Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Economy Class

3 Best Loyalty Programs for Short-Haul Awards in the Western U.S.

Sometimes you want to spend your hard-earned miles to travel far across the globe, flying in first or business class. Other times you just want to get to the next state over for a friend’s wedding, and you may not know what your best options are.

Living where I do in Humboldt County, California gives me a unique perspective on the value of certain miles. When you live near a large airport, spending miles to fly a short, competitive hop, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, typically doesn’t make sense. But when your rural airport wants a minimum of $350 to fly *anywhere*, it makes you dig deep and evaluate all other options.

And there definitely are some good ones. Here are three of the best miles for flying short-haul in the west:

Alaska MileagePlan

Alaska miles continue to be one of the most attractive mileage currencies out there. They are unfortunately not a transfer partner of any bank program, so it can be a bit tough to accumulate a lot of them. But they are absolutely worth accruing.

The beauty of MileagePlan awards is that they start at only 5,000 miles one-way for the shortest hops. This means that an Alaska Visa card with an elevated sign-up bonus can potentially provide a family of four with free round-trip tickets for the short hop between San Diego and Santa Rosa. Or San Jose and Seattle. You’ll just pay $5.60 each way per person to cover the TSA fee.

If you want to take things a step further, consider using your miles for *two* short-haul segments. Sometimes this won’t even increase the price! In the second example, you could actually fly San Jose to Portland, stop for a couple days, then make the hop from Portland to Seattle, still only paying 5,000 miles! This takes advantage of the fact that Alaska is one of the few programs to offer a stopover on a one-way award. My son and I actually did this recently, flying Oakland-Seattle-Boise on a one-way award, but stopping in Seattle for three nights. Still only 5,000 miles, as Alaska prices this itinerary based on start and end points.

You unfortunately can’t trick the system and fly San Francisco-Los Angeles-Oakland on the same award. What I’ve found is that if there is a nonstop available with a given award price, you can fly a stopover itinerary (that would often be more expensive) for the same award price.

The 5,000-mile price is good for any hop of 700 miles or less. This jumps to 7,500 miles for hops between 701 and 1,400 miles. For flights between 1,401 and 2,100 miles, you’ll pay 10,000 miles. Almost everything in the U.S. west should cost no more than 7,500 miles.

Avianca LifeMiles

I have the worst love/hate relationship with Avianca LifeMiles. On one hand, they have some of the worst customer service and policies I have ever encountered. On the other hand, they have a lucrative award chart and no fuel surcharges on any awards, making them an attractive option for those looking to save as much cash as possible.

Uniquely, the LifeMiles award chart breaks the U.S. up into multiple zones. Awards within each zone cost a mere 7,500 miles one-way. Since they are a Star Alliance member, you can use LifeMiles to book awards on . The web search is decent at pulling up options with up to one connection, but it seems to die if you want to connect more than once. However, this still gives you a *ton* of potential options, especially if your closest airport is Arcata (although you might want to think twice about flying out of here).

Interested in visiting Jackson, Wyoming in either the summer or winter, both peak season? That’ll be roughly $800 cash. Or you can use 15,000 LifeMiles and $35 in fees to fly round-trip, a very sweet deal. Admittedly, United offers this route as a short-haul award as well, only costing 20,000 miles round-trip, so if you want to avoid the potential headache of LifeMiles, it might be worth spending a few more miles. But LifeMiles are honestly easier to accrue, as they are a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou.

Other great award options include Arcata to Tucson, which my older kids and I flew last April (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last Minute Trip), San Luis Obispo to Spokane, Fresno to Santa Fe, and Santa Rosa to Colorado Springs. Lifemiles are gold for any regional-to-regional hops passing through United hubs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Denver. The U.S. west zone includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Oddly, and unfortunately, it does not include Montana.

American AAdvantage

American’s program is attractive for a couple reasons. First, they offer discounted short-haul awards for nonstop tickets of 500 miles or less. I’ve not booked any of these, but they are a pretty good deal at 7,500 miles one-way, if the cash price is fairly high. But unless you live in an AA hub with a number of options available, they won’t be especially useful.

