The Day That Delta SkyMiles Overtook American AAdvantage Miles for Award Travel

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Now that the girls are both back in school and 2017 has arrived in full force, I’ve been doing a bunch of airline award and paid ticket searches this week. I mean, a bunch. In a perfect world, I’d like to get all of our 2017 airline tickets fully booked and squared away as soon as possible. Okay, maybe not all of them, but at least the ones for family trips that already have set dates and are 99% going to happen.

I know we will be buying some of our tickets with cash, but naturally I’d like to use miles for a good portion of them as well to keep our out-of-pocket costs down to a reasonable-ish level. Buying tickets for three was already not cheap, but since our snuggly littlest girl turns two this summer (already?!), some of our trips this year (and beyond) will require four tickets. Gulp. As I am sure other parents already know first-hand, buying four tickets every time you fly is seriously sticker shock to the 4th degree.

Some of the domestic destinations on our agenda this year are the Boston/New York area, the Asheville/Charlotte area, the Seattle/Vancouver area, and of course Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Wichita, Kansas. I’m also still playing with our spring break plans, so I have searched everywhere from Hawaii to Mexico to Grand Cayman to Key West and more for those dates. I’m also starting to play around with a late fall trip to Europe.

Wanted: Saver Awards for a Family of Four

Wanted: Saver Awards for a Family of Four

On these hundreds of searches I completed in the last few days, I have seen some very strong themes emerge that aren’t necessarily all new, but still surprise me a bit given just how consistently they played out. Time and time again on my searches this week, my American AAdvantage miles keep coming up being borderline useless. It doesn’t help that I don’t live at am American hub, but finding domestic saver AAdvantage awards with even remotely logical connections has proven to be almost impossible. I don’t want to over-exaggerate as it is still possible to find some AAdvantage saver awards, but it requires significant date flexibility, not traveling during peak times, not needing 3-4+ seats, or having a hot streak of really good luck.

If I wanted to use American miles on any of these trips I researched, I better be ready to pay 50 – 100% more mies than the saver award price because their Anytime award prices are generally the only ones available. If you are familiar with the American search tool, grey is the new light green.

I found myself happy when I could at least find the lowest level Anytime award price…which says a lot about how rare saver awards were.

Non-inspiring American saver award availability isn’t anything new, but I was just sad to see that the pattern is holding so strong. What did surprise me even more was how comparatively fantastic Delta SkyMiles were for many of these same searches. Anyone who has been in the miles and points world for a while has heard SkyMiles referred to as SkyPesos, but I’m not so sure that is the best descriptive word for SkyMiles at the moment.

My searches keep coming up with award availability for 25,000 SkyMiles per round trip and less. And it’s not just on wacky itineraries to third-rate destinations that require three flights to go 1,000 miles, or where there is just one seat available, or some other similar restriction.

Long weekend ski trip to Salt Lake City?

Long weekend ski trip to Salt Lake City?

As a non-scientific example, here is round trip award availability in June for four people on Delta from Houston to New York City. As you can see, there are lots of dates where seats are available for four people at 25,000 miles per round trip.

delta-search-results-jpg

Here is the same search on American Airlines using AAdvantage miles. As you can see, there are very few times you can get four saver awards from Houston to New York, and when you can it usually requires three flights to get there.

aadvantage-houston-results-jpg

I wanted to hope it was just Houston that was making this search seem a bit off, so I did the same search for four award seats in June from Dallas to New York, an American hub.

aadvantage-new-york-results-jpg

At first it looked a bit more promising, though certainly not as good as the Delta results. However, when I stated investigating further, many of the available options again were far from ideal. Once I clicked “nonstop only”, not a single saver award date remained coming or going in any class of service.

aadvantage-award-search-jpg

Remember, my Delta results were nonstop only from the beginning.

I don’t want to put Delta SkyMiles up on a pedestal as I don’t think that program is the gold standard in frequent flyer programs given how they make some changes, that they have no published award chart, etc. but there is no question that right now Delta SkyMiles are more useful for lots of domestic saver awards than AAdvantage miles.

