Comparing Transcon Award Availability in Premium Cabins
The best awards are sometimes (but not always) the hardest to find. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr examines availability for some of the most sought after domestic seats to see which airlines come through for award travelers in premium cabins.
On May 2, 1923, two US Air Service lieutenants took off in a Fokker T-2 from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. They landed in San Diego 27 hours later, having used nothing but a compass and railroad maps for navigation. The two pilots had just completed the first successful transcontinental nonstop flight. I find it fascinating that just 92 years later, thousands of people accomplish this same feat every day, hundreds of them in expensive business and first class cabins. What would those two lieutenants say if they could witness modern transcon service?
Transcontinental flights used to be the cream of the crop when it came to commercial aviation, and airlines have recently started offering revamped cabins and services in an attempt to relive the glory days of those old routes. In this post, I'll compare premium cabin award availability across 6 US airlines on transcontinental routes, and illuminate which airlines and routes you should focus on when trying to fly premium transcon using points and miles.
Availability can mean different things when looking at each airline's loyalty program. Revenue-based programs like JetBlue and Virgin America almost always show availability, since the cost of a free ticket is based on the current revenue fare. Delta shows availability on most days, though the mileage requirements are often unreasonably high.
Taking these program differences into consideration, I looked at the following factors:
- Short-term availability — How many seats are available at the lowest mileage level in the next 30 days?
- Mid-term availability — How many seats are available at the lowest mileage level in the next 2-5 months?
- Long-term availability — How many seats are available at the lowest mileage level in the next 6 months and beyond?
- Miles Required — Based on TPG's latest valuations, what kind of value is offered based on the miles required for an award seat in a premium cabin?
- Product quality — Not all premium cabins are created equal. A large recliner seat on an Airbus A321 is very different from a flat-bed seat on a 767, and those differences must be accounted for.
With that information, I was able to grade each airline (from A to F) on its transcon premium class availability. Here's what I determined:
Nonstop, round-trip transcon service in First Class on Alaska Airlines starts at 50,000 Mileage Plan miles. However, variable pricing means those seats can cost as much as 120,000 miles round-trip. The majority of Alaska's transcon routes originate or end at the Seattle hub, though you'll also find service between Portland and Boston or Washington, as well as between Los Angeles and Baltimore or Washington.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to Alaska's transcon service is that flights are on Boeing 737s with only 5 inches of recline. Flying from Seattle to Tampa or Fort Lauderdale would not make for an exciting First Class ride on Alaska's product. I would rather use my Mileage Plan miles for flights on a partner airline.
Award availability is lacking on Alaska Airlines transcon flights throughout the calendar. For most of the transcon service in the next month and beyond, each 30-day window offers between zero and five flights at the lowest price of 25,000 miles one-way. There's no availability at the lowest price between Seattle and New York. The only thing saving Alaska from flunking completely is the American Airlines partner space that shows up online and offers a seat on flights each day, even though it costs 60,000 miles each way.
Much has been written about American's A321 Transcontinental service on up to 13 daily flights from New York-JFK to Los Angeles and 5 daily flights from JFK to San Francisco. The service by most accounts is a big hit, but it only represents two of American's large number of transcon routes. It's disappointing that (as of writing) not a single business class sAAver seat is available on the A321T between JFK-LAX through November. There are 20 seats on up to 13 flights per day, meaning that for roughly the next 100 days, there are around 26,000 seats flying before a Business SAAver seat is available for 25,000 AAdvantage miles.
First Class on the A321T is a different story, with an average of 10-12 days per month showing a seat available at the SAAver level of 32,500 miles.
How about Business Class seats on the rest of American's transcon routes? Looking out of the Miami hub, 3-4 days of SAAver availability out of 30 is the norm for the nonstop between Miami and Seattle. That's a 6.5-hour flight serviced by the less enticing 737-800. Miami to LAX is a bit better in the mid- and long-term range, averaging 5-8 days of SAAver availability in Business and First Class on 777 service with lie-flat seats. In the short-term, SAAver level availability for Business and First Class transcon awards is sparse or nonexistent out of Los Angeles, Miami, and Boston.
The pattern of limited availability on transcon routes (far too often flown on 737s) continues from Boston to Seattle and Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Orlando, and Washington. The best transcon availability I found is a legacy US Airways flight from Los Angeles to Tampa. However, even that is a 5-hour flight on an Airbus A319 with a First Class that's not much more than a somewhat larger seat. American's new emphasis on A321T service brings it up to a passing grade, though I wish more business seats were available.
In March of this year, Delta BusinessElite was rebranded as Delta One. In addition to long-haul international routes, the service is available between New York-JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco. The ground service and in-flight experience on both the 757 and 767 are a welcome upgrade to previous BusinessElite and domestic First Class offerings.
When it comes to availability for Delta One, there's no ambiguity about what it costs or when it's available. Delta seems to be charging a flat 67,500 SkyMiles one-way. Aside from holidays, every date on the schedule has a seat available at this rate. By paying more than twice the miles required for other transcon business cabins, you gain steady availability.