Second, American offers their reduced mileage awards (SEE: Complete Guide to American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards). These aren’t just for flights in one region, but actually apply across the country. However, you can *also* apply them to short-haul awards, if you can find a qualifying ticket. The price reduction isn’t as good, at 1,000 miles per direction, but 6,500 is still better than 7,500. For other flights (which will be most of them), the price is reduced from the standard 12,500 one-way to only 8,750 miles per direction.

Reduced mileage awards are only good to certain airports, and the list changes every couple months. However, if you live near one of the airports on the list, every flight out of that airport that you book during qualifying months on the reduced mileage award calendar will qualify for the reduced price. As an example, Santa Rosa has been on the list more often than not.

American now also has web specials, which are a variety of awards that are priced more cheaply than their standard award chart.

But why not just use flexible points?

If you live in a major hub, using your flexible points will almost certainly be the way to go. For example, an Alaska award that is $150 cash versus 10,000 Alaska miles round-trip is also just 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points, if redeeming with a Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’d almost certainly use the UR points, as the flight will earn miles, since it is treated as a paid ticket.

I’d do a cost analysis each time you book to make sure you’re getting a the best deal for your points. If a round-trip flight is less than $250, I would generally opt for using flexible points. For flights between $250-300, things can go either way, depending on the currency I’m looking to use. I’d save my actual miles for tickets that are typically $300+ (if short-haul pricing of 15,000 miles or less round-trip is an option), but preferably I’d be using them for flight that cost $500 or more.

General rule of thumb: I should be getting 2 cents per mile out of any of these currencies for miles to be the way to go. If I’m at or near 1.5 cents per mile, I’ll use Ultimate Rewards.

Conclusion

There are more award currencies that offer decent options for short-haul awards, including British Airways Avios if you live in an AA or Alaska hub. But these are the three that I find most useful in general.

Fare Deal: Both Paris and Beijing for under $400!

These are the two primary international destinations to which I took my older two kids last year, and they are both on sale! You can fly one-stop from the San Francisco Bay Area to either destination for less than $400 on a couple different carriers.

Paris fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Francisco
  • Dates: March-April, September 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): American
  • Class: Basic economy
  • NotesMinimum two night stay (which would be silly anyway)
  • Sample Google Flights link

Beijing fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Jose
  • Dates: February-April 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): Air Canada
  • Class: Economy
  • Notes: None
  • Sample Google Flights link

These are both excellent sales to these destinations. We saw the very good Air Canada sale to Beijing out of SJC last year, and I would expect to see something similar again in the future.

Note that you will need a Chinese Visa to visit Beijing on a round-trip itinerary. The city is eligible for a transit without visa (TWOV) waiver, but you must have a confirmed onward ticket to another country.

Here is a rundown on some of the posts from our trip:

How to consistently fly for $270 or less round-trip out of Arcata

Flying out of our local regional airport can be a pain due to delays and cancellations. But it can also be extremely convenient, if things go smoothly. The only problem is…flights can be outrageously expensive.

Which makes using miles to fly in or out of Arcata a winning proposition almost every time since it represents a great value for your miles. If you’re interested in scoring a couple free flights, there are a couple great credit cards you can pick up that will earn you two round-trips out of our local airport.

But if you already have those card and/or are looking for another way to bring the cost of flights down, the Avianca LifeMiles program presents an interesting option. I’m going to be candid and state that this strategy is probably more of an intermediate level

Leveraging Avianca LifeMiles short-haul awards

Avianca LifeMiles has one of the best award charts for short-haul domestic awards within the United States. As a member of the Star Alliance, you can redeem your LifeMiles for flights on United Airlines. The LifeMiles chart breaks the U.S. into three regions, and flights within each region are only 7,500 miles one-way. You can even include connections (although the LifeMiles site seems to choke on itineraries that include more than 1 connection).

The “United States 3 zone” includes the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming. Oddly, Montana is in “United States 2”. But you can still fly to almost all the western states from Arcata for only 15,000 miles round-trip, an excellent deal (SEE: 3 reasons I am SUPER excited for the new LifeMiles shorthaul awards).

