The Best Frequent Flyer Program for Flights Between LAX-SFO

Dec 2, 2016

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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 our readers get a general idea of the value miles and points, The Points Guy posts a monthly valuation series covering 37 different programs. Our valuations are based on our experience with these programs.

However, the value you’ll get out of your award miles and points is going to vary based on a few elements: what routes, what dates and whether you fly economy or a premium cabin when you redeem your miles. We began this new series by looking at flights between New York City and Los Angeles (LAX) — the third most popular domestic route by number of passengers. This week, we’re diving into an even more popular, but much shorter, route: Los Angeles (LAX) to/from San Francisco (SFO).

Methodology

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

To keep the analysis between routes rather consistent, we kept the same date strategy as our first route. To get a broad sample, we’re using 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 LAX-SFO, there are five airlines in contention: American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, United and Virgin America. Let’s take a look at how they fared (pun certainly intended).

American Airlines

Take the short hop between LAX-SFO in an American Eagle Embraer ERJ-175. Image courtesy of American Airlines.

American Airlines typically runs 13 daily flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). These flights are served by the carrier’s mainline Boeing 737 and Airbus A321 aircraft, supplemented by American Eagle Embraer RJ-175s. In his latest valuations, TPG 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 $203 20,250 0.95 15,000 37,500
First $506 48,000 1.06 30,000 70,000

AAdvantage did rather poorly on this route. Nine of 10 economy redemptions tested fell under the 1.5-cent valuation of AAdvantage miles, averaging just 0.95 cents per mile. First-class awards averaged about 1.06 cents per mile, only thanks to the high average cost of premium-cabin flights on this short route.

Redemption values varied from just 0.56 cents per mile (for economy flights during the holidays) up to 1.68 cents per mile. The highest-value redemption option is for flights in April, where revenue first-class fares are a whopping $851, but award miles are “just” 50,000 miles round-trip.

Since this route is under 500 miles, some economy flights cost just 7,500 miles each way. Others during prime holiday dates are an insane 30,000 miles one-way. First-class flights stretched between 15,000 and 45,000 miles one-way. On one date, we found that the cheapest economy award (30,000) actually cost more miles than the first-class option (25,000).

Delta

Delta is retrofitting its regional jets for a refreshed look. Image courtesy of Delta.

Delta operates between 12-13 daily flights between LAX and SFO on either Boeing 717 or Delta Shuttle Embraer RJ-175 aircraft. TPG values Delta SkyMiles at 1.2 cents each.

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 $181 23,600 0.80 11,000 40,000
Delta Comfort+ $203 35,200 0.61 19,000 55,000
First $294 62,750 0.45 50,000 82,500

Delta SkyMiles performed terribly for the testing on this route. Of the 30 round-trips tested, not a single redemption topped our valuation of 1.2 cents per mile. The biggest driver of the poor redemption rates: very low paid fares. Of the airlines on this route and for the dates tested, Delta had the second-cheapest economy fares and cheapest first-class fares. Simply put, this is a route where it’s best to buy Delta flights, rather than redeeming miles for them.

Redemption rates ranged from 0.33 cents per mile (for Delta Comfort+ during the peak holidays) up to 1.10 cents per mile (multiple economy options). Generally, economy and Delta Comfort+ awards are best with at least three weeks’ advance purchase. First-class fares averaged 0.45 cents each for both last-minute and advance purchase dates.

Southwest

For better or worse, you know what you’re getting on Southwest. Image courtesy of Sandy Huffaker via Getty Images.

Southwest operates 5-10 daily flights between LAX and SFO on its all-economy Boeing 737 aircraft. TPG values Southwest Rapid Rewards points 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 $153 8,916 1.70 6,012 26,147

Southwest Rapid Rewards points performed admirably on this route. Nine of the 10 dates we checked had valuations of at least 1.66 cents per point. Only last-minute flights performed worse than our 1.5-cent valuation (at just 1.25 cents).

Unlike on airlines that supposedly have a fixed cost per award flight, it pays to book Southwest awards in advance. Since Southwest’s award prices are based on the price of paid fares, booking award flights in advance — when fares are cheaper — should require fewer points. Case in point: Six of the 10 dates cost just 6,012 Rapid Rewards points round-trip, and all were purchased at least 20 days in advance.

