For many people just starting out at this frequent flyer thing, earning enough miles for an award ticket can be daunting. As can wading through the myriad options for how to get from one place to another, not to mention which airline flies the most comfortable seats between two cities.
I thought I’d back up a bit and help those newbies out there looking for some basic advice. And I think everyone new to frequent flyer miles has the same first question: How do I get enough miles to get a free trip to ____? After all, why else get frequent flyer miles unless you want to use them to go somewhere, right?
So let’s start with trips to Hawaii, historically one of the most popular places to visit using miles. (How popular is it? According to this LA Times article, Pan Am re-started service to Hawaii from NYC and LA in 1987 just so it could give away seats to Hawaii to frequent flyers looking to cash in their Worldpass miles. And you wonder why they went out of business.)
Let’s take a look at this chart I’ve pulled together of airlines that fly to Hawaii from the Mainland, and some (I hope) helpful additional information about those flights.
How to Go to Hawaii Using Frequent Flyer Miles
|Airline||Islands They Fly to||Cities They Fly From||Lie-Flat Seats in First? Can you buy additional legroom in coach?||Number of FF Miles Required||Other FF Programs You Can Earn on to Redeem on This Airline||Other Programs Where You Can Transfer Into the FF Program||Good Availability?|
|Alaska||Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island||Kona (ANC, PDX, SJC, OAK, SEA); Maui (ANC, BLI, SEA, OAK, SMF, SAN, SJC); Honolulu (ANC, BLI, SEA, OAK, SMF, SAN, SJC); Lihue (OAK, PDX, SJC, SEA)||No lie flat, no extra coach legroom.||40,000. Or if you use British Airways Avios points, it's just 12,500 each way from the West Coast.||Delta, American||Starwood||Yes, in both coach and in first, but be prepared to have to connect.|
|American||Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island||Kona (LAX); Honolulu (LAX, DFW, ORD); Maui (LAX, DFW); Lihue (LAX)||Lie-Flat only from Dallas (angled lie flat). Can't buy extra legroom in coach.||45,000 (35,000 Jan. 12 - Mar. 8; Aug. 22 - Dec. 15). Or if you use British Airways Avios points, it's just 12,500 each way from the West Coast.||Alaska||Starwood||Yes in both coach and first if you are willing to fly on Alaska or Hawaiian. Flights on AA metal are far less available.|
|Delta||Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island||Lihue (LAX); Honolulu (ATL, SLC, LAX, MSP, SEA); Maui (LAX); Kona (LAX)||Only from Atlanta (angled lie flat), and they charge 10,000 miles extra round trip. You can buy extra legroom in Economy Comfort on some aircraft.||40,000||Alaska, Hawaiian||Amex Membership Rewards; Starwood||Hahahahahahaha. Hahahahahahha. Hahahahahahha. Hahahahhaa. They show no low level availability for months on end.|
|Hawaiian||Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island||Honolulu (SEA, PDX, SMF, OAK, SFO, SJC, LAS, LAX, PHX, NYC); Maui (SAN, PDX, SEA)||No||40,000 (35,000 if you have their credit card and are flying on a Hawaiian plane)||Delta||Amex Membership Rewards; Starwood||Terrible for the JFK flight, not bad from the West Coast.|
|United||Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island||Lihue (SFO, LAX, DEN), Honolulu (EWR, IAD, IAH, LAX, SFO); Maui (LAX, SFO, DEN)|
Hilo (LAX, SFO), Kona (LAX, SFO, DEN)
|Cradled seats (possibly more comfortable than angled lie-flat) from Newark, Washington and Houston. You can buy up to Economy Plus for legroom.||40,000||US Airways||Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood (though it's a terrible transfer ratio)||Quite good in coach and first for flights from LAX and SFO. Good from east coach on nonstops in coach, poor in first, unless you connect.|
|US Airways||Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island||Lihue (PHX); Honolulu (PHX); Maui (PHX); Kona (PHX)||No||40,000 (35,000 if you have their credit card and are flying on a US Airways plane)||United||Starwood||Not great on US Airways metal, but lots of availability on United flights.|
The fastest way to build up miles these days is through credit card signups. Sure, the old butt-in-seat method works too, but nothing beats getting a free trip to Hawaii just by signing up for credit cards. You can view the signup offers for all of the airlines mentioned above in this chart.
Given that Delta has pathetic availability, depending on where you live you should focus on American or United if you want the best odds on getting that free ticket. Signing up for the two AA cards (and hitting the minimum spend) will net you 100,000 miles (read this to see how to get both cards). Plus, with the new Starwood Amex bonus at 30,000 miles, assuming you can cover the minimum spend you’ll have 130,000 AA miles pretty quickly.
As someone in the comments reminded me, the cheapest way to get to Hawaii using miles is to use British Airways Avios miles for flights from the West Coast. For 12,500 miles each way, you can use those miles on either Alaska or American. It’s a great deal.
It’s quite easy to pile up the miles on United as well. The chart above has links to earn you 55,000 miles (in most cases) for signing up for their credit card. Plus, miles transfer in from Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can earn those when you get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card — you’ll earn 40,000 miles after $3,000 spend. Chase has 2 business credit cards that also earn points in that program. The Chase Business Ink Bold® Charge Card and the Chase Business Ink Plus both earn 50,000 points after $10,000 spend (check out the chart here to compare those cards). The first year fee is waived on all 3 of those cards and is $95 thereafter.
A couple of other notes. Both American and United let you book one-way tickets, so you could fly out on one airline and fly back on another. United will allow you a stopover, but only if you’re flying roundtrip (in other words, you could spend a few days in LA or San Francisco on your way to or from Hawaii for no additional mileage). One quirk with United: you can redeem United miles for inter-island flights on Hawaiian Airlines, but they’ll charge you 5,000 miles for each flight.
American allows you to get a free ticket to South America or Europe when you fly to Hawaii (basically). Sound good? Read here on how that works.
Feel free to put any questions in the comments.