When miles keep adding up and up, eventually they start burning a hole in your pocket. You want to use them, because you just do, and you’ve seen photos or videos of people using them for extraordinary flights. Why spend money if you can just use points and miles, right?
Few would argue with the merits of saving cash by booking flights with credit card points and airline miles, but sometimes, it’s just not quite as shrewd of a move as you might think, and a moment of pause can make all the difference.
It’s too easy to get tunnel vision and miss options that might be better, and allow your points to be spent in better ways down the line. And yes, spending cash really can be better. Here’s a good system of checks to make sure it your booking is done the right way, whether that means cash, or points…
Find The Cash Ticket Price
Before you dive into looking for seats available using your points, which can be frustrating in itself, it’s a good idea to get an idea of the cash ticket prices between your origin and destination. This can be done using Google Flights, which is a handy and simple first step.
To the surprise of many, there are often business class deals that can make you think twice about using miles and points, and the same is true in economy or premium too.
As this article proves, always check prices in each cabin before giving up and making a decision. First class can even save money sometimes, particularly if you chck bags. Weird, but true.
Check Airline Program Award Rates
Next, it’s good to start getting an idea of how many miles/points you’d need if you were to book a ticket using your credit card or airline miles. If you only have miles with one airline program, that’s a pretty quick process. If your dates are inflexible, it may also be a brief search as well.
But Assuming you are super savvy, and have transferable points such as Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One Venture Miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou Points or even Marriott Bonvoy Points, you’ll have a few options to check.
If you have transferable points and/or miles with multiple airline programs, you can use Award Maximizer to get a vague idea of all your options. It’s always a good idea to double-check the points and miles rates against the airline award chart, but these are both great starting points. Also don’t forget some airlines may charge a significant amount of cash, in addition to the points.
Check You Credit Card Points Options
Once you have an idea of what an award ticket will cost, you have a baseline number to compare to your options with the travel site your credit card company(s) run.
While Amex, Chase and Citi are well known for their transfer partners, each of these banks also have their own travel portal where you can book flights that are for sale with cash, using your points on their website to do so.
Unlike when you redeem miles with an airline, these points redemptions count as if you paid cash, so you earn miles, elite status and all the other perks as if you’d pulled out the benjamins!
Additionally, specific cards with each bank allow you to redeem your points in the travel portal at more than 1 cent per point. Here are those options:
|Card||Cents Per Point|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||1.5|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||1.25|
|Ink Business Preferred||1.25|
|Business Platinum from American Express||~1.53|
|American Express Business Gold||~1.33|
|Citi Prestige*/Citi Premier||1.00|
These bookings are cool because the airline thinks they are cash tickets but you can cash in your credit card points to book, and can (in most cases) even pay part in cash and part in points, if you like.
In the end, it comes down to comparing how many points an award ticket redeemed with the airline would cost, including cash surcharges versus how many points a credit card portal booking would require. And finally… whether or not you’d rather just pay cash this time, and save points for a more prohibitively expensive trip.
Whatever saves you the most points and cash, there’s your answer.
Booking Business Class: A Case Study
Let’s take a look at a real-world example to really paint a clear picture of how this could play out for you, and why sometimes it can make more sense to pay cash, or use credit card points through a credit card travel site, rather than transferring points to an airline loyalty program directly.
Finding A Cash Ticket
British Airways often has business class fares between the US and Europe at about $1,550-$1750 round-trip, or below. That’s a lot of money, no doubt, but is it worth than paying lots of money and lots of points too? Since British Airways loyalty program is huge, and charges surcharges even when you redeem miles, it’s a perfect example.
Comparing Award Ticket Options + Taxes/Fees
Checking what a business class ticket would cost using miles for the same flights, as suggested earlier in the article, pulls up a variety of choices, few of which look great. Here are the less than pretty options:
|Airline Program||Miles Required||Total Taxes/Fees|
|American AAdvantage||115,000 miles||$1,377.43|
|British Airways Executive Club||126,750 Avios||$1,378.38|
|Cathay Pacific Asia Miles||100,000 miles||~$805|
Using American miles or British Airways Avios would have been a horrific decision on the face of it. Seriously, the cash ticket was only $180 more than just the taxes fees required by British Airways for award ticket with either of those options. No, thanks.
