The State of Using American and Delta Frequent Flyer Miles

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Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post about how far the American AAdvantage program had fallen and how comparatively strong the SkyMiles program had become. Outside of a few exceptions, largely on short commuter hops on the East Coast, you pretty much couldn’t find economy saver awards using AAdvantage miles. This was especially true if you were hoping for a logical itinerary you would actually want to fly with your family. A simple routing from their hub in Dallas to any of the New York City airports had exactly zero nonstop economy awards available for four people when I did a full month search for travel in June 2017 back in January of 2017. Other months really weren’t significantly different. AAdvantage miles weren’t worthless, but if you wanted to use them to fly on American, doing so at the saver level was almost impossible.

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In contrast, at the same time, I was having tremendous success finding Delta awards on nonstop, or at least logical itineraries, which was surprising to me at the time. For our family travel purposes, Delta SkyMiles had become much more useful than American AAdvantage miles. Many others shared their similar experiences in the comments section of that post.

So, one year later, how are things looking? Are AAdvantage miles still virtually impossible to use for saver awards on American operated flights, or have more awards become available? Are Delta SkyMiles still as useful as they were a year ago? Let’s find out…

The state of the AAdvantage saver award

Before I get into the search results, I’ll say that my own experience with American AAdvantage in the last few months has been much better than it was at this time last year. Heck, just last week I was able to book business class award tickets home from Europe using AAdvantage miles at the saver level on an American operated flights without fuel surcharges. Best of all that wasn’t a one-off fluke where availability is there for a day and then gone for months. I still see many options to cross the Atlantic on American operated flights in business class at the saver level. That by itself is a huge positive change for American.

Not only that, but I’ve noticed many more American awards available at the saver level on domestic trips. That said, in my searches, you will find the most success at the saver level if you are willing to have a connection. Still, that is miles ahead of where we were a year ago when I often couldn’t find anything even remotely workable on American operated flights at the saver level.

I duplicated the award searches I did at this time last year, and thankfully the results mirror what I’ve been noticing for a few months. Things are indeed much better with AAdvantage.

Both this year and last year I searched for four domestic saver awards from Dallas (their hub) to NYC. Last year I found nine dates in a month that had economy saver availability for four. On first glance that isn’t good, but it isn’t terrible. However, when I selected nonstop options only, the choices dropped to exactly zero, despite those flights all being from a hub.

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This year, there were 19 days in roughly that same period where four people could fly nonstop from Dallas to a New York City airport at the AAdvantage saver rate. That is real, tangible improvement that benefits families.

For what it is worth, if you were willing to connect, four people could fly all but two dates that month at the saver level.

From Houston to New York, a route that requires a connection as American does not fly it nonstop, a year ago there were only two dates in that month with domestic saver awards for four. On both of those dates, the award options were totally non-workable for a family requiring at least three flights to go less than 1,500 miles.

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Now there are fifteen days in that same month with saver availability to go from Houston to New York City. A spot check of several of the routings showed them to be totally logical with just one connection required, usually in Dallas or Charlotte.

If you wanted to fly Dallas to New York City with your family of four nonstop in first class, things predictably get much tighter, but there was one date with four first class seats available. Last year there were none.

The state of the Delta SkyMiles saver award

Now let’s look at Delta SkyMiles this year compared to last year on the Houston to New York City route in that same month of June. Last year Delta had 18 days where nonstop round trips for four were available for 25,000 miles. They don’t publish an award chart, but that is (was) their standard lowest round trip price. That was really good availability for a nonstop flight during the summer, especially after seeing what American had to offer.

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This year Delta has 11 dates in virtually the same period with saver awards for four people for 24,000 miles per round trip. That is still good, though obviously in this one example it isn’t as good as last year in terms of the number of days available at the lowest price. That said, the price itself is 1,000 miles fewer than last year.

On the flip side, the highest price on this route when we checked it last year was 37,500 miles per round trip and this year it is 48,000 miles. This is of course just one example, but it is consistent with my opinions of Delta SkyMiles in recent months.

In general, I think you can now find some Delta awards for less than you can with similar competitors, but they have increasingly moved to a more variable award pricing model where some dates will be less expensive than they used to be, and some will cost more. On the whole, I think Delta is still solid for domestic economy round trips, especially if you have some date flexibility to book on their cheaper days. Additionally, when they do their monthly flash sales there are some even better deals to be had.

Right now, Delta SkyMiles and AAdvantage miles are roughly equal

All in all, I’m pretty happy with where things stand with American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles today compared to where we were a year ago. A year ago many of us thought our AAdvantage balances weren’t worth very much, but today I think we are in a much better place. In fact, my next credit card application is very likely to be for an AAdvantage card as I have been hauling through my stash of American miles booking very nice saver awards. In terms of Delta, I don’t think the situation has changed dramatically from where we were a year ago, which is just fine by me.

The falling star may be United

While I didn’t really include United in my post last year as their program was pretty stable, I honestly think they are the one among the major US programs that has fallen the most in the last 12 months with their own introduction of new (higher) tiers of award prices. For the same Houston – NYC route in the same month, United offers 13 dates with nonstop economy saver availability for four at 12,500 miles each way if you don’t have elite status or their co-branded credit card. If you do have elite status or a co-branded United card there are 20 days available for the picking. That’s actually much better than I expected. There are no dates with first class saver availability for four on that route in that month.

