How to Decide Whether to Use Cash or Miles for Airline Tickets

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My family collects airline miles so that we can pay for flights we otherwise couldn’t afford to buy with cash and make certain flights far more comfortable than they otherwise would be.  However, not every single flight we take is paid for with miles, so we have to decide which ones get paid for with miles and which ones get paid for with cash every time we book a trip.

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Use math to find the best way to spend your miles

Sometimes it is very easy to decide which flights to buy with miles or cash, but sometimes it is a much harder call.  Here are the things we consider when deciding whether to pull out our credit card or our frequent flyer account number when it comes time to pay for the flights.

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There are several ways to pay for flights

Check Award Availability and Prices:

Using miles is only an option if there is award availability (hopefully saver availability), so before you anguish over whether to use miles or cash, check to see if there is award availability to where you want to go.  If your dates are flexible, then there will be a greater likelihood of there being saver award availability than if you need to travel on a certain date.  While you are checking for award availability, also double check to see how many miles are required for the award you need.

Another thing to check early on is the selling price of the flight.  A pretty easy site to use to compare airfare prices is hipmunk.com.  I also like to use ITA Matrix, especially when I have flexible dates.

How Many Miles and Dollars Do You Have:

Once you know the prices for using cash and miles, you need to decide if you have that amount to spend.  For example, if your budget is pretty tight right now then the scales may tip to using miles, whereas the scales may tip to using cash if you are running short on miles or are saving them for a specific future redemption.  Even if it is otherwise a relatively poor mileage redemption, if you don’t have the available cash to pay for the ticket then miles might be the only way to get the ticket you need.

Calculate the Cents per Mile:

Once you know the selling price of the ticket in both dollars and miles, and assuming that you have either the cash or miles to pay for the ticket, you need to do some calculations.  Most people who have been in the miles world have a minimum amount of value they like to get for their miles in order to use them.  For me that minimum is around 2 cents per mile for an airline mile, but for some it is closer to about 1.5 cents.  For easy math, I’m going to go with 2 cents per mile for these calculations.

What this means is that say you want to book a domestic round trip airline ticket that is available for 25,000 airline miles, the selling price of the ticket would need to be about $500 for me to want to spend miles for the trip.  If the selling price is $500 and the number of miles required is 25,000, then that is getting 2 cents of value per mile ($500 divided by 25,000 miles).  I’m not going to spend 25,000 airline miles that are quite valuable to me on a domestic round trip ticket that is selling for $250 and giving me a return of 1 cent per mile.  In that case, I would rather buy the ticket, save the miles, and earn both redeemable and elite qualifying miles on the trip.

You need to decide what your minimum value is for airline miles as that will make these type of decisions a bit easier, and it will also help when deciding whether to earn miles vs. using a cash back or fixed value points type of card for purchases.  One quick way to get a decent idea of how you value your miles is to decide how much that 25,000 miles domestic round trip ticket would have to cost in order for you to want to use miles.  For me, it is close to $500.  If for you it is about $350, then you might be valuing your miles at around 1.4 cents each.  This calculation is trickier when redeeming for international or premium cabin travel.

I do want to add that if you are working with points in a fixed value program such as Southwest, JetBlue, etc. then this decision is a bit easier as the points already have a fixed value within the program, so you don’t have to come up with one on your own.

Take Into Account Elite Status and Earning Miles:

This one won’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to some of us who do fly a fair amount on paid tickets each year.  One thing that I like to do when tickets that are on the line of whether to use miles or cash is to use cash to buy my tickets, and use miles for my daughter and/or husband’s ticket to keep the overall cash price lower.  I have elite status with United, and use that status to the benefit of my whole family when we travel, so I need to fly a certain number of miles on United to keep status.  I also earn a 100% bonus on redeemable miles on United thanks to my elite status, so flying on paid tickets is more rewarding to me than to my daughter who has no status.  Those facts means that I’m willing to spend a little more on my paid tickets than on my daughter’s since she doesn’t have (or need) elite status.  This does mean we aren’t on the same reservation, so that can make some things harder, but it is a strategy I use from time to time.

Use Companion Tickets:

Another thing to consider when deciding how to pay for a given trip is whether you might have a discounted companion ticket you can use for your family members to fly for less thanks to one of your rewards credit cards.  For example, each year I get a $99 companion ticket via my US Airways MasterCard that will allow up to two people to fly with me for $99 + taxes/fees each on US Airways operated flights in the lower 48 and/or Canada.

We used this last year to fly to North Carolina during peak summer prices.  My ticket cost about $450 round trip on US Airways, which is on my line for using miles or cash, but since I was able to get my daughter and husband’s tickets for a little over $100 each, it made sense to buy the three tickets for $700 total than spend 75,000 miles and get less than one cent per mile value for our miles.

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North Carolina made affordable with companion certificates

Use Fixed Value Points:

Another really good option to consider when deciding whether to buy the ticket with cash or miles is to take the middle road and use fixed value points.  This way you can take advantage of when airfares are lower, earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles, and still keep your cash firmly in your wallet.  Two cards we have that provide that option are the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® or US Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature.  

The FlexPerks card is a bit trickier to maximize as you get the most value for your points when you are redeeming for an airline ticket that costs as close to $400, $600, or $800, etc. as possible.  Anytime an airline ticket is close to $400 my thoughts turn to using these points as that is when you get the best value from them.  The Barclaycard points are even easier to use as you can redeem them toward any travel expense, including airfare, in any amount starting at $25.  You don’t have to have enough points to cover the whole cost of the airfare charged on your Barclaycard, as long as you are using at least 2,500 points ($25 value) toward the ticket.  You also will then get 10% of the redeemed miles back when you are using them toward travel expenses.

