Fly Short Distances Using Fewer Miles by Taking Advantage of Distance-Based Frequent Flyer Programs

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  Award Ticket Strategies

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With most frequent flyer programs, the number of miles required for a flight is based on the regions you are flying between. For example, with most programs, every flight within the United States requires the same number of miles, regardless of whether you are flying coast-to-coast or making a quick regional hop. Similarly, every trip between the US and Mexico would require the same number of miles, as would every trip between the US and Europe. It doesn’t matter which route you take or what cities you fly between—it only matters in which region you start and finish your trip.

But a handful of frequent flyer programs base the cost of award tickets on the actual distance you travel, rather than the regions you are flying between. Shorter trips cost less than longer trips and you don’t need to pay any extra miles just because you crossed a regional boundary.

Depending on where you are traveling, a distance-based program may require far fewer miles than a typical region-based program. Distance-based programs are almost always the cheapest option for shorter flights, especially if they cross from one “region” into another.

British Airways is the most popular distance-based program, with its own US-based credit card and the ability to transfer points from Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, and Marriott. But there are several other lesser-known distance-based programs, as well as special short-distance awards available from programs that are normally region-based.



Great routes for distance-based awards

There are many different trips where distance-based programs require fewer miles than more typical region-based programs.

  • Shorter flights within the United States. A standard round-trip award ticket in the US requires 25,000 miles in coach and 50,000 miles in business class. While these awards are often good values when you are flying coast-to-coast, they aren't a particularly good deal if you are taking a shorter flight (which may cost less than a few hundred dollars round trip). By taking advantage of a distance-based program, you can drop the price of shorter flights to a more reasonable 15,000 miles round-trip or sometimes even less. This can be an especially good deal, if the flight is short, but still expensive (such as a trip from the West coast to Aspen.)
  • The Caribbean and Central American from the East Coast, especially Florida.  From Miami, you can fly to most of the Caribbean and Central America for 15-20,000 miles round-trip and a few destinations for only 11-12,000 miles. Compare that to a typical award price of 35,000 miles round-trip with region-based programs, which typically require extra miles because the Caribbean and Central America aren't part of the US region. Even the cheapest region-based program would require 25,000 miles round-trip for these flights.
  • Caribbean1.jpg
  • Flights to Hawaii from the West Coast.  You can fly from pretty much anywhere on the West Coast (and Phoenix) to Hawaii for only 26,000 British Airways miles round-trip. Compare that to a typical region-based price of 45,000 miles.
  • Hawaii1.jpg
  • Flights to Western Europe from the East Coast.  You can fly using as little as 26,000 points round trip on Aer Lingus (with relatively low fuel surcharges), British Airways, and Iberia. Or you fly for under 42,000 miles round trip by taking advantage of various other distance-based program on flights that don’t have expensive fuel surcharges. A typical region-based award would require 50-60,000 miles. 
  • London.jpg

    The best of all the distance-based deals to Europe is the Aer Lingus flight between Montreal and Dublin. Because this flight is slightly less than 3,000 miles, it only requires 20,000 points for an off-peak round-trip, 25,000 for a peak round-trip, and as little as 62,500 points for business class.

  • Hopping from island to island in the Caribbean. Stringing together multiple islands in a single trip typically requires 6,000 or fewer miles per segment. With some distance-based programs, you'll pay just a small amount for each flight. With other programs, you'll pay a cheap price based on the total miles flown.
  • CaribbeanHopper.gif
  • Many city-to-city routes within Europe, Asia, Central America, and South America. When you are visiting multiple destinations, distance-based programs often let you book each hop for only a small number of extra miles. For example, with a distance-based program, many flights within Europe would only require around 6,000 miles and many flights within Asia would only require around 6-11,000 miles. You may be able to travel the same route on a discount airline for a base price of only $50-100. But, using a small number of miles, you can book the same trip on a major airline and often avoid paying baggage and seat selection fees.
  • Flights to Northern South America from the Southern US Miami to Bogota or Quito is only 11,000 British Airways miles each way, Miami to Lima is only 13,000 miles.
  • MachuPicchu.jpg
  • Flights from Asian Hubs to more expensive locations. You can often get cheap airfares to China or Hong Kong, while tickets to many other locations in Asia remain expensive. So, you can fly to Hong Kong on a cash ticket and then spend 6,000 or fewer British Airways miles to make your way to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, or many other destinations. Even more far-flung destination (like Bali) only require 10,000 or fewer miles each way.
  • A great way to see how many British Airways points it takes to book an award ticket is to use The Wandering Aramean’s Avios Calculator. It shows not only the number of points needed for a direct flight but also the number needed for common routes that require connections. He also has a mapping tool  that shows the Avios cost for all the nonstop flights from a chosen city.
  • AviosMappingToolResults.png

Domestic short distance awards

The major US frequent flyer programs now often charge fewer miles for shorter trips (within the US). All rates are for one-way regular priced (“saver”) awards, are not always available, and would be compared to the normal cost of 12,500 miles each way.