I still love my United miles, but as I pointed out the other day, you really need to have a United credit card (or elite status) if you want to have the type of saver award availability you are probably used to in that program.

While some will disagree, I think on the whole for domestic economy travel, the main three traditional US frequent flyer programs currently have currencies that are roughly equal in value. Which one is best for you will depend on your personal situation. I still prefer United miles as I have elite status, their credit card, and live at a United hub. However, I am using AAdvantage miles and Delta miles at pretty much an equal rate as my United miles, even for old fashion economy saver awards. When you start talking about international business class travel, the discussion shifts a bit as to which currency is best, but I still don’t think there is a clear winner. Which is best will depend on where you are and where you want to go.

I’m happy to have all three currencies at the ready so I have options when it comes time to book our trips. I’d love to hear your recent experiences using United MileagePlus, American AAdvantage, and Delta SkyMiles!

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Comments

  1. My husband and I are sitting on a combined total of 200,000 American Airlines miles and can’t use them. Availability from the West Coast even with a connection – often they want 2 connections are poor, and international it’s even worse or they want to book you on BA metal with those high fees.

    I can’t wait to get rid of these miles and I’ll cancel my Citi card but will keep Barclay American card. It will come in handy if I have to book for priority boarding and free checked luggage.

    I love United – just never have an issue using miles with them or partner airlines.

    • To go to Europe with AA miles, call AA reservations and ask about Iberia availability. I think AA awards on Iberia continue to be able to be booked only over the phone, so there are no fees. The best thing about AA awards is that once you get a routing, you can make unlimited changes as long as the departure and destination stay the same on the same day. I was able to change an Iberia/AA itinerary to and from Europe that was pretty awful to a very decent AA itinerary by monitoring saver award availability. Ultimately, I changed my itinerary 4 times to get the better routing.

      • Thanks Elena… I will try Iberia. I used AA miles a couple of years ago to Paris from LAX on Air Tahiti Nui by calling as well – this was our last option because we wanted to avoid Paris. Connections aren’t even an issue – but American wants sometimes two stops or the layovers are ridiculously long. However, I just wished American made it easy like United – I’m flying to Italy on Austian Air outbound with layover in Vienna and return via Swiss Air with layover in Zurich. Times are convenient and a good amount of options listed from partner airlines.

        Is there no fuel surcharge on Iberia like BA?

          • Good to know about the fuel charges but Iberia never comes up in my searches from the West Coast. The thought of having to call them gave me hope because I know Iberia has direct flights from Philly, and American flies direct to PHL and I never see anything, seriously it’s always BA or AA with two connections or a crazy layover in Miami which means I would arrive at my destination in two days instead of one.

          • There are surcharges, but relatively small compared to BA. And a friendly reminder to all – let’s avoid calling them “fuel” charges, since those carrier imposed “because we can rip you off we will” fees actually have nothing to do with fuel.

            It’s amazing that American still isn’t technologically competent enough to put award space for most of its partners on its website, but it’s necessary to do workarounds by searching on BA or Qantas. Delta and United are far, far ahead of American in that respect, with most of their partners available for search and booking online.

            On the larger point of the article, I too have been finding some Saver award space again on AA. My searches are normally for one person in economy. It’s better, but I don’t yet have the confidence in the ongoing value of that currency to be trying to accumulate it again. I’d like to see a statement from the company with a firm commitment to reasonable Saver space.

  2. I’m not having any problems using either United or AA miles. However, I think part of that may be that I am West Coast based and only looking for international redemptions. We are sitting on 450k AA miles and after a lack lustre BA flight in first, I’ve decided all these miles are reserved for future trips in First on Cathay. Even if BA were to totally can their fuel surcharges tomorrow I have zero interest in flying with them. For domestic flights I generally buy flights in F as if you get in early enough costs are reasonable. What about the option of using AA miles on Iberia for those that can only find availability from West Coast on BA?

  3. One thing that I noticed that I had never seen before was saver availability on a flight with a connection through DFW….but if I exclude my originating city and just search DFW direct to the final destination on the same flight, the saver space is not available. I had never seen this until this year.

    Is that normal?

  4. Booked summer vacation to Europe on Delta for my family of 4. 50,000 Skymiles round trip from MSP to LHR per passenger in coach. For a ticket that is prices at over $2k that is a great redemption in my opinion. In the meantime AA was asking 110,000 miles per passenger for a MSP-MIA-MSP between Christmas and New Year. I have a legacy of AA miles sitting in my account that I never find a good way to use it.

    • Echo that. Sometimes Delta can be hard work(though not always) when searching for D1 TATL. However, at their low level(usually 50,000 SM’s) their availability is usually very good and with normal routings. Usually one stop via ATL to most euro hubs, at least from here.
      AA on the other hand might have some low level routings but they almost always involve BA metal and/or two stops and/or some 5:30 am departure(s), maybe even an overnight(and huge layover) before crossing. Switch to their more intuitive routings(one stop, same day, AA metal etc..) and the price skyrockets!
      And forget their premium cabins, at least based on recent searches.

