How to Plan a “Bucket List” Trip on Points: Using Points as “Cash”

Please note this site has financial relationships with American Express and this post may contain affiliate links. Read my Advertiser Disclosure policy here to learn more about my partners.

I have talked a few times about my Dad’s “bucket list” trips he has taken and that he plans to take.  The most recent one was to Washington DC to see the US Open golf tournament and other DC area attractions.  The next one coming up is a 10 day jaunt around Northern California, Yosemite, The Sequoia National Forest, and then ending up in Las Vegas, Nevada!  It has been on his list for quite a while and next year is the year!

My Mom and Dad are both “mostly” retired, so I try to help them travel with points as much as possible in order to save money.  My Mom is 100% on-board with the “Points Kool Aid”, but my Dad is a little bit more stubborn.  Don’t get me wrong, he LOVES traveling on points, and he does have a Continental One Pass plus card that he uses some, but there are many aspects of the points world that he has yet to fully embrace.  I think the world would stop rotating before he would ever charge gas or groceries in order to get points!  One of the realities of traveling on points that he has yet to really embrace is the planning ahead aspect.  While it is true that you can sometimes redeem points at the last minute for flights, you are running a risk that the flights you want either won’t be available, or won’t be available at the lower redemption levels.

Since both of my parents are mostly retired, there is no real reason they can’t go ahead and plan the dates for the trip months in advance, thus taking advantage of pretty good airline reward seat availability.  As the dates for their travel opened up for booking (roughly 11 months in advance), I reminded them pretty much every day to take a look, firm up your dates, and pick which flights you want.  I sounded like a broken record.  A few weeks after the schedule opened up for the time frame they wanted, the outbound flights from Houston to Fresno totally disappeared at the lowest redemption level.  It looked like all the dates in that time-frame just became totally blacked out overnight.  It truly was depressing to see their flight options gone.

Before I called and broke the news to them, I found some other options that could work (though they weren’t quite as good) and they decided to go ahead and book before their options dwindled even further.  In this series of posts I am going to cover exactly how we planned their flights on miles.  Including: what options we considered, what frequent flier accounts we used, how we performed airline searches,  made the bookings, etc….  It will be like you were sitting in their house that Sunday afternoon with me!

Since my aunt is also traveling with my parents, they would need three reward seats on each flight.  The original plan was for them to fly American Airlines by turning my mom’s 50,000 American Express Membership Rewards points that she received as a sign-up bonus  into 75,000 British Airways miles by utilizing a 50% bonus Amex promo that ended on July 31st (more here).  You can redeem British Airway miles for domestic US flights on American Airlines since they are OneWorld partners.  They were going to fly Houston to Fresno, rent a car for their Western Adventure in Fresno, and then 10 days later return the car in Las Vegas, and fly home to Houston from there.  When American Airlines virtually blacked out all the days that would work for them to fly Houston to Fresno, we had to scramble to come up with a new plan.  They do have Continental miles, so we first considered using some of those to fly from Houston to Fresno.  They could then still use the American miles to fly home from Vegas).  However, there were no reward seats available on Continental that worked for them, either.  Rats. 

We considered having them fly into a different airport in California, but they needed a one-way car rental and for some reason the price for a one-way rental from other airports in that area was over double what it was from Fresno to Vegas.  It would have added $400-$500 to their trip price to switch the arrival airport just due to rental car costs.  Double rats.  We then considered having them fly into an alternate California airport, just have the rental for the California portion of the trip, and then turn it back into the same airport they rented it from and fly to Las Vegas.  This was a strongly considered option, but it added a third flight to their trip and thus didn’t really end up saving any money.  Back to the drawing board.

When I was searching Continental for reward seat options from Houston to Fresno, I found some very fairly priced one-way tickets that were available for purchase.  Since American Express Membership Rewards points can be used to “pay” for tickets, this turned out to be a viable option.  We could use Amex points to “buy” the tickets from Continental even though those seats weren’t available as reward seats.  This is often not the best use of Amex points, but it can be if the flights you are buying are relatively inexpensive and you would rather use points than cash.  My retired parents would definitely fit into that latter category!  Here is how we booked the Houston to Fresno portion of the trip using Membership Reward points as “cash”. 

1.  Log in to your American Express account and at the top of the screen select “Travel” and “Book a Trip”.

2.  Enter your flight, hotel, rental car, or cruise search information and press “search”.

3.  From the search results, select the flights/hotel/car, etc… that you are interested in purchasing.  As you can see at the bottom of the image, you can use dollars, points, or a combination of cash and points.

100 Membership Rewards points = $1.00 credit towards travel.  So, their three tickets cost $531.24 or 53,124 points.  You do get 20% of the points you use with “Pay with Points” back, if you are using a Amex Platinum card, but my mom has a Gold, so that didn’t help us out in this case.  My mom needed to hold back 25,000 miles so that she could then convert those 25,000 miles via the 50% British Airways promo to 37,500 miles.  That would be enough for three seats at the lowest redemption level (12,500 miles a piece) to get home from Las Vegas to Houston.  That left her 25,665 points to spend as “cash” for this transaction.

4.  When you use points to pay, your tickets are treated by the airlines the same way as if they were paid with cash.  That means that you earn reward miles on them.  This is a huge advantage of “Pay with Points”!  We made sure to enter the United airlines frequent flier account numbers for all three of them so that they would earn miles on their flights next year.  For them it was much easier to go ahead and ensure the numbers are added now than risk them forgetting to add them later.

5.  We “purchased” the tickets using a combination of cash and points.

In the end, the one-way flights from Houston to Fresno came to $91 out of pocket plus 8555 Membership Rewards points each.  They will also each earn 1,481 United miles on the flight.  It is not quite as good of a deal as the original plan of using Membership Rewards points on American via British Airways, but it was the best we could come up with given the circumstances.  The priority here was as little out of pocket money as possible.  My parents are never going to use their points to travel in First Class or go overseas.  They want their points to help them get to the destinations they want to see here on this continent.

In Part 2 I will talk about their one-way rental car situation and booking their flights home on American Airlines planes using British Airways miles.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


  1. […] The Membership Rewards program has been very good to our family.  If you read this blog often, you see me mention Membership Rewards codes and bonuses frequently.  Membership Rewards points can be transferred to a very large number of other frequent flyer and hotel programs, and sometimes there are bonuses run that give up to a 50% bonus on transferring to certain programs.  This makes your points stretch even further!  You can also use your points to pay as cash.  This isn’t usually the best value for your points, but it is sometimes a good option.  My family recently used this option to book some flights.  Read more here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *