When Should You Pay Cash or Use Miles?
One of the most common conundrums in the award travel hobby is deciding whether to pay cash or use miles for a particular flight. Well, in some cases it’s pretty obvious what you should do. If you manage to score a $49 one-way economy ticket, cash is the way to go. If you’re looking to fly Etihad apartments, I highly suggest the award option.
In between the two extremes, though, things might not be so clear. Given that miles are a currency of sorts, you want to be sure that you’re getting the biggest “bang for your buck” when you redeem them. In this post I’d like to highlight some basic strategies for deciding whether to pay cash or use miles when booking travel.
When Paying Cash Is The Best Option
In some cases, there is an easy hard floor on the value of your miles. If you collect Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you should never let them go for less than 1.25 cents per point if you have a premium card (1.5 cents with the Chase Sapphire Reserve). This is what you can get for them booking travel through the portal. Given that you earn miles on paid tickets, not to mention you have more options, transferring them and booking an award makes no sense.
In this case you should use cash. Or, if using cash is less than ideal, use transferable points like cash to book your ticket. This will be the better value.
The value of other miles vary considerably, but if you’re getting less than 1.25 cents per mile with pretty much any currency, you’re not getting a good deal. I wouldn’t call this a “hard and fast” rule. But it’s not a bad general guideline.
Do the math for each award. If you can pay $700 for a round-trip economy ticket to Europe versus 60,000 miles and $80 in taxes and fees, hang onto your miles if you can. You’re getting just 1.03 cents per mile.
For me, dropping $700 per person for any airfare is still unpalatable. Which brings me to when you should use miles.
When Using Miles Is A Better Choice
If the amount of cash that you would pay for a ticket is more than you can afford and you really need or want to travel, then burn those miles. That’s what they are for: making travel happen when it would otherwise be difficult.
Some people suggest that you always keep a small reserve stash, specifically for emergency travel. If your travel budget is limited, I think this is a great idea. You may not be getting the best “value” for your miles, but at least you’re saving money.
If you’re able to be more judicious about when you use miles, then I’d hold out for better value. As a general rule, I don’t like letting go of miles for less than 2 cents each. If 1.25 cents per mile is a good lower bound where you shouldn’t redeem, then 2 cents per mile is a pretty good upper bound where you should. Honestly, I can think of very few situations where I wouldn’t drop miles if I can get 2 cents or more each.
Typically, if you’re looking at redeeming miles for premium cabin travel, you’ll be getting more than 2 cents per mile. There are certainly situations where you could buy a revenue business class ticket to Europe for ~$2,000 versus burning 120,000 miles. But this again comes down to a simple fact: do you have $2,000 to burn? I don’t. But this is a great deal if you have a bunch of flexible travel points that you can treat like cash!
The Decision to Pay Cash or Use Miles is Personal
As with anything, asking 20 different award travel enthusiasts whether to pay cash or use miles could get you 20 different answers for a given situation. Each person has a different value that they place on each particular currency. For instance, I highly prize my United miles and Alaska miles, while I’m willing to burn my Delta miles for far closer to one cent per mile. I place a whole lot less value on SkyMiles.
Some people only redeem their miles for premium cabin travel, and that is totally fine. If you can hold out for the best value redemption opportunities, good for you. But many people can’t do this.
Flexible Points Are The Best
I’ll always come back to flexible points as the best answer. Each have their pros and cons, but the ability to use them directly through a travel portal or transfer them to airline miles with various partners is invaluable. Some of my favorite cards for earning flexible points are the American Express Blue Business Plus card, the Citi Premier, and the Chase Ink Business Preferred, among others.
With flexible points, you have options. I’m not against letting my Ultimate Rewards points go for their value through the portal. They are worth 1 cent per point if cashed out, so if I’m getting 1.25 or 1.5 cents each and saving on travel, I’m ahead. This is the best of all worlds. I get to save my miles for the most awesome redemption options, yet also save cash.
There are resources out there that assign typical values to various points and miles (and here at Miles to Memories we will be developing our own!). These are a great starting point for seeing what you can get with each. Just know that even if you get less than the stated value, it may not necessarily be a bad redemption. And if you’re getting more? Fantastic.
What is your personal take on whether to pay cash or use miles or points for airfare and hotels?