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Why I Always Mix Cash With Points and Miles (With Methods To Keep Costs Low)

Carissa Rawson's image
Carissa Rawson
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Carissa Rawson

Senior Content Contributor

270 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 51U.S. States Visited: 36

Carissa served in the U.S. Air Force where she developed her love for travel and new cultures. She started her own blog and eventually joined The Points Guy. Since then, she’s contributed to Business ...
Edited by: Jessica Merritt
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Jessica Merritt

Editor & Content Contributor

101 Published Articles 531 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 4U.S. States Visited: 23

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...
& Stella Shon
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Stella Shon

News Managing Editor

108 Published Articles 739 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 25U.S. States Visited: 22

With a degree in media and journalism, Stella has been in the points and miles game for more than 6 years. She most recently worked as a Corporate Communications Analyst for JetBlue. Find her work in ...

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Anyone who’s spent time with me knows that I’m nearly always traveling. Although I live in the U.S., much of the time you can find me sprawling on a couch in some exotic Hyatt location, whining about my suite upgrades. While I realize that this lifestyle isn’t available for most, there are still takeaways from it that people should consider.

While I love the points and miles hobby, I firmly believe there’s a time and a place for redemptions — and an equal time and place for using real-life dollars. Let’s talk about it.

Points or Cash?

For many people, using points and miles enables them to take trips they otherwise wouldn’t. This can mean economy class flights to Europe, first class redemptions on Emirates, and everything in between.

While I spent years enjoying the aisle seat in row 52 as I jetted around the globe, those days have long gone. Sure, if it’s a domestic flight or takes less than 6 hours, I’ll squeeze in and queue up my Netflix. But anything long-haul? I’m going to look into flying while horizontal.

The same can be said for hotels: the more places I stay, the more I’m looking for better than just a clean bed.

Flights

Of course, ideally, I’m always going to use points for my flights. I’d dearly love to have an unlimited supply of miles that can be redeemed at will. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. There are a number of factors that impact whether or not I can use miles for a flight, including:

  • Award seat availability
  • Travel dates
  • Flight routes
  • Mileage cost
  • My point programs

For some, it may be perfectly acceptable to only pick destinations and dates that have award seats available with the mileage program in which they have points — but this isn’t the case for me.

There have been plenty of times award availability didn’t work for me, like when I needed to get from Buenos Aires (EZE) to Ushuaia (USH) for my cruise to Antarctica. Flights down there are operated by a variety of carriers, including Aerolineas Argentinas, which is a member of SkyTeam. However, for my dates, there were no rates that made it possible to redeem points. So what did I do instead? I used cash.

Of course, I could have done something like redeem Capital One miles at a rate of 1 cent per mile as a statement credit to effectively erase the purchase and make it free, but that’s a terrible use of miles.

I’d much rather pay using a card such as The Platinum Card® from American Express and earn 5x per $1 spent on flights booked directly with the airline or through AmexTravel.com (on up to $500,000 per year; then 1x points) while saving my Capital One miles for a better redemption.

The same can be said anytime I’m traveling when there isn’t award seat availability. If I can find a reasonably priced redemption and I have the points to do it and — critically — if it constitutes a good use of my points, I’ll redeem my miles. Otherwise, I’ll use cash. Even if it means my trip is not net zero.

Here’s an excellent example on a flight from San Francisco (SFO) down to San Diego (SAN):

SFO SAN cash rate
Image Credit: United

Flying economy on this flight would cost me $114. Using my Amex Platinum card to pay would net me a capped 5x points per $1 spent and I’d also be earning my way to United MileagePlus elite status.

The award rate for this flight, meanwhile, costs 9,200 miles.

SFO SAN award rate
Image Credit: United

Redeeming my miles means I’d be paying virtually nothing out of pocket, but we value United miles at 1.3 cents each, which means I’d be using $119.60 worth of miles for this $114 flight. I’d also be missing out on those extra earnings from my credit card.

