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How many miles do you need to get a free flight? If you’re new to redeeming airline miles, one of the first things you'll learn is that the process can be much more confusing than buying a ticket with money.
There are a few different ways that airlines price their award tickets. The key takeaway is that the cost in miles can be very different from the cost to book the same flight with cash. If you don’t understand how award pricing works, it can be very easy to spend more miles (or pay higher taxes and fees) than necessary.
In this post, we’ll cover all the factors that can impact your out-of-pocket costs and how many miles you need for a free flight.
- Award Chart Basics
- Region-Based Award Pricing
- Distance-Based Award Pricing
- Revenue-Based Award Pricing
- Peak vs. Off-Peak Award Prices
- Standard vs Saver Awards
- Class of Service
- Who is Operating Your Flights?
- Out-of-Pocket Costs
- Fuel Surcharges
- Airport Taxes
- Award Booking Fees
- What If I Can't Find the Award Chart?
- Final Thoughts
Award Chart Basics
Most airlines publish a document called an “award chart”. This chart determines how many miles you’ll need for any given flight. There are three main categories of award chart pricing, and we’ll cover them all here.
Region-Based Award Pricing
The most prevalent type of airline award pricing is a region-based award chart. Region- or zone-based award pricing has two main characteristics:
- Countries are grouped into regions
- The number of miles you need to travel from one region to another is fixed
How Many Miles Do You Need to Get a Free Flight?
Here is an example of a region-based award chart for travel between the contiguous 48 United States/Canada and other regions of the world.
The above mileage requirements are borrowed from American Airlines' award chart. If you look at AA's region definitions, you'll find a list of all the countries that make up each region.
An Example of Region-Based Award Pricing
After confirming that France is part of the Europe region, we can head to AA.com to look for a flight from Los Angeles to Paris and see if American is offering any options at the lowest number of miles listed on the award chart. When we look at economy class (American calls this “Main Cabin”), we see the flight will cost 30,000 miles for a one-way ticket—just like the award chart says.
However, you'll notice that the premium-economy- and business-class prices on the Los Angeles to Paris route are significantly higher than what we see in the award chart: Premium economy costs 60,000 instead of 40,000 miles, and business class costs 110,000 instead of 57,500 miles. On this particular date, these awards are more expensive because American is offering only standard (rather than saver) award pricing. We'll cover this in more detail below.
The main takeaway here is that the award chart will tell you the lowest price you can pay for each class of service, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to book every flight at the lowest price. This is critical knowledge to avoid paying more airline miles than necessary. If you're willing to depart a few hours later and connect in Dallas, you can pay 57,500 miles on a business-class award instead of 110,000 miles.
Advantages of Region-Based Pricing
There are a couple of really amazing things about region-based pricing that you may be able to exploit to maximize your airline miles. The first is that the cost between regions is the same, no matter where in the region you’re flying. This is in contrast to cash tickets, which are often much more expensive if you’re flying to/from small or regional airports. Los Angeles to Paris costs 30,000 AAdvantage miles, but so does Santa Fe, New Mexico to Gdansk, Poland.
Another advantage of region-based pricing is that each program has its own set of prices, with its own sweet spots. One type of airline miles might have the best pricing between the U.S. and Europe, while another might have lower pricing between the U.S. and Africa. If you have multiple types of rewards points, you'll have the flexibility to book at a lower cost.
Savvy travelers can also take advantage of differences in how frequent-flyer programs define their award-chart regions. Air France Flying Blue includes Israel in Europe and charges less to fly there than many competitors that include Israel as part of the Middle East. Similarly, American Airlines recently moved Morocco from Africa to Europe, making it significantly less expensive to fly there from the United States.
Distance-Based Award Pricing
The second most common way to calculate how many miles you need for a free flight is based on distance. With distance-based award pricing, the country or region you're visiting does not matter. Instead, the price of your award ticket is based on the number of miles you travel on your itinerary.
Some programs use the total distance you fly on your entire itinerary. Other programs calculate a price for each flight segment on your trip and add them up to get the total cost.
How Many Miles Do You Need to Get a Free Flight?