This is where the cost of miles can sometimes outweigh the cost of flights. Say you are interested in flying from Arcata to Jackson, Wyoming, an often expensive destination. Two round-trip tickets will probably run you $1,100 at the cheapest. Using LifeMiles for an award on this itinerary presents excellent value.

But what if you don’t have any LifeMiles?

How buying miles is actually cheaper than buying a ticket

It is extremely rare that I will ever advocate buying miles. In general, don’t do it. There are other ways to accrue them. But if you fly from Arcata frequently, this is one instance where buying miles could make some sense.

One of the most recent LifeMiles sales offered miles with “up to a 125% bonus”. The bonus for 1,000-50,000 miles purchased was 100%, so we’ll roll with that number. Let’s assume you want two round-trip tickets within the western U.S., which will cost you 15,000 miles each. Purchasing 15,000 miles will give you an extra 15,000 miles, enough for both tickets. Every 1,000 miles costs $33, so the total price will come to $495 for the miles you need.

Each ticket will also be subject to a $25 award ticketing fee (dumb, but it is what it is), and taxes of $5.60 each way, which is the TSA fee. Doing the math, each ticket will therefor cost $283.70. This is 50% or less of what many tickets to Jackson, Wyoming cost. Definitely worth buying miles in this case, if you would otherwise be looking to pay cash.

Even better, LifeMiles are fantastic for awards close-in, when prices are both high and United is charging you the obscene “close-in booking” fee of $75 for general members. The return on a LifeMiles purchase is even better in these cases. An added benefit is that United award availability is often better close-in.

So although I don’t typically advocate buying miles, this is one case I would consider it if I would otherwise need to pay cash for a ticket. You just need to ensure that there is sufficient award space to book the ticket you need.

Budget for flights with a monthly subscription

If buying a bunch of miles at once isn’t for you, LifeMiles offers a very unique option: a monthly miles subscription. It’s truly one-of-a-kind. I’ve never heard of another airline loyalty program that offers this feature.

In most cases, a subscription like this is silly. You pay a monthly fee, and they add miles to your account at a rate that isn’t really worth it in most cases. However, if you’re looking to fly a few round-trips per year out of Arcata and want a way to budget appropriately for them, this might just be something that interests you. It will also let you break out your flight “purchase” into manageable pieces through the year.

Avianca LifeMiles offers several subscription options, but two in particular stand out to me:

The “Plan 1,000” is a manageable cost and offers you one round-trip for $19.49 per month, with 1,000 extra miles to carry over per year. The “Plan 2,000” give you two round-trips per year, plus 2,000 carryover miles, for just under twice the cost. Visit Club LifeMiles for more info

Two other ways to accrue LifeMiles

There are a couple other ways to accrue LifeMiles. You have a few different credit card options. The Citi ThankYou Premier is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 ThankYou points, which can be transferred to LifeMilesat a 1:1 ratio. That’s how I topped off my own LifeMiles account most recently.

There are also two Avianca LifeMiles co-branded credit cards offered through Banco Popular. Haven’t heard of them? I hadn’t either. But the sign-up bonus was amazing when I got the card (SEE: My highest credit limit ever came with…what new card?). And the news just broke last week: the 60,000-point offer is back (read about it here)!

My words of caution

I’ve personally had no issues redeeming LifeMiles for a couple trips. It’s been totally painless through the LifeMiles website, and ticketing has happened quickly through United. It even easy to add the flight to your United account to select seats, check in via the app, etc. But there are numerous stories of people who have had nightmarish experiences with Avianca LifeMiles.

LifeMiles also doesn’t present you with all the options that the United website does, which means that a United award itinerary you’ve found might not be bookable with LifeMiles . I would *always* check for the itinerary through the LifeMiles site directly to ensure that your flight is an option presented. Since award seat availability varies, there is always the potential you could end up with miles that don’t work for your specific trip. If you’re locked into specific dates, I would be hesitant to go this route.

LifeMiles also doesn’t like awards with more than one connection. With connections in San Francisco, Los Angeles and (starting next year) Denver from ACV, you still have a great number of one-stop destinations available. There is also a workaround to this which I will cover at a later juncture, as it is a bit complicated.

