You’re planning a trip, and you start by looking at flights. Should you pay in cash? Or is miles the better way to go? In this post, we’ve gathered all the things we consider when it comes time to book our plane ticket. So you can answer the age-old question, “To spend or not to spend your miles?”
See our list of the best credit card bonuses here to help you earn more miles.
1. Award Availability
You should only consider using your miles if there is award availability. Enter your departure and destination cities as well as your dates. The more flexible you are, the better your chances on finding saver award availability.
Unfortunately, more and more frequent flyer programs are switching to dynamic award pricing, so saver awards may soon be a thing of the past. For airlines that use dynamic award pricing, you’ll need to continually check award prices since it might change from day to day.
2. Your Miles Balance
Once you know the flight pricing in in miles, check your rewards balance. Do you have enough miles to cover the award flight? If not, you’ll want to pay for this flight in cash and save your rewards for a future redemption.
3. Flight Cash Price
Check the cash price for the award flight you’re looking at. You can check directly with the carrier, or you can use Google Flights.* The latter lets you quickly spot flight pricing over a time period.
*FYI, Google Flights does not display Southwest flights.
4. Mile Value
Once you know the price of the flight in both cash and miles, you need to figure out how much your miles are worth if you redeem them for the award flight.
To calculate the value of your miles, take the cash price for a flight and divide it by the award price. For example:
To get the EXACT value for your miles, you’ll want to account for any taxes and fees charged for awards.
5. To Spend Or Not To Spend Miles
Not all mile currencies are created equal, and their values vary from program to program. To determine whether or not it’s a good idea to use your miles, refer to our valuations of popular rewards program currencies. You’ll want to shoot for award flights that offer higher cents per mile than what we value them at.
For example if we value Delta SkyMiles at $0.012 per mile, then Flight A (in the example above) gives you a great deal at two cents per mile. However, Flight B offers subpar value at one cent per mile, so you’ll want to consider purchasing it in cash and saving your miles for a better redemption.
Earning elite status usually requires flying a certain number of paid miles within a year. If status is important to you, then you’ll want to go with a cash ticket rather than an award ticket. For example, read about American Airlines Elite Status.
If you fancy going on an international flight in business or first class, the only budget-friendly way to do it is by using your miles. In this case, you’ll want to pay the cash price for shorter, domestic trips and save your miles to splurge on a longer flight in a premium cabin.
Besides cash and miles, you could pay for your airfare using fixed-value points from a credit card rewards program.
For example, you can book your award flight with Ultimate Rewards points via the Ultimate Rewards travel center. If you earned these points with a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, each point has a fixed value of $0.0125.
There are two advantages here, compared to using your miles:
- You’ll still earn redeemable and elite-qualifying miles.
- Award availability isn’t restricted.
Best Airline Credit Cards
Co-branded credit cards can unlock incredible value for loyal customers of a particular airline. Here is a list of the best card for each major airline in the U.S. This sample comes from our guide to the best airline credit cards.
The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card is the best card for Delta flyers. You get a planeload of amazing perks you can read about below.
The United℠ Explorer Card is the best United Airlines rewards card. You’ll want to consider joining MileagePlus, United’s loyalty program, when becoming a cardholder. Read further to see the various benefits cardholders receive from this card.
The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® welcomes with you a nice introductory offer for AAdvantage bonus miles and ability to earn AAdvantage miles for spending on the card. Frequent American Airlines travelers will also love the complimentary Admirals Club lounge access.
There’s no “right” answer when it comes time to use your cash or miles for a given flight, but these are a handful of things you should consider before you make your decision.