Alaska

5,000 points for flights of less than 700 miles, 7,500 points for flights between 701 and 1,400 miles, and 10,000 points for flights between 1,401 and 2,100 miles. Amazingly, you can add a free stopover even with these low-priced awards, without spending any additional miles. For example, you could fly from Salt Lake City to LAX and then fly a few days later from LAX to San Diego, for a total of only 5,000 points.

American

7,500 points for flights of less than 500 miles.

Delta

As little as 5,000 points for short flights, but there is no fixed set of reward costs and distances.

United

10,000 points for flights of less than 700 miles.

Avianca

7,500 points for (United) flights within a single region. Avianca divides the US into three regions, roughly East, West, and Central. Flights within these regions only require 7,500 points each way in coach and 15,000 miles each way in business. If you need to fly between the East Region and the Central Region, flights are 10,000 points each way, still cheaper than a typical domestic award ticket. You can often purchase Avianca miles for as little as 1.4 cents each, so buying points for a qualifying flight would cost $210. You can also transfer ThankYou and Marriott points to Avianca.

If you are flying on American or Alaska Airlines, you have several other options for taking advantage of distance-based frequent flyer programs.  You can use any of the Oneworld distance-based programs (described below) to fly on American, and British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and JAL to fly on Alaska.  For round trip flights, it is cheaper to use Iberia miles than the American Airlines short distance awards. Otherwise, American and Alaska’s short distance awards (on qualifying flights) require fewer miles than with the normal distance-based programs described below.

MileagePlus short distance awards

United Airlines also offers a short-distance award that you can use outside the United States (and with partner airlines).

For only 8,000 points, you can book an award ticket for any nonstop flight of less than 800 miles, as long as it stays within a single region. This is a great option for many flights within Central America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

For example, here is the award chart for flights within Europe:

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And, to give you an idea of how far you can fly, here is the region that is within 800 miles of Paris:

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American Airlines offers reduced prices on awards on domestic flights in many countries. For example, flights within Asia 1 (which includes Japan and Korea) normally require 12,500 miles each way. But any trips that stay within Japan only require 7,500 miles.

Discounted awards are available for domestic flights within Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Finland, Spain, the UK, Germany, Russia, Jordan, India, Japan, Fiji, and Australia.

True distance-based programs

While some region-based programs offer short distance awards, other frequent flyer programs are truly distance-based. They calculate the required number of miles based on the distance you are flying, rather than the regions you are flying between.

  • If you want to take advantage of a distance-based program, you’ll usually need to fly on a Oneworld airline, such as American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, JAL, or Qantas. Understanding Airline Alliances.
  • Program How distance is calculated
    British Airways
    MRURTYMar
    Each leg separately
    Iberia
    MRURTYMar
    Total distance   
    Cathay Pacific (Asia Miles)
    MRURTYMar
    One-way distance
    Malaysia
    MRURTYMar
    One-way or round-trip distance    
    Qantas
    MRURTYMar
    Each leg separately
    Qatar
    MRURTYMar
    Distance between cities  
    JAL
    MRURTYMar
    Total distance
    Garuda (SkyTeam)
    MRURTYMar
    Distance between cities
  • In addition, each program has a set of non-alliance airline partners. Each of these different frequent flyer programs allow you to take advantage of distance-based awards on a set of additional airlines (beyond the Oneworld alliance). For example, you could use Malaysia’s program for distance-based awards on Air France, British Airways' program for distance-based awards on Alaska, or Cathay Pacific's for distance-based awards on Air Canada.
  • Garuda Airlines and Air Europa are the only SkyTeam airline with a distance-based award chart—but they are usually more expensive than region-based alternatives. Nevertheless, there will be times when Garuda’s price of 15–17,500 points (25-30,000 in Business) for flights of less than 1,500 miles will be cheaper than the region-based alternatives.
  • None of the Star Alliance airlines have a distance-based award chart. But as mentioned above, you can book individual Star Alliance airlines, if they happen to be non-alliance partners of one of the Oneworld distance-based programs.