All that said, if you have some flexibility of destination and dates, LifeMiles should work just fine. Be proactive about searching for award availability. It changes daily, especially when you get less than 3 weeks out. I find United sometimes releases a significant number of seats. As mentioned above, LifeMiles are a better option for a last-minute getaway since you’ll avoid the United close-in award fee, but you’ll still have to pay the $25 LifeMiles award fee.

Conclusion

If you’re willing to jumps through these hoops, you’re looking at much cheaper flights out of Arcata, up to half off of many itineraries in the western U.S. There are almost zero times I would suggest buying miles. This is one of the very, very few exceptions for which I’d even consider it, and even then, weigh the decision carefully. Still, the ability to fly round-trip out of Arcata for only $270 could be entirely worth it.

Questions or worries about this method? Hit me up anytime through my Contact Me page.

Avianca aircraft image courtesy of JTOcchialini via Flickr under CC BY SA 2.0 license

My Kids Magically Fixed United

Let’s face it…traveling anywhere when you live on the beautiful California Redwood Coast is a chore. I have a love/hate relationship flying out of the Arcata airport. The convenience cannot be understated. But that is when things go smoothly. When things go wrong, and they go wrong far too often, it can be a major pain in the neck (SEE: My Second United Horror Story).

Lately I’ve taken to booking out of a bigger airport if time is of the essence, typically if I am flying across the country for work. But for our recent trip to the Southwest, convenience won.

Flying out of Arcata Airport worth the deal

For our trip to the Southwest, I booked last minute tickets for a steal: $91 and 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles for all three of us. The beauty of this plan was that we got to fly out of Arcata. The nerve-wracking part of the plan was also that we were flying out of Arcata.

Over a total of about 15 flights that I’ve flown in or out of Arcata, no fewer than 3 have been canceled. A solid 20% cancellation rate. That’s horrible. Delays or cancellation have thrown a wrench in our plans enough times that I literally prefer driving to the Bay to fly most places these days.

Given this experience, there was a bit of trepidation as our trip approached.

Wait…this was an Arcata flight, right?

I kept my eye on the United app during the day of our planned departure. The previous legs serviced by our aircraft were on time, so things were looking good. Our plane landed at the Arcata Airport right on time while we were still driving north. It looked like everything would go smoothly. And there was no fog to stop us this time (SEE: My Second United horror story)!

Boarding was quick in Arcata, as the plane was barely half full. Amazingly, there wasn’t any message from the captain stating the SFO tower had requested we stay on the ground. Too often they don’t have a spot for us and the flight gets delayed until SFO air traffic control can slip our landing into the incoming traffic. This time we were off the ground well ahead of schedule.

Maybe it was because we’d taken off “backwards”. On all other flights in or out of Arcata, the everything is operated off of Runway 32. This time we took off in the opposite direction, from Runway 14. This allowed me to get the shot of the airport as we circled around to the west.

Besides a little turbulence, the flight was fantastic. We were even in economy plus, and I had two seats to myself, so there was room to spare. These ERJ-175s are a much better ride than the tiny CRJs. I couldn’t believe it when we arrived in San Francisco a ridiculous 29 minutes early.

This has never happened on any flight I’ve taken out of Arcata. I’m pleased if we are even remotely on time. Had we really just flown the same little route that is so constantly plagued by delays???

I told the kids this was the best flight I’d ever taken out of Arcata. They didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Figures their first time flying outta here would go more smoothly than I’ve ever experienced.

Being treated like we’re in first class

To top things off, the service was ten times better than it’s ever been. While the flight attendants pretty much never offer drinks on the short hop to the Bay, they do bring by snacks. The offering consisted of only pretzels…unless you were my kids. The flight attendant offered them the last two stroopwafels from the morning. Lucky ducks. All they did was munch snacks and stare out the windows.

Then near the end of the flight the first-class flight attendant brought me two more snacks: Oreos and gummy bears. Do kids hardly fly? Or do the Skywest FAs single them out for special treatment? I’ve never really observed either. It’s like they knew we try to limit our kids sugar intake and were working against us.