For most of the domestic trips I searched this week, SkyMiles had reasonable to good options using miles, and American had iffy to terrible options. I’m sitting on way more AAdvantage miles than I am Delta miles, but right this second I am wishing I could flip that and move all my AAdvantage miles to SkyMiles. Thankfully I can transfer American Express Membership Reward points from cards like my Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card 1:1 to Delta if I need them for some of our trips.

As for my AAdvantage miles, for now it seems I am just going to let them keep sitting and hope for award availability to improve at some point. I’m really not sure how much worse it can really get for families at the saver level.

I’d love to hear if my unscientific samples have held true in your recent award searches? Which miles are you using the most right now and which ones are giving you the most trouble?

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

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  1. Generally speaking, I find AA award space on the east coast to be decent (then again, I’m usually only checking 2 passengers). Beyond that, I agree that it can be really tough to find award space and DFW is one of the worst since it is AA-dominated, compared to airports like LAX/ORD where there is more competition. AA is also great for premium class awards to Asia, which I realize not all travelers are interested in 🙂

    But I’ve been a Delta advocate for years. I never agreed with the SkyPesos terminology. Yes, there are quirks to the program, but the playing field has evened out a lot in the last year or so. Delta is competitive and also useful IMO.

  2. It’s so true. It’s gotten really really bad. I also notice they are doing more and more “tricks” too like showing availability on flights to places like AKL or SYD from East Coast, and then when you book Only the domestic leg is in business class. Why did we work so hard to collect AA miles again?

  3. Yeah, most of the domestic searches I have done in the last year have turned up Delta. Luckily, in addition to Delta miles, you can book these with any transferable points (except maybe Thank you points?) through partners, or with virgin Atlantic miles. With a business platinum card, domestic flights using Membership rewards points has become much more interesting of late. I was able to book all 6 (yes, sticker shock to the 6th degree) in Delta domestic first from Edmonton to Orlando for 131000 points and we got 48,000 Alaska miles back, so net 83,000 or about 14,000 points/miles each.

  4. Ditto. AA miles are next to useless for Business or First Class travel within the US for multiple people on reasonable itineraries (e.g. one stop). No availability 8 months ahead for SAAver level. 65K per person each way is the only option. Remember those 50K credit card offers? You’d need to get the miles from EIGHT of those to fly three people round trip. Ridiculous. AA should be ashamed. Forget AA miles. 1.5 cents per UR point is a much better deal. Ditto Amex MR. Stop accumulating AA miles. Use them up.

    VAAlueless. UnAAvailable. ScrAAp.

    • I agree, I am out of Dallas and availability of AA saver awards in premium seats to Asia and or Europe are minimal compared to Star alliance or Sky Team. With blackouts and $1000 in taxes to Europe on One World saver awards…….It is no longer AA it is USAAir. I am Platinum for life and I will pay to fly on other airlines. I just have to use up my AA miles.

  5. I feel your pain. Trying to find any AA awards for a family of 5 is nearly impossible. For that reason, I really like the Citi Thank You pts since they just allow me to redeem for cash flights. Unfortunately that’s only a good option for another few months when AA stops receiving the 1.6 cent value.

    I haven’t gotten around to opening up the Amex Business Platinum but with those net 2 cent redemptions for MR, I think that’s what I’m going to have to resort to eventually. It should actually be slightly liberating (for one airline) since we can decide where we want to go and when and not have to worry about award space. And earning frequent flyer miles is a nice bonus as well. Downside is the one airline for economy, but in reality with all the fare matching it should (hopefully) be close.

