Hey there, noble denizens of Frugal Travel Land! You’ve patiently allowed me to prattle on about different kinds of mile value, the true cost of an airline award, and variable award pricing. Now, at last, it’s time to dig into the pot and dish out some actual piping-hot meat-on-the-bones statistics. But before I do, I’d like to weasel in a few last-minute butt-covering bullet points.
So far, I’ve only used data that can be independently measured. I have made no value adjustments for things like miles transferability, or partner programs. I haven’t tossed in fudge factors to account for stopover rules or permissibility of one-way awards. I also haven’t considered things like additional availability, or miles discounts, for co-branded credit card holders. In short, I’ve kept things as simple as possible, while still producing some data that I hope will be useful. These numbers should not be construed as fair ‘prices’ for AAdvantage Miles, MileagePlus Miles, or SkyMiles. (You haven’t seen this much waffling before, outside of an IHOP.)
With that said, let’s take a look at our first batch of values, for each sample flight.
As is pretty much agreed upon by everyone, United’s miles are pretty darn valuable. I give them an objective value of 2.94 cents per mile, followed by AAdvantage miles at 2.24 cents, and lastly, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, SkyMiles, at 1.51 cents.
It’s worth highlighting that the single biggest thing that affects the value of an airline’s frequent flyer currency is the availability of Saver Awards. While there are differences between the mileage requirements for certain types of awards (primarily international routes), the Big Three charge pretty much the same number of miles for the most popular tickets. And since none of them are charging fuel surcharges for international routes (yet – cross yer fingers), ticket fees don’t differ enough to make a big difference in value.
Delta takes a massive hit from the combination of its industry-low availability rating, and its three-tier price structure. When I played around with the booking engines on all three award websites, I had no problem coming up with routes where you’ll pay more than triple the number of miles on a Delta award versus a United award.
Again, I wouldn’t use these numbers to justify paying 2.94 cents for a United mile. But I would use them to suggest that a United mile is worth two Delta SkyMiles. That’s something I might keep in mind when deciding whether to apply for a MileagePlus Explorer card (with a 50,000 mile bonus) or an American Express Delta SkyMiles Gold card (with a 30,000 mile bonus).
Something else that really emerges from the numbers is how inconsistent the redeemed value is. If you only consider the domestic awards, you see that many of them barely give you a single thin penny of value for every precious mile you redeem. That’s some pretty weak soup. Suddenly Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards program, which gives you a fixed value of 1.69 cents for every mile, seems like it’s made of diamond-encrusted 24-carat gold Faberge eggs.
In comparison, you can see that flying up front on international routes can easily get you five, six, even seven cents per mile in value. That’s one of the reasons I like business and first class awards so much. Not because I somehow feel entitled to have my pillow fluffed as I dine on filet mignon – but because I like the feeling of squeezing every last drop of value out of my miles. And … then dining on filet mignon. And mango sorbet. And then putting on the little airline pin from the amenity kit and pretending I’m a pilot and bugging the flight attendant with “Airplane!” quotes. (So, do you like gladiator movies? …)
To all of you lining up at the microphone to tell me that my numbers are full of beans – you’re right. The whole point of this exercise is to measure the averages, and get a sense of relative values, along with an inkling of the difference between a good deal and a bad deal. Hey, despite what I just said about the poor value of domestic economy awards, I’ve personally redeemed 25,000 United miles for an economy seat to visit my family back in Atlantic Canada – because those tickets are never on sale for less than $1,100. The miles-value calculation was, obviously, very favorable – and similarly, each individual award has to be evaluated on its own merits.
Next up under the Mile High Canuck’s microscope are US Airways and British Airways, two very different programs that are highly influenced by their alliance partners. Surely I can’t be serious about cranking out another blog post on valuation?
I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.
Deal of the Day
For today’s Deal of the Day AwardWallet is donating a $50 American Express Gift Card for the best overall travel deal submitted. A great mileage run, mistake fare, partner promo, new card sign-up offer, or the special twist you figured out on a deal today. Add it to the comments section of this post (along with your First Name, Last Initial, and Airport Code) or this afternoon’s Deal of the Day post by TONIGHT at 11:59pm ET to be eligible to win.
Citi ThankYou® Premier Card
- Annual Fee: $95 fee waived for the first year
- Foreign Fees: No
- Card Type: Bank
- Earn 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening - redeemable for $500 in gift cards, $625 for airfare, or other great rewards.
- Earn 3X ThankYou Points on Travel including Gas, 2X ThankYou Points on Dining Out and Entertainment, and 1X ThankYou Points on Other Purchases
- ThankYou® Points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel through thankyou.com, as compared to gift cards
- No foreign transaction fees on purchases
- Points do not expire and earn unlimited ThankYou Points
- Annual Fee: $95 (fee waived for the first 12 months)