Calculating distances and award costs

  • Awards are based on distance “tiers”, not on the exact number of miles traveled. Each program has a small set of mileage ranges which have associated award costs, rather than a formula that calculates the required number of points based on the exact distance. For example, on British Airways, you’ll pay the same number of miles for any flight that travels between 3,000 and 4,000 miles. A trip of 3,050 miles costs the same as a trip of 3,900 miles.
  • Zone Flight Distance (miles) Economy Premium Economy Business First
    1 up to 650
    non-US
    6,000 9,000 12,500 24,000
    up to 650
    to/from US
    7,500 11,250 15,000 30,000
    2 651 - 1,150 9,000 12,500 16,500 33,000
    3 1,151 - 2,000 11,000 16,500 22,000 44,000
    4 2,001 - 3,000 13,000 25,750 38,750 51,000
    5 3,001 - 4,000 20,750 41,250 62,000 82,500
    6 4,001 - 5,500 25,750 51,500 77,250 103,000
    7 5.501 - 6,500 31,000 62,000 92,750 123,750
    8 6,501 - 7,000 36,250 72,250 108,250 144,250
    9 more than 7,000 51,500 103,000 154,500 206,000
  • Different distance-based programs use very different methods for calculating the applicable distance flown and the required number of points. Depending on the type of flights you need, only some of the programs will be an appropriate choice for your trip.
  • Each Leg Separately

    British Airways and Qantas charge separately for each flight. This means that they are usually only useful for nonstop flights. For example, if you are flying from Cincinnati to London (with a connection in New York), you'd need to pay 9,000 points for the flight between Cincinnati and New York and then another 21,000 points for the flight between New York and London, for a total of 30,000 points each way and 60,000 points round trip. If you could have flown directly to London, the flight would have only required a total of 21,000 points each way.

    Total One Way Distance

    Cathay Pacific charges based on the total distance flown for each one-way flight. Since connecting flights are longer than a non-stop route, they may require more points, but you don't pay for each flight separately.

    Distance between Cities

    Qatar and Garuda charge based on the total distance between the origin and the destination, even if you make a connection. Connecting flights don’t require any more points than a nonstop. In our example, you’d be charged based on the 3,950-mile air distance between Cincinnati and London, regardless of which routing you take.

    One Way or Round-Trip Distance

    Malaysia also charges based on the total distance between the origin and destination but charges a premium for one way flights. They publish one price for one way awards and a separate price for round-trip awards, based on the air distance between the cities. 

    Total Distance JAL and Iberia charge based on the total distance you travel. You add up each of the individual flights (in both directions) to calculate the distance traveled. Since connections only add a small amount of extra distance, they usually don’t change your mileage tier and don't increase the total cost of the award, but in some cases they could.

    These programs are priced assuming you’ll be travelling round-trip. Because short trips cost more per mile than longer trips, they tend to be very expensive for one-way flights. In our example, the distance each way would be 4,027 miles, rather than the 3,950-mile air distance between the cities. (587 miles to New York, then 3,440 miles from New York to London), which pushes the trip into the next higher mileage tier. On JAL, a round trip of 8,054 miles would cost 47,000 / 85,000 / 135,000 points, but a one-way ticket of 4,027 miles would cost much more than half this much, at 37,000 / 60,000 / 90,000 points.

  • If you are flying on more than one partner, most of these programs switch to a different "multi-carrier" chart that is based on total distance. British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia, and Qantas each have a “multi-carrier” chart for trips which combine at least two partner airlines (not counting their own flights). In our example, if you were getting to London by flying American Airlines between Cincinnati and New York and then Aer Lingus from New York to London (via Dublin), Cathay Pacific would use its more expensive multi-carrier chart, rather than its regular award chart. But if you were flying to Hong Kong by taking an American Airlines flight to Tokyo and a Cathay Pacific flight from there, you would still use Cathay's regular award chart.
  • Every multi-carrier award chart is based on the total distance traveled, like the “normal” JAL and Iberia charts. While the multi-carrier charts require more points per mile traveled than their “regular” charts, they are usually cheaper if you need to make connections or want to make stopovers. For example, if you know you need to make a connection, it can be cheaper to mix airlines and force British Airways to use its multi-carrier chart, rather than sticking with the regular award chart.

Determining which Oneworld distance-based program to use

The best way to get a sense of which program requires the fewest miles is to use the various "Award Pricing" tools like AwardHacker. However, you need to be careful, because the exact cost may depend on the exact routing you take, and these tools won't always provide accurate information for your trips. The tools do a good job of directing your attention to the right set of programs, but you may need to use each program's award calculators to figure out the exact number of points needed for your award. Find the Least Expensive Award Options for Your Destination.

AwardAceHawaiiResults.jpg

You may also want to look at our analysis of which distance-based programs is usually best for different types of flights. The Best Distance-based Frequent Flyer Programs.

  • British Airways is usually the most attractive choice for short to medium distances, as long as they don't involve a connection or American Airlines flights to Europe. For short to medium distance round-trip premium cabin tickets, Iberia (and JAL) can be cheaper than British Airways.
  • JAL is usually the most attractive choice for medium to long flights. Unfortunately, they don't partner with Membership or Ultimate Rewards. As a result, Iberia and Cathay Pacific are the more accessible options for these flights.
  • Iberia can sometimes be a better choice than their partner British Airways, particularly for very short flights within the United States, flights to Europe on American Airlines, and short-distance premium cabin tickets. However, Iberia prices are high if you only need a one-way flight.
  • Malaysia, Qatar, and Qantas are usually more expensive than the other options.



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