  6. one constantly-available use for AA miles (or Avios) is short hops around the east coast with American Eagle. i’m based in PHL, so that means i have a lot of non-stop destinations available to me (these are not glamorous place, but places i sometimes go for business and to see relatives – Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Ithaca, Albany, Hartford, etc.). these are all places within a 5 hour drive, but it’s nice to fly. and the flights are $400/500+ with cash r/t, so i feel that miles are a good value on them. that being said…agreed that saver availability on domestic, mainline flights is near-zero. i also find a decent amount of saver coach tickets to Europe out of PHL, but as low as cash prices have been on these same flights, i’m not very tempted there. NO saver biz class to europe, at all, ever.

  7. Can’t say that Delta, for us, has overtaken AA. In our case, United (and their partners), JetBlue and Southwest have. AA was our go-to airline for years on paid flights when we started noticing problems finding award seats. Combine that with AA partner BA’s high taxes for international travel, and we had no choice but to explore other options. This began gradually if not subconsciously until I had 2 bad business class award experiences on AA partner AB followed by a wonderful coach one on United partner Lufthansa, and we discussed whether it was time to pull the plug on our AA loyalty. For the first time ever, I let my AA RewardsNetwork VIP status fall to basic. And this past Monday, I even downgraded my AA credit card to Citi’s fee-free version b/c it made no sense anymore to pretend the card was at all useful to my family. What good is an awards program if you can never get an award?

  8. AA award space is ridiculously bad. I will go just about anywhere, just want to travel. So I looked up award space for DFW-SEA, one of my favorite domestic destinations. Not a single direct flight to be found. You had to route through Portland. We’ll, no worries, I like Portland too, let’s look up award space for DFW-PDX. Guess what. Those directs to PDX were now gone! I had to route through SNA! Crazy.

  9. Totally agreed. I’ve used more delta miles in the last two years than AA or United combined….and I’m based at ORD. Delta is definitely better at managing their inventory and I think that translates to certain flights with lower loads being offered at saver levels. I think AA revenue management just says “oh, March is spring break time, offer zero saver awards for that month”.

    I’m all about buyer beware, but the level that AA prints miles via credit cards and constant offers to sell miles but refuses to actually make saver seats available is borderline criminal….or at least unethical.

    I will say though starting to search for spring break & an early June flight now is a bit late in the game…at least at the new American

    • Oh for sure. Spring Break I may be starting over and am way behind the curve. Agree for summer too, but with multiple people involved I can’t always get everyone to plan 11 months out like I prefer.

  10. I could see where Delta might be a better choice out of Houston since you also have some Europe routes on partners, etc.
    I have been finding the same issues you mention with AA.
    I live about an hour South of Kansas City airport and about 2 hours from the Wichita airport. I was surprised that Alaska is adding a flight into Wichita this year. That is good news for me as I have a lot of Alaska miles.
    My biggest problem lately has been on award searching on Alaska. Alaska promises that you can use miles for international awards at good rates but every search I’ve done for 1 or 2 business seats is showing the dreaded seat icon which gives you domestic first to the hub and then coach over the water on the long haul.
    I have most of my miles built up in AA and AS so I’m a bit limited. I’ve got a few miles with Delta and a moderate amount with UA but even with United I’ve found very average available routes. Heck I just used UR points to buy a ticket from IST-TLV in March because I couldn’t find any good award space on that random route in Coach.
    Overall I think there is either very limited award inventory release and paired with too much demand from churners and MS’ers or something. You might run into additional luck flying out of Austin or San Antonio and just doing the drive.

  11. Totally agreed. American is making it really difficult and their miles are almost useless. I was determined to use them to get to Europe in business class in the fall, and had a terrible time, since they aren’t releasing any premium cabin seats on their own flights – much like you mentioned not releasing saver availability on desirable domestic itineraries. Ridiculous, and insulting to the “loyalty” traveler.

    http://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/2016/12/16/gives-american-premium-cabin-award-availability/

  12. Another constant AA booking challenge is award travel from the East Coast to Australia/SE Asia. AA saver award seats are frequently available from LAX/SFO to Asia/OZ – but – good luck finding any saver seat space on the NYC/BOS/DC transcon flights to LAX/SFO. One more reason I burned through all of my AA miles last year and I no longer fly AA or spend $ on my AA cc. AA lost my 20 years of flyer “loyalty” in only a matter of months.

