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:
|Flight A||Flight B|
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.
DELTA SKYMILES RESERVE AMERICAN EXPRESS CARD
The Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card has an offer for 50,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months.
This card earns 3X Miles on Delta purchases and 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases.
Upon the annual renewal of your Card, receive a Domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate. *Payment of the government-imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
You and up to 8 travel companions get your first checked bag free on Delta Flights. You’ll also receive Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding on Delta flights.
This card gets a Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
Another great benefit is the complimentary Delta Sky Club access. You’ll also get complimentary access to The Centurion® Lounge or Escape Lounge – The Centurion® Studio Partner when you book your Delta flight with your Reserve Card.
There are no foreign transaction fees and the annual fee is $550.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is the best Southwest Airlines rewards card. You’ll earn points you can use in airline’s frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards®.
SOUTHWEST RAPID REWARDS® PRIORITY CREDIT CARD
Earn 75,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. We value each Southwest point at an average 1.5 cents a piece, or $750 for the 50,000 points. The best value will be redemption for flights. As with most other airline rewards cards, point value can vary a lot depending on flight time, destination, etc.
You’ll also get 7,500 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary, fast-track to elite status, and a $75 annual Southwest travel credit.
Earn 3 points for every $1 spent on Southwest Airline purchases. Also, earn 2 points for every $1 spent on local transit and commuting, including rideshare, and on internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming. You’ll get 1 point for every $1 on all other purchases.
There are no foreign transaction fees with this card. Unfortunately, the $99 annual fee isn’t waived for the first year.
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.
CHASE UNITED℠ EXPLORER CARD
The Chase United℠ Explorer Card from Chase has an offer for up to 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 total in the first 3 months. We value these 50k miles at around $700.
The card earns 2X miles on dining and eligible delivery services, hotel stays and United® purchases. United purchases include:
- Economy Plus
- Inflight food, beverages, Wi-Fi
- Other United charges
You’ll earn 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Other benefits include up to $100 as a statement credit for the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck™ application fee every 4 years. You and a traveling companion on the same reservation will each receive the first standard checked bag free. This card provides priority boarding privileges and 2 one-time passes each year to United Clubs.
The Chase United Explorer Card has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 thereafter.
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.
CITI® / AADVANTAGE® EXECUTIVE WORLD ELITE MASTERCARD®
The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® has a 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles offer. Make $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening to earn this bonus. See our valuation of AAdvantage miles are worth. You’ll easily receive at least $500 in value from these bonus miles.
The card earns 2 AAdvantage miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on other purchases.
You’ll receive expected perks like no foreign transaction fees and your first checked bag for free on domestic American Airlines flights. Up to 8 companions traveling with you on the same reservation will also receive this free checked bag perk.
The main reasons travelers choose this $450 annual fee card are:
- Complimentary Admirals Club lounge access
- 10,000 AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within the year
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.
READ MORE: SEE THE BEST BANK BONUSES HERE AND THE BEST INVESTING BONUSES HERE.
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