A crux to my mile and point earning strategy is to earn miles specifically for domestic travel within the US and to reserve more valuable miles for international flights. I consider miles that can be used for valuable international awards (United, AA, etc) to be much more valuable than miles that can be solely used for domestic awards.
Not everyone has needs for international travel, but for anyone that does there are several credit cards that can earn you lots of free travel within the US—without having to burn your most valuable airline miles.
Depending on what your home airport is you may have several valuable options for domestic award flights. Typically I try to use United, American Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines for international trips and earn other airlines’ miles to specifically to cover my domestic flight needs. This can easily be done with several cards that offer valuable airline mile bonuses that can get you free domestic flights.
Most major airlines price awards based on region, an example of this is when you use 25,000 United miles to fly somewhere within the US. Obviously, redeeming for a flight from Seattle to New York is worth much more (and longer) than say, a flight from Seattle to Portland. Even more so, some airline miles can be used for cheap awards to both Alaska and Hawaii (I’ll tell you which ones you want to earn below). Award flights to both of these states generally cost more than to destinations within the lower 48 states.
Other airlines, mainly Southwest and British Airways, use either a distance or revenue based redemption award pricing. This means shorter flights will cost fewer miles and longer flights will cost more. These miles can be a great value.
Both have their advantages and based on award availability it may be better for you to use one airline mile over another. Almost all airlines have capacity controlled saver awards which is another reason to earn several different airlines’ miles—this gives you the option to redeem based on the lowest price award offered during your travel dates between several airline programs.
Southwest generally has great low-priced award availability and offers free cancellations and changes, so you have the option of rebooking at a lower price if one becomes available. They also allow you to book up to the last seat available on the flight, but it will be costly. This increased flexibility and avoidance of extra fees adds some level of value to their points.
Frontier Airlines World MasterCard
Based on award prices within the US The Frontier Airlines World MasterCard is one of the best credit cards and the 40,000 mile bonus (OFFER EXPIRED) is worth two free round trip flights within the US. The great thing is that it also includes flights to Alaska!
The 40,000 mile bonus is worth:
- 2 round trip awards anywhere Frontier flies within the US, including Alaska
- 1 round trip award anywhere Frontier flies in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
It’s only 20,000 miles to fly round trip anywhere Frontier flies in the US and only 30,000 miles to fly to any of Frontier’s destinations in Mexico and Central America. Cardholders can also book companion awards for only 15,000 miles when the cardholder has a paid ticket. The cost of Frontier award tickets within the US are some of the lowest region based awards among all airline miles.
This card is a great option for a family looking to get free summer travel and one of the best uses of the miles is for travel to Alaska. Normally a flight to Alaska runs ~$400+, so 40,000 Frontier miles could easily be worth ~$800+ in free flights when redeemed for trips to Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Note: Frontier is in transition to an ultra-low cost carrier, so watch out for fees. I don’t have much info about flying with them recently, but if you do share your experience in the comments!
British Airways Visa Signature
British Airways’ distance based award chart allows you to book awards on short-haul flights for an incredible value. You can book one-ways and they start at just 4,500 Avios. By booking one-way short-haul flights you can connect open-jaws and create short round trips for very little miles. Or make creative multi-leg trips without using many more miles.
Here’s the British Airways award chart for one-way economy flights:
- Up to 650 miles flown: 4,500 Avios
- 651 to 1,151 miles flown: 7,500 Avios
- 1,152 to 2,000 miles flown: 10,000 Avios
- 2,001 to 3,000 miles flown: 12,500 Avios
- 3,001 to 4,000 miles flown: 20,000 Avios
- 4,001 to 5,500 miles flown: 25,000 Avios
- 5,501 to 6,500 miles flown: 30,000 Avios
- 6,501 to 7,000 miles flown: 35,000 Avios
- 7,001+ miles flown: 50,000 Avios
Because of the high fuel surcharges, Avios are not great for most long haul international flights, so instead plan on using them for short direct flights that you need to book. Some of the best use for Avios are for awards to Hawaii for as low as 4,000 miles + $97.50 each way from Phoenix. However you can fly to South America and avoid fuel surcharges when you fly on LAN or TAM (newly joined to oneworld alliance with US Airways).
The British Airways Visa Signature currently offers 50,000 Avios after spending $2,000 within three months (OFFER EXPIRED). The card does have a $95 annual fee which is not waived the first year.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit Cards
As I mentioned above, Southwest Rapid Rewards bases the price of an award ticket on the actual price of the ticket if paid for by cash. This means you generally get a set value per point and the more expensive the price of the flight the more points the ward ticket will cost. However, when Southwest has cheap flight deals or sales you can get an amazing value.
I have booked round trip awards up and down the West Coast for as low as 4,000 miles per one-way. This means a sizable welcome bonus on the a Southwest co-branded credit card can go a long way—upwards of 10 shorter round trip flights within the US. This is a much better deal than using 25,000 United or AA miles.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit Cards are some of my all-time favorite cards. There are four version of the card and over time you can earn the bonus on each one. The biggest perk of these cards is that you can earn the Southwest Companion Pass, allows a companion to fly free on any Southwest flights that you fly on for up to two years! They only pay the $5.00 security fee, but no extra points.
Southwest Companion Pass
To earn the Companion Pass all you have to do is earn 110,000 Southwest points in one calendar year. By applying for two versions of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit Cards you can earn 104,000 Southwest points after hitting the minimum spending requirements.
The Companion Pass and 110,000 points will get you a lot of free Southwest flights when you redeem at the Wanna Get Away fare level. I used my companion pass to fly a friend to Puerto Rico last winter and both round trip awards only cost 23,000 points.
Depending on your home airport Southwest miles can be the best way to get cheap flights within the US. On top of that they have some of the most flexible rules and you won’t pay to cancel or change a flight up to 10 minutes before departure. You can book an award and change it to a lower price if the fare goes on sale before your travel.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® is also a good option for cheap domestic flights. You can use the welcome bonus to get free flights on any airline and depending on the price this could easily mean 1 to 3 free round trip flights. The card has an $89 annual fee, but it is waived for the first year.
The card earns 2x miles on all purchases and when you redeem points for travel you get a 10% mile rebate, meaning you are essentially earning 2.2% cash back. You can use the miles to cover any travel purchase, so any domestic flights purchased with the card can be covered with your Arrival miles. The cards high mile earning and flexibility make it one of the best all-around travel rewards credit cards and one that I would recommend for anyone looking for a travel card.
It’s simple to redeem the miles for any flight you purchase with the card and you can remove travel purchases for up to 90 days after the transaction posts.
Other aspects that make this card different is that the miles could be used to pay the taxes and fees on tradition award tickets. This is a great way to make award flights completely free to you. Another great use of Arrival miles is to buy cheap short distance flights within the US. This is a great way to get a free flight when you don’t think it’s worth redeeming 25,000 miles for an award.
The Bottom Line
All of the cards mentioned here are great ways to get free domestic flights and ultimately will help you save your more valuable airline miles for international flights.
Depending on your home airport either the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard, British Airways Visa Signature, Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® or a Southwest Rapid Rewards Credit Card might be a better option for you. Between these cards you can earn lots of airline miles for free flights within the continental US and potentially Hawaii or Alaska.