The Least You Need to Know About Airline Loyalty Programs

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If it seems as if your airline loyalty program has changed lately, it's not you: It's them. Availability of reward seats and mileage pricing have definitely shifted more toward the airlines' favor.

That's where comes in. The site monitors award availability and pricing for the major loyalty programs and allows users to compare travel credit cards based on criteria such as where you want to fly with your loyalty-program miles. The folks at MileCards recently took a look at the significant changes that have occurred in U.S. airline loyalty programs to reveal what the programs charge for awards and how often they make seats available at those amazingly low advertised mileage rates.

Here's what you need to know about airline loyalty programs:

U.S. Travel. The stingiest airlines with points? Southwest and JetBlue compare poorly with the global airlines (approximately 20,000 miles for a ticket compared with 30,000 miles). United offers their lowest mileage prices 62 percent of the time in the U.S. as opposed to Delta, which offers their lowest mileage prices 48 percent of the time. Using your miles to fly on a Sunday will be an average of 34 percent more expensive than flying on a Tuesday. And using your miles to fly in the U.S. in the summer will be about 10 percent more expensive than other times of year.

Hawaii. Delta does not offer many seats to Hawaii at its lowest advertised mileage rates, and United offers them only 37 percent of the time. But Delta's average price is lower than American's or United's, at 65,463. Using your miles to fly on a Saturday will be an average of 15 to 20 percent more expensive than flying on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Europe. American has the most seats at the lowest advertised mileage price for travel to Europe, but taxes and fuel surcharges on British Airways (American's biggest partner), add up to about $700! United MileagePlus, on the other hand, has no fuel surcharges from partners Lufthansa and Air Canada, and a comparable availability rate at the 60,000 mile level. Using your miles to fly to Europe during the summer will be an average of 30 percent more expensive than other times of year. And the last two weeks of June will be the most difficult to get rewards seats to Europe.

Mexico and Central America. United MileagePlus delivers good availability of reward seats because it has a good network, including Copa Airlines and Avianca/Taca.

Caribbean. American/US Airways and United are your best bets, but flights to the Caribbean via rewards programs are not easy to come by. Southwest's loyalty program will be completely merged with AirTran's later in 2014, which will allow for access to more flights to popular Caribbean destinations.

Asia. American and United offer attractive value, and those who book online with United will find lots of available seats to Asia.

South America. United MileagePlus is best for travel to northern South America destinations such as Colombia and Peru. Travel to southern South America via U.S. carriers is trickier. MileCards suggests that American AAdvantage is a good choice for traveling to Brazil or Chile (but you've got to book on the phone).

Australia. American AAdvantage is reliable for travel to Australia from the U.S. Delta's partner Virgin Australia offers good availability, but Delta's entry level mileage price is 100,000 miles.

Home for the Holidays. Using your miles to travel during the holidays will be an average of 15 percent more expensive than other times of year.

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