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Don’t throw away cash or points when booking a flight…

If you’re deep into the miles and points world, it can be tough to even consider booking a cash ticket. I get it, why spend money if you can just use points and miles? I don’t think anyone would argue with the merits of saving cash by booking award tickets with miles, but sometimes, it’s just not quite as shrewd of a move as you might think.

I’d argue that it’s too easy to get tunnel vision and miss options that might be better.  And yes, spending cash really can be better. In fact, assuming you should book award tickets instead of cash tickets could cause you to waste both miles/points and cash, which is even worse. I know, the thought of wasting miles/points and cash is almost too much to bear.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying you shouldn’t use miles/points to book award tickets. There are plenty of times when that makes more sense than putting one foot in front of the other, but we just need to be aware of the times when there are better options. With that in mind, let’s talk about how to figure this out each and every time, so you can always make a stress-free decision.

Find The Cash Ticket Price

Google Flights Business Class Search Example

Before you dive into looking to award space, it’s a good idea to get an idea of the cash ticket prices between your origin and destination. This is especially important if you’re booking an economy class ticket as we regularly see some fantastic fare deals in the cheap seats.

To the surprise of many, there are also business class deals that could make you think twice about using miles and points for an award ticket. I definitely recommend checking business class prices before booking. On the very rare occasion, you might even stumble upon an insane international first class deal — the Cathay Pacific First Class New Year’s Eve Deal I booked comes to mind.

Check Airline Program Award Rates

Next, you can start getting an idea of how many miles/points you’d need if you were to book an award ticket. 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.

Assuming you have transferable points such as Amex Membership Rewards points, Capital One 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 AwardHacker or the Award Maximizer to get an idea of your options. It’s always a good idea to double-check the award rates with the airline award chart, but these are both great starting points.

Check You Bank Portal Options

Chase Travel Portal Search

Once you have an idea of what an award ticket will cost, you have a baseline number to compare to your options with a bank travel portal. 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. Unlike when you redeem with an airline, these points redemptions count as if you paid cash, so you earn miles, elite status and all the other perks!

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 1.25

*Through August 31, 2019. From Sept. 1, points will be worth 1 cent each.

These portal bookings are cash tickets but you can cash in points to book. When you do so, you can cove part, or the entire cost of the ticket including any taxes/fees.

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.

Whatever saves you the most points and cash, there’s your answer.

Booking British Airways 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.

Finding A Cash Ticket

Brandenburg Gate Berlin Germany

A few months ago, British Airways had business class fares from New York (JFK) to Berlin (TXL) listed about $1,750 round-trip. I hadn’t flown British Airways business class in a couple of years and wanted to see how what it was like these days — and take a two-week road-trip through Germany with a friend. Out of the USA, $1,750 to Europe is decent but I knew I could do better.

As a very young member of the AARP, I was eligible for a $200 discount on the ticket. That brought the ticket cost down to around $1,550. To drop the price further, I could use the CHASEBA10 promo code for an additional 10% off to bring the total cost down to $1,396.

The CHASEBA10 promo code is a perk of the British Airways Visa Signature but often works with any Visa.

Award Ticket Options + Taxes/Fees

With that in mind, I checked what a business class award ticket would cost — knowing the surcharges would be outrageous — if I were to book with Avios, American AAdvantage miles or Asia Miles. 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 $18 more than the taxes fees required by an 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.

What About The Portal?

Since I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I can redeem my Ultimate Rewards points in the Chase travel portal at a rate of 1.5 cents per point. I don’t recall off the top of my head whether I was able to find the same cash rate of $1,750 in the Chase portal when I booked — clearly, I didn’t use this option. Let’s say it was an option. In this case, I could have booked the ticket for 116,667 Chase points and had to use exactly zero cash.

Making The Decision

In the end, I chose to book with cash. It was in my travel budget for the year, I wanted to see how British Airways’ service is doing these days and the dates lined up with a trip I wanted to take. I also wanted to upgrade the return leg to first class — I did and it was a great experience — but that’s for another day.

Clearly, the award ticket option would have been a flat out dumb decision. A good argument could have been made for a portal booking but I knew I had other plans for my Ultimate Rewards points that would get way more than 1.5 cents per point — the portal rate.

Variables To Consider

British Airways Club World Upper Deck Seat

While the example above was cut and dry since the taxes/fees on British Airways award tickets are so high. However, I get that it’s not always that simple. To help you make the best decision for yourself, 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 and portal booking.

Your Travel Goals Matter

I feel like I’m always preaching this but your travel goals matter. You want to give a quick thought to what travel you want to do beyond the trip you’re booking. In my example above, I knew I didn’t want to use Ultimate Rewards points in the Chase travel portal because I had future trips to book and that I’d get much more value out of my points on those trips.

Consider Miles & Points Will You Earn On A Cash Ticket

If you’re on the fence, don’t forget that you’ll earn miles on your cash tickets — remember, 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 credit the flights to Alaska Mileage Plan and earn around 20,000 Alaska miles. 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 elite status is important to you, the British Airways flights discussed above were worth 360 Tier Points which is over halfway to earning BA Silver/Oneworld Sapphire. Plus, you could earn around 13,000 Avios — assuming you don’t have elite status already — to use toward future flights.

Watch Out For Taxes/Fees On Award Tickets

British Airways Business Class Avios Award Example

I chose my British Airways booking as an example specifically because of the taxes/fees required to book it as an award ticket. While this won’t always be a factor as some airlines don’t pass on surcharges when booking award tickets and some airlines don’t impose them at all, it can be a difference-maker. 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!

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. 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. Bragging about your points balances is silly.

Final Thoughts

Look, I get it. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. But, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be a painful process. We want travel to be fun for you. We just want you to get the most out of your points and miles and your travel budget as possible. By considering the variables above, that should make the decision-making process a bit easier. 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 or go through a bank portal.

Responses 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.
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