The Best Ways to Use Miles and Points to Fly Domestically Around the USA

Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. 

A lot of my “best use of miles and points” articles focus on international destinations but what about getting around the USA? There are basically three different ways to book award flights domestically: 1) revenue-based awards with Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America; 2) distance-based flights with British Airways Avios; or 3) traditional region-based award redemptions with domestic airlines, such as United, American, Delta, and Alaskan (or any other alliance partners). These three options are ordered in my preference for getting around the country and this article will discuss how to best utilize these options below.

REVENUE-BASED AWARDS

Revenue-based award systems determine the amount of miles needed for your redemption based on the price of the airfare. This means that they will fluctuate and that you might see wildly differing mileage requirements for the same flight on the same day. While the higher redemptions are usually a way to get gutted for miles, the redemptions that fall on the lower end of these revenue-based programs can be extraordinarily low when compared to region-based programs, such as United and American Airlines.

Southwest

  • Alliance: None
  • Ways to earn miles: Chase credit cards, Chase Ultimate Rewards,

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with revenue-based system
Headed for Idaho
Photo by Thomas Hawk

While they don’t belong to an alliance, Southwest Airlines offers the best opportunities for getting around the US in my opinion. On Southwest, you won’t find first-class seating or premier in-flight entertainment and meals, but you will get superb customer service and many options for finding cheap redemptions to get to many places around the US. Also, if you can plan out your trip a few months ahead of time, availability for the cheap “Wanna Get Away” routes can be great on Southwest.

Here are some examples of great round trip Wanna Get Away rates:

  • New York (LGA) to Los Angeles (LAX) – 16,660
  • Dallas (DAL) to Orlando (MCO) – 17,163
  • Chicago (MDW) to Houston (HOU)  – 21,284

If you’re not able to catch some of the cheaper Wanna Get Away airfares, then you’ll probably be looking at 25,000 to 35,000 for routes around the US, though it will always vary depending on the cash price of the ticket. I don’t ever book Anytime awards as I find those to typically be 2 to 4X more expensive than Wanna Get Away awards, which just isn’t worth it to me (even with the added flexibility).

What really makes Southwest the top choice in my opinion is the ability to use the Southwest Companion Pass, where you can designate a partner to fly for free with you (on paid or award tickets) for up to two years! This allows you to essentially double the value of your points. So going with the example above, I could fly with Brad roundtrip from New York to Los Angeles and only drop about 17,000 points total for both of us, when most other region-based programs would require up to 50,000 points for that trip! That’s an amazing deal.

Also, there are three Chase Southwest cards allowing you to earn up to 150,000 Rapid Rewards just from credit cards. When you combine a Companion Pass with the earning potential of the Chase Southwest credit cards, you can effectively double your Rapid Rewards, allowing you to bank tons of value from Rapid Rewards. The quick accumulation of points + Companion Pass along with 2 free checked bags and tons of routing options across the US, make Southwest a top choice for getting around domestically for me.  

JetBlue

  • Alliance: None, but partners with the below:
    • Emirates
    • Hawaiian Airlines
    • Silver Airways
    • South African Airways
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, SPG, JetBlue credit cards (Barclays)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with revenue-based system
jetBlue
Photo by 787 Dreamliner

JetBlue is similar to Southwest in a lot of ways, starting with the fact that they both offer revenue-based awards. Jet Blue isn’t as established as Southwest and doesn’t have nearly as large of a fleet that Southwest has but it does offer a large network of routing around the East Coast and even to the Caribbean. And like Southwest they have a strong focus on offering superb customer service and offer a free checked bag (although Southwest allows for two free checked bags and JetBlue charges fees on its cheapest fares).

A lot of people prefer the in-air product of Jet Blue over Southwest for longer flights since it has tv’s, free wifi, more leg room, business/first class “Mint” cabins, allows you to pick your seat, etc. but both airlines constantly rate among the best for award availability, making them both solid choices for getting around the country, in terms of finding award seats.

