Use Airline Miles or Pay Cash? How We Decide

Our family took numerous flights this spring.  In each case we had to decide whether we would redeem airline miles or pay cash for tickets.  In most cases, we used miles if we could get a valuation of at least 1.5¢ per mile for our airline miles.

George Clooney Should I Use Miles or Pay Cash

Earning and Burning Miles As a Family

Things have changed a lot in our family over the last year.  Before that, I did all the accumulation of miles via credit cards and manufactured spending.  I also redeemed miles for everyone in the family.  The first question I always got after I made a booking for them was “Is it in first class?”  Now the kids have their own mileage-earning cards and have become more aware of the value of their miles.  They understand when a redemption is not a good value, and they will change their travel plans to get the best value that they can.

Below are the flights we have taken this spring.  When we used miles, I’ve calculated how much value we’ve gotten with each redemption.

Where We Used Airline Miles

Montreal to Atlanta on Delta 25K miles Round Trip in Economy

I redeemed my miles to get my daughter-in-law and grandson round trip tickets on Delta.  I have flown them many times on award tickets on American and United, but it is more convenient to get the non-stop on Delta.  Cash prices for the tickets are usually about $550.  I got them non-stop flights for 25K SkyMiles and $50 each in taxes.  These miles were redeemed at a value of  2¢ per mile.

Montreal to Atlanta on Delta 9500 miles One Way in Economy

After all my SkyMile redemptions this year, I was left with about 20K miles in my Delta account.  This was all that was left of my big cache of SkyMiles obtained by manufactured spend on the SunTrust debit card (no longer available, of course.)  I found this great deal for the Montreal-Atlanta flight for my daughter-in-law and grandson.  We plan to do a road trip to get them back to Montreal.  One-way flights are about the same as round trips, at around $550, so the per mile value of this point redemption was about 5¢ per mile.

Orlando to London on American 40K Miles Round Trip in Economy

My son A. decided to take his girlfriend on a week-long trip to London in April.  Her ticket used 40K of his AAdvantage miles.  He also had to pay the onerous UK departure tax so his extra fees were $189.  Cash price for her ticket would have been about $1100, so he got a value of about 2.3¢ per mile.

Orlando to London on American 20K Miles One Way in Economy

A. flew on the same transatlantic flight with his girlfriend, but since he wasn’t returning home with her, he didn’t have the pay the UK passenger duty.  The cheapest flight he could