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Most U.S. airline loyalty programs have eliminated award charts in the last few years, which has brought less certainty to travelers wanting to predict how much an airline award might cost. But the change also has a silver lining: It's meant that with the right tools, savvy points travelers can find really cheap award flights.
With most U.S. airlines, you can now find award flights that cost way fewer miles than you once had to pay. In the past, you needed to pay 12,500 SkyMiles for a domestic Delta award flight. Now, you may be able to book a Delta award flight for as few as 2,000 SkyMiles. On other airlines, you can sometimes find award pricing from 400 miles.
However, finding cheap airline awards takes some knowledge and some flexibility. Let's show you how to find and book the cheapest airline awards available right now.
» Learn more: How do airline miles work
How to find cheap award flights
Gone are the days of digging through award charts to find the price of a flight to book with miles. Due to the switch to dynamic award pricing, the trick to finding the cheapest airline awards first requires finding cheap airline flights in cash.
Most airlines currently price flight awards in one of two ways
Directly based on the cash price (like Southwest).
Roughly based on the demand for a particular flight (like Delta).
Which airline has the cheapest award flights?
If you book during a sale, Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards program offers award flights for just a couple of thousand points. That's because Southwest uses dynamic award pricing where the price of an award ticket is directly tied to the cost of the flight.
There's no limit to how cheap award flights can get on Southwest. Even international flights can be under 3,000 points — such as from Austin, Texas, to Cancun.
Best websites for booking the cheapest flights
You can find and book award flights for under 3,000 miles each way on Southwest, Delta, Spirit and JetBlue. Each of these airline loyalty programs uses flexible award pricing, so the miles price of a flight is roughly based on the cash price of the flight.
This means you can book cheap airline tickets for much fewer points with these programs than via other loyalty programs that operate with a static award chart, like American Airlines AAdvantage.
An easy way to find cheap cash flights is through Google Flights.
You can use the Explore Tool to see a map of the cheapest flights currently available from your local airport(s).
» Learn more: The beginner's guide to points and miles
The cheapest airline awards available today
Let's take a look at seven examples of where you can book award flights for less than 3,000 miles. Plus, we’ll show you how to boost your mileage amount if you don't have enough miles already in your account.
1. Zero-mile United MileagePlus awards via the Excursionist Perk
It's hard to beat "free" if you're searching for the absolute cheapest award flight. And no, this isn't a pricing error. This is a published perk of using United's Excursionist Perk.
Here's how it works: If you book a qualifying multicity itinerary from one award chart region to another, you can get a free one-way award flight. The Excursionist Perk rules are a little complicated, but it's worth the hassle for a free award flight. See these free one-way award flight options within Japan between Tokyo-Haneda or Tokyo-Narita airports and Chubu Centrair International Airport in Tokoname on partner airline All Nippon Airways.
You'll still need to pay for at least two other award flights to get this free flight. It's more of a buy-two-get-one-free offer. So, you'll need United MileagePlus miles for the other two flights.
How to get United miles quickly
You can build your MileagePlus award balance by signing up for one of United's many credit cards. Top off your account by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards® points at a 1:1 ratio. Or, you can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to United at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,500-mile bonus for transferring at least 60,000 points.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
2. 2,240-point Southwest flights
Generally, Rapid Rewards points are worth about 1.4 cents each, according to NerdWallet’s valuations. Because of its dynamic pricing structure, there's no limit to how low Southwest awards can go. The cheaper the cash price, the cheaper the award price. So, if you book during a sale, you can score some really cheap flights.
The cheapest Southwest flights we can find currently are $39 intra-Hawaii flights. These flights cost just 2,240 points to book. If you can find a less expensive flight, you can book it for even fewer Rapid Rewards points.
How to get Southwest Rapid Rewards points quickly
If you don't have enough Southwest points to book, you can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards® at a 1:1 ratio. Or, you can boost your Rapid Rewards balance by signing up for one of Southwest's credit cards.
3. 2,500-mile Delta SkyMiles awards
Delta stopped publishing an award chart years ago. Now, Delta prices award flights based on demand. This can lead to some excruciatingly high award prices during peak dates, in premium cabins and on international flights. However, award rates can drop on low-demand domestic flights. So, it pays to remain as flexible as you can.
We've seen domestic flights drop as low as 2,000 SkyMiles each way. But, the cheapest SkyMiles awards are currently 2,500 SkyMiles each way between San Francisco and Seattle.
Other routes — like Los Angeles to Seattle — have widespread award availability at just 3,000 SkyMiles each way.