I’ll save the full debate of Jet Blue vs Southwest for later, but here are some examples of great round trip rates:

  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) for 20,000 miles
  • Boston (BOS) to Las Vegas  Las Vegas (LAS) for 20,400 miles
  • Chicago (ORD) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL) for 23,500 miles

After searching around, I found that Southwest often edged out Jet Blue with lower mileage requirements but both seemed to offer some cheap options that beat out other competitors. If you’re located somewhere in the Northeast and value things like being able to choose your own seat, have in-flight entertainment (tv’s), etc., Jet Blue is a great choice.

Virgin America 

  • Alliance: None, but partners with the below:
    • Emirates
    • Hawaiian Airlines
    • Singapore Airlines
    • Virgin Atlantic
    • Virgin Australia
  • Ways to earn miles: Citi Thankyou Points, SPG, Virgin America credit cards (Comenity)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with revenue-based system
Virgin America Mood Lighting. Photo by Binder.donedat

One of the youngest domestic airlines, Virgin America is another revenue-based program but one that offers a swanky product that some consider to be an experience on its own. The routing network and fleet of Virgin America is nowhere near the same level as Southwest or JetBlue, although they are growing each year. In fact, the routes are so limited you can make them all out with the map below.

Virgin America route map

Despite having such a small network, the redemptions aren’t bad at all. Take a look at some of the roundtrip redemptions I found while researching.

  • San Francisco (SFO) to Chicago (ORD) for 10,062
  • Dallas (DAL) to Los Angeles (LAX ) for 12,113
  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) for 15,677

Like JetBlue, Virgin America will offer all of the amenities that are superior to Southwest, including in-flight entertainment on tv’s, meals, seat selection, option for first class, ambient lighting, etc. These products along with their very reasonable award rates make Virgin America a tempting option, but ultimately their route network is so limited that you’ll only be able to take advantage of it for certain routes. If you’re based in or near its hub at SFO, however, Virgin America can be a very practical and worthwhile option. 

DISTANCE-BASED AWARDS

Distance-based awards offer redemptions that depend on the total distance of your flight. For getting the around the USA, the one distance-based program that sticks out is British Airways.

British Airways 

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG, Chase credit card, Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards (10:8 ratio)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: varies with distance
British airways 747
Photo by Jon Osborne.

British Airways used to be right up there with Southwest when it offered ridiculously low redemption rates for short haul flights. You could get flights for 9,000 miles round trip for trips under 650 miles. Although that option is now gone, British Airways still offers one of the best ways ways to get around the United States with partner American Airlines. Below are the rates you’d likely be choosing from to get around the country.

Getting around the United States

  • 15,000 Avios for routes up to 1,150 miles (e.g., MIA – JFK)
  • 20,000 Avios 1,151 miles to 2,000 miles (e.g., SFO – IAH)
  • 25,000 Avios 2,001 miles to 3,000 miles (e.g., LAX – JFK)

The option for short-haul flights at 15,000 round trip is tied with American Airlines’ short-haul mileage requirement but the difference is that you can use this redemption for trips up to 1,150 miles! That’s over twice the distance of what American uses for their short-haul requirement. Furthermore, you can redeem flights up to 2,000 miles for 20,000 Avios which is the short-haul requirement for United, but British Airways  allows you to travel 1,300 more miles for the same redemption amount (20,000 miles) than what United allows! Therefore, British Airways Avios is one of the best ways to get around the country, especially if you live near an American Airlines hub and you can utilize direct flights for flights under 2,000 miles.

REGION-BASED AWARDS

The standard rate for redeeming miles across the continental United States is right at 25,000 miles for the saver awards (or their equivalent). Generally, I try to avoid redeeming miles for domestic flights with these programs, because as mentioned I’ve got the Southwest Companion Pass and can get Brad and I around the country for very cheap with Southwest. However, sometimes that just won’t be an option, so here’s a look at the mileage requirements for some of the major US airlines.