One example of an award program that prices award tickets based on the total distance flown is Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. Here's how the Asia Miles award chart works:
A full treatment of Cathay’s award chart is out of the scope of this article. But at its most basic, Cathay has several “bands” of total flight distance for a given award. So, if your total flight distance is between 1-750 miles, you are charged the fewest amount of Asia Miles. Increasing the total distance flown increases the cost in Asia Miles, up to the maximum amount, which is charged for itineraries of over 7,501 flown miles.
British Airways Executive Club also uses distance-based award pricing, but BA's calculation is different from the Cathay Pacific example above. Instead of finding the total distance for your itinerary and looking up the corresponding price in the award chart, you’ll need to calculate a price for each individual flight on your itinerary.
To calculate how many miles you need for a trip, find the distance between your point of departure and your first connection. Then, find that distance band in the award chart and write down the number of Avios required. Repeat the process for each segment and add up the cost of all the segments to get the total price.
Here's an example of the calculation for an economy-class trip from Miami to San Francisco with a connection in Dallas.
- Miami (MIA) to Dallas (DFW) — 1,121 flight miles
- Dallas (DFW) to San Francisco (SFO) — 1,464 flight miles
The first flight segment falls into zone two, meaning that you'll need 9,000 Avios. The second flight segment falls into zone three. So, you'll need 11,000 Avios. Adding those together, a one-way ticket for this routing will cost 20,000 Avios.
But on the way back, let's say you find a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Miami. Since you don't have a connection, you just need the total distance from SFO to MIA, which is 2,585 miles. That means the return flight will fall into zone four and cost 13,000 Avios.
Pro Tip: Great Circle Mapper is the perfect tool for checking flight distances. The only information you need is the IATA airport code for each stop on your itinerary.
Advantages of Distance-Based Pricing
As you can tell from the example above, the British Airways Avios pricing can be great for nonstop flights, especially if the distance falls just below the upper limit of one of the pricing bands. (We're looking at you Montreal to Dublin!). If you need multiple connections to reach your destination, Cathay Pacific and other programs that use the total distance flown will often be cheaper than pricing based on each flight segment.
Distance-based pricing is radically different from region-based pricing, so you'll often find that one of these models far better than the others. If you do your research, you can pick the program with the lowest mileage requirements for your trip.
Revenue-Based Award Pricing
In a revenue-based pricing model, the number of miles you need is directly tied to the cash price of the flight you want to book. These programs have more in common with fixed-value rewards since every mile is worth a specific amount towards travel. Examples of revenue-based programs are Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue.
Revenue-based pricing doesn't present nearly as many opportunities to maximize your frequent flyer miles. If a ticket is expensive to buy, it's also expensive when using airline miles. On the other hand, you won't spend nearly as much time checking flight distances or looking up which region includes your destination. If you value simplicity over maximizing the return on each mile spent, these programs might be a good fit.
Our post on the types of rewards points breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of each of the pricing models we've discussed so far.
Peak vs. Off-Peak Award Prices
Award charts will tell you how many airline miles you need for a flight, but there are several other factors you need to know about before you start planning your next trip. Some frequent-flyer programs designate certain dates as “peak” or “off-peak”. These are preset dates, determined in advance, that are subject to higher or lower costs.
Here are a few examples:
- British Airways Executive Club — British Airways divides the entire calendar year into peak and off-peak dates, with different pricing depending on the date of your flight.
- American AAdvantage — American has MileSAAver Off Peak dates for several different region pairs. For example, the normal one-way economy MileSAAver price from the US to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America is 15,000 AAdvantage miles. But during the off-peak dates of April 21 – May 20 and September 9 – November 18, it only costs 12,500 miles
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club — Flying Club also divides the year into peak and off-peak for awards on Virgin Atlantic flights, with lower prices during off-peak times.
When peak or off-peak dates are a factor in award costs, you'll usually find both prices listed in the award chart. Take a look at the calendar or list of off-peak dates published by the program, and see if you can adjust your travel dates to capture some big savings.