Booking with Asia Miles is about the only way I’d book an award ticket on a British Airways flight but with a cheaper cash fare, I still didn’t think an award ticket was worth it in this case. Hot tip: American Airlines doesn’t add surcharges, but only if it’s their actual flight – rather than a BA plane. These can be phenomenal value.
What About The Portal?
If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can redeem Ultimate Rewards Points in the Chase travel portal at a rate of 1.5 cents per point. You’d then log into the Chase Travel website, run a flight search and if able to find the same cash rate of $1,750, you can do really well. At a rate of 1.5 cents per point, you could cash in your Chase Points and book the ticket that would cost $1750 for 116,667 Chase points and use exactly zero cash.
Is that sounding like a ding, ding, winner, winner? In this instance, it should.
Making The Decision
When an airline loyalty program doesn’t add surcharges, and it’s mostly just cashing in points, it’s easier to say “let’s just use points if seats using points are available”. When an airline insists on pesky fees AND points, sometimes just paying the cash is the best bet.
Little things like pursuits of elite status (where only cash tickets count to qualify) can also tip the scales. Virgin Atlantic recently became the only airline to allow people to qualify for elite status and perks, even if they just redeem their miles, rather than pay cash. Let’s hope others follow.
Variables To Consider
While the example above was cut and dry since the taxes/fees on British Airways award tickets are so high, it’s not always that simple. To help you make the best decision for yourself and the circumstances of each individual trip, keep these things in mind as you decide between a cash ticket, award ticket or portal booking.
Can You Afford A Cash Ticket?
Probably the most obvious question to ask yourself is whether you can even afford the cash ticket. If you can, everything is on the table. If you can’t, you’re down to deciding between an award ticket a credit card portal booking, or holding off.
Your Travel Goals Matter
Your future travel goals matter. You want to give a quick thought to what future travel you want to do beyond the trip you’re booking, before you book. If there’s a bucket list trip on the horizon, and the current one is just for giggles, you don’t want to blow points which could be critical to the success of the big, far and wide trip.
Consider Your Earnings On A Cash Ticket
If you’re on the fence, don’t forget that you’ll earn miles on your cash tickets — and credit card travel portal bookings are cash tickets too.
For cheap economy tickets, this might not matter as much but it can be huge if you’re booking business or first class tickets. For the British Airways example, you could earn around 20,000 miles, and nearly; or enough elite status Tier Points to earn future perks like lounge access every time you fly, even when in economy. That’s a big rebate.
If you need help figuring out how many miles you’ll earn, Where To Credit is a great resource.
Does Earning Elite Status Matter To You?
If you’re someone who regularly travels for work or on economy tickets, the perks of elite status might be very important to you. Again, if you’re trying to tip the scales one way or other between an award booking and a cash ticket, this might do it since a cash ticket can help you earn elite status.
If you always travel on business, or always book business or first class anyway, elite status might not be as meaningful or impactful, and therefore just spending the miles may make sense.
Watch Out For Taxes/Fees On Award Tickets
At this point, it should go without saying that if you’re willing to pay the taxes/fees on an award ticket and the total cost of a cash ticket is roughly the same, just book the cash ticket! In case that point hadn’t been made clearly enough, here’s one more shot.
How Quickly Do You Earn Miles?
If you put a ton of spend on credit cards for business and/or personal expenses, you might earn more miles and points than you’ll ever be able to use. That could make using miles more appealing even if a cash ticket is pretty cheap.
If it takes you a bit more time to accumulate points, you might decide to hold onto your points until you can book something really special.
Points And Miles Don’t Increase In Value
Finally, always remember that points and miles aren’t investments that will increase their return over time. If that happens, it’s a unicorn. Airlines devalue award charts — sometimes without notice — and your points and miles become less valuable.
Yes, you want to be diligent in getting the most out of your points but don’t be afraid to use them regularly and often. Bragging about your points balances is silly.
Final Thought: Do What Feels Good
There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. But, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be a painful process. Travel should be fun.
By considering the variables above, that should make the decision-making process a bit easier, or at least provide greater clarity and certainty that you’ve got your head on right when it comes to making travel decisions.
So, the next time you are planning a trip, do a quick back of the napkin calculation to see whether you want to book a cash ticket, an award ticket via an airline loyalty program with miles, or go through a credit card travel portal.