Yesterday I discussed the importance of utility: What can you do with your frequent flyer miles? In addition to flexible routing rules and one-way awards, another useful feature of some loyalty programs is discounted award prices for shorter routes.
This isn’t as obvious as it seems. Paid fares are always priced in response to supply and demand, not operating costs. There is no real reason why shorter flights should cost less than longer flights except that at some point people might give up and choose to drive instead.
(You can’t — and shouldn’t — drive across an ocean. When I was young I considered many ways in which someone would be able to build a bridge from California to Hawaii to save the expense of air travel. I eventually decided that even if this bridge existed, no one would want to spend a week in a car with the same boring view.)
Award travel, however, often does track distance. ANA and British Airways have award charts that are explicitly distance-based. Many other major carriers have zone-based charts that use rough approximations: an award to Southeast Asia costs more than an award to Hawaii. The cheapest awards tend to be within the same zone, such as within the contiguous United States or within Europe.
Some programs go further. They specifically offer discounted awards for certain short-haul flights that meet other criteria. I don’t book them often since I prefer to save my miles for expensive international business and first class awards, but I have definitely saved some money on short-haul flights before. And it doesn’t even need to be an award ticket for your entire itinerary. I once saved $400 by booking a round-trip to Dallas and then used 4,500 Avios for the final 312-mile leg to Amarillo.
Here are four airlines in the United States to consider when booking your next short-distance flight. You won’t find JetBlue, Southwest, or Virgin America on this list; thanks to revenue-based programs, their award prices go up along with the cost of a regular ticket.
United has long offered short-haul flight awards. Whenever you are traveling 700 miles or less (roughly the distance between Seattle and San Francisco) and are within the United States, you need only pay 10,000 miles each way in economy class. This is a 20% discount from the usual 12,500 miles. Unfortunately there is no similar discount for first class awards or short-haul flights in other regions.
Somewhat different, Alaska offers intra-state awards. When your itinerary stays within a single state — including Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon or Washington — you’ll pay as little as 7,500 miles one-way in economy class or 15,000 miles one-way in first class. This is 40% off the regular award price, and discounts are available for other award categories, too, which may have greater availability.
My biggest complaint is the same-state requirement. It penalizes those of us who live in small states and rewards those in big states like California. However, it sounds silly to complain about being in a “small” state like Washington when comparing it to New England, and though California is big, many residents never head north of Sacramento.
American Airlines & Alaska Airlines
While American does not offer discounted award travel on shorter itineraries, it and Alaska Airlines are both partners with British Airways, so this is another opportunity if your travel is a short distance but doesn’t stay within a single state. Despite the Avios devaluation coming next month, there will be no changes to the economy class award chart — perfect for short-haul flights.
|Distance (miles)||Economy Class Award (Avios)|
|1 - 650||4,500|
|651 - 1,151||7,500|
|1,152 - 2,000||10,000|
|2,001 - 3,000||12,500|
|3,001 - 4,000||20,000|
|4,001 - 5,500||25,000|
|5,501 - 6,500||30,000|
|6,501 - 7,000||35,000|
|7,001 - 100,000||50,000|
Just remember that (1) you must book award travel at least 24 hours before departure, and (2) if you need to travel on Alaska Airlines, you’ll have to call British Airways because their website doesn’t display Alaska’s availability. One the plus side, “short-haul” discounts can apply even to travel to Hawaii, which is just 12,500 points each way from the West Coast vs. 20,000 miles or more with most other award programs.
Delta Air Lines
I’m a little confused as to how this works, but Delta recently announced a true enhancement to its loyalty program, reducing the cost of some awards to just 10,000 miles one-way. Even having one-way awards is already a welcome improvement.
Unfortunately, Delta made this change after taking away its award chart. It’s impossible to know exactly which flights qualify for 10,000-mile pricing. The press release states that it applies to “select markets” in the U.S., Caribbean, and Mexico, and my guess would be that these markets have shorter routes based on the examples above. There’s also a 21-day advance purchase requirement that makes this more difficult to use for last-minute travel where the cost of a paid fare — and the utility of your frequent flyer miles — can be much higher.