Standard vs Saver Awards
As we noted in the American AAdvantage example earlier, an award chart tells you the lowest price for a given itinerary. However, that doesn't mean you'll always be able to book an award ticket at that price. Airlines would prefer to sell a seat for cash than give it to someone paying with points or miles. So, airlines limit the number of seats that you can book as an award ticket. This limited selection of flights is often referred to as “award availability” or “award space.”
In the early days, there was generally one price in miles for a given flight. If there wasn't award space on that flight, you'd have to find a different one. But as frequent flyer programs became more sophisticated, many began to offer more award space to customers willing to spend more miles.
The least expensive award tickets (the prices you'll find on the award chart) are generally called “saver awards” while the more expensive ones are called “standard awards.” You'll encounter cute variations on these names like sAAver awards and AAnytime awards from American AAdvantage, but the core principle is the same. In the award search below, the Business Everyday Award will be the only option once someone books the last three Business Saver Awards.
Unlike peak or off-peak prices which are determined in advance for each calendar year, saver award availability can change by the hour based on demand.
You should always try to avoid “standard” award pricing if at all possible. Remember that saver availability is determined on a flight-by-flight basis. If you don't find a saver seat on your preferred flight, check other itineraries or consider flying a day earlier or later. Because this changes frequently, sometimes the best course of action is to check back later to see if the options have improved.
Class of Service
You can generally use your miles to book travel in economy, business, and first class. Some programs also have a separate set of prices for premium economy or basic economy. Most programs charge you the mileage rate for the highest class of service on your trip.
For example, if you book a business-class award ticket with American Airlines from the U.S. to Europe, American will charge you the full business-class price. That's the case even if you fly in economy before connecting to business class for the transatlantic flight. While this isn't ideal, it's helpful to have the option to mix classes of service on a ticket—if the most convenient flight isn't available as a saver award in the class you're paying for, you can voluntarily downgrade with most programs.
On the other hand, some programs charge you a prorated amount based on the distance in each class of service. Avianca LifeMiles is a good example of a program that works like this. British Airways and other segment-distance pricing schemes usually give you a mileage discount for segments traveled in a lower class of service.
Here are the different classes of service that you may find listed in an award chart.
- Basic Economy
- Premium Economy
- Business Class
- First Class
- Basic Economy
- Economy Plus (the same seat, but with extra legroom)
- Business Class* (Applies to the top class of service on domestic flights with only two cabins)
- First Class (Applies to three-cabin aircraft with a separate business class)
*Many airlines call the comfy recliner seats at the front of the plane “First Class” on domestic flights. Fortunately, most frequent flyer programs consider this business class with respect to the award cost. This means you'll only be charged the more expensive “first-class” award price if there are three distinct classes of service on your flight. American's “A321T” aircraft is a good example of a three-cabin configuration.
Since domestic first class typically books into business class in most award charts, you can often combine an international business-class ticket with a connection in domestic first without having to pay the award cost of an international first-class ticket.
Who is Operating Your Flights?
The last factor that can impact how many miles you need for an award ticket is the airline that operates your flight. Some frequent-flier programs have a different set of prices depending on which partner you fly. Alaska Airlines MileagePlan is a good example of this. Alaska has a separate award chart for every single partner.
Other programs have one price for their own flights and a different price for travel on their partners. For example, United charges fewer MileagePlus miles for business class flights on United aircraft as compared to the cost to fly with its Star Alliance partners like Lufthansa, EVA Air or Ethiopian Airlines.
Related: A Beginners Guide to Airline Alliances & Partnerships
As we mentioned earlier, award tickets aren’t completely free. When you redeem airline miles, you’ll still be responsible for paying taxes and fees. There are several ways to minimize these out-of-pocket costs. But sometimes, you'll run into a tradeoff between paying fewer miles or less cash. To help you find the optimal balance, let's take a look at the different factors that impact the amount you'll pay out-of-pocket.
Fuel surcharges are a made-up fee introduced by airlines about 10-15 years ago when the price of fuel was unusually high. Airlines created fuel surcharges as an extra way to get income. Of course, when fuel prices came back down, many airlines continued to charge these fees. With a cash ticket, any fuel surcharge amount is included in the overall cost of the ticket. However, on an award ticket, you’ll usually pay these fuel surcharges in addition to the airline miles required.
