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When to book (or not book) short-haul awards for the best value

Short-haul award flights are the latest trend in the frequent flyer world. America West pioneered this phenomenon at the beginning of 2004, when it split its domestic awards into short-haul (750 miles or shorter) and long-haul (more than 750 miles) flights with differing mileage prices. More recently, American and United launched limited-time promotions offering short-haul awards for fewer miles.

Many frequent flyers would agree that a cheaper award is a good thing, but these awards may fool you into thinking you’re getting a good deal when in fact you may not be. Before you book your award ticket to a nearby city, make sure that you’re getting the best value out of your miles.

The obvious

Short-haul awards are definitely a welcome addition for travelers who previously paid 25,000 miles for a short flight. Now, you can pay only 15,000 miles for restricted economy awards and save 10,000 miles for the same flight. America West offers the discounted short-haul awards for both economy and first classes and for restricted and unrestricted awards. American and United only have this option for restricted awards in economy and upper classes.

In addition, cheap award flights give you another option for using orphan miles. If you have 15,000 miles in one of these airlines’ frequent flyer programs, but know you won’t be accumulating any more miles in that program, you can use the miles for a short-haul flight, rather than let them expire.

The catch

Ultimately, short-haul awards may not be the best use of your miles. The value of your miles is determined by dividing the dollar value of a ticket by the number of miles used to redeem it. If you want your miles to be worth two cents or more (the industry average), you would have to book a flight that’s valued at $300. But you may be hard pressed to find a short coach flight that costs more than $300.

We tested a few routes on America West that qualify for short-haul awards. An August weekend trip between Seattle and Salt Lake City cost $241 and a September flight between San Francisco and Tucson cost $244. We did find a $500 flight between Kansas City and Albuquerque, but the trip was for peak Thanksgiving travel dates, which aren’t available for restricted awards.

When faced with low fares like these, you might be better off purchasing the cheaper tickets with cash and saving your miles for a pricier cross-country or international flight, where you’ll get more value from your miles.

The choice

However, there are a few scenarios in which you’d be wise to take advantage of the short-haul offer. The first is for last-minute travel. Airlines often raise prices for walk-up fares, so if you suddenly need to book a flight at the last minute, a short-haul award could save you both miles and money. There’s no guarantee that an award will be available on short notice, but spaces often open up a few days or weeks before departure if a flight has several empty seats.

The second situation is when you need to travel, but money is an obstacle. If you can’t afford a ticket, but have enough miles for a short-haul award, the value of those miles will be much more than a few cents per mile. The value is their usefulness to you in meaning the difference between traveling and staying at home. In this case, booking the short-haul award would be an excellent use of miles.

The key to using miles wisely is to understand their value before you book. If you calculate the financial and personal value of redeeming miles and determine that you’re getting a good deal, then you should by all means book that ticket, whether it’s a short-haul award or not. But if you think you can do better, save your miles. You can almost always find another, more valuable way to spend them.

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