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When To Use Cash or Miles for Airline Tickets [10 Helpful Tips!]

Stephen Au's image
Stephen Au
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Stephen Au

Senior Content Contributor

486 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 24U.S. States Visited: 22

Stephen is an established voice in the credit card space, with over 70 to his name. His work has been in publications like The Washington Post, and his Au Points and Awards Consulting Services is used...
Edited by: Jessica Merritt
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Jessica Merritt

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A long-time points and miles student, Jessica is the former Personal Finance Managing Editor at U.S. News and World Report and is passionate about helping consumers fund their travels for as little ca...
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Keri Stooksbury

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With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now editor-in-chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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Booking a lavish, ultra-exclusive first class ticket with points and discovering the retail price of what you just booked is one of the sweetest moments of victory in points and miles.

There’s nothing quite like booking a business or first class flight with points and basically receiving $10,000 or more in value for free! In those situations, it’s an absolute no-brainer to use points instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars.

But often, deciding between whether to use miles or pay out of pocket for your travel isn’t so clear. You’re faced with a decision to either use your points and accept a lower redemption value or just pay out of pocket and save your points for another trip.

As a traveler, it can almost be a paralyzing decision — so in this guide, we’ll walk you through how to make that oh-so-important decision!

Whether you’re looking at travel where cash prices are high or low, we’ll show you when to pull the trigger on using your points and when to save them for another day.

The 10-Step Process To Figure Out When To Use Cash or Miles for Airline Tickets

1. Find Flight Availability

American Airlines app
Image Credit: American Airlines

Before you decide whether to use points or cash for your upcoming travel, you’ll first need to figure out if it’s even possible to book your flight using points.

If everything across the board is costing an ungodly number of points, it’s probably a better idea to save your points for another time.

Let’s take an example one-way flight from Los Angeles to New York where you want to fly on nonstop routes only in either business or first class. You only have American Express Membership Rewards points to work with, and you’re open to flying into either Newark (EWR) or New York (JFK).

After doing all of the research, you might have been able to find the following nonstop flight options:

  • United transcontinental Polaris class arriving at JFK for 50,000 United miles
  • Delta One business class arriving at JFK for 60,000 Delta SkyMiles
  • JetBlue Mint business class arriving at EWR for 52,000 Emirates miles
  • Alaska Airlines first class arriving at EWR for 50,000 Alaska Airlines miles

Confirming award availability for the travel you’re planning is key — and for those airlines on this route, you’re probably looking at the lowest miles price for business class award tickets.

2. Cross-reference Your Existing Points and Miles

Carrying over the example listed above, let’s also keep in mind that you might only have Amex Membership Rewards points on hand.

Because of this constraint, you would probably have to eliminate the United transcontinental Polaris class and Alaska Airlines first class flight options. Since these tickets wouldn’t be accessible to any of United’s or Alaska Airlines’ partners, you’d likely only be able to book these flights if you actually had United miles or Alaska miles. And when you consider the fact that neither United nor Alaska are direct transfer partners of American Express, you’ll probably need to rule those out as realistic flight options to book.

The good news is that the 2 remaining options, Delta One and JetBlue Mint, would both be bookable using Amex Membership Rewards points!

Hot Tip: Not sure how to best use your points? Check out our transfer partner calculator tool to see all available transfer partners by flexible points program.

3. Compare Products Side-by-Side

JetBlue Mint A321LR seat 2F wide angle
Fly in style on JetBlue Mint. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

Now that you’ve narrowed the field to options that you’d be able to book with your current points balance, let’s think about the other elements of the decision.

First, it’s worth noting that redeeming 60,000 versus 52,000 points probably won’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things.

What might make a big difference is what you get when flying Delta One versus JetBlue Mint coast-to-coast.

Delta’s transcontinental fleet is comprised mostly of 767 aircraft with staggered, forward-facing lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. That said, some aircraft are equipped with newer Delta One Suite-like arrangements for additional privacy. Common amenities include an excellent selection of inflight entertainment options, bedding by Westin, and decent catering. In addition, expect to be able to access the Delta Sky Club when flying on these routes.

When you fly on JetBlue Mint, you won’t get lounge access at the airport — but you’ll probably enjoy the flight more. JetBlue Mint offers restaurant-quality tapas-style catering, lovely cocktails, generally friendlier service, and a more exclusive experience. And if you can get your hands on a throne seat, which occupies the same real estate as 2 “regular” JetBlue Mint seats and has a sliding door, you’ll have your own private oasis in the sky.

4. Weigh Flight Schedules

Another element you have to keep in the back of your mind is the scheduling — if you need to fly out in the morning and Delta’s flight is only available on a red-eye schedule, you might want to remove the Delta flight from consideration.

5. Calculate Redemption Value

Once you’ve narrowed down the field of available options to 1 (or at most 2), you’ll probably be pretty close to making a judgment call on the plan forward.

