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by Lyle Daly | Updated July 21, 2021 - First published on Dec. 11, 2019
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Here are the times when you shouldn't waste your miles.
For the travel rewards enthusiast, every time you book an airfare, you have a decision to make. Will you use your miles to book an award ticket, or will you pay in cash and save those travel rewards for later?
As a general rule, it's smart to use your rewards and save yourself the money on a ticket. But this isn't always the case, as there are certain times when you're better off keeping your miles and booking in cash.
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Airline miles don't have a fixed value, but there are plenty of opportunities to redeem them and get at least $0.01 per mile. For that reason, anytime an award ticket will get you less than that, you should book it in cash.
If you've never calculated the value you'll get per mile with an award ticket, it's super simple. Just use the airline's flight search tool to look up the cash cost of that award ticket. Then, divide the cash price by the number of miles you'd have to spend. For example, if a ticket costs $200 in cash or 20,000 miles, then you're getting $0.01 per mile. That's the minimum threshold for a reasonable value award ticket.
Think you've found a good award ticket? Make sure you check how much the fees will be. Any additional fees are usually listed immediately after the mile price of the ticket.
Some frequent-flyer programs tack expensive fees onto award airfares, especially for business-class and first-class tickets. You may find that even though you're paying for that award ticket with miles, you also need to kick in another $500 or more in cash. These kinds of extra charges can considerably decrease the value of your ticket.
I'll use a firsthand example here, because I was recently in this exact situation. I was searching for award tickets from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I saw I could book a business-class award ticket for 42,500 miles. Considering that even the cheapest business-class tickets on this route were in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, that award ticket looked like great value.
Then, I glanced at the trip details -- 26 hours from departure to arrival and two long layovers, one of which was overnight. That's twice as long as the trip would have taken with a cash ticket.
Unfortunately, award tickets are sometimes much more inconvenient than their cash alternatives. In situations like the one above, you should go with the ticket that will get you to your destination in as little time and with as few stops as possible.
Miles usually provide a lot more value when you redeem them for more costly airfare. If you use them to book a three-hour domestic flight in economy, it's hard to get more than $0.015 to $0.02 per mile. But if you use them for a nine-hour international flight in business class, you could get $0.03 or more.
As you can see, it makes sense to use your miles for more expensive trips. If you know you're going on an international trip, or a flight where you want to travel in a premium travel class, then you should save your miles for that airfare.
Many popular travel credit cards include perks, such as a free checked bag or complimentary travel insurance, that only apply if you use the card to book your travel. If these benefits are important to you for that trip, you may want to opt to pay with your credit card instead of paying with miles.
For example, if you know you'll need to check a bag on a flight, it could be smarter to use an airline card offering a free checked bag instead of booking an award economy ticket and paying for your baggage. Or, if you'll be traveling through an area that you know has problems with flight cancellations, then it could be wise to book using a credit card that offers trip-cancellation insurance.
Even if you have a healthy balance of airline miles available, there are times when paying for a cash ticket is the better choice. If you find yourself in any of the above situations, then you should use one of your credit cards for the ticket and save those miles for another day.
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