To top it off, the flight attendant on the plane to Tucson handed me an small bag of Haribo gummy bears for the kids. I didn’t even know they had these on the plane! Or maybe they were her own. I have no clue. I just know people kept handing me candy for the kids, our flights were empty, and far more ahead of schedule than I’ve ever seen them. If this is the new United Airlines experience, sign me up every time.

Conclusion

I’m not sure what happened to the old United Airlines I’ve come to love endure, but this was definitely my best flight ever out of Arcata. And a great start to our week-long road trip.

Best Airline Miles to Europe in Economy

After idyllic Hawaii vacation for cheap (SEE: Best Miles to Hawaii), consider putting your miles to use for a visit to Europe.

With numerous fare sales to Europe, I don’t typically recommend burning miles to fly economy. You can score sub-$500 fares from many major hubs these days, and fare sales are frequent.

Still, there can definitely be reasons to burn miles over flexible points. For example, if you live a good distance from a large airport (such is the case with me), tickets can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes well over $1,000. In this case, miles are often the way to go. Here are some of the best airline miles to Europe in economy:

American Airlines for 22,500 miles off-peak

American Airlines has long had great prices for off-peak travel to Europe. During much of the year, their prices are a standard 30,000 miles. But there are plenty of periods where awards are only 22,500 AA miles each way.

That is, if you can find saver space to use those AAdvantage miles. American has been terrible about releasing award space over the past several months. You might find a reasonable amount of space out of their hubs to Europe, but you’ll often have issues with domestic connecting flights. Or you’ll find that the award that are available are awful red-eyes, have terrible routing, and/or require long layovers.

But it can be done. If you’re patient, plan ahead of time, and flexible with your dates, you’ll almost certainly find the space you need. Or there may be plenty. Here is off-peak space next month from SFO to LHR:

best airline miles to Europe

One thing to note is that there the American Airlines award search engine will return a lot of options on British Airways, a Oneworld partner. Avoid these like the plague. All British Airways flights to Europe have hefty fuel surcharges. Fees will be less if you fly on other Oneworld partners, such as Iberia or Finnair.

All things considered, American AAdvantage can be some of the best airline miles to Europe on economy.

Alaska Airlines for 20,000 miles off-peak

Mimicking American Airlines’ prices, Alaska has an attractive off-peak chart for a couple partners (Alaska does not fly to Europe themselves).  You can fly American Airlines flights to Europe for only 20,000 miles during off-peak times.

Again, award space on American Airlines will be a limiting factor here, since you’ll be using your Alaska miles to book their flights. At least your connections can be on Alaska, which may make it easier to get to an American hub, especially if you live on the west coast.

best airline miles to europe alaska

You can also fly Iceland Air to Iceland for 22,500 Alaska miles one-way and 27,500 miles to Europe at times. Iceland Air has multiple tiers of pricing, based on season, however. Another option is Condor for 25,000 miles in economy. Condor flies some unique routes from the U.S. to their Frankfurt hub.

A couple cool ideas: plan a stopover in Alaska before continuing on to Iceland or Europe. Alaska’s generous award rules allow a stopover on one-way awards. Or when returning, plan a stopover in one of Alaska Airlines east coast destinations before flying back across the country.

It might seem weird that Alaska miles aren’t the first on the list of the best airline miles to Europe since the Alaska (on AA) off-peak award require the fewest out of any currency. But there are simply too many other great uses for Alaska miles that I would hesitate to burn them on this.

Asiana Airlines for 25,000 miles

Asiana is a carrier that many people probably do not recognize, but don’t overlook their program. They are one of the best options for StarAlliance flights to Europe. They are also one of the best Asian carriers overall (SEE: Asiana Business Class Review Seoul to Sydney).

You can accrue Asiana miles a couple of ways. They are a 1:1 transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, so you will have enough miles for a round-trip flight to Europe with only 40,000 SPG Starpoints (factoring in the 25% bonus on transfers in 20,000 point increments).