  5. You touched on international at the very end and I’d really appreciate your thoughts in a post on that bit for families. If one weren’t tied to one airline currency because of elite status benefits, which would you choose? We’re evaluating our credit card strategy at the moment and are wondering which airline card to get in order to start building a stash (after being happy with our transferrable points portfolio). If there are differences between Atlantic versus Pacific, that would be interesting to know.

    • It depends where you want to go. Very generally speaking, I think folks still have good luck with AA heading towards Asia while I think United is still best heading towards Europe. To Australia and New Zealand it is a toss up.

    • I would also add, it really depends on where you live. If your city is a hub for an airline, you will do better with that airline because the options to fly direct places are just better in general.

  6. MP: This would be valuable info if we all flew out of Texas. Unfortunately there are 49 other states and hundreds of other cities other than Houston and Dallas. Wonder what the results would be for elsewhere? Any data on that?

    • I’m sure someone out there can pull data to do a more scientific study than me, but I think Texas to New York is a reasonable enough example that is consistent with my results on test searches to/from other locations. More importantly, it just happened to be what I looked at in January 2017, so I could do an apples to apples comparison in January 2018.

  7. I have a crazy number of AA and BA miles that I can never seem to use! Once these are gone, I’m done collecting them. For domestic flights, Southwest is my go-to airline. They make things so easy, and we are able to change our plans. And the immediate transfer from Ultimate Rewards makes it even easier.

    For international, United and Delta always seem to have what we need. AA has space, but either for a huge number of miles, or on routes with 3+ stops. No thanks.

    This is from a Washington DC-based flyer

  8. MP, from my personal experience:

    United miles – I (almost) never have any issue using UA miles for long haul premium cabin travel, due to the extensive network of Star Alliance partners. The booking process is quite straightforward. Even in the instance where I had to call, it’s quick and (relatively) easy. In some scenario, I could still even sneak going to Asia via Europe – depending on whether UA.com is fickle on that day or not. As recent as last Nov, I could still book IAH to SIN via FRA, and I could even structure it with almost 24 hr layover in FRA (sightseeing Christmas market in Germany!). Before that, I booked SIN-BKK-VIE-FRA-SEA on business class online with no issue.

    For domestic – this is actually harder to do with UA. I’ve never seen transcon premium cabin on UA at saver level.

    Delta SkyMiles – I used my last SkyMiles on CI, flying from SIN to YVR. Finding saver availability on premium long haul at Delta is a real pain. When I found premium long haul on DL partners, the tool just flat out refused to book it. When I called, the agents AND their supervisors cannot even do long sell. Some partners also cannot be booked by the agents and supervisors, even if there are saver level availability. Last year, I spend half a workday trying to use SkyPesos to book on CZ premium long haul cabin with no result. Xiamen Air, which is a SkyMiles member cannot be booked using SkyMiles. I am glad I used up all of mine flying with CI.

    From Seattle though – where I am based – their domestic short haul saver level award availability seems to be ok. I could fly up and down the west coast (and to BC and AB) with low miles requirements.

    Just my 2c.

  9. I have had great luck the last few years getting 25k flights on Delta out of our small airport…..up until 4 months ago when every single flight went up to 74k points! I’d love some insight on that.

  10. The race is closer, but I think UA miles are the most valuable, AA second, and DL third. It’s very good to have miles in all of them, because you never really know which one will have seats.

  11. For close-in bookings, the story is very different:

    -DL advertises “no close-in booking fee”, but (sneakily as usual) they often charge many more points if you book “close-in”. And its been getting worse and worse over time. For example, checking SFO-ATL, they want 59,000 miles one way in coach (!) booking less than a week in advance, 33,000 booking 1-2 weeks out, 24,500 booking 2-3 weeks out, and 19,500 booking more than 3 weeks out. And that’s for connecting flights – non-stops are even worse. And this is during one of the lowest demand periods of the year. Looks like they’re de facto very close to a revenue redemption model. (Almost every time I check DL award costs, I mutter obscenities under my breath.)

    -UA, on the other hand, often makes “Saver” awards available 24 to 72 hours prior to flight departure if the flight is unlikely to sell out. Even with the $75 general member close-in booking fee, that can be an excellent deal. For example, UA has several non-stops available for 12,500 miles SFO-ATL coach in the next week.

    -AA is in the middle – they don’t inflate award costs close-in, but don’t usually make excess inventory available at Saver level close to departure time. (You can avoid AA’s close-in booking fee by using Alaska miles.)

  12. Is your comparison really a fair comparison? AA has a huge hub at DFW so one could argue there are more people with AA miles that are Texas based and looking for awards from cities in Texas. DL would tend to have an advantage due to this imho.

    Sadly I’ve found Delta miles to be virtually useless unless your willing to spend more miles than the standard award levels.

    • I think it’s fair. LGA is a Delta hub and I also searched AA from Houston. Last year it wouldn’t give us anything workable even connecting in ORD or CLT. No one program is always best or worse so good to have options for sure.

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