Frequent Flier Miles: Which Airlines Are Easiest To Redeem Awards?

An article this week on GetRichSlowly about frequent flier program basics mentioned a WSJ article that I’ve never seen about which airlines make it easiest for you to redeem your miles. The research was done by a consulting firm IdeaWorks Co, which looked for awards equivalent to a domestic roundtrip flight using 25,000 miles “saver” award level. Here are the results:

JetBlue (79%) and Southwest (99%) are tops for domestic carriers. Alaska, American, Continental, and United all had seats available at least 60% of the time or better. Delta and US Airways were at the bottom of the list, with flights up for grabs only 1 out of 4 tries. I’ve mentioned that my parents are served by Delta and I’ve definitely wrestled with them over award flights, and only by booking well ahead of time and being flexible we’ve still managed to get by.

I have no real loyalty towards any airline, which is why I still prefer the flexibility of the Starwood American Express card for racking up my miles and hotel points. I use it for hotels whenever I can, but also to top off my accounts when I finally reach an award I want to redeem. I’m glad there are articles like these to publicly shame airlines like Delta into improving their awards availability.


  1. infamousdx says:

    No surprise that Delta is the bottom of the barrel… their 3-tier award system is just a pain at times.

    As for US airways, the only good way to use US Airways is on Star Alliance partners!

  2. Not surprising that the top-rated US airlines such as United make it relatively difficult to earn miles without flying (or at least traveling) and the low-rated US airlines such as Delta and UselessAirways make it super easy to earn miles without ever stepping foot on a plane. Delta and USAirways both several years ago made moves that diluted the value of their loyalty miles so bad that they had to restructure their awards system because their miles weren’t worth anything anymore (everyone has them!).

    Personally I think American has the most flexible redemption system because they also allow one-way redemptions, but that wasn’t accounted for in this study.

  3. One thing I have learned recently is that Delta releases a lot of low-level redemption seats weeks before departure. If one can hold out on booking, there is a chance of being able to secure that low-level seat at the last minute.

  4. Eric Jacobson says:

    There is a lot of complexity to the rewards programs that no single chart can possibly capture, but this illustration is helpful for a rough first look at airline programs. It may be more helpful when one is looking to burn a credit card sign up bonus than when evaluating ongoing mile and elite earning and redemption opportunities.

    Flexibility is key and I like Southwest’s flexible flight and gift card redemptions as well as AA’s inexpensive hotel, car, and one-way flight bookings. From personal experience, Delta’s placement is well deserved.

  5. I once tried to use Air Canada miles and they wanted to charge me about $350 per ticket in charges on top of the miles for taxes and fuel surcharges (from California to eastern Canada). I remember checking to see how easy it was to find a flight using miles before going with their frequent flyer program and they had a lot of available of flights (one of the main reasons why I went with them).

    Moral of the story is to also see how much $$$ the programs charge you to redeem miles before you go with one. Don’t just look at how many flights that are available.

    Still some good and surprising data Jonathon.

  6. I have a British Airways card with 100,000 miles in the initial promotion… I like how fast the miles accrue, but the fuel surcharges really takes a bite out of “free” flights.

  7. Delta rarely has 25,000 point flights (although I was able to get one recently for December). They often have 35,000 point flights, however. Other airlines have only 25,000 or 50,000 levels, so Delta is not necessarily the worst.

  8. Yes, using your miles on partner airlines does appear to be a good option.

    @WellHeeled – Avoid surcharges with Cathay Pacific, LAN Airlines, and American. Check out this comment is just got on the other post about British Airways:

    “Used this offer for 2 round trip tickets from Chicago to Hawaii for a grand total of $150 (50 for flights and 95$ annual fee) for $1900 in tickets (as of right now). Was surprised we only had to look about 8 months out to find the flights.”

  9. Not surprised at all. I’ve never been able to use miles to get a flight that I’d actually want to go on through US Air, Delta, or American. Which are the three main airlines (other than Southwest) that fly to destinations I most frequently go to from my local airport. Which is why anytime I have the option of using a credit card to gain miles or something else, I always go with something else. Frequent flyer miles have never been anything but an incredible waste of time in my experience. Nowhere near equal to the “1 point = 1 penny” value I get from getting giftcards, which are essentially as good as cash, since I usually get CVS cards, and I shop there regularly anyway.

  10. I finally got so frustrated with Delta that I used my miles for hotel stays. And really it wasn’t that a bad deal. Two 4-5 star hotel stays that would have cost me $500 or so which in my mind was not an unreasonable trade off against a free flight somewhere. But bottom line, I wouldn’t waste my time trying to accumulate Delta points again.

  11. I have 200k BA miles from the Chase promotion, and have not been able to redeem them for a flight on American for lack of availability. How far in advance should I be looking? BA’s website is a joke. I need to try calling in.

    Also I got an email from BA today saying they’re changing to a points system in November. Gotta blow through these miles ASAP before they Nerf these miles into oblivion!

  12. Delta is the WORST period, itwas so bad I sold all my delta miles because I simply could not use them (i had over 100k)
    Continental is not too bad, United was very dificult or the CSRs are no really there to help you and they never gave me the miles I earned it takes months just to get an answer.
    So, hands down American Airlines to me was always to easy straigh forward flexible and great value.

  13. The more illustrative figure is for the U.S. based airlines where 90% of us will be earning points. Southwest and JetBlue are deceiving because their mile redemption is based on the dollar value of the ticket — it’s a fixed conversion that caps your upside.

    Which makes United / Continental stand out that much more as the top global carrier in the U.S. mix. Actually surprised Alaska wasn’t higher, it usually gets rave reviews from its members.

  14. With Southwest and JetBLue, you can redeem a free flight for less than 6000 miles, Delta? a whooping 25000 miles is needed for a short flight from Syracuse NY-JFK (NYC)! Delta miles is just scam!

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