Our focus has been clearly biased toward international trips lately, but there’s no doubt many of the most meaningful trips people would like to take can simply involve visiting family on the other side of the country or seeing a part of our own backyard for the first time.
When it comes to domestic travel, Southwest is typically the mileage program to beat. In this feature, we’ll explain when it’s best to turn to Southwest for domestic flights and when other programs might offer better value.
How Southwest’s Program Works
Southwest’s loyalty program, Rapid Rewards, differs from traditional airline programs in a number of ways.
In legacy programs like those operated by American or United, a flat number of miles will get you anywhere in the country, so long as seats aren’t blacked out. 12,500 miles each way per person is the standard for both of these programs, as well as those operated by Delta and US Air.
Southwest, on the other hand, bases the number of points needed for a ticket on its cash price and makes all seats on every flight available to reward flyers. Some seats – the cheapest ones Southwest offers – can be booked for far fewer points than would be required by other programs, often as low as about 3,500 points. Last-minute seats, however, can be extraordinarily expensive from a points perspective, topping 50,000 per person each way in some cases! Simply put, if a flight is cheap on Southwest for cash, it’ll be cheap in points, too.
Below, you’ll first find the points prices and then the cash prices for upcoming flights between Jacksonville and Atlanta as an example:
There’s a threshold for effectiveness that can be calculated with some accuracy, given Southwest’s revenue-based model. Southwest flights can be booked for roughly 70 points per $1 when Wanna Get Away fares are available. Taxes and fees may cause the true rate to swing just a bit, but 70 points per $1 is a good ballpark. That means once a ticket’s price has exceeded roughly $180 per person each way, it’s better to use miles in a flat-rate program like American or United’s than to use Southwest points, since more than 12,500 points will likely be required.
There’s an exception to this: as we covered a few months ago, there are secret flat-rate awards possible with Southwest on certain routes. In some cases, these can offer a better value on expensive flights than flat-rate redemptions in other carriers’ programs, so it’s worth checking out how they work.
Ultimate Rewards For Domestic Travel
When it comes to miles earned through flying, it’s impossible to pick and choose what programs you can use them on. After all, if you fly on Southwest, you can’t very well use those points on American or United! That’s not the case for some points earned on the ground, though.
Ultimate Rewards points – my favorite award currency – are earned through a variety of travel credit cards issued by Chase. Each card in the Ultimate Rewards ecosystem offers different category bonuses, meaning it’s possible to earn 2x or even 5x points on many purchases by using one of two or three different cards depending on what you’re buying.
These points can be converted at a 1:1 rate instantly to a variety of travel programs. That includes Southwest, but also United, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic and others. Because Korean Air partners with Delta and British Airways with American, it’s possible to fly on most domestic flights by transferring Ultimate Rewards points to one of these programs.
It’s also possible to use Ultimate Rewards points to book flights at cash prices. When doing so, Chase takes 20% off the cash price, assuming a value of 1¢ per point. For example, a $100 ticket could be booked for just 8,000 points. When carriers other than Southwest offer great cash values on tickets, this can be a redemption option to keep in mind. The fixed value of the redemption is low enough that many folks would choose to pay with cash instead of burning points, but tickets booked in this manner will also earn points, while standard award redemptions will not.
The same kind of flexibility Ultimate Rewards offers can be seen in American Express’s Membership Rewards program, but because Southwest isn’t one of their transfer partners, Ultimate Rewards holds a clear advantage for domestic-heavy travelers.
The Case For Avios
British Airways’ program is an interesting one to keep in mind. Redemptions of their award currency, Avios, are based on distance flown point-to-point on partners like American and US Air, so if you live near or are flying to a hub of one of those carriers, Avios might be an excellent choice.
Cash-Based Point Systems
Two more programs allow you to take advantage of cheap cash prices on domestic tickets using your points. Capital One’s Venture program is one, but I prefer Barclaycard’s Arrival program.
Barclay’s Arrival+ card offers 2x points on all purchases.
These points can be redeemed at 1¢ each toward any travel expense, as explained in our Arrival mileage redemption guide. After each redemption, 20% of your miles are credited back to your account immediately. That means each point is worth more like 1.2¢, given its regenerative power.
Domestic flights are often preposterously cheap these days, and being able to take advantage of sale prices with any carrier when redeeming miles can be a powerful feature, so for many domestic travelers, Arrival might be the best points currency of all.
Oh, The Possibilities!
One thing I didn’t focus on in this piece is the sign-up bonus offered from travel credit cards related to many of the programs above. For that, you can refer to one of the many previous features linked to above. The PointsAway Book also includes valuable information about how to earn points and miles in a variety of programs.
For now, I simply wanted to take the time to outline a few of the best redemption options out there. Personally, I rely mostly on a combination of Ultimate Rewards points and Arrival credit for domestic travel. I can transfer Ultimate Rewards to whichever program offers the best value or use them to book tickets directly and I can use Arrival credit to take advantage of cheap cash pricing and later wipe out the cost of the trip entirely.
How do you prefer to travel with miles and points domestically? Feel free to share your thoughts below!