Don’t Overpay for Short Flights
Over the past several years we have seen a shift away from traditional zone based redemption programs towards distance and revenue based models. While those changes do have some negatives, they tend to be very positive when it comes to short distance flights. Today I’m going to talk about three programs that offer exceptional value on many short distance routes.
British Airways Avios
This is the most covered of the three programs for cheap redemptions. Despite recent devaluations, it still remains as a great option for short flights in coach. Flights under 650 miles only cost 4,500 point each way. Flights under 1,151 miles are 7,500 points each way. This is a good program with good redemption options, however it isn’t the best.
- Transfer Partners: Ultimate Rewards 1:1, Membership Rewards 250:200, SPG 1:1 or 20K:25K
- U.S. Based Airline Partners: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines
- Sample good routes: DCA-JFK, LAX-SFO, DTW-JFK, PHX-LAS
Avios really are limited by the route network of Alaska and American Airlines. For example, here in Las Vegas I can only get a good deal if I fly to American or Alaska hubs since the price is per segment. Still, for many this is one of the better value programs and they have the benefit of being transfer partners with multiple programs.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
We all know that Southwest’s program gets a lot of coverage because of the companion pass, but they also have some fantastic deals on points. Southwest Rapid Rewards are revenue based which means you can find cheap rates depending on the dates. I often see LAS-LAX (or other Southern California airports) for about 1,500 points each way.
- Transfer Partners: Ultimate Rewards 1:1
- Sample Good Routes: LAS-LAX, DAL-HOU
I have found that their recent move away from a fixed value point system has actually benefited some routes. As you can see above, LAS-LAX is cheap, but there are a lot of other routes out there that also price less than before. (There are of course routes that price higher as well.) If you have the companion pass, then these deals are 2X better!
Virgin America Elevate
Virgin America Elevate is another revenue based program. They now fly several short routes which can be fantastic values on points. Many people consider Virgin to have a superior product to other airlines as well, so it is an attractive option to look at.
- Transfer Partners: Membership Rewards 2:1, ThankYou 2:1
- Sample Good Routes: LAS-SFO, DAL-AUS, LAX-SFO
Virgin points have bad transfer ratios from the other programs, although they are running a 25% bonus with both Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou right now. This is definitely a more limited option than the previous two, but one to look at.
Comparing Programs Head to Head
I have an upcoming trip to San Francisco where I will be flying up on Friday and home on Sunday. I can’t use Avios for that trip (or I can but would need to connect), but I decided to compare Virgin & Southwest along with the option of paying cash and/or booking directly with ThankYou or Ultimate Rewards points.
- Southwest: 9,102 + $11.20 roundtrip (9,102 Ultimate Rewards if transferred)
- Virgin: 4,466 + $11.20 roundtrip. (8,932 Membership Rewards or ThankYou points if transferred.)
- Cash: $77 on JetBlue
- ThankYou: 5,729 for Prestige or 6,160 for Premier holders on JetBlue flight.
- Ultimate Rewards: 6,160 for Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus cardholders on JetBlue flight.
Note: Flexible points programs often require you transfer a minimum number of points. This can cause points to get stuck. I recommend taking this into consideration when deciding which program or currency to use.
In this head to head, booking directly with Ultimate Rewards or ThankYou points is definitely a better option than transferring unless you favor a different airline or different flight time. You can of course pay cash as well, but the right decision will depend on your points balances across programs and of course your willingness to keep the points and take actual money out of the bank to pay for a flight.
As you can see, there are a ton of options available for getting short distance flights for much less than 12,500 miles each way! You can set yourself up for success by having points across a number of flexible programs. No one program will work in every scenario and depending on the route none of these options may work well, but being aware of them and knowing how to look is the best first step.
Did I miss any programs or good value options? (Don’t say JetBlue!) Let me know in the comments!