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Sunday Reader Question: What is the Best Strategy for Domestic Travel?

by on July 22, 2012 · 15 comments

in American, American Express, British Airways, Delta, Sunday Reader Questions, United, US Airways

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TPG reader Mike writes:

“What is the difference in strategy in reward cards and programs to sign up for if your goal is more domestic travel vs international travel. A lot of articles I see you write explain how to maximize the benefits of international travel since it can be so expensive. But for myself, I have a tendency to do mostly domestic travel. Is there a different approach to using the the rewards programs if you are focused more on travel (flights and hotels) in the US?  I think others may appreciate an article on that topic.”

I do like to use mile for international trips, but I also redeem for domestic trips, in coach and first class, too which has allowed me to visit family and friends when fares were prohibitively expensive. I don’t think the concepts are much different if you prefer to redeem for domestic versus international flights – the bigger considerations are things like your home airport and what class of service you like to fly. That being said, some programs and credit cards are better for domestic flyers, so here are my 5 tips on building a strategy that will maximize your domestic awards.

1. Evaluate whether fixed value programs like Capital One and US Bank Flexperks provide more value than traditional mileage programs. Having a Capital One Venture card basically gives 2% of your spend back in the form of travel. If you spend $30,000 a year, you’ll get 60,000 points, which is worth $600. Fixed value programs are better for people who redeem for cheaper flights and need the flexibility of booking any flight. The main downside is that expensive flights, especially those in business and first class, become exorbitantly expensive using fixed value points because the redemption is tied to the cost of the ticket vs. traditional mileage programs where first business is usually about twice as many miles – even though it may cost 5-10x more to purchase.

2. Of the four major domestic carriers, I’d rank domestic saver award availability as follows (from best to worst): American, United, US Airways, Delta. Of course this all depends on your home airport and where you fly, but that’s been my experience. Delta tip: Redeem on partner Alaska Airways where possible. They have better award availability and will always price at the saver level.

3. Leverage one-way awards. I prefer to focus on building up American, British Airways, Alaska and United miles because they allow me to book one-way awards at half the price of a roundtrip. Other programs, like Delta, US Airways, and Aeroplan charge roundtrip prices, no matter what. Having the ability to book one airline on an outbound and another on a return greatly increases the chances of booking a saver award.
4. Consider Southwest – especially for their companion pass. Southwest’s frequent flyer program is a hybrid fixed value/ traditional program, that offers the ability to buy any flight, but at three different tiers depending on capacity controls. Points are worth the most when redeeming for Wanna Get Away fares- I recently got about 1.8 cents per point on a redemption. The companion pass is an incredible benefit you get when accruing 110,000 points from their credit cards- which isn’t too hard to do since you can get 100,000 points from getting both the personal and business Southwest Plus credit cards (50,000 each). For more on the companion pass, check out this post. For a short time, Southwest will let you transfer to Airtran and then back into old Southwest credits, which can be a good value for domestic awards.

5. Consider British Airways Avios. British Airways may be the flagship carrier of the United Kingdom, but they have an incredible frequent flyer program for domestic US flyers. BA is known for huge fees on award tickets, but they don’t apply to domestic US awards on oneworld partner American Airlines – plus they have a distance based award chart that starts at just 4,500 Avios for a one-way flight. Plus you can book one-way awards and there are no last-minute booking fees (vs. $75 on American and United).

The key to a successful points strategy is building one that gives you many options. Credit cards and airline frequent flyer programs have their strengths and weaknesses so leverage each to their full potential. Whether you fly international first class or domestic coach, I still think having transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards is a smart move because you get the best of both worlds: the ability to transfer to airline partners in all three major alliances as well as the option to use the points at fixed value rates for “anytime” flights when needed.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Kelly

    Re: #3 — Alaska actually does allow one-way award redemptions for domestic flights on AS metal. If you use miles for a flight on Delta or internationally, then you have to book it as a roundtrip. Plus, if you’re in a hub city (Portland or Seattle), you can work in a free stopover. For example, my boyfriend and I just did a trip for 12,500 miles each: WRG-JNU-SEA-PDX (stop)-SNA (all on AS metal).

  • Chister

    Brian,

    Great tip on booking Alaska flights using Delta miles.

    This raised a more general question in my mind. I googled ‘Delta airlines partners’, but can’t find a site that says Alaska is one of the partners. However, when I googled ‘Alaska airlines partner’, I see many partner airlines including Delta. My questions are, how do we find out the award partners of an airline in general, and is the award partnership reciprocal in general?

    Thanks

  • Mike

    Thanks so much Brian for taking me up on my suggetion for the article. The information you provided will really assist me. You have a fantasitc site and I have learned a lot in a short amount of time since I discovered this site. Keep up the great work.

  • TPG Intern Ryan

    Thx, fixed!

  • Grant
  • arcticbull

    Good idea but that doesn’t actually address the question. There are plenty of partnerships between airlines that are NOT within each other’s alliances. Those can actually have some of the best values.

    As to Christer’s specific question, the SkyMiles partner website is as good as any:
    http://skymilesoffers.delta.com/airline_partners.php

    You should be able to redeem for flights on any of these airlines, with the possible exception of MH (Malaysia), as they’re to join OneWorld by the end of the year. Until then though, I have no idea if it’s possible. There were reports as of late 2011 that it was still doable.

    Generally they are reciprocal but not always. Its on a case-by-case basis.

  • Char

    To book an Alaska flight using Delta miles, I’m guessing I would join their mileage program and then book on their website. So does it give me the option of using my Delta miles upon check-out?

  • PJ

    Delta let me book one way awad using Delta miles on Air China with half of their insane required miles and fees. A real life comparison-CTU – JZH on a 45 minute flight CTU : UA 12.5 K with $7.60 versus 15K with $40.60 with delta with phoned in booking.. by the way why is Delta charging booking fees when there is NO ONLINE booking available?

  • Mark

    Good question – since I have a bunch of skymiles can they be redeemed through alaska air? Or does that apply only to miles earned on AS or transferred from a credit card award program?

  • thepointsguy

    You always book via the channel of the miles you hold. So in this case, you can book Alaska award flights on Delta.com using the Skymiles redemption function

  • thepointsguy

    Glad you enjoyed it! There are many different angles you can take, but I hope this at least helped steer you in the right direction

  • thepointsguy
  • PJ

    Chase Freedom with 10/10 chase exlusives rocks:
    look at how fast you can run up the UR balances: last quarter I used up $1500 grocery allowance on 3 cards- points earned: 4500 + 450 ( 10 % bonus) plus 4500 X 4 ( 4 points extra ) plus 10 points on ~200 swipes for a total of 24950 THAT IS JUST one quarter
    that is more than $450 when you use it to pay for Southwest Wanna get away tickest. Am i getting 10 % rebate ( not just 5 %) ? not to mention the SHoprite supermarket charge only$950 for their $1000 worth of gift cards.

    Points I can spend : Southwest put out a lot of sale seats down from $100 to $69 and take only about 3800 points to pay for the $69 Wanna get away fare. or I can fly non stop round trip NYC to west coast on the airline with best award availability one way for 12.5 K .. by the way it costs less than $175 to fly one way I would not fly it with United Points .

  • PJ

    I just noticed SOuthwest 50K sign on bous tho with fees and $1000 spend is BACK.

    get as many cards as you can fro your family members nice card to have !!

  • Jruiz2159

    You stated American lets you book one way tickets at half the price…it is charging more for a one way ticket that a round trip ticket from ewr to ord…did something change?

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