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The Best Frequent Flyer Program for Flights Between New York and LAX

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What are your miles and points worth? That seems to be a popular question, with a seemingly ever-changing answer. To help readers get a general idea of the value miles and points, TPG posts a monthly valuation series covering 37 different programs.

However, the value you’re going to get out of your award miles/points will vary based on a few elements: which routes, which dates and whether you fly economy or a premium cabin when you redeem your miles. So, we’re kicking off a new series where we dive deep to figure out which frequent flyer programs are the best for certain popular routes. This week we’re analyzing New York City (JFK/LGA/EWR) to/from Los Angeles (LAX).

Methodology

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
We strategically picked a range of dates to analyze. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

To start, we picked 10 dates to analyze. To get a broad sample, we chose dates ranging from last-minute to a five-month advance purchase. These dates are:

  • Tomorrow — because sometimes things come up and you need to travel as soon as possible.
  • One week from today
  • Next Friday
  • Third Monday
  • 22 days from today — most discount fares require a 21-day advance purchase.
  • Fifth Saturday
  • Wednesday in five weeks
  • Seventh Tuesday
  • Three months from today
  • Five months from today — for those planning well in advance.

Next, we gathered the cost — in both cash and miles — for each of the airlines that have a nonstop on this particular route. For NYC-LAX, there are five airlines in contention: American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United and Virgin America. Let’s take a look at how they fared.

American Airlines

a321t-first
American Airlines’ first-class product is one of the premier choices on the NYC-LAX route. Image courtesy of American Airlines.

American Airlines runs 7-12 daily flights between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles (LAX). All of these flights are served by the carrier’s three-class Airbus A321T. This aircraft has 10 lie-flat first-class seats (1-1 arrangement), 20 lie-flat business-class seats (2-2 arrangement) and 72 economy seats (3-3 arrangement). In TPG’s latest valuations, he pegs AAdvantage miles at 1.5 cents apiece.

Cabin Average fare
(round-trip)
Average award
miles required (r/t)
Value of miles
(cents per mile)
Cheapest award
option (r/t)
Most expensive
award option (r/t)
Economy $426 41,500 1.09 25,000 80,000
Business $2,201 146,250 1.58 87,500 195,000
First $3,226 208,000 1.59 135,000 260,000

American Airlines didn’t do very well on this route for the dates we tested. Economy redemptions tested well under the 1.5-cent valuation of AAdvantage miles. While business and first-class awards tested about 1.6 cents each, these options require an incredibly high number of miles to book.

Redemption values varied from just 0.42 cents per mile (for economy flights five months out) up to 2.7 cents per mile (for first-class flights departing tomorrow). Generally, the best cents-per-mile redemptions were for travel within two weeks.

Individual award flight prices ranged widely as well. Economy flights stretched between 12,500 miles one-way all the way up to 50,000 miles one-way. Business-class flights ranged from 32,500 up to 97,500 miles each way, and first-class flights cost between 50,000 and 130,000 miles each way. On one date, we found that the cheapest economy award redemption was actually the same cost as the cheapest first-class redemption (50,000 miles).

Delta

Delta One on a transcontinental 757.
Delta One on a transcontinental 757. Image courtesy of Delta.

Delta operates 5-9 daily flights between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles (LAX) on either on Boeing 757 or 767 aircraft. The Delta 757s have 16 lie-flat Delta One first-class seats (2-2 arrangement), 44 extra-legroom Delta Comfort+ seats (3-3 arrangement) and 108 standard economy seats (3-3 arrangement).

The Delta 767s have 40 lie-flat Delta One first-class seats (1-2-1 arrangement), 28 extra-legroom Delta Comfort+ seats (2-3-2 arrangement) and 178 standard economy seats (2-3-2 arrangement). In TPG’s latest valuations, Delta SkyMiles are estimated to be worth 1.2 cents per mile in value.

Cabin Average fare
(round-trip)
Average award
miles required (r/t)
Value of miles
(cents per mile)
Cheapest award
option (r/t)
Most expensive
award option (r/t)
Main Cabin $422 37,250 1.12 25,000 57,500
Delta Comfort+ $592 71,000 0.85 45,000 105,000
Delta One $2,251 147,750 1.50 135,000 180,000

As with American Airlines, Delta economy rates generally underperformed against TPG’s SkyMiles valuation. Delta Comfort+ award options were an even worse value. While the cash fares for Delta Comfort+ aren’t much more than economy, the Delta Comfort+ award options were nearly double economy rates.

Redemption rates ranged from 0.65 cents per mile (multiple Delta Comfort+ options) up to 1.98 cents per mile (for a last-minute Delta One redemption). Generally, economy awards were better with a three-week to five-month advance purchase, but Delta One redemptions found their highest value per mile for flights within 3 weeks.

JetBlue

Mint
JetBlue’s Mint is one of the best transcontinental options — especially if you can snag the suites in rows 2 and 4. Image courtesy of JetBlue.

JetBlue operates 6-10 daily flights between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles (LAX) on its flagship A321s featuring JetBlue Mint. This aircraft has 16 lie-flat first-class (2-2/1-1 arrangement depending on the row) and 143 economy seats (3-3 arrangement). 41 of the economy seats are Even More Space seats with extra legroom, costing $180 to reserve round-trip on this route. In TPG’s latest valuations, TrueBlue points are estimated to have between 1-1.4 cents per point in value.

