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Best Ways to Get Free Domestic Flights

The US is not only a big country, it’s one without great discount airliners. There’s a long debate in the frequent flyer world on whether or not a domestic flight is a good redemption. But in the end miles are made for burning. So this post is about burning your miles for domestic flights and the best ways of doing so.

A Great Redemption

Using 25,000 miles for a roundtrip from DC to NYC is not nearly the flight that LA to NYC is. Yes, it’s 16 hours of flying instead of 2, and yes, it’s a much more expensive ticket. But another reason the one flight is a bigger deal than the other is because there are cheap ways with miles to book that flight.

So instead of suggesting “pay with cash” when it comes to domestic flights, I’d rather think about which miles you want to start earning.

Southwest

Southwest Rapid Rewards is a revenue based redemption scheme. In other words, the more expensive the regular priced ticket is, the more expensive it is with their points (they call them points not miles). Also, when they have sales for cheap tickets, it’s also going to be cheap with points.

And Southwest can be real cheap. I’ve booked multiple flights for about 4,000 points. They were short flights, like Houston to Little Rock, or Chicago to Cleveland, but they were still cheap.

These cheap prices really stand out when you compare them to the average 12,500 mile prices of United, AA and many others more expensive.

In my opinion, Southwest is the best way of getting around domestically for super cheap. Then again, it depends on your route. It certainly doesn’t fulfill my need to get to or from a few airports like Charlottesville, VA, as they don’t fly there. And other routes are super expensive. But simply check out their prices online. Do an award search and even use the calendar to see their best prices.

Once you have the points, check their homepage for sales. Often they have killer sales. You can get their email or download “Ding” which is a sale alert program for your home town (or whatever towns you add).

Earning

Southwest is most generous in that they give a companion pass for those who have earned 110,000 points, including points earned from credit card bonuses. So those who have the personal and business card and waited to get them during their 50,000 point bonuses (which they do periodically) are practically there. Actually, after the spend requirement you probably only need 4,000 more points, which can be done from $4,000 of spending.

The companion pass is too good to be true… except it’s true. Anytime you fly, one designated companion gets to fly with you, free. And it doesn’t just last one flight, it lasts the year. We took 14 flights together this way and had a ton of points to spare.

Another way to get Southwest points is from transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points from Chase to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio. I generally don’t advise this because I love using Ultimate Rewards points for United miles, but if all you’re planning are domestic flights, it might not be a bad idea. However, Chase transfers do not count towards the companion pass.

One last thing I’ll say about Southwest is that it’s an unbeatable system. You don’t have to worry about award availability, you simply pay a price that is relative to what the market values that ticket. But all seats are award seats. No checking for availability, no catch. Of course, they don’t have partners and are therefore worthless for international flights (outside of North America at least).

British Airways Avios

Most airline programs price their award flights by region. We’ve already seen one exception, Southwest, who charges based on the cash price, and British Airways is another.

British Airways Avios (that’s what they call their miles) is a distance based program. Unlike many distance based programs who add up the total miles flown on a ticket to get your price, they do it based on each segment. Thus, long flights with lots of segments end up costing more than average and short, one segment flights end up costing less.

  • Flying 0 – 650 miles in the air = 4,500 Avios
  • Flying 651 – 1,150 miles in the air = 7,500 Avios
  • Flying 1,151 – 2,000 miles in the air = 10,000 Avios
  • Flying 2,001 – 3,000 miles in the air = 12,500 Avios

The above means that a flight like DC to NYC which is only 239 in air miles flown, would only cost you 4,500 Avios. In order to look up how many miles you’d fly, use GCMAP. Type in the airport codes like “IAD – LGA” and it will spit out a map with the total amount of miles flown. Cross reference that total with the British Airways Reward Chart to determine your price.

4,500 miles for a flight is unbeatable, (except by Southwest). The pricing and availability isn’t as clear cut, but I’ll try to reduce it to two steps.