United

United mostly operates Boeing 737s on the 1.5-hour flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

United runs between 7-13 daily flights between LAX and SFO. These flights are served by either a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320. TPG values 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 $184 26,000 0.64 20,000 35,000
First $408 55,000 0.76 50,000 100,000

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Southwest is United. United’s fixed pricing made it one of the best options for flights between JFK-LAX, but makes it one of the worse options here. Similar to American and Delta, United charges a cheaper price for short-haul flights. However, United’s price for these flights (10,000) is more than both American’s (7,500) and Delta’s (5,500). Comparing this with cheap paid fares, economy flights averaged just 0.64 cents per mile — less than half of our valuation.

In first class, nine of the 10 dates were available for 50,000 miles. This led to decent options for last-minute flights (1.17 cents each) but poor choices for advance-purchase flights (0.67 cents). The worst award option was in mid-April, when first-class award flights cost 100,000 miles, leading to a pitiful valuation of 0.37 cents per mile.

Virgin America

Virgin America's first-class cabin features recliner seats.
Even on this short flight, you can experience Virgin America’s luxe first-class recliner seats. Image courtesy of Virgin America.

Virgin America operates 9-10 daily flights between LAX and SFO. All of these flights are served by the carrier’s Airbus A320 aircraft. TPG values Virgin’s Elevate points at 1.5-2.3 cents each.

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 $191 7,874 2.35 4,094 17,876
Main Cabin Select $350 15,310 2.21 12,778 22,856
First $428 19,288 2.17 14,326 31,159

Similarly to Southwest, Virgin America’s cost-based redemption system really paid off on this route. Every option tested provided at least 2.1 cents per point in value (for last-minute first-class flights), with redemptions soaring to 2.58 cents per point (for 3+ month advance-purchase economy flights).

Each cabin had its own band of valuations: economy (2.15-2.58), Main Cabin Select (2.13-2.28) and first (2.10-2.27). Redemption rates were generally best for advance-purchase flights, when you could score economy flights for just 4,094 Elevate points round-trip and first class for just 14,326 points round-trip. 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 digging.

Comparison

Now that we’ve looked airline by airline, let’s pit the carriers against each other to see which do the best.

  • Best for economy paid fares: Southwest. Southwest knocked out the competition on this route for the dates tested. Averaging just $153 round-trip, it beat Delta’s $181 second-place finish handily. Especially if you’re traveling with checked bags — and don’t have a way of avoiding fees on another airline — you’re going to be best off traveling this route on Southwest.
  • Best for economy award flights: Virgin America and Southwest. Thanks to a relatively fixed-value award program and competitive economy fares, Virgin America’s economy flights averaged under 8k round-trip. Southwest came in a competitive second place at about 9k round-trip. The three legacy carriers each averaged at least 20,000 miles round-trip.
  • Best for extra-legroom economy paid fares: Delta. Only two of the five airlines sell their extra-legroom seats as separate cabins. At just a $203 average cost, Delta Comfort’s prices beat out Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select ($350). American and United also have extra-legroom seats, but they’re sold as an add-on to an economy fare rather than as a separate cabin. Considering American’s economy fares averaged $203, you’re going to have to get the extra-legroom seats for free in order for the price to match Delta’s fares. 
  • Best for extra-legroom economy award flights: Virgin America. While Delta’s premium economy seats are much better price-wise, Virgin’s got them beat when it comes to award flights. Virgin’s Main Cabin Select average just 15,310 points vs. Delta Comfort’s 35,200 miles. That said, both are a rather poor use of points for this short flight.
  • Best for first-class fares: Delta. This one isn’t even close. Delta’s $294 average first-class fares blew away American ($506), Virgin ($408) and United ($428). 
  • Best for first-class award flights: Virgin America. Thanks to Virgin America’s high-value points and price-based redemptions, the airline’s first-class flights average just under 20k points round-trip. This handily beats American (48k average), Delta (63k average) and United (55k average).

Bottom Line

Thanks to heavy competition keeping fares low on this short route, price-based redemption programs are best for award flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). Both Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program and Virgin America’s Elevate program performed even better than our general valuations for these points. Meanwhile, legacy carrier mileage programs performed rather poorly on this route.

The general takeaway is to use points on Southwest and Virgin America, buy cheap economy fares on Southwest and stick with Delta if you’re paying for first class.

Featured image courtesy of Jason Doiy via Getty Images.

What’s your favorite airline between LA and San Francisco?

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