Why AAdvantage Miles Are Excellent for Last-Minute U.S. Award Travel

We found that you can get outsized value from your AAdvantage miles when booking last-minute domestic flights.
Brad Walters
By Brad Walters 
Published
Edited by Sam Kemmis

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Travelers looking to use their airline miles to fly last-minute domestically can face an array of grim prospects. That’s especially true now that awards are tied to cash prices more closely than ever — and those cash prices tend to skyrocket within a few weeks of travel.

However, one program has been such a consistent source of last-minute deals for me that I now use its miles almost exclusively for booking domestic flights leaving within a few days: American Airlines AAdvantage.

American Airlines’ valuable sweet spot

American Airlines announced it was getting rid of award charts for its own flights in April 2023, which on the surface sounds like bad news but in practice didn’t change much, since they were already effectively using dynamic pricing.

In theory, that dynamic pricing extends to last-minute award pricing, which means that award prices should go up for last-minute fares.

Yet, in researching dozens of flights over the past couple of years, I’ve found American AAdvantage to be the only U.S.-based award program that consistently offers convenient, low-priced options within about a week of departure for domestic flights.

(Last-minute international award flights on American are another story.)

🤓Nerdy Tip

Although these last-minute deals are priced attractively for members of American’s AAdvantage program, they generally can’t be booked using partner airline currencies such as British Airways Avios.

Real-world examples

To illustrate this, I selected four one-way routes: two over 2,000 miles, one under 1,000 miles and one in between. I chose the lowest-priced option in miles in any cabin class that left after 6:30 a.m. and arrived before 11 p.m., with at most a single connection between 45 minutes and 3 hours.

The comparison includes the four largest domestic airlines by market share: American, Delta, Southwest and United. This isn’t a comprehensive analysis, and other individual routes may vary from what I found, but these results more or less match what I've encountered when booking my own travel.

Overall

Across all four routes, American Airlines came out as the clear winner, with a 2.5 average cents per mile value, nearly double Southwest’s average value of 1.4 cents per mile.

The difference is even more stark when comparing the award costs themselves. American awards cost just over 11,000 miles per route, on average, which is a great deal for last-minute travel.

Delta Air Lines, on the other hand, charged more than 70,000 miles per route, on average.

Airline

Average award cost

Average cash cost

Average value

American Airlines

11,125 miles.

$277.

2.5 cents per mile.

Delta Air Lines

71,375 miles.

$802.

1.1 cents per mile.

Southwest Airlines

23,017 miles.

$320.

1.4 cents per mile.

United Airlines

31,850 miles.

$377.

1.2 cents per mile.

Here’s how each airline fared, broken out by route:

Washington-National to San Diego

Route: Washington-National to San Diego (DCA-SAN).

Date searched: April 24, 2023.

For travel on: April 26, 2023.

For this route, American had several relatively convenient options available for 10,500 miles one-way, and a progression of only slightly more expensive options after that. In contrast, Delta, Southwest and United required a minimum of 33,000 miles:

Airline

Award cost

Cash cost

Value

American Airlines

10,500 miles.

$451.

4.3 cents per mile.

Delta Air Lines

39,000 miles.

$449.

1.2 cents per mile.

Southwest Airlines

33,107 miles.

$453.

1.4 cents per mile.

United Airlines

35,000 miles.

$453.

1.3 cents per mile.

Seattle to Charleston, South Carolina

Route: Seattle to Charleston, S.C. (SEA-CHS).

Date searched: April 24, 2023.

For travel on: April 28, 2023.

Both in real cost (in miles) and in cents per mile, American was again the winner, though not by much in either case over Southwest. It’s a good reminder that it never hurts to shop around.

Airline

Award cost

Cash cost

Value

American Airlines

16,000 miles.

$265.

1.7 cents per mile.

Delta Air Lines

122,500 miles.

$1,350.

1.1 cents per mile.

Southwest Airlines

18,591 miles.

$265.

1.4 cents per mile.

United Airlines

28,200 miles.

$263.

0.9 cent per mile.

Las Vegas to Omaha, Nebraska

Route: Las Vegas to Omaha (LAS-OMA), Neb.

Date searched: April 24, 2023.

For travel on: April 30, 2023.

For this itinerary, American required less than half the number of miles compared with the next-closest airline, which in this case was Southwest. Its cash fares were also lower, which means the cent-per-mile values weren’t hugely different.

Airline

Award cost

Cash cost

Value

American Airlines

10,500 miles.

$188.

1.8 cents per mile.

Delta Air Lines

107,500 miles.

$1,200.

1.1 cents per mile.

Southwest Airlines

24,637 miles.

$334.

1.4 cents per mile.

United Airlines

47,300 miles.

$583.

1.2 cents per mile.

In this scenario, assuming you have miles available in its award currency, Southwest would be worth considering because it’s the only airline of the four offering a nonstop flight.

Rochester, New York, to Richmond, Virginia

Route: Rochester, N.Y., to Richmond (ROC-RIC), Va.

Date searched: April 24, 2023.

For travel on: May 2, 2023.

Again, American was the clear winner both in number of miles required (less than half the other three options) and the cent-per-point value you get using those miles:

Airline

Award cost

Cash cost

Value

American Airlines

7,500 miles.

$205.

2.7 cents per mile.

Delta Air Lines

16,500 miles.

$207.

1.3 cents per mile.

Southwest Airlines

15,734 miles.

$228.

1.4 cents per mile.

United Airlines

16,900 miles.

$207.

1.2 cents per mile.

The bottom line

NerdWallet values American miles at 1.7 cents apiece, and in each of the above cases you’ll get at least as much value — in some cases far more value.

For those with flexibility, it’s a bit of a golden age for award travel. Flights booked with miles are generally easy to cancel for free, and the end of fixed-price award charts has made it easier to unearth bargains even at the last minute — if you have the right award currency.

Whether your bestie a few states away is throwing an impromptu bash or you’re craving some family time back home and don’t want to wait, having a stash of American miles at hand can prove incredibly valuable.

No bargain in award travel seems to last forever, so take advantage (AAdvantage?) of this sweet spot while it’s there.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2024, including those best for:

Cards for American Airlines from our Partners
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
Citibank Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® Credit Card

on Citibank's application

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
4.6
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x

Earn 1 Loyalty Point for every 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.

Miles

Intro offer

70,000

Earn 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.

Miles
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Points
See more cards
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