1) Use the Avios award calculator to figure out the best route or the price of a ticket.

2) Log onto British Airways and check award availability (likely for American Airlines flights).

If there’s availability, you’re good to go.

British Airways is a OneWorld partner. Understand that most all your domestic OneWorld routings are American Airlines and now you will be able to book US Airways. This means that flights to and from their hubs are really your only options. Use the OneWorld route map to check and see if there are flights from your hometown to one of the hubs (like Miami, Chicago, LA, Dallas, New York, Charlotte and Philadelphia and Phoenix).

Earning

There is a British Airways credit card but also my favorite way to earn is by transferring from American Express Membership Rewards points. Transfer from Amex to Avios at a 1:1 ratio and occasionally with an added bonus.

Bank points

There are a few bank points that don’t even transfer to miles. Capital1, Discover and Barclay. The Barclay World Arrival card is often a favorite because of the large sign up bonus, the 2 points per dollar on everything and easy redemption system.

The problem with availability on the major alliances is that their award availability is gone when you need it most – holidays. While Southwest offers a fair solution, the other airlines don’t really. Thus, it’s nice to have bank points that will reimburse 1 cent per point.

In other words, if I find a $400 ticket it would cost 40,000 points.  I book and then call the bank and they cover the charge. Or many banks now have their own booking platform where they cover the charges.

Bank points might not be a valuable way to book flights normally, but consider that the average roundtrip with the major airlines would run you 25,000 miles. Thus, if you can find a ticket online for a steal, covering it with bank points would make it a better than average redemption.

A ticket for $150 may only cost 15,000 bank points, depending on the bank. With the Barclay World Arrival, you do a little bit better, but another pro is that you would earn miles from the flight as it’s in every way a paid ticket. The bank is doing the paying, but hey, it’s still a miles earning ticket.

 

Booking peak season

Honestly, there’s not a lot of good advise other than to diversify. This is a time where I recommended a little more off beat things like bank points and Southwest, but normally I just collect AA, United, and a few others. With these programs it can be really hard to book tickets domestically, and especially over the holiday. So you can diversify like I recommended to bank points, Southwest and Avios (a member of a major alliance). But you can also diversify across the major alliances (OneWorld, Star Alliance and Sky Team). Having options to check is key.

For example, I have hotel points with IHG, Club Carlson, and Hyatt at the moment. Now When going to a specific city I can check all three for availability and prices. For hotels I can also compare locations and for airlines I can compare routings. Similarly, I can check each of the three alliances, Southwest and bank points when checking for domestic flights. In Asia or Europe I’d also advise checking discount airliners, but in the US we still have plenty of options.

But if you are using your regular miles for a flight in peak season, book ahead. Availability goes quickly and it’s hard to catch it coming open again. ExpertFlyer helps set alerts for certain seats, but in general, I recommend booking ahead if you know exactly what flight you need.

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3 Comments

  1. The wife and I are huge fans of British Airways Avios. Being in CA, it is absolutely a steal that we can both fly r/t to Hawaii for a total of 50K points. Southwest we pretty much use for the rest of the short haul domestic flights.

    Reply
  2. Four posts in the last 15 days. If this is your prime method of earning a living, you have really got a good thing going here. Congrats!

    Reply
  3. Great post!
    Totally agree about the Avios. If you don’t live in an AA or US hub city, then you basically need to be content having those as your destinations (Miami, Chicago, NYC are fun places though!).
    Being based in ATL, Avios have saved us on a number of occasions where we needed to get to Chicago (606 mi = 4500 av.). In fact, once we booked the award ticket 90 minutes before departure when our original flights fell though. BA also doesn’t charge an increased “close-in” booking fee (like UA does for non-elites) when you book a ticket within a certain time period of the departure date.
    Avios are excellent for short-haul redemptions allowing us to stash our DL and UA miles for potentially higher value longhaul trips.

    Reply

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