In the example above, we’ve identified JetBlue Mint as the best option for the example since the Delta flight schedule wouldn’t work and both the United and Alaska Airlines flight options wouldn’t be easily bookable using Amex points.

So let’s say you do some research on Google Flights and see that the JetBlue Mint flight costs around $1,299. Meanwhile, it would cost 52,000 Amex Membership Rewards points + ~$10.10 in taxes and fees to book this flight.

Therefore, your redemption value would be around 2.5 cents per point. As you can tell, this redemption value, while better than our valuations of 2.2 cents per Amex point, isn’t anywhere near the 5 to 10 cents per point redemption value you’d get for some international business or first class flights.

So the question is: is it worth it?

The answer is simple, yet complicated: it depends. To make a decision, you’ll need to look at how much it’s worth to you.

6. Consider Your Personal Values

So after all is said and done, you’re contemplating either of these options for the one-way JetBlue Mint flight:

  • Pay $1,299
  • Redeem 52,000 Amex points transferred to Emirates Skywards + $10.10 in taxes and fees

Usually, the rule of thumb is that you should redeem points for domestic or regional flights if you can get 2 cents per point of value, which you can achieve here.

But the real answer requires you to ask yourself some extra questions:

  1. If I used points for this flight, would I still have enough to book the rest of my near-term travel?
  2. How cash-strapped am I right now?
  3. Am I confident I can get better value elsewhere while still being consistent with my travel goals?

The reason why these internal dialogues are so important is that there’s always an opportunity cost associated with using points. 

If your financial circumstances are such that you don’t need to constantly scrimp and save, or if it would make sense to deploy those points towards trips with potentially higher value, like a bucket list Maldives trip or a business class trip to Europe, you might want to pay for this flight knowing you’ll probably get better value when planning international trips.

If you’re cash-strapped and need to keep your expenses as low as possible today, or if you just have millions of points, it makes total sense to redeem your points and lock in that redemption value.

And lastly, another major issue to raise with yourself is figuring out if it’s even feasible for you to pursue aspirational redemptions given your personal situation. For example, if you’re a brand-new parent and wouldn’t be able to take long-haul international trips to Australia, Bora Bora, Greece, or Japan anytime soon, this is probably going to be among the best redemption values you can expect. But if you do frequently visit far-flung destinations, you can probably get better redemption value on those flights than on transcontinental JetBlue Mint.

7. Determine Your Own Points Valuations

While Upgraded Points has developed a formula for calculating points and miles values, we encourage you to figure out your own points valuations.

For example, if you have a ton of points, you might feel more comfortable accepting a lower redemption value as long as it’s fairly consistent and is the best deal available on the travel you’re planning.

On the flip side, if you can only accumulate enough points for 1 international business class trip per year based on your spending patterns, and this flight to New York would cause you to not have enough points to plan your international trip, we would definitely recommend paying out of pocket for the shorter flight, regardless of the redemption value you get on the domestic flight.

8. Is There Anything Else You Haven’t Yet Taken Into Account?

Before you make the final decision on whether to pay for your flight or redeem miles, do a quick analysis of your existing points and ask yourself if you’re missing anything.

  1. Are my points expiring soon? If so, should I just use them for this flight?
  2. Am I expecting to earn a ton of points in the near future?
  3. Is there a chance the prices will drop if I wait until closer to departure?

For example, if you already have a stash of Emirates miles, which happen to be expiring soon, it’s probably a great idea to use them (and avoid losing them).

If you recently made a ton of purchases and expect to earn a bunch of points, you might not be as short on points as you think — maybe you will have enough points to book all of your near-term travel.

It might be difficult to think of all the other possible details that could steer you in one direction or away from another direction, but take some time to think deeply about these questions!

9. Think About Other Ways To Bring Costs Down

When it comes to planning travel, thinking of all the possible alternatives will drive you crazy, but there are a few consistent ways to bring your costs down if you’re still on the fence about redeeming points or spending cash for your travel.

For example, if you’re traveling to New York on JetBlue and have Mosaic+ elite status, you might want to waitlist yourself for a complimentary Mint upgrade. Keep in mind that this strategy is by no means a guaranteed way to enjoy business class — it’s subject to availability.

If you’re traveling with a companion, it might make sense to pay for 1 ticket with cash and redeem miles for the other ticket, which is known as a hybrid redemption strategy.

If you were planning on paying out of pocket for hotels in New York, maybe it’s worth dusting off any free night certificates you might have to offset those costs, too. By redeeming free night certificates, you can allocate more of your travel budget towards the flight.

Another option that applies to airfare optimization is using companion tickets — for example, if you’re flying to the U.K. and plan on redeeming British Airways Avios, you can cut down on the ticket cost by leveraging the Travel Together Ticket you’ll receive if you spend $30,000 on purchases in a calendar year using the British Airways Visa Signature® Card.

