When you should pay a flight with cash, when with miles

Here are all the possible instances when paying for airfare makes sense, and when it's better to use your miles or points bank

Stephanie Zito
Travel and cards writer
Travel expert who writes the "Have Cards, Will Travel" column for CreditCards.com

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When you have travel on the horizon, locking down your airline tickets is usually the first item on your trip planning to-do list.

But how do you make the decision when to cash in your miles for your dream trip airfare, and when to use actual cash to pay for the plane ticket?

Here are a few simple guidelines the experts follow to decide when to pay with miles, and when to pay with your money.

See related: Buying points and miles: 3 times when it may be worth it

Use your dollars to buy a flight ticket when...

1. You’re really getting a good deal!

If you’ve found a cheap fare – whether it’s a bargain fare on a legacy airline, a wild mistake fare or just a good-price ticket on a budget airline— it’s almost always worth it to pay for your ticket.

When you use your points to get a cheap ticket, it is often a low-value redemption. You’ll get more bang for your buck if you pay now and save your miles to use later on a more expensive flight. 

2. You are working on earning airline elite status.

If you’re a frequent flyer working toward elite status on your airline of choice, you’re going to have to purchase some paid ticket to earn your “butt-in-seat” qualifying miles and elite qualifying dollars.

Because award tickets booked through the airlines don’t earn miles when you fly, you will sometimes have to pay for tickets to earn the miles you need.

I’m flying from London to Los Angeles next month, for example, and I paid for the ticket even though I could have easily gotten it with miles at a decent value.

Why? Because it is getting close to the end of the year, and I need the 6,000 miles to keep my status – and I like upgrades a lot.

The exception to this rule is when you are booking with points through a credit card program that is actually purchasing your ticket from the airline.

For example, if I booked that same plane ticket through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal using the points I earn from daily spending on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, I’d still earn points on the reward ticket from the airline.

3. Your ticket is a business expense.

The same principle of using dollars instead of points for business hotel bookings holds true for booking airline tickets that are business expenses. 

If someone else is going to reimburse you for the cost of the ticket, or if you’re going to be able to write off the ticket as a business expense, choose money. You can’t write off mileage tickets for your taxes. Plus, it’s always a win when you get to earn miles from a flight when someone else is footing the bill.

Tip

Tip: Whenever I say pay for airfare with cash, I don’t actually mean dollar bills. When you pay “cash” you should still always pay with your credit card so that you’re also earning rewards points and taking advantage of credit card travel benefits.

Pay for your plane ticket with points when...

1. Fares are high.

The best value for redeeming your points is using them to buy expensive plane tickets. 

Most U.S. airlines operate their award programs on a regional basis – for example, on American Airlines, any ticket within the U.S. costs 12,500 points one way on a MileSAAver fare – no matter if that ticket would have a normal cash fare of $80 or $400.

Using 12,500 points for a $80 ticket feels like a waste, but for a $400 ticket, it’s a steal. My personal rule of thumb is that I’ll always use points if a domestic round trip ticket costs more than $500 (or $250 for a one-way trip).

If you got the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard with a 50,000-point sign-up bonus, you’d have enough points to book two round-trip domestic tickets in the U.S. at this points rate.

If you book two $80 tickets using your sign-up bonus, that equals paying $625 (which is the cash value of 50,000 points) for the tickets. But if you use that same bonus to pay two $400 tickets, that equals paying only $125 for them!

2. You want to fly in the front of a plane – especially internationally.

Speaking of expensive fares, premium class tickets – first and business class – are the real sweet spot for airline mile redemptions.

As international business class fares often start around $8,000 and international first-class fares can go up to $25,000 – these are tickets you’re most likely never going to purchase with cash if you’re a budget traveler.

Using points can make premium tickets more accessible and often offer a very good redemption value.

3. You don’t have money, but want to go somewhere.

There are lots of rules and formulas you can follow to help make the calculation to determine if using your points for travel will be a good value. But here’s some key advice: Don’t get too caught up in the math of it all.

If you really want or need to go somewhere, and you have points to get there but not the spare cash in your travel savings account, use your miles and don’t stress.

Points are for spending. If miles can help you get to where you need to go, use them. Because you are earning your rewards points through your credit card there will always be opportunity to continue to earn more.

Use money and miles together when...

There are three times when you might want to mix it up – splitting how you pay between miles and money.

1. A plane ticket is expensive one way and cheap on the return (or vice versa).

Use miles for half of it and cash for the rest. Almost all mileage reward tickets are booked as one-way segments.

2. You are traveling for business, but want to bring along your plus-one.

Go ahead and expense your own ticket with dollars so you can get it reimbursed from work, or use it as a write-off. If your companion’s ticket is pricey, go ahead and pay for that with miles.

3. You’re traveling with multiple family members and only have enough miles to cover some of the tickets.

Split it up and pay part with miles and part with money.

See related: 'Cash and points' can cut the cost of hotel rooms

Bottom line: When booking plane tickets, remember that true value doesn’t always have to be about the dollar or redemption value per point.

Smart travel is about getting you – and your loved ones – to whatever destination you’re dreaming of – preferably for as little money and miles as possible.


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Updated: 10-17-2018