The Critical Points: Use These Great Avenues to Domestic Award Travel

Nov 23, 2018

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Thinking outside of the box is what this column is all about. However, when it comes to domestic award travel, many points and miles diehards and newbies alike continue to lack creativity and miss out on potentially huge mileage savings in the process. The award search engines of the “comfortable carriers” (American, Delta and United) can provide valuable information, but should not be your first (or second, or even third) stop when looking to book award flights within the US. Here are the better avenues to getting award tickets to the other 49 states (or 50 if you’re a DC resident).

Avianca LifeMiles

Stated simply, you may not be able to believe what the LifeMiles Star Alliance partner chart says for domestic US travel. For starters, only 47 of the contiguous 48 states are covered in the three different US zones (Alaska and Hawaii are in different zones). Studying the interesting zones, you’ll see that you’ll need fewer miles to fly from Florida to Montana (7,500 miles) than to fly from Georgia to South Carolina (10,000 miles). In addition, the prices displayed on the LifeMiles award booking engine often don’t match what the partner chart says (5,500 is nowhere on the chart):

And finally, there’s just some straight head scratching to be done when looking at domestic United flights. Los Angeles (LAX) to Washington-Dulles (IAD) one-way is correctly priced at 12,500 miles:

Logically, we can then assume that the return flight (from Washington-Dulles to Los Angeles) is also priced at 12,500 miles, right? Well, nope:

Since the Avianca LifeMiles program is now a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One, if you aren’t spending time looking at booking domestic flights with LifeMiles, you really should be. Study the award chart, and then spend some time searching domestic routes and changing every input you can on the LifeMiles award search engine (the ones designated with red boxes below):

I’m not going to spell it out any further for you, but if you spend time with this engine and take a few notes, you’re going to find some things that will pleasantly surprise you and make for excellent domestic award tickets — especially to/from that mystery 48th ‘state’.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club (but not without research)

If you’re looking to book a nonstop Delta flight, Virgin Atlantic should be your first stop. Flying Club charges a flat 12,500 miles per economy segment (regardless of what Delta is charging).

There are two really fun parts about booking Delta flights with Flying Club. The first is that you can book most Delta flights on Virgin Atlantic’s website. The second is that Flying Club often has access to book Delta award flights even when these same trips through Delta are pricing out at one of the highest SkyMiles levels for the flight.

As an example, Atlanta (ATL) to San Francisco (SFO) on December 17 is 12,500 Virgin Atlantic miles:

The exact same flight on the exact same day would set you back 32,000 SkyMiles:

This isn’t to say you can’t find good deals on domestic flights using SkyMiles. Atlanta to Orlando (MCO) is regularly 7,000 SkyMiles or less, including just 5,500 miles for most dates over the next five weeks. As a result, before you jump the gun and use 12,500 Virgin Atlantic miles, make sure you give Delta’s site a peek.

You can also score the occasional treat using Flying Club for premium class flights, such as January 7. Delta Flight 1915 from Las Vegas (LAS) to Atlanta is operated by the carrier’s new A350, and you can have an enclosed suite for the transcon for 22,500 Virgin Atlantic miles:

Iberia Avios

Using British Airways Avios for domestic flights on American can result in some great deals, but I’m guessing that many of you have already investigated and utilized that program. However, using Iberia Avios has a distinct advantage. While British Airways charges per segment, Iberia Plus charges based on the total of all segments in an itinerary. This can save you Avios compared to BA.

For example, connecting itineraries offered by American Airlines can add up quickly. For example, New York-LaGuardia (LGA) — Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) — Las Vegas round-trip would cost 35,000 British Airways Avios (10,000 + 7,500 + 7,500 + 10,000). However, since the entire itinerary comes in at 4,888 miles in distance, it would only cost 28,000 Iberia Avios, according to the Iberia Plus award chart for AA-operated flights:

Do your quick calculations and figure out if Iberia Avios can save you points on your domestic AA-operated route.

JAL Mileage Bank

Put bluntly, if you are not familiar with the JAL online award booking engine, you need to be. You can book multi-segment, domestic itineraries with stopovers operated by AA for very few JAL miles. American-operated award flights are priced according to the total distance of your itinerary with an award chart that has several appealing zones:

Atlanta — New York (stopover) — Chicago (destination) — Atlanta is a staggering 21,000 JAL miles and $11.20:

New York — Chicago (stopover) — Seattle (stopover) — Los Angeles (destination) — New York, stopping for as long as you like in three different cities, would be 37,000 miles in economy or 60,000 miles in business, the latter of which would include AA’s A321T business class from Los Angeles back to New York.

You can currently earn JAL miles by transferring from Marriott points or getting the rather lackluster JAL credit card from First National Bank of Omaha. This is really a wonderful program, and award tickets are entirely bookable online. Find SAAver space from AA’s award search engine and you’ll see the same flights available on JAL’s engine.

Bottom Line

You don’t need to be limited to the “big three” when booking domestic award flights, though even well-known partners may not provide the best value. Singapore KrisFlyer has some great domestic award options but charges fuel surcharges on domestic United flights. Korean SKYPASS also has some great pricing for Delta domestic flights, but you can no longer transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to the program, and Korean’s website is notoriously bad at finding Delta award space.

Instead, look to Virgin Atlantic, Avianca LifeMiles, Iberia and JAL the next time you want to book any of the three legacy carriers for domestic award flights. Do yourself a favor and spend a bit of time familiarizing yourself with these programs and navigating their respective websites and routing rules. You’ll be glad you did when it comes time to book your next award trip within the US, as you’ll be able to (potentially) use that knowledge to save thousands of miles.

Featured image courtesy of American Airlines Group.

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