Another option is the Asiana Visa card issued by Bank of America. If you find yourself attracted to the Asiana program, this card is a must-have. The perks include a 30,000 mile sign up bonus,

One thing to keep in mind is that Asiana has a very attractive award chart for premium cabins to Europe. Business class is a mere 40,000 Asiana miles. So it could easily be worth saving up a bit longer to fly in comfort and style. Just remember that Asiana passes along fuel surcharges. If you fly on United metal, though, there won’t be any fuel surcharges to pass on, making them the best airline miles to Europe for flying United.

Korean Air SkyPass for 50,000 miles round-trip

Delving into SkyTeam territory we have Korean Air Skypass as a great option. One of the difficulties with SkyTeam awards is that fuel surcharges are passed on in all cases. You can minimize these when flying *to* Europe, but expect to pay high airport fees and moderate surcharges when returning to the U.S.

You can book a round-trip award to Europe for 50,000 miles. Delta charges 60,000 miles for the same ticket. As far as I am aware, Korean Air does not allow one-way awards on partners. But this is still a good deal at 25,000 miles each way.

You can earn Korean SkyPass points by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards to SkyPass miles, or through Starwood Preferred Guest. There is also a co-branded SkyPass credit card issued by U.S. Bank.

FlyingBlue promo awards

The FlyingBlue promo awards come out every couple months. They are a discount (typically 25%) off of the standard award price of 25,000 miles. Economy will therefore cost you 18,750 FlyingBlue miles each way, plus taxes and surcharges. One downside is that they only apply to AirFrance and KLM flights, so you have to fly out of a large hub served by one of these carriers.

Given that both KLM and AirFrance charge significant fuel surcharges, using miles will only make sense if the cash price of the flight is quite high. But there are instances where even redeeming for the full 25,000 miles could make sense.

delta flying blue award

Flying out of a tiny regional airport might warrant using miles for economy

Still, I’d personally wait until the promo awards included a city near me, since a price of 18,750 miles each way is pretty phenomenal, and the main reason FlyingBlue makes the list of best airline miles to Europe.

British Airways Avios

British Airways is far down the list of best airline miles to Europe for two reasons: they charge hefty fuel surcharges on their own flights, and their use as a reasonable currency is pretty situational.

One of the best sweet spots, if not one of the most well known, is the 12,500 mile price for flights between Boston and Dublin (or Shannon), Ireland. Since this rings in at just under 3,000 flown miles on British Airways distance-based award chart, you pay the same as most domestic U.S. flights.

The only other good options are honestly flying non-stop out of an AA hub to a destination in Europe. Most of the U.S. will be 20,000 to 25,000 miles each way. But because BA charges you per segment, connections really drive up the price.

Other best airline miles to Europe in economy?

A couple honorable mentions are Lufthansa Miles & More for 25,000 Miles each way. Barclaycard issues a Miles & More co-branded card if you’re interested in collecting those miles. Singapore will run you 27,500 miles one-way, which is a slight discount over many other airlines’ 30,000 miles in each direction.

I’ll also mention United for 30,000 miles, mainly due to the high number of Star Alliance partners available in Europe, and the fact that MileagePlus doesn’t apply fuel surcharges.

Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about investigating these other programs, as there is an even better solution.

Best option: Use flexible points

I will argue that if you are flexible with carrier, dates, and routing, using a flexible points currency will honestly be the best airline “miles” to Europe for economy flights. With either the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or a Citi ThankYou Premier, your flexible points are worth 1.25 cents each when you book through each bank’s travel portal.

If you hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, your points are worth 1.5 cents each through the travel portal. Similarly, if you hold a Citi Prestige card, your points are worth 1.33 cents each when booking American Airlines flights.

In my experience, you can fly to most major European destinations for less than $750 these days on full-service carriers, if you plan in advance. You should really be shooting for $500 fares if you live in any sizable hub. Even for your $750 ticket, you’ll be spending 60,000 points, which is standard in many programs, plus you will owe a whopping $0 in extra fees.

If you catch a $500 fare sale, you’ll be spending a mere 40,000 points. Since these flights will also be earning you miles (nor will you be dependent on available award space), this will likely be the way to go. Research all your options before you transfer your points.

Conclusion

Using flexible points for tickets to Europe will usually be your best option. But if you’re intent on using miles for coach travel across the pond, these are pretty much the best airline miles to Europe in economy.