  13. I agree with the almost-complete lack of availability of saaver awards, and I typically only need 2 seats, not 4. Now when I see saaver availability, it either means a ridiculous 2-connection flight which turns a 5 hour trip into an 18 hour ordeal, or, as Clint noted already, it’s something like a saaver First Class ticket but only the SFO-LAX segment is in First, and the HNL-SFO segment is in coach!

    Last quarter, after AA gutted the redeemable mileage earning, my husband and I flew non-AA affiliated flights for the first time in about 15 years! (we are both Platinum, but his expires next month). Tomorrow we are traveling to Mexico on United. Buh-bye, AA – I just hope I can redeem our half-million miles remaining in our accounts at some point.

  14. I’ve been trying to book three different 2017 trips. It’s the same as others have noted: some availability on Delta and United, and nothing on AA. I can fly from three different airports that AA services, and I still can’t find low level domestic flights seven months ahead with flexible weeks.

  15. Couldn’t agree with you more. My wife and I had a paid flight to Grenada last year on Delta and enjoyed it.We could have used AA miles, but available award flights sucked. We have been using AA for our Hawaii flights from wisconsin the last couple of years, but now even booking 11 months out requires a ton of miles – no savers available. Our future Hawaii flights will be booked with thank you points – we each got the citi prestige and premier when they were 50,000 and you could get both. We just recently joined Delta, as we had 3 targeted offers for the 60,000 bonus, 2 personal and 1 business.Southwest is still our primary go to airline. We’ve had the companion pass for 4 years, and just renewed it for 2 more. We fly to Aruba, Mexico, Punta cana, Vegas, from Wisconsin for around 26,000 miles/2 people, a incredible deal.When our AA miles are burned up next year, were done with them.

  16. 100% agree. Sitting on almost 300,000 craptacular AA miles. No where to reasonably use them. BA with $700 surcharges? Uh, no. 40,000 RT(CRW-ATL…385 miles)? Uh, no again.
    No AA metal to Europe without stratospheric prices. Asia with 3 or 4 stops. Even searching from hubs is a waste of time. IMO, the best “value ” is on Qatar to the ME and beyond via DOH. But how many of us with families go that far?
    Delta, on the other hand has allowed us at the low level to Europe three times in 5 years in D1 with de minimis fuel charges.
    Might just go back and forth to DOH just to say I used my AA miles.

    • AA award availability to Europe does come in waves, you just have to act quickly when that happens. I know View From the Wing is pretty good about sharing when that happens. I’ll have to start looking out for that myself. Agree that Middle East is just not going to frequently be on my family’s travel radar.

  17. Your results are similar to mine. AA is generally not available at low level except for short flights to ORD and NYC.

  18. This is why I’ve started to use Southwest more and more. It doesn’t matter how many miles you have if there is not availability for where and when you want to go.

    Any tips on using our glut of United miles since we no longer live in Houston? Not much from DFW unless I want to go to San Francisco or Chicago.

    • I personally love UA miles, but of course being at a hub helps. From DFW you are looking at connections, but if you are okay with that one short hop to Houston you can still use them for almost anything. Or, take a Lufthansa first class flight from Dallas to Europe!

  19. Family of 5 here. For domestic (and limited international) my go to is Southwest. My wife and I each have companion pass, so only buying 3 tickets. Availability is great, you are at a Southwest ‘hub’ so routing should be great. It’s to the point that I reserve all my non-SWA points for aspirational no kids trips with my wife.

    • Solid strategy. We may adopt the same in a couple years. Hobby is still such a PITA for me that it just isn’t yet worth it, but once the youngest isn’t as young it may be.

