Determining When to Use Points and Miles to Book a Flight

Person Doing Calculations With A Calculator

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Using points and miles to book your flights is great. Not only do you save money, but you can use your points to book flights that may not be feasible when paying cash.

Think about flights in Singapore Suites, Emirates first class, and ANA first class… more often than not, these flights cost over $10,000 if you were to pay cash, putting them far out of reach for the majority of us (unless you have a stash of points!).

However, there are still times when you may opt to book a ticket with money over miles. For example, if a paid flight is excessively cheap, you’d actually lose money if you used your miles to book.

This is because miles are worth real money, and you should only use them when the price is right. In this article, we’ll walk you our method of determining if a flight is worth using miles to book. We’ll start out by discussing points and miles valuations and then dive into determining the cent-per-point value of a flight.

Let’s dive in!

What Are Points and Miles Valuations?

Calculator on a table
Always keep your mileage valuations in mind when you use your points and miles to book a flight. Image Credit: Charles Deluvio via Unsplash

The first thing you should do when deciding whether or not to book an award ticket is to find the cheapest way to book the ticket in question. If you have a stash of transferable points and airline miles, go through your stash and find the best transfer partners and award charts to use.

Hot Tip: New to points and miles and don’t know where to start? Check out our beginner’s guide for a crash course on earning miles.

Additionally, find the cost of a paid ticket. You can use a website like Google Flights or Orbitz to find the price of a ticket easily — just search as if you were booking any other paid flight.

For example, say you want to book a flight from New York (LGA) to Chicago (ORD) and the average cost of a paid ticket is $175. You also have 100,000 Delta SkyMiles miles, 25,000 United MileagePlus miles, and 50,000 American Express Membership Rewards points.

United and Delta both employ dynamic award pricing, meaning that the price of award tickets varies based on the date of travel, passenger load, and other factors. So, the first thing you’d want to do is search both the Delta and United websites and find the mileage price of the ticket.

In this case, the mileage cost was:

  • United MileagePlus: 10,000 miles
  • Delta SkyMiles: 8,000 miles

Likewise, you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to book the LGA to ORD flight for 9,000 British Airways Avios or 10,000 Avianca LifeMiles. 

Hot Tip: If redemptions are the same cost across multiple mileage programs, use whichever mileage option you value less. We’ll discuss mileage valuations later in the article.

For this example, it would make the most sense to book your flight using Delta SkyMiles as it has the lowest award cost. However, you shouldn’t book just yet.

First, you want to find the cent-per-point value of redeeming your 8,000 hard-earned SkyMiles for this $175 ticket. You can find this by simply diving the cash cost of the ticket by the number of SkyMiles required. The math looks like this:

$175 (cost of a paid ticket) / 8,000 SkyMiles = 2.18 cents per point

To us, this is an excellent use of points as we — per our monthly points and miles valuation — value Delta SkyMiles at 1.0 cents per point at a minimum. This is over twice our assigned value, so we think it’s a great deal!

On the other hand, flights between New York and Chicago can be really cheap — sometimes as low as $50 1-way. This would give you a valuation of only 0.625 cents per point, making it — per our valuations — not a great deal.

So the trick here is to always compare the flight’s cash cost to the number of miles required to book the flight. If it’s below your valuations, you should consider paying cash. On the other hand, you may want to use points if you get a value that’s at or above your assigned valuations.

But how do you determine the value of your points? We’ll discuss in the next section of this article.

Determining the Cent per Point Value of a Flight

Fiji Airways Airbus A350 Business Class Cabin from Front
Your miles and points can go a long way, so make sure to assign each currency a value. Image Credit: Greg Stone

Now, there are a couple of ways you can assign values to your miles and points: the easy way and the hard way. Here’s an in-depth look at how you can use both of these valuation methods to assign values to your credit card points, airline miles, and hotel points.

The Easy Way to Valuate Your Points

Here at Upgraded Points, our staff pays constant attention to the happenings of the miles and points world. We meticulously track each new devaluation, change in terms and conditions, and promotion that pops up amongst all of the major airline, credit card, and hotel loyalty programs.

Because of this, we publish a monthly points valuation article that shows our up-to-date valuations of all the major points programs.

We found our initial valuations by making a handful of redemptions — some domestic economy, some business class international, and more — with each points currency and calculated the average value of all points.

Then, each month we adjust our initial valuations to reflect changes in award charts, new routes, general award availability, and other news surrounding the points currency in question. We even outline our reasoning for these changes in the Movers section of the valuations article.

So, the easy way to determine the value of your points is to simply refer to our valuations guide. We think our valuations give a good baseline for determining the value of your points and can help guide you towards getting the best value when you redeem your miles.