Besides Delta One out of New York, Delta offers several other transcon routes with First Class. From Atlanta alone you can fly to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Ontario, Orange County, San Jose, Oakland and Las Vegas. Technically, the cheapest one-way First Class award ticket will cost you 25,000 miles, though that's a rare find. The standard seems to be 37,500-45,000 miles one-way, and most routes show plenty of availability at that price.
Delta's availability is interesting, as short-term and long-term availability is much better than mid-term availability in terms of cost. Booking between 21-60 days or greater than six months out appears to result in the best prices. This is in line with yet another set of recently announced changes to the SkyMiles program set to take place next year.
Delta doesn't tell you what award tickets should cost, requires double the mileage (or more) compared to other programs, and leaves you wondering what other devaluation is going to happen overnight. However, Delta does have a seat available almost every day for transcon award flights. If you have the miles, then you can fly when you want, and enjoy a solid product in Delta One.
TrueBlue has no blackout dates for award flights, in part because the number of points required for an award is directly tied to the current revenue rate. The hot news from JetBlue is the new JetBlue Mint experience on flights from New York-JFK and Boston to LAX and San Francisco. Review after review raves about the sleek cabin, good food, and coveted few suite seats.
JetBlue does not have a set value assigned to TrueBlue points, but in searching a few dates, I found a value around 1.3 cents per point when redeeming for a transcon Mint seat. Flights start at $599 one-way or 45,300 points. As with revenue fares, last minute award bookings cost significantly more. Flights two days from now are selling for $1,229 one-way or 134,900 points, giving you a redemption value of only 0.9 cents per point. I found $599 fares from two weeks to nine months in the future.
Mint tickets used to cost only 35,000 points before the bump up to the current rate. There is still talk that American Express will discontinue its relationship with JetBlue, and points will be harder to come by if TrueBlue is no longer a Membership Rewards transfer partner. While availability will always be there for JetBlue, the increased cost of Mint awards and the relative difficulty of earning TrueBlue points hurt JetBlue's grade. The quality of the Mint product helps, but I believe I'd be more likely to pay $599 cash for a Mint ticket than redeem points.
Transcon Premium Service (p.s.) flights currently operate from JFK and Newark to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Beginning October 25, 2015, all p.s. flights will move to Newark. After United announced the move, availability for p.s. flights was brilliant, and amazingly it continues to look pretty good leading up to Christmas. Round-trip flights at the saver level cost just 50,000 miles.
Even looking farther out, most dates show p.s. seat availability:
Besides p.s. routes, United offers transcon flights to several other destinations from Washington Dulles, Newark and San Francisco. Searches for a wide range of dates reveal plenty of premium cabin availability on many routes. Unfortunately, cities known for little premium award space (like Seattle) live up to their reputations on United. Florida routes from the West Coast also don't fare well for premium cabin space, with availability worsening the further out you look.
It's surprising to me that the premium transcon service has the best availability of all the routes United offers. 50,000 miles for flights that routinely cost over $1,000 is a good redemption value. The mediocre to good availability on other routes also beats that of the other carriers for transcon award flights.
This hip airline may surprise you with the number of transcon routes it offers. Like TrueBlue, the Elevate program is revenue-based, as mileage requirements are directly tied to the cash price. Elevate points have a more set value around 2.2 cents apiece, but it can vary.
Virgin America flies A320 aircraft with only 8 First Class seats. By all accounts, it's a nice product, but a recliner seat with extra leg room cannot compare to the lie-flat seats flown by competitors on many of these routes. The ground experience, food, and modern atmosphere draw many loyal customers to Virgin America, but I'd prefer a lie-flat to a 'chic' cabin.
In my opinion, Virgin America Elevate points are the most expensive and difficult to obtain of those discussed here. When looking at the fixed prices for redeeming Elevate points with partner airlines like Emirates, Virgin Australia, and Singapore Airlines, the prospect of spending 60,000 points on a Virgin America A320 First Class flight is unappealing. You can find more reasonably priced First Class flights if you book well in advance or catch one of VA's sales.
If I were a Virgin America loyalist and wanted to use points, I would fly Main Cabin and spread my rewards out more efficiently. The hard and soft products are above average, but I'm deterred by the lack of a lie-flat seat and the idea of a 5 to 6-hour transcon flight on a narrow body aircraft.
Thanks to high mileage requirements, a basic lack of award space, an unfavorable revenue model or some combination of those factors, none of these airlines received the top grade for premium transcon availability. United outscored the others, and happens to be my preferred option for premium domestic flights, as I can usually find a seat within a day or two of when I want to travel. Even when I don't see open seats initially, I find that availability changes often on United.com, so continued searches commonly yield results. The MileagePlus program also has other great features like the ability to add open jaws and stopovers.
Unsurprisingly, the best seats are harder to come by. If you're looking for premium transcon awards, it's best to book far ahead and have a flexible schedule. You can also check JetBlue and Virgin America routinely, since the cost of awards will fluctuate with the cash price.
Considering everything from the hard product to award availability, what's your favorite premium transcon service?