  20. Talking about this. If I am based on Houston and planning trips to Europe, which airline could be the best start accumulating miles?. I have 20K+ in both United and Delta, 280K+ in AA and some in SW.
    Regards,

    • Do you want economy or premium cabin? Either way, not AA or Southwest. Ultimate Rewards Amex Membership Rewards are the best, but United is also good. Delta can be quite good from Houston, too, using their partners.

      • I am ok with economy if I can squeeze my Wife. Of course, premium could be very nice. I am missing MR points, don’t have any yet. I will start looking a AMEX cards then. Thanks.

  21. Sometime after March 2016, AA made a radical change to the AAdvantage program and basically eliminated saver awards. Now, you have to buy Anytime awards. Yes, you can find the odd day here and there with a saver seat, but for the most part, the saver level was eliminated. Overnight, American miles became worth less than Venezuelan currency. Your only hope is if you can find space on a OneWorld partner. And if you were to be so lucky, you still will need to position yourself to the hub city. I’m sitting on over 400,000 useless AA miles. I hate the fact that I’m locked into AA status for one more year.

    • I knew it was too good to be true when my wife and I started getting a plethora of bonus offers with our Aviator Red and Citi AAdvantage Plat cards. Over the last 18 months or so I think we have racked up over 50k in AA miles with just these bonus offers. I did manage to recently find a domestic one-way for two of us on AA, but I was totally shut out trying to use AA to get to Europe this summer. The only business class saver awards were through LHR (fee city) and the second I unchecked BA from the search, all the saver awards poofed.

      I’m not quite ready to say anything good about SkyPesos, but I will agre that AA is going downhill fast as far as award availability goes.

  22. I stopped flying AA and switched earning to WN and DL because AA’s miles went from good to downright awful. I can’t say they are losing much with me gone, but it’s sad how bad AA got and moderately better DL has become.
    WN: Average service, distrust issues with annual point valuations, no longer inexpensive
    DL: Amazing operations, fair miles value, great and consistent service/product, sometimes expensive
    AA: Good or awful product depending on the plane, inconsistent service, terrible corporate environment and a downright awful miles program
    B6: Just doesn’t fly where I live, otherwise I’d fly them

  23. I 100% agree. I live in Amarillo, TX and AA often tries to charge 50K miles for a one-way flight to DFW (which is less than a 1-hour flight, 313 miles). I make no effort to collect their miles anymore. I have the Companion Pass and United is my alternative.

  24. You mention AA and Delta, but not United. This seems a bit strange with you living in Houston. Are you rebuilding UA miles, so going with other currencies in the interim?

    • Christian, great question and probably worth a post on its own. I left them out in this discussion not because I don’t love them (they are actually my current favorite airline mile for many times of award travel), but because they are pretty much status quo. They have been that way for a while in my own searches. This post was more about my shock at both how far AAdvantage miles have fallen and how much better SkyMiles seem to be. I am always rebuilding UA miles, but was also trying to use some other types since I have them at the ready and was flying to AA and Delta hubs so nonstops on those carriers might have been possible.

  25. I have over a half million AA miles and I am ready to simply give up my AA credit cards and sit on the miles. I only need two seats and except for rare occasions they are simply not available–especially in business or first. AA has gone from best to worst for availability in five years in both domestic and international. In addition to that, when the routing rule changes are considered it is even worse. I used to be able to find my own routes and have a phone operator approve them as long as the saver space was available. That’s been gone for several years. What they also miss is that out of loyalty, when I paid for tickets I tried to use AA. Today, I avoid AA on paid tickets too because of how they treat me with the award tickets.

  26. Hey Summer, I hear ya on flying a family of four 🙂 but we have managed over the last year to fly all four of us on Southwest to six places for less than $100 out of pocket per flight (mostly annual fees, security fee and some purchases of points at the beginning of our journey). The Companion Pass really helps, because you eliminate the need for points for one out of the four :). Pretty amazing! I have some American points that I wish I did not have and have also been looking at what they have available this year. Agreed! There is next to nothing! Good luck on your 2017 planning!

