with a 25,000-mile off-peak award valid between September 7 and November 14. The rest of the airlines offer the same prices as with Caribbean awards, between 30,000 and 35,000 miles.
  • Hawaii: All the major airlines tie for best Hawaii award with a price tag of 35,000 miles for restricted awards. However, United noses ahead with its unrestricted award at 60,000 miles—10,000 miles cheaper than the other airlines’ anytime awards.
  • Central America: American and US Airways tie for this prize with 30,000-mile awards, though again American’s lowest price is for off-peak travel between January 16 and June 14, as well as September 7 through November 14. The other major airlines charge 5,000 miles more. US Airways used to take this category with its reduced-rate off-peak award, but after the merger with America West, it eliminated all of its off-peak awards.
  • South America: American’s off-peak awards win again. You can fly to northern South America for 30,000 miles between January 16 and June 14, as well as September 7 through November 14, and to southern South America for 40,000 miles from March 1 through May 31 and from August 16 through November 30. Other airlines with South America awards generally charge 35,000 miles to the northern half of the continent and 50,000 miles to the southern half.
  • Europe: American’s off-peak award is again your best option for getting to Europe on the cheap. You’ll pay 40,000 miles for travel between October 15 and May 15; you can also use your Alaska miles to take advantage of this discounted award. The other airlines charge 50,000 miles to Europe, but it should be noted that a high-season American award costs 60,000.
  • Asia: American offers an off-peak award to Japan from October 1 through April 30 for the low price of 50,000 miles. Its competitors charge 60,000.
  • Africa: Not too many airlines offer Africa awards, but Delta takes the prize with a 50,000-mile award to northern Africa and 80,000 miles to central and southern Africa. Continental and Northwest offer awards for 90,000 miles.
  • Australia: United is the airline to fly to Australia; you can book an award ticket for 60,000 miles. Competitors Delta and Northwest lag far behind with a 100,000-mile price tag to the South Pacific.

Midwest gets an honorable mention for offering a one-way award for 15,000 miles. All other awards on all other airlines are round-trip.

Analysis of results

The US Airways-America West merger has definitely increased the average cost of award travel. Gone are America West’s short-haul award and US Airways’ off-peak awards, winners of the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Europe categories in 2005.

American has kept its off-peak discounts, earning it prizes in six categories this year. However, savvy travelers should note that often American’s high-season awards are pricier than its competitors’ anytime awards.

Frontier is probably the underdog winner, taking home two prizes for U.S. and Mexico awards. The airline serves a limited route network, but if you live near Denver or fly the routes it serves, you can take advantage of some of the cheapest awards around.

More ways to get the most from your miles

You can also save miles or at least find availability if you take advantage of your carrier’s airline partners. All of the major airlines and some of the smaller carriers offer reciprocal mile-earning and redeeming benefits with other airlines. For instance, you can redeem Continental miles on Delta, Northwest, and several international airlines that are part of the SkyTeam alliance. Be sure to check out all of your redemption options before you book.

From time to time, some airlines offer award sales where they put award travel to specific destinations on sale. Alaska has a new award sale every quarter, usually to western U.S. and Canadian cities. American is currently offering Texas awards from 15,000 miles, and Continental and United both just ended award sales to China. If you watch out for these sales, you can get more trips out of your miles.

Also, many experts claim the best use of your miles is for upgrades, not free flights. First- and business-class travel is so expensive (and economy airfare can be dirt cheap these days) that your miles will be worth more if you buy a cheap ticket and use your miles to bump up to the front of the plane. Before you use miles to upgrade, you should check your airline’s restrictions; some charge fees of up to several hundred dollars for mileage upgrades, especially on international flights, while others won’t allow you to purchase upgrades from the cheapest economy seats.

And as always, don’t forget to think about free travel on low-cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue. As these airlines calculate their rewards in points or credits rather than miles, we couldn’t compare their awards with those of the major airlines. But, if you fly these airlines many times per year, you might find yourself eligible for some free travel.

The key to maximizing your miles is to check all your options before you hand over your hard-earned miles. An informed purchasing decision can let your miles—and you—go farther than you thought possible.

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