Miles Might Give More Flexibility:

A final thing I consider in deciding whether to use miles or cash is whether I might get more flexibility if I use miles than cash in some situations.  Thanks to my elite status I don’t have any fees for cancelling, changing, or redepositing awards with United so that is very helpful if I’m not 100% certain about my plans.  Even if you don’t have elite status, there can be some cases where miles are more flexible than most reservations purchased with cash.  For example, with Southwest you can just refund or change your points reservation with no fees or penalties.  Even with cash reservations via Southwest you can change with no fees, but they aren’t going to just give you your money back if you are cancelling or changing to a less expensive reservation (you will get a voucher in your name to use for future travel).

There isn’t always a perfect answer on whether to use miles or cash for a given ticket, but these are some of the things we consider when making that decision.  How does your family decide whether to use cash or miles?

 

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Comments

  1. I use everyone of your strategies to a “T”! I think for us, having booked plane tickets for many years–it’s a gut feel whether it makes sense to use dollars or points. And, like you, my price point may be lower when I am buying a ticket for one of my kids.

  2. The calculation of cents/mile is tricky. Not all airlines value miles the same. For example, I just redeemed 2 awards of 40k miles each for a roundtrip in coach from the US to Brazil with AA. Ticket cost was $2,400 per passenger so a perfect 6 cents/mile redemption. However, same ticket on Delta would cost the same price but minimum award redemption to Brazil on Delta is 60k miles. I usually redeem miles for 3 tickets (wife and 2 kids) and pay for my ticket on the same flight so I can get the miles towards my elite qualification. It also makes sense to link the reservations (paid+awards) so all passengers fly under the rules of my elite status. I just did this for a vacation trip to Hawaii on Delta and we all got economy comfort seats at no cost, priority boarding and free bags.

  3. I aim for 2 cents/mile return. In my experience, premium seats give a better return than economy seats especially on international flights. I also take into account the fees when using miles – these can be several hundred dollars on overseas routes. I also consider the miles earned when paying cash. My formula for calculating the return rate is: (Ticket_price – award_fees)/(Miles_required + Miles_earned). Example: for my upcoming trip to Italy I used 100,000 miles + $410 in surcharges (I disagree with fuel surcharges but that is a different topic) for a business class ticket. Paying cash would be $3900 for the ticket and earns around 11,000 miles. Rate=(3900 – 410)/(100,000 + 11,000)=.031 which is 3.1 cents/mile.

    For international flights, I like paying cash then using miles+copay to upgrade since I still get good value for my miles plus earn miles. Rate=(business_price – economy_price – copay)/(miles_used – miles_earned) = (4400 – 1300 – 700)/(50000 – 10800) = .061 or 6.1 cents/mile.

  4. Thanks! Just printed a copy so can show my husband also. Wish I had thought a little harder about this earlier, but will definitely think harder for future. Now looks like we will have to pay Delta $450 to redeposit miles for a summer trip that has to be rescheduled because my daughter just made the high school dance team. (Mandatory camps and practice in the summer.) Happy for her, wouldn’t wish it to be different, but really wishing I had booked with Southwest instead or even American would only be $175 for the three of us! Maybe I got too excited about finally finding a use for some Delta miles!

  5. Denise, thanks for sharing and glad to hear your approach is similar to ours!
    Santastico, agree though ultimately what matters most is how you value the miles, not really how the airline values them. I have also had pretty good success in getting some of my elite perks for my kid even when we are on separate reservations, but just linking doesn’t technically carry the same weight as being booked on the same reservations.
    Stephen, international premium tickets to get a better return for sure, but then again I wouldn’t typically pay the going rate for those types of flights so it isn’t as fair of a comparison for some. Still, redeeming that way does get you a very good return!
    Kate, do the math, but I think I wouldn’t pay $450 to redeposit Delta miles. I would keep what you’ve got and adjust as needed going forward. Every day is a learning process for all of us! 😉

  6. @mommypoints: One thing that I have been very successful with Delta is to log in under my account and select “I am flying” when searching for award tickets. Since I have elite status and a Delta Amex card the system often shows better availability and better awards than if you have someone without an elite level and a Delta Amex card searching. We are a family of 4 so once I find the 4 award tickets I am looking for I book the 4 tickets as award tickets. I select all economy comfort seats for us all together. Once it is all done and confirmed I call Delta (have to do this within 24 hours of booking) and ask them to cancel my award ticket (keeping the other 3 for my family intact) and book the same itinerary on a paid ticket which will generate a separate reservation number. Then I ask the agent to link both reservations and put me back on my previous seat assignment. Done!!! Not sure if you can do the same on AA and United.

  7. @Kate — since you said three tickets, and wish you’d booked southwest, I assume your trip is domestic coach for a total of 75,000 miles. If you agree with mp’s valuation of 2 cents per mile, then those are worth $1,500, so $450 is totally worthwhile! I personally use a valuation of at least one cent per mile, but even so your miles would be worth $750. The fee is painful, but I’d probably pay it. If you have an Amex DL credit card you can literally “pay with miles” at a penny apiece, so redeeming Delta miles is an absolute breeze.

  8. MP, I take your “Southwest approach” a step farther. I book with points if I’m not sure whether I’ll actually be taking a trip; book with dollars when I am sure. That maximizes the benefit of refundable points bookings. (Even though there are no change fees, there are some significant limitations in reusing the value of cancelled Southwest tickets, so I try to minimize the number of revenue bookings I cancel.)

  9. Also, on UA, when I reached Million Miler status a few years ago, hence didn’t need to requalify for Gold every year, my “balance” shifted fairly heavily away from revenue bookings, and toward burning my rather large points stash. (But I still insist on getting good value per mile.)

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