  27. Our home airport is a southwest hub, and we get a lot of value out of points redemptions. As a family of 5, I feel ya on the sticker shock. Airfare, hotel to fit us, larger car. Woosh!

  28. Yep, our huge stash of unAAvailable miles is useless flying premium cabins West Coast TATL to Europe. Last Summer and next, we are flying JAL and/or Korean FC for West Coast to Hong Kong, stopping over, then SQ Suites to Europe.

    Since we are still sitting on 1.5 Million unAAvailable miles from massive cc churning and MS spending in the good old days, and lots of MR, TYP, and UR sign up bonus points, and only need two seats, we can manage this. Plus HK being one of our favorites stop overs helps make it palatable.

    But for a family, with a merely reasonable amount of miles, and dates constrained by vacation/school break schedules, AA is truly unAAvailable. So sad that the unAAvailable program has gotten so bad that Sky Pesos are now more valuable, but it’s true. I laugh every time I get an email from unAAvailable offering to sell me miles for a “discount”, and not in a good way at all. Ponzi scheme is what comes to mind for those offers. ;(

    I do feel bad for folks that take that offer to buy up miles, not knowing they will probably never get a way to use them, at least not in a way that provides any value from the purchase.

    • Accurate description on unAAvailable! It has gotten to a lower than low level I’m afraid. As you know, there are still awards to cherry pick, but those awards are largely outside most family’s travel-sphere.

  29. Well, AA saver award availability for domestic travel out of and into Houston has been abysmal for quite awhile.

    As a result, I plan to cancel either my Citi AA or Barclays AA credit card. I’ll keep one primarily for, somewhat, priority boarding. I’d rather put my spend on cards that accrue miles for which saver award availability is more than a pipe dream.

    When asked why I want to cancel the credit card, this is going to be the reason I tell the bank. If enough people do this over time, maybe, just maybe, they can exert some pressure on the airline.

  30. I like to book a lot of fairly last minute domestic flights so another positive Delta has over American here is that they don’t charge the $75 late booking fee for non-elite award bookings under 21 days out.

  31. I ditto almost everyone here. I live near a small regional airport, and currently AA is my only option, so of course, I have a lot of miles with them. AA has gotten so stingy that their offers of point bonuses seem almost fraudulent since they make them nearly impossible to use.

    I have a follow-up question though. I have two AA credit cards. One of them I’ve had for 10 years, (my longest credit history card) and of course, it has an annual fee. But given that earning points through AA is almost “pointLESS” (ha ha! ) now, I’m wanting to give up the card (AND THE FEE!). But, I don’t want to wreck my credit history. What would your advice be, Mommy Points?

  32. I am by no means an expert, and I can’t believe that I know something that all of you super well-informed people don’t already know, but are you folks aware of the flights to Europe using AA miles, which are not posted online? I am talking about the ones, which you have to T-call AA to book? have learned that there are non-stop flights to Europe via LAX, which are not shown on the online American Airlines web site, because they are associated with the One World group of airlines, such as with Air Berlin, Air Tahiti Nui, and Iberian Airlines. I avoid British Airways, because of the taxes. You have to call AA in order to book these flights. I usually fly coach. And, it seems most of you guys are used to flying Business.
    But, I did leave Madrid last summer, with my two teenage daughters, in some superb lay flat seats, using 50,000 AAdvantage miles, for each of us. These seats spoiled us, for ever settling for coach, again. And, my husband, who did not fly with us, on that trip, is totally ‘J.’ But, I really don’t have the skills to accumulate enough points to fly business all the time.
    Anyway, I have had great luck booking direct flights to Europe from LAX, using my AApoints, on coach (or whatever those seats are called,) by T-calling AA, directly.

  33. Your Houston-NYC nonstop on AA example is useless – AA doesn’t fly nonstop from LGA, JFK, or EWR. That’s why there are no nonstop saver tickets.

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