Whether you pay fuel surcharges (and how much), depends on several different factors, including the airline that operates your flight, the type of miles you use to book, and sometimes, the place you start your trip.
How the Airline You Fly Affects Fuel Surcharges
Let’s use an example of flying from Austin, Texas to Frankfurt, Germany. Lufthansa is notorious for its high fuel surcharges while United typically does not charge them. So, if you fly from Austin to Frankfurt on United’s direct flight, you won’t pay any fuel surcharges. If you fly with Lufthansa, you may.
In short, your first line of defense against fuel surcharges is selecting an airline that doesn't charge them in the first place. As you can see below, the fees for the flight operated by United are much lower than the flight operated by Lufthansa.
However, if you're flying business class, the experience with United doesn't really measure up to the experience with Lufthansa. Fortunately, there is a second line of defense if you prefer a flight operated by an airline that charges this fee.
How the Miles You Use Affect Fuel Surcharges
If your operating carrier levies fuel surcharges, the frequent-flyer program you use to book your ticket can protect you. If you use Air Canada’s Aeroplan miles, Aeroplan will pass on the Lufthansa fuel surcharges to you. But if you book that Lufthansa flight with United’s MileagePlus miles, United does not pass on the fuel surcharges. Here's how the Lufthansa itinerary would price out with United MileagePlus.
Your out-of-pocket costs using Aeroplan miles comes out to $920.81 CAD (~$680 USD). With MileagePlus, the total cost is $11.20 USD. On the downside, you'll need 77,000 United miles, but only 55,000 Aeroplan miles. This is a perfect example of two region-based award charts with very different prices for the same flight.
Some Countries Don't Allow Fuel Surcharges
There are also some countries that have laws preventing or restricting fuel surcharges for all flights departing that country. Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam are all countries that have a restriction on fuel surcharges.
For example, Brazil has an outright ban on all fuel surcharges for flights departing its national territory. So, if you fly from Sao Paulo to London, you won't have to pay fuel surcharges. That's true even if your flight is operated by British Airways (a notorious fuel surcharger), and you use miles that don't protect you. But, if you fly from London to Sao Paulo on British Airways, you will have to pay all of BA’s fuel surcharges.
Fuel surcharges aren’t the only out of pocket cost that you might pay. Many countries and airports add mandatory taxes and fees to flights departing from, arriving at, or connecting through their airports. In nearly all cases, these costs are passed directly to the traveler as an out-of-pocket cost. In the British Airways example above, your return trip from London to Sao Paulo will also include the UK's Air Passenger Duty.
Award Booking Fees
Before we wrap up, there are a few miscellaneous fees you might encounter. Some programs like Avianca LifeMiles and Frontier Airlines charge fees to book award tickets. Alaska MileagePlan has a booking fee too, but only when your travel includes a partner airline. There are also fees for booking awards by phone or confirming your flights within a few weeks of departure. These additional costs vary from one program to the next, so be sure to check before you decide on a booking strategy.
What If I Can't Find the Award Chart?
Award pricing has become less transparent in the past several years. Historically, nearly every airline had a published award chart. Now, not all frequent flier programs publish award charts.
Delta was the first to remove award charts, back in 2015. We keep an unofficial Delta SkyMiles award chart up-to-date, but the number of miles that an award “should” cost is nowhere to be found on Delta’s site. Instead, the cost is whatever the website says it is.
Similarly, United recently removed its award chart, though we still maintain an unofficial United award chart.
All of the different pricing models can make it hard for beginners to figure out how many miles they will need for any given flight. But the complexity also creates huge opportunities that a savvy traveler can exploit. If you spend a little time learning how each program works, you can truly maximize the value of your frequent flier miles.
One of the most important things that you can do is to diversify your points into different programs. That way you can make sure to use the best miles for any given flight. Another option is to focus on getting transferable points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards. That way, you can take advantage of its numerous airline transfer partners to make sure to get where you want to go.
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