How to Choose Between Paying for a Flight With Cash or Miles

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Photo: McLittle Stock (Shutterstock)

One common travel concern is whether to use cash or miles to buy your flight. Both options have their pros and cons, so it’s important to weigh them carefully if you’re debating between the two. Here’s what you should consider.

Are awards available for your dates and destination?

If there’s no award availability for your destination on the dates you want to travel, there’s really no debate to be had, so check that first. If there’s no availability at all, you’ll have to either change your dates or destination or pay for your flights with cash.

Do you have enough miles?

If you don’t think you’ll be able to earn the needed amount of points in time for your upcoming trip, it might make more sense to just pay cash. Award availability changes frequently, so you don’t want to bank on the availability still existing in a week or a month when you do have the miles. If you’re just short a few miles, it could make sense to buy the miles you need to book your ticket.

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How much does your ticket cost? 

Consider how much your flight would actually cost in cash. If it’s a cheap flight, it might not make sense to use miles since you could just pay for it outright, and you can save those miles for a more expensive flight later instead. On the other hand, if you’re looking at a really expensive flight now, using miles can help you save a lot of money. After you know the cost of your flight in miles vs. cash, you can calculate the potential value you would get from your miles according to the formula: (Cash Price of Flight – Taxes and Fees on Award Ticket) / Miles Cost of Flight.

What are the travel restrictions? 

Check the restrictions that might come with using your miles. For example, some airlines charge close-in booking fees for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure, while others don’t have that fee. On the flip side, award tickets sometimes have more flexible change and cancellation policies than cash tickets, so if your plans aren’t totally set in stone or you value the option to make changes on the fly, miles might give you more flexibility.

How do you value your miles? 

Depending on the airline, program, and how you travel, your miles could be worth more or less. You can see how various other websites value different types of miles as a starting point, but in the end you’ll have to decide what your personal value is. Most airline miles are valued at about 1.2 cents per mile or higher (sometimes much higher). As a general rule, you shouldn’t redeem your airline miles for less than one cent per mile.

How many miles are you giving up?

When you book a cash ticket, you’ll earn miles when you fly, whereas you won’t when you book a ticket with miles. If you really want to make sure you’re getting the best deal, you should also consider the value of the miles you’re giving up by booking an award ticket. Figuring out the best airline to credit your flight to can be a lot of work, but if you really value the miles you earn, it may be worthwhile to consider.

 

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