10. Evaluate Your Flexibility

Man thinking with hands behind his head sitting at desk
Image Credit: Jason Strull via Unsplash

One last topic we’ll discuss very broadly is flexibility and how you can tip the scales in your favor by being flexible.

If you find yourself to be an opportunistic traveler who can plan trips far in advance and be incredibly flexible on dates as long as you can track down those fantastic deals, you can capture great deals not only for award travel, but cash travel, too.

Here are some levers you can pull to access better award availability:

  • Changing flight dates
  • Changing flight times
  • Changing trip duration
  • Changing air routing
  • Changing booking window
  • Changing airline
  • Changing destination

Changing Flight Dates

Most of us who plan trips wish to fly out on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday and return on a Saturday or Sunday. If you can fly out on a Tuesday or return on a Monday, you might be able to get better deals on your award travel. Plus, you might even be able to find cheaper paid deals!

Changing Flight Times

If you need to fly on a strict schedule for work or business, we get it. But if you have any level of flexibility to fly in the morning instead of the afternoon, you might have better luck finding a deal.

Changing Trip Duration

In an ideal world, you want to spend as much time as possible in your preferred destination — but there’s no sense in thinking about spending 10 days in a certain destination if you can’t even get there in the first place. Consider being flexible in your trip duration!

Changing Air Routing

This is one of the biggest areas where those who can think outside the box will get rewarded with the biggest spoils.

For example, if you originally only wanted to fly into New York (JFK), you might be missing out on comfortable flight availability to Newark (EWR), which is a similar distance to Midtown Manhattan!

Changing Booking Window

If you’ve already missed the boat on the ideal planning window to get the best deals, it might be a good idea to adjust your future planning so you can get the best deals possible before someone else takes them!

Changing Airlines

Lots of travelers are loyalists to 1 of the Big 3 — Delta, United, and American. And while that’s understandable, consider that other airlines, including JetBlue, also offer superb premium cabin experiences!

By being airline-agnostic, you can generally get better deals.

Changing Destinations

If you absolutely can’t seem to find any good deals and see that flights to Cancún are crippling in terms of points costs, consider changing your travel plans to a similar destination with better availability on points, like Puerto Vallarta or Puerto Rico!

How Fixed-value Points Make Redemptions Easier (But Not Necessarily Better)

In the world of points and miles, we love redeeming our points for awesome value through sweet spots. These are flights and/or hotels booked at an outsized value thanks to advantageous pricing that applies only to a small percentage of overall redemptions in the loyalty program. For example, we consider Lufthansa’s first class flights to Germany to be a fantastic sweet spot when redeeming Amex points — but these redemptions are often niche and may not apply to the average traveler. So, the short of it is that sweet spots require an additional layer of complexity to maximize, and many travelers are looking for simplicity and consistent value with their points.

That’s where fixed-value points come into play. Certain loyalty programs, such as Southwest Rapid Rewards, JetBlue TrueBlue, and Air New Zealand Airpoints, adopt currencies that have a fixed value, hence the name.

For example, when you redeem Southwest Rapid Rewards points, you’ll always observe a redemption value of around 1.3 to 1.5 cents per point. It’ll almost never be less than that, but it’ll also almost never be more than that. Your Southwest points are worth, therefore, a fixed value. Because your points are always worth the same no matter where or when you’re flying, you can always redeem points for flights and be confident that you’re getting excellent value.

Similarly, if you choose to redeem points for your flights through the Chase Travel portal, AmexTravel.com portal (using Pay with Points), Citi ThankYou travel portal, or Capital One Travel, you’ll get fixed points value.

It’s simpler by a long shot, but you’re potentially missing out on better redemption value.

Final Thoughts

All in all, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all methodology for figuring out whether to use points or cash for a specific flight. It always depends!

And to a certain extent, that’s the beauty of points and miles — you can freely choose when to use them or save them depending on your own personal situation.

Now, you have all the guidance you’ll need to make a decision on whether to use points or cash for your next flight.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to use points or cash for travel?

It depends. If you can get great value from your points on your travel, go ahead and use your points. If your points won’t get you good value, it might be a good idea to just save the points for another time.

Are flights with points worth it?

Flights with points are often worth it if you can get at least 2 cents per point of value for domestic flights or 4 cents per point of value for international flights.

Is it better to use points or cash on Southwest?

With Southwest, it doesn’t really matter because Rapid Rewards are pegged to a fixed value. Every Rapid Rewards points will be worth around 1.3 to 1.5 cents per point. You should redeem points by default if you have a bunch of them sitting around.

Can I pay for flight with points and cash?

In many cases, you absolutely can, but it probably won’t get you great redemption value. It’s generally better to either pay for your flight outright with cash or book your flights completely with miles (and taxes and fees).

Stephen Au's image

About Stephen Au

Stephen is an established voice in the credit card space, with over 70 to his name. His work has been in publications like The Washington Post, and his Au Points and Awards Consulting Services is used by hundreds of clients.

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