Cabin Average fare
(round-trip)
Average award
miles required (r/t)
Value of miles
(cents per mile)
Cheapest award
option (r/t)
Most expensive
award option (r/t)
Economy $425 30,600 1.38 20,600 58,800
Mint $1,718 139,810 1.25 82,800 230,100

Our testing confirmed that there is indeed a range of valuations for TrueBlue points: Redemptions came in between 1.04 cents per point (Mint flights with one week of notice) and 1.45 cents per point (economy flights with a five month purchase). However, most economy options fell between 1.41-1.44 cents, and most Mint options were between 1.30-1.31 cents per point.

Unlike on airlines that supposedly have a fixed cost per award flight, it pays to book JetBlue award flights in advance. Since JetBlue’s points have a somewhat fixed value, booking award flights in advance — when fares are cheaper — should get you award flights using fewer points.

United

You might want to use KrisFlyer miles instead of MileagePlus to fly United's own domestic business class.
United’s BusinessFirst cabin features “p.s.” (Premium Service) on transcontinental flights. Image courtesy of United.

United runs 8-14 daily flights between Newark’s EWR and Los Angeles (LAX). These flights are served by a Boeing 757 — which is arranged either with 28 lie-flat BusinessFirst seats (2-2 arrangement) and 114 economy seats (3-3 arrangement), or 16 BusinessFirst seats and 153 economy seats. In TPG’s latest valuations, he pegs MileagePlus miles at 1.5 cents apiece.

Cabin Average fare
(round-trip)
Average award
miles required (r/t)
Value of miles
(cents per mile)
Cheapest award
option (r/t)
Most expensive
award option (r/t)
Economy $438 32,500 1.37 25,000 50,000
BusinessFirst $2,077 100,000 2.07 100,000 100,000

Of all of the programs on this route, United certainly has the most consistent award pricing. Every economy flight checked was either at the 12,500 saver level or the 25,000 standard level. Meanwhile, every single date we checked for business class had availability at the 50,000-mile level.

While award rates were rather consistent, flight prices varied quite a bit — which created a wide range of redemption rates. The lowest point was a economy redemption with about a week and a half notice (0.77 cents per mile), while the best redemption was for a business-class flight with three weeks of notice (3.25 cents per mile).

Virgin America

Virgin America's first-class cabin features recliner seats.
Virgin America’s first-class cabin features recliner seats.

Virgin America operates 7-9 daily flights between New York City (JFK/EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX). All of these flights are served by Virgin America A320s — each of which has 8 recliner first-class seats (2-2 arrangement), 12 extra-legroom Main Cabin Select seats (3-3 arrangement) and 126-129 standard economy seats (3-3 arrangement). In TPG’s latest valuations, each Elevate point is estimated to have between 1.5 and 2.3 cents in value.

Cabin Average fare
(round-trip)
Average award
miles required (r/t)
Value of miles
(cents per mile)
Cheapest award
option (r/t)
Most expensive
award option (r/t)
Main Cabin $448 20,246 2.17 12,466 29,939
Main Cabin Select $868 40,835 2.11 26,420 57,043
First $2,106 98,711 2.14 72,930 135,183

Virgin America’s award valuations were remarkably similar across all dates and cabins. Each option we tested fell between 2.05-2.33 cents per point of value. Having this kind of parity can be a relief for travelers who can know that they’re going to get a rather fixed value out of their points without having to dig for optimal dates.

Comparison

Now that we’ve looked airline by airline, let’s pit the carriers against each other to see which fares (pun intended) the best.

  • Best for economy paid fares: Depends. Average economy fares were remarkably similar across all five airlines tested. The average economy prices varied between $422 (Delta) and $448 (Virgin), and none of these airlines offers a free checked bag for economy flights. So, pick your airline based on your travel schedule and/or airline loyalty.
  • Best for economy award flights: Virgin America. Thanks to a relatively fixed-value award program and competitive economy fares, Virgin America’s transcontinental economy flights averaged just over 20k round-trip — compared with averages of 31k on JetBlue, 32k on United, 37k on Delta and 42k on American.
  • Best for extra-legroom economy paid fares: Delta. Only two airlines sell their extra-legroom seats as separate cabins. Averaging $592, Delta Comfort+ prices are much better than Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select $868 average cost. But, you might be able to snag a cheaper option on American, JetBlue or United after paying for extra-legroom seats.
  • Best for extra-legroom economy award flights: Virgin America. At an average of just under 41k points round-trip, Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select compares favorably to standard economy rates on other airlines, and handily beats Delta’s 71k extra-legroom award redemptions.
  • Best for lie-flat paid fares: JetBlue. Not only does JetBlue have the lowest average cost at just $1,700, but the airline’s Mint product is arguably the best business-class option on this route.
  • Best for lie-flat award flights: United. For each day we tested, United had lie-flat award seats available at just 100,000 miles round-trip — compared with averages of 140k on JetBlue, 146k on American and 148k on Delta. While Virgin America’s 99k average price is slightly cheaper, its first-class seats don’t lie flat.

Bottom Line

There’s no overall winner for best airline or best mileage program between NYC and Los Angeles. The best carrier is going to depend on how you like to travel. Last-minute, premium-cabin passengers are going to do best with United — but only if you’re willing to fly out of Newark. Meanwhile, advance-planning economy flyers are going to spend the least amount of points using Virgin America — thanks to a fixed-value program and lower advance-purchase rates.

What’s your favorite airline for travel between NYC and LA?

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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