For those of us with access to a variety of points and miles via frequent travel and or attractive rewards credit cards, our first practically primal instinct is always to use said points and miles to book an award ticket whenever we want to travel.
That’s an understandable instinct but if you’re not checking cash prices of tickets you might be making a huge mistake that can cost you a ton of points and perhaps more cash.
We’ve already discussed why it can make sense to use travel portals to book air travel instead of transferring points over to an airline program however some flight deals just can’t be booked through these portals and yet it’s still a much better deal to pay cash.
Pay cash? Yes, pay cash. I’m sure you’re stunned to hear me say this and, to an extent, I’m shocked to hear myself say it. But, I’m not about to spend more than necessary for the flights I want and I’m not going to stand by and watch you do so. It may take a minute, but this will all make sense. We hope…
When Paying Cash Makes Sense
I first started thinking about this in 2016 when I was booking a flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. The flight is only about an hour so my first instinct was to use British Airways Avios to book an economy flight on Malaysia Airlines. At 4,500 BA Avios, it just seemed like that would be the best deal to book by far.
Well, I was wrong.
In fact, the taxes/fees when booking the flight with Avios actually exceeded the cash cost of a ticket. Clearly, I would have been crazy to book an award ticket with Avios in this case.
Similar to why we suggest peeking over at business class fares even when you plan to book economy, it’s wise to check the cash fares to your desired destination before using airline miles to book. This is even more important if you’ll be transferring points to an airline as you won’t be able to reverse those transfers.
While it’s rare that you’ll find the same flights on a route that actually require more cash when booking an award ticket with miles, if the cash or “surcharge” portion is anywhere close, you’ll want to strongly consider just booking a cash fare. Here’s a few reasons…
How Many Miles Will The Flight Earn You?
If you’re someone who books a lot of cash fares — hello to our road warrior friends — then this is especially important for you. If you’re on the cusp of bumping up to the next elite status tier, consider what you’d be willing to pay to get to that next tier. Even if paying for a ticket with cash will mean a little more out of pocket, you might find the resulting elite benefits are absolutely worth paying a little more cash to get there, even if you could’ve used points.
Alternatively, since there are some amazing ways to use Alaska miles, you might simply find that the difference in cash when booking an award ticket and a simple cash fare is small enough that you’d rather earn miles than use miles. When you consider the earn rates on some of Alaska Airlines’ partners, it really can make the difference.
If you’re ever in doubt of “which program is best” to earn points from your cash fare, we’d suggest using Where To Credit to get an overview of all the different partner airline options based on your fare class.
Oneworld Fare Deal
The recent Oneworld fare deal might be the perfect example of how all of this works. When I searched dates with Google Flights, I saw tons of options with business class listed between $1,707 and $1,752. Considering the cash prices of business class from the US to Europe recently, that’s not horrible so I was intrigued. Now, that’s still $1,700+ out of pocket even if I do want to visit Berlin and see how the service on British Airways in business class is doing these days.
This is only the beginning of the puzzle, though.
As some of you may know, the AARP offers discounts of up to $200 on business and first class flights on British Airways. Unlike some rinky-dink 1-2% off “deals”, this can provide some serious savings. This alone brought the price of the flights I wanted down from about $1,750 to $1,550. Much better.
Next, I added the promo code CHASEBA10 which offers a 10% discount on British Airways bookings if you have the British Airways Visa Signature Card issued by Chase. This brought the total cost down to $1,396.63. Now, that’s a deal!
While the promo code is meant for this card specifically, it often works with other Visa cards which is great if you want trip protection benefits just in case of long delays or baggage delays.
Comparing Cash And Award Tickets
By stacking the two discounts, our baseline for this round trip flight is now $1,396.63 without using any points or miles whatsoever.
A quick award ticket search with British Airways made it clear that there is absolutely no reason to book an award ticket with Avios. You would need 138,000 Avios and $1,323.10 for the taxes/fees. The cash portion of the award ticket is only $73.53 cheaper than the cash ticket requiring no Avios!
Not to mention, you’d need to use 138,000 Avios on top of that which, even undervalued at 1 cent each, are worth at least $1,380. Booking this award ticket with Avios would basically mean paying 2X more than the simple cash ticket. Hard pass.
For our friends who love American AAdvantage miles, the picture isn’t much better. You’d need 115,000 American miles for the round-trip and $1,319.73 to book the same ticket. The only option you have to book a ticket with miles that doesn’t include taxes/fees that clear $1,300 is Cathay Pacific Asia Miles. For 100,000 Asia Miles and about $825, you can book the same ticket. That’s $571.63 less than cash ticket but you still need the 100,000 Asia Miles.
Now, back to the “where to credit” the points if you just pay cash part.
Once you factor in that you could earn just over 20,000 Alaska miles or 12,000 Avios + 360 Tier Points — assuming you don’t have elite status with either, it’s tough to see why one would book an award ticket instead of the cash fare deal.
Rather than burning miles on a British Airways flight when you can book a great cash fare, check out some great ways to redeem American miles or the amazing ways to use Asia Miles. And, don’t miss our favorite ways to use British Airways Avios.
This Isn’t For Everyone
We recognize that spending nearly $1,400 on a business class ticket isn’t in the cards for everyone. I If we were like Oprah, we’d give them to everyone in the audience, but alas we’re just a humble blog.
This little exercise above in which we compared award ticket options to the cash fare deal wasn’t just something I did to write this. I actually walked through this process of running the numbers while sitting in an Admirals Club during a layover — and hour-long delay. After weighing the options, I made the plunge and booked the cash fare.
Here’s the thing, though. If this cash fare isn’t in the budget, an award ticket on British Airways isn’t really either. The taxes/fees are just too steep to make it worth using the miles sitting in your airline account and it’s nowhere near worth it if you have to transfer valuable Amex Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou Points or Capital One miles.
That’s okay, though. There are plenty of other ways to use points without the surcharges that lead to such steep taxes/fees.
What Did I Do?
In the end, I booked a cash fare. First, I signed up for an AARP membership for $12 after going through the Mr. Rebates cash back portal which was offering $6 cash back on an AARP membership. What can I say, I like optimizing my spending.
I then paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve so I could use the CHASEBA10 promo code — it worked — and to get trip delay and baggage delay protection. Trip and baggage delay benefits have come in handy a few times too often in the last year for me to risk using The Platinum Card from American Express (Learn More) just to earn 5X points.
By booking the cash fare, I have the option to earn Alaska miles or Avios and upgrade my flight to first class with Avios. While I don’t think I’d upgrade flying to Europe since I’ll try to nap as much as I can during the flight, it might be fun to use 20,000 Avios to fly first class on the way back to the US. Besides, I’ve been wanting to check out the Concorde Room at London Heathrow.
For those used to booking award tickets with their points and miles, it’s easy to fall into a routine of simply looking for award space and booking what you find. It’s not unusual. We all fall into patterns. I’m certainly someone who mostly thinks about booking award tickets. However, it’s important to take a beat and make sure you’re actually booking the best option for you.
British Airways provided a great example thanks to their recent business class fare deal that should serve as a reminder for all of us to give cash fares a look just in case. We might not see the same great fare deals out of the US as our friends in Europe, but we just might find a surprise fare deal that can change our calculations.
Now, I just need to decide where I want to credit these flights.