American Airlines 

  • Alliance: OneWorld
  • Ways to earn miles: SPG, Citi credit cards

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 25,000/15,000 for flights shorter than 500 miles one way

I searched for various routes across the US for both dates just weeks out and several months out, and I found lots of saver availability for American Airlines. It’s lower redemption rate of only 15,000 roundtrip is an excellent way to redeem for cheap and though the short-haul requirement is 200 miles fewer than United’s requirement, it also requires 5,000 fewer miles to redeem so it balances out. Personally, I’d try to stick to booking American Airlines flights with Avios, especially if my flights are under 1,150 miles or even 2,000 miles, but if your trip is under 500 miles, it comes out to the same as it would with Avios (15,000 miles).

United Airlines 

  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Ways to earn miles:  Chase Ultimate Rewards, Chase cards, SPG (2:1)

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 25,000/20,000 for trips shorter than 700 miles oneway 

I found decent award availability with United as well for domestic flights. Again, the 20,000 for trips shorter than 700 miles is nice, but those trips could be cheaper if you’re able to book with British Airways Avios, since you’d only need 15,000 miles.

Delta Airlines

  • Alliance: SkyTeam
  • Ways to earn miles: American Express Membership Rewards, American Express Delta cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Milage requirements vary

25,000 miles would probably be the standard redemption for Delta but they sometimes have specials (like right now in September 2016 where you can find cheaper redemptions for short-haul routes like the 11,000 miles I found for a roundtrip from Los Angeles (LAX) to Las Vegas (LAS) or even routes as low as 10,000 roundtrip if you’re able to piece it together. I find Delta to be one of the least transparent airlines so when it comes to planning domestic award trips, I’m not sure that I’d count on Delta to be offering great deals, but stumbling upon such cheap award flights would always be a tempting option for me if it actually worked with my schedule.

Delta special redemption rates

Alaskan Airlines 

  • Alliance: Partners include American Airlines and Delta and smaller regional airlines 
  • Ways to earn miles: Alaskan Airlines credit cards, SPG

Miles needed:

  • Economy: 25,000 (15,000 for intra-state travel)

Alaska offers the standard 25,000 roundtrip mileage requirement for getting around the US. You can book this rate with Alaskan Airlines, which serves much of the West Coast or book the same rate with American or Delta (roundtrip only with the latter). Alaskan offers the lower 15,000 roundtrip rate when you book intra-state airfare. So for example, if you flew from Seattle to Spokane on Alaskan Airlines, you’d be able to take advantage of the lower 15,000 fare. This lower rate can also be used with regional airlines PenAir and Ravn Alaska.

Alliance partners

Several alliance partners to the major alliances of OneWorld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance all also offer 25,000 redemption rates to get around domestically. Some of them, such as Flying Blue and Singapore Airlines are partners to all three programs Citi ThankYou Points, American Express Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards, so they might make easy options for booking domestic flights with United or Delta.

A word about domestic travel

When it comes to redeeming miles for domestic travel, the importance of evaluating whether or not to use cash or points becomes even more necessary to determine. It’s relatively easy to find low airfares around the country and there are often promos going on with at least one airline to certain destinations. Thus, even if you find a low fare on a any type of program, you should still evaluate if your redemptions are valuable based on the cents per point you’re redeeming for. 

Final Word 

Getting around the US by flying for cheap can actually be pretty easy if you give yourself enough time to seek out the best rates or come across great promos. I personally, would consider getting the Southwest Companion Pass if you travel with a partner because I think it offers the best value and it’s really easy to rack up tons of Rapid Rewards with credit cards. However, if you want to fly with a little more comfort then look to JetBlue and Virgin America. Finally, don’t forget about the great short-haul redemptions still found on British Airways and other discounted rates found on other airlines. 

 

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