How to get Delta SkyMiles quickly
You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards to Delta at a 1:1 transfer ratio. Or, transfer Marriott Bonvoy points at a 3:1 transfer ratio, earning a 5,000-mile bonus if you transfer at least 60,000 points. Or, score bonus SkyMiles by signing up for a Delta credit card.
4. 2,500-point Free Spirit awards
Spirit Airlines relaunched its loyalty program in January 2021. In doing so, Spirit revamped its redemption options, adding value to previously much-less-valuable points. In NerdWallet analysis, the baseline value for Spirit points is 1.1 cents per point — similar to the value you'll find on other U.S. airline loyalty programs. So, the Free Spirit program is worth a closer look.
Redemptions now start at 2,500 points each way, and it's not hard to find redemptions costing that cheap. For example, you can fly between Dallas/Fort Worth and Fort Lauderdale for just 2,500 points — even on multiple dates when booking at the last minute:
You can even book international Spirit flights at this rock-bottom rate of 2,500 points — such as Fort Lauderdale to Cancun.
How to get Spirit miles quickly
Unfortunately, Spirit isn't a transfer partner of any major transferable points program. That leaves low-value options for transfers, such as redeeming 5,000 Choice Privileges points for 1,000 Free Spirit points. So, you're going to need to earn Spirit points directly through Spirit flights, Free Spirit credit cards, the Free Spirit shopping portal or other Spirit partnerships.
5. 2,900-point JetBlue TrueBlue flights
Like most other U.S. airlines, JetBlue also uses revenue-based award pricing. So, you'll find the cheapest awards on flights with the least expensive cash rates. We've seen awards drop as low as 400 points each way during past flash sales. However, the lowest award rates that we are finding on awards nowadays in 2,900 points each way.
How to get JetBlue TrueBlue miles quickly
You can top off your JetBlue TrueBlue account with points from many major point currencies:
American Express Membership Rewards (5:4).
Chase Ultimate Rewards® (1:1).
Citi ThankYou Points (1:1 for Citi Prestige Card and Citi Premier Card holders).
Brex Cash Rewards (1:1).
You can also add a JetBlue credit card, such as the JetBlue Plus Card, to your wallet.
6. Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal
So far, we've highlighted using airline miles to book award flights. However, there's a downside: You usually don't earn additional miles or elite status credits when purchasing award flights. Only Delta is currently offering a limited-time opportunity to earn elite status credits on Delta award flights.
However, there's a way to book a free flight while still earning miles and elite status credits. And that's by using bank points to book cash flights through a bank travel portal like the Ultimate Rewards® travel portal.
Let's revisit that 2,900-point JetBlue award flight example above. The cash price of this flight is just $30.40. So, instead of transferring 3,000 Ultimate Rewards® points to JetBlue to book this award, a Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholder can book this flight through the Ultimate Rewards® portal for as few as 2,027 points. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card cardholders have to pay just 2,432 points. These discounts are available as perks of booking travel in the portal for these specific cardholders.
Either way, you'll pay fewer points. Plus, you'll earn TrueBlue points and Mosaic credits on the flight.
As with Southwest awards, there's no lower limit to how cheap Ultimate Rewards® flight bookings can go. If you find a $15 flight, people with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® can book it for just 1,000 points.
If this seems simpler than searching for airline award availability, you may want to consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You can currently earn this bonus: 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®.
» Learn more: The best benefits of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
7. Capital One Purchase Eraser
Redeeming your Capital One miles for cheap flights is even easier by using the Purchase Eraser tool. You'll only get 1 cent per Venture mile vs. up to 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards® point. However, Capital One doesn't require you to purchase the flight through a travel portal.
This can come in clutch when you want to book an airline like Southwest, Spirit and Frontier, whose flights often don't show up in travel portals. With the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, you can just buy the flight directly from the airline and then use the Purchase Eraser tool to get a statement credit to offset the price of the flight.
For example, you can erase an $18.39 Spirit flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with just 1,839 Venture miles:
If you don't have the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card already, you can currently take advantage of this welcome offer: Enjoy a one-time bonus of 60,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening.
If you’re looking for the cheapest airline awards ...
Most U.S.-based airlines base award rates on the cash price of a ticket. So, the first step in finding the cheapest airline awards is to first find a cheap cash flight. Once you do, you can book the flight through the airline's own program. But, make sure to check bank travel portals first, as it may be cheaper to use your bank points to book the cash ticket instead.
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 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card