Hotels

I think it’s pretty easy to make the same argument for hotels as I do for airlines; namely that the hotel needs to have award space in order to get a redemption. Of course, you could always opt to redeem your points for atrocities such as Hilton Honors’ Premium Room Rewards where you can end up paying more than a million points per night for a room.

However, there are a few extra factors to consider when thinking about redeeming hotel points:

  • Hotel location
  • Hotel availability
  • Award availability
  • Cash versus point costs
  • Elite status/benefits
  • Number of travelers
  • Types of rooms available

Let’s take an example from a trip I took in 2022 to Santorini, Greece. I was traveling during late August, which is just the beginning of the off-season. There aren’t a ton of options for those looking to redeem points in Santorini, and of the ones that are available, costs are absolutely exorbitant.

Sure, you can choose to redeem 120k Hilton Honors points per night for the Sea Breeze Santorini Beach Resort, Curio Collection by Hilton (on the 3% of dates when award space is available). You can also opt for one of the Hyatt choices on the island, including the new Magma Resort Santorini (which can cost as little as $250 per night but will charge you 25k points per night).

But there are so many more options if you’re willing to look away from chain hotels. Rather than sticking with these limited options, I wandered over to Travelzoo where a 3-night voucher for a suite cost me just $798 and included breakfast:

Travelzoo voucher Santorini
Image Credit: Travelzoo

Vouchers like this have the added benefit of flexibility. If I were wholly reliant upon Hilton for my hotel stays, I’d need to base my travel around the very limited dates within which there is availability. By going elsewhere, I was able to plan travel on my time, not an award calendar’s.

Cruises

I’m not a super-experienced cruiser. In fact, I’ve only been on a handful of cruises over the last few years, so I’m no expert. However, one of my recent forays included a trek down to Antarctica — and while I could have used points for the journey, it would have cost me far more than I ended up paying in cash. We’re talking millions of points here versus the ~$9,000 I went with out-of-pocket.

Instead, I paid for my purchase using my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, which netted me 3x Ultimate Rewards and gave me the benefit of complimentary trip cancellation and interruption insurance.

Methods To Keep Costs Low

Flights

So what happens when I do have to pay cash for my travel? Although this happens more frequently for hotels than it does airlines (thanks to a massive stash of American Airlines AAdvantage miles I’ve been hoarding), I’ll still occasionally end up paying out of pocket for my flights.

Even still, I’m maximizing my spending whenever this occurs, such as scoring business class upgrades using my United PlusPoints, which I’ve earned as an elite member with United.

United PlusPoints upgrades
PlusPoints allow me to confirm an upgrade to business class while paying an economy class fare. Image Credit: United

It can also be through other means, such as taking advantage of the annual companion fare offered by the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card.

Hotels

I’m a hardcore hotel status chaser, whether that’s World of Hyatt Globalist status earned after 60 nights or Hilton Honors Diamond status earned by simply holding the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.

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Automatic Hilton Diamond status, an annual free night, and a travel and resort credit make this the perfect card for those who stay in Hilton hotels.
Earn 175,000 Bonus Points after you spend $6,000 in purchases on the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card in the first 6 months of Card Membership. Offer ends 7/31/2024.
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The information regarding the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.


Paying hundreds of dollars for an annual fee on a co-branded hotel card might seem ridiculous, but you should know that the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is much more than your run-of-the-mill hotel credit card.

The Hilton Aspire card is not only a phenomenal card for Hilton Honors loyalists, but even those who visit Hilton hotels just a few times a year can still get excellent value out of all the benefits that are packed into this card.

So let’s have a look at what makes the card so valuable to travelers.

