Points Principles: When to Use Points vs. Paying Cash
use points vs paying cash

When to Use Points & Miles vs. Paying Cash for a Flight

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There’s nothing quite like the feeling of booking a free (or nearly free) flight with points and miles. But there is one equal and opposite feeling: realizing you could have gotten much more value out of the points you just forked over.

One of the steepest parts of the learning curve in the miles and points world is understanding the best times to use that big stash of points and miles versus paying cash out of pocket for flights instead. The answer? It depends. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, as the right time and place for one person to use their miles may not make sense for another person.

But let’s walk through a few factors to consider when deciding whether to use your hard-earned points or miles.


Figuring Out What Your Miles are Worth

Three letters can help you weigh the right time to turn to your miles to book flights: CPM.

CPM stands for cents per mile, and it’s a simple equation. It works like this:

Cost of flight in cash / cost of same flight in miles = cents per mile (cpm)

Say you’re looking at a roundtrip flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Washington, D.C. (DCA) on Delta. You could pay $250 for the trip, or you could book the flight for 25,000 American AAdvantage miles. Plug those numbers in and you’ll see that works out to exactly 1 cent per mile.

But if flights are more expensive at, say, $500 roundtrip and American is still charging just 25,000 miles? That’s 2 cents per mile.

changes in travel 

Exactly what each point and mile can be worth varies by airline or credit card program. Having 1,000 Delta SkyMiles is not the same as 1,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. And it varies by person: Because I live in a Delta hub, I may value a big stash of SkyMiles much more than someone who lives in Chicago or San Francisco.

But in general, you should shoot to get at least 1 cent per mile, if not more. If you crunch the numbers and it feels like you’re not getting much out of your miles, consider saving them for the next redemption opportunity.

Keep in mind that when you’re using your miles to book a flight, you won’t earn miles or build on any airline status on that trip. There are some exceptions, such as using the Delta Pay With Miles feature or booking a good flight deal with points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal


Pay Cash When Flights are Cheap

This is what it all boils down to.

When flights are cheap, you should consider using your cash instead of tapping into your reserve of points and miles. When flights are expensive – a huge trip, first or business class, a last-minute flight – your miles can help out.

So what’s cheap? That’s up to you. At the end of the day, you should use your hard-earned points and miles on a trip that you otherwise couldn’t afford. And that’s a personal question.


Reconsider Using Your Miles on Short Flights

This is my personal mantra. It rarely makes sense from a cents per mile perspective, and logically, you need longer than a few hours on a plane to appreciate the fruits of your labor.

A quick trip to Denver (DEN) or Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) will rarely get you the most bang for your buck with those miles, since domestic flight prices are generally quite low. Unless you’re booking a last-minute flight that would cost you an arm and a leg, you’re likely better off saving up those points and miles for a bigger redemption.

award chart 

That said, that has started to change in the U.S. Airlines left and right have rolled out dynamic award pricing, where the amount of miles isn’t set by a concrete award chart but based largely on the cash price. The more expensive the flight, the fewer miles you need to book it.

That’s why we regularly see Delta offer roundtrip flights in the U.S. for 10,000 SkyMiles or less roundtrip – plus a constant barrage of Delta SkyMiles flash sales. United has matched by frequently offering one-way flights as low as 5,000 miles, and the same is true for American and its economy web special fares starting at 10,000 miles round-trip.

Are these the top-dollar ways to get the most out of your miles? No. But as airlines increasingly pivot to this pricing model, it’s about as good as it gets for domestic travel.


Make Sure You’re Getting the Lowest Mileage Price

While flight prices can fluctuate wildly, award flights on many airlines tend to be more stable. That’s especially true if you’re making a partner airline award booking: Using Delta SkyMiles to book a flight on KLM or Air France or using a stash of AAdvantage miles to fly Japan Airlines, for example.

That stability makes it easier to ensure you’re getting a bargain for your miles. This is because most airlines have just two or three tiers of award tickets: the low redemption level (which is often labeled “saver”), and a second and/or third, higher amount.

When you’re zeroing in on the flight you want to book, look at a month or more of award availability to ensure you’re getting the lowest possible amount. Or Google the “award chart” of the airline you’re booking through, which will help you determine the baseline price for your flight.

For example, American Airlines’ award chart will show you that the base charge for almost any flight from the U.S. to Tokyo (Asia Region 1) is 35,000 miles each way – or 32,500 miles during the off-peak season. Why book that same American Airlines flight for 62,500 miles or more when you can do it for roughly half the cost?

aa award chart 

Booking award flights at the lowest mileage level is critical to ensuring you get the most out of your points and miles. Working out exactly what is that “lowest level” isn’t always so easy. But it’s worth doing some homework to make sure you’re getting the most out of your miles.

If you can’t find your fare at the base or saver level, it’s worth considering paying out of pocket or going back to the drawing board.


Think Big

As you start traversing continents, the price of your flight generally increases. The money you’re squeezing out of your miles rises when this happens as well.

Booking a big international trip is almost always the easiest way to get the most value from your points, as these long haul flights can sometimes cost $1,000 or more round trip. That makes those trips a great use of your points from a cents per mile standpoint. But it also highlights the true value of miles and points that you can’t quantify.

These points you’ve earned are your license to see the world and enjoy experiences you otherwise couldn’t afford. If you’ve got the miles to splurge, the value is even higher when you book first or business class, where you can get the most bang for your buck. Although the flights often cost thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars, the amount of miles you’ll pay generally isn’t exorbitantly higher than an economy ticket. 

After racking up Chase Ultimate Rewards points I earned from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card a few years back, I booked a flight home from our honeymoon in Bali (DPS) in Singapore Airlines business class.
Singapore business class

Paying cash, this flight would have been more than $6,000 each! I could never afford that flight, but luckily, Singapore is one of many Chase transfer partners. At the time, I could transfer 93,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Singapore for each ticket, making it attainable. That also works out to nearly 7 cents per mile!


Bottom Line

Getting the best value out of your points and miles is the key to making them last longer and go farther. That can sometimes involve a difficult decision to use cash even when you’re sitting on a pile of points.

But don’t get paralyzed or consumed by the chase to get more out of your miles. Ultimately, these are just guidelines. At the end of the day, the best use of your points and miles is for a flight that you wouldn’t take without out them.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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