The Harder Way to Value Your Points

Alternatively, you can figure your own points and miles valuations.

There are a few ways to do this, but our personal favorite is by finding 3 (or more) types of redemptions you make the most, figuring their cent-per-point value, and then averaging these values together. The more redemptions you add, the more accurate your valuations become.

Here’s a quick example we developed for United MileagePlus miles:

  • Domestic short-haul economy ticket: 1.1 cents per point
  • International long-haul business class ticket (U.S. to Europe): 3.1 cents per point
  • International long-haul economy class ticket (U.S. to Asia): 1.45 cents per point

In this case, you’d have a 1.83 cent per point value assigned to your United MileagePlus miles.

This is relatively easy to do with airline miles and hotel points, but it gets more difficult with transferable points currencies due to their vast number of transfer partners.

To find valuations for transferable points currencies, you can perform the above exercise with all of a program’s transfer partners, or just the partners you think you’ll use the most.

Then, take other factors into account like the cent-per-point valuation for redeeming towards paid flights and cash-back.

Of course, you’re free to modify these valuations to your liking, too. You may want to tweak the calculated value for redemption flexibility, the ease in which you can cancel award tickets, and the ease of booking online. There’s no set valuation for these factors, so you should figure out how much they mean to you.

Covering a Cheap Flight With Points

Booking Flights With The Chase Travel Portal
Using the Chase Travel Portal can be a good use of miles when booking a cheap paid ticket with your points. Image Credit: Chase

What happens when you find a flight you want to book, but it’s a bad use of airline points?

Aside from paying for the ticket with cash, you can also use the Chase Travel Portal or Citi ThankYou Travel Portal to book your flight. In short, these travel booking portals let you use your credit cards at a fixed cent-per-point rate to book paid travel.

Chase Travel Portal

CardTravel Portal Redemption Rate (Cents Per Point)
Chase Sapphire Reserve® card1.5
Chase Sapphire Preferred® card1.25
Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card 1.25

Citi ThankYou Travel Portal

CardTravel Portal Redemption Rate (Cents Per Point)
Citi Premier℠ Card1.25
Citi Prestige® Card1.0

As you can see, these portals still offer less value than our points valuations. However, in some cases, they’re a better deal than if you were to book a cheap ticket using transfer partners. Make sure to compare your options before you book to see what booking method offers the best deal.

Since these portals process redemptions as paid tickets, you’ll still earn airline miles when you fly.

Hot Tip: Make sure to add a frequent flyer number to all redemptions made through credit card travel portals to take advantage of earning airline miles.

Using the Chase Travel Portal

Using the Chase Travel Portal is a super-easy way to redeem your Ultimate Rewards points towards paid travel. Here’s a look at how to book an airline ticket using the portal.

  1. Log in to your Chase account and click on your Ultimate Rewards balance at the bottom of the screen.

    Click The Travel Button Chase Travel Portal website
    Click the Travel button to be redirected to the Chase Travel Portal. Image Credit: Chase
  2. Click the Travel button on the ribbon at the top of the Ultimate Rewards portal screen.

    Enter Your Travel Info Chase Travel Portal website
    Enter your travel info on the Chase Travel Portal. Image Credit: Chase
  3. Enter your flight destination, origin, and date in the box at the center of the screen. Then, click the green Search button to view all available flights.

    Searching For Flights On The Chase Travel Portal
    You can view the points cost of your flight compared to the cash cost on the Chase Travel Portal. Image Credit: Chase
  4.  All flight options will be presented in the middle of the screen. You can view the points cost to the right of the flight’s info alongside the cash cost of the flight. When you find a flight you like, click the Select button and you’ll be taken through the booking process.

And that’s all there is to it! You’ll be able to use points to cover all or part of your flight in the Chase Travel Portal, so this also makes for a good way to use up small amounts of points if you plan on closing a Chase credit card.

Using the Citi ThankYou Travel Portal

The Citi ThankYou Travel Portal is remarkably similar to the Chase Travel Portal. It’s just as easy to use, and the booking process feels a lot similar. Here’s a look at how to use your ThankYou points to book a paid flight through the portal.

  1. Log in to your Citi account and click on your ThankYou Points balance on the right-hand side of the window. This will take you to the ThankYou portal.

    Click The Travel Button On The Top of The Screen Citi ThankYou Travel Portal
    Click the Travel button to go to the Citi ThankYou Travel Portal. Image Credit: Citi
  2. Now, hover over the Travel button at the top of the screen and click the Flights button from the drop-down menu. Then, you’ll be taken to the Citi ThankYou Travel Portal.

    Enter Your Flight Details Citi ThankYou Travel Portal
    Enter your flight search criteria and press the Search Flights button. Image Credit: Citi
  3. Enter your flight details like flight origin, destination, and dates at the center of the screen and click the blue Search Flights button at the bottom of the page.

    Viewing Flights in The Citi ThankYou Travel Portal
    View your points cost by looking to the right of the flight’s details. Image Credit: Citi
  4. Now, you can search through available flights. Like on the Chase Travel Portal, all flight options will show their points and cash cost to the right of the flight details. You can book a flight by clicking the blue Select button beneath the flight’s pricing.

You can use your points to cover some or all of a paid ticket through the Citi ThankYou Travel Portal. Just note that you must use your Citi card to pay the remainder of the flight ticket if you opt for partial payment with points — other cards are not accepted.

A Word on Amex Travel and the Capital One Travel Portal

It’s worth noting that American Express and Capital One have their own travel portals too. However, they’re not usually a great deal.

Unlike Chase and Citi, all Capital One cards can only redeem flights at 1.0 cents per point through the Capital One travel portal. This isn’t a great use of points, so we highly recommend using other points (or cash) to cover low-cost paid tickets. Then, consider using one of Capital One’s awesome transfer partners to get more value from your Capital One points.

On the Amex side of things, there are only 2 instances in which we’d recommend using Membership Rewards points to cover airfare booked with Amex Travel.

The first is if you have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. This card has a 35% points rebate on some flights booked through the Amex Travel portal, so you effectively get 1.35 cents per point in value through Amex Travel. To put this into perspective, a $100 flight would cost 7,407 points with this card.

Likewise, the American Express® Business Gold Card has a 25% rebate on some flights booked through Amex Travel. This is still a pretty solid deal despite not being quite as good as the Amex Business Platinum card’s benefit.

Something to note about this benefit is that the points (either 25% or 35% of the redemption) are rebated to your account within a few weeks of the redemption. Unfortunately, this means you need to have enough Membership Rewards points in your account to cover the transaction at 1.0 cents per point at the time of booking.

Also, remember how we said “some” flights when explaining the feature? You can only use this benefit on 1 airline of your choosing OR when booking a first or business class ticket. So if your airline of choice is United Airlines and you want to book an economy ticket with American Airlines, you can only redeem at 1.0 cents per point.

You can choose this airline annually in the Airline Benefit section of your card’s Benefits screen.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we showed you how to determine if a flight is worth booking with points.

As a general rule of thumb, always find the cent-per-point value of a redemption of a flight before you book with points. Only book a flight if the value meets or exceeds your mileage valuation — if it doesn’t, consider paying cash or using an alternative method of booking your flight.

Let us know how you determine your personal point valuations in the comments — we’re excited to hear from you!


Frequently asked questions

Where can I find sample points valuations?

You can view our sample points valuations on our monthly points valuations guide. We keep this guide updated monthly, so you can be sure the valuations are accurate.

What are Citi ThankYou Points worth?

We value Citi ThankYou points at 1.6 cents per point when utilizing transfer partners.

How much are Chase Ultimate Rewards points worth?

We value Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 1.95 cents per point when utilizing various transfer partners.

How much are Amex Membership Rewards points worth?

We value Amex Membership Rewards points at 2.2 cents per point when utilizing Amex transfer partners.

Andrew Kunesh

About Andrew Kunesh

Andrew was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs and now splits his time between Chicago and New York City. He’s a lifelong traveler and took his first solo trip to San Francisco at the age of 16. Fast forward a few years, and Andrew now travels just over 100,000 miles a year, with over 25 countries, 10 business class products, and 2 airline statuses (United and Alaska) under his belt.

Disclaimer: Any comments listed below are not from the bank advertiser, nor have they been reviewed or approved by them. No responsibility will be taken by the bank advertiser for these comments.

2 comments

  1. Hello, I need some guidance. I’m booking a trip to Cancun and currently have a vacation package reserved for a total cost of $2560. However, I received a notification from AA that booking a vacation package with Secrets resorts will give a 30K miles bonus. If I book with AA vacations, the same package is $2860, so a $300 difference. I know that AA miles can be worth around .01/mile when I apply the miles to a booking, but also understand that they can be worth more at times. If you were me, would you pay the $300 extra for the bonus in hopes there may be a better future value?

    Reply

    • Hi Mindy,

      American Airlines miles can definitely be worth more than 1 cent per point depending on how you use them, in fact, we value them at 1.45 cents per point. With that said, it really all depends on how much the miles are worth to you personally. If you have plans to use those miles towards an expensive redemption, like a business or first class ticket, then I would opt to pay the extra $300 and earn the miles. If you think you’d likely use those miles on an economy ticket, then you might be better off just saving the $300.

      Reply

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