Pros
  • 14x points per $1 on Hilton purchases
  • 7x points per $1 on select travel and at U.S. restaurants
  • 3x points per $1 on all other purchases
Cons
    • High annual fee of $550
  • Earn 175,000 Bonus Points after you spend $6,000 in purchases on the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card in the first 6 months of Card Membership. Offer ends 7/31/2024.
  • Earn 14x Hilton Honors Bonus Points when you make eligible purchases on your card at participating hotels or resorts within the Hilton portfolio.
  • Earn 7x Hilton Honors Bonus Points for eligible purchases: on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com, on car rentals booked directly from select car rental companies, and at U.S. restaurants.
  • Earn 3X Hilton Honors Bonus Points for other purchases on your card.
  • Enjoy up to $400 in Hilton Resort Credits (up to $200 in statement credits semi-annually) on your card each anniversary year when you stay at participating resorts within the Hilton portfolio.
  • Enjoy complimentary Diamond status.
  • $550 annual fee.
Financial Snapshot
  • APR: 20.99% - 29.99% Variable
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: None

I’ll often go out of my way to stay at a hotel chain where I know I’ll get benefits, even if it means paying a little extra in cash. this is because the benefits of elite status make it worth it for me.

For example, on a recent stay in Seoul, I paid cash for a 5-night stay at the Grand Hyatt Seoul. While my total stay come out to just over $1,000, the perks I received more than justified the cost. To begin with, I used a suite upgrade award to guarantee a standard suite for the entirety of my stay, which I applied as soon as I booked the room.

I wanted this partly because I love staying in suites, but also because I was traveling with a friend and wanted to ensure we had space. As a Grand Hyatt, the property also featured a lounge with breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner offerings. We didn’t eat there for every meal (what’s the point of traveling otherwise?), but having unlimited access to food and beverages helped keep costs to a minimum during our stay.

Hot Tip: Learn more about the best credit cards for complimentary hotel elite status.

Cruises

I’ll admit again that I’m fairly new to cruising, but that hasn’t stopped me from getting in on the elite status action. Cruise lines offer plenty of perks to their elite members, including priority boarding, complimentary onboard credits, and even free cruises (before taxes and fees).

Holland America cruise offer
Image Credit: Holland America

So far I’ve been able to match hotel and casino elite status to a number of cruise lines, including Holland America, MSC, Virgin Voyages, and Carnival, all of which have netted me tons of benefits.

Final Thoughts

I’ll defend points and miles until I’m blue in the face. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to take any of the insanely exorbitant vacations that I’ve managed, whether that’s in Bora Bora, aboard Cathay Pacific’s first class, or even something as simple as a Hampton Inn over New Year’s. However, I also believe in using cash during my vacations, especially when doing so nets me other benefits, such as increased flexibility, guaranteed upgrades, or better value than redeeming my points.

This method may not be for everyone, and that’s ok. But it works for me — and I’ll keep using it until I run out of points, money, or both.

The information regarding the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The information regarding the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to use miles or pay for flights?

Choosing whether or not to use miles or cash is always a personal decision, especially if you’re looking to save money. However, you’ll want to consider the flight cost versus how many miles you’ll be charged to redeem flights. If it’s a good value, redeeming them can be a great way to use miles.

Is points and cash worth it?

This answer will depend heavily on which award program you’re looking at, but generally, the answer is no. For hotel programs such as Hilton Honors, you’ll receive a much lower value for your points if you redeem them for points plus cash stays versus just using your points. The same is true for British Airways Executive Club.

Do you lose your status if you use miles?

Earning elite status with an airline can be tough and often requires a lot of flying. In the past, miles redeemed for flights didn’t contribute to status, which meant those who flew exclusively on award flights couldn’t earn or keep their status. However, now both United and Delta allow passengers redeeming miles to earn points towards elite status.

Do reward miles expire?

There are quite a few programs whose points never expire. This is true for Delta and United. Others, such as Hilton, require that you have some sort of activity within the last 24 months. However, activity doesn’t necessarily mean staying at a hotel. This can include transferring points, completing a survey, buying points, or even dining out.

Carissa Rawson's image

About Carissa Rawson

Carissa served in the U.S. Air Force where she developed her love for travel and new cultures. She started her own blog and eventually joined The Points Guy. Since then, she’s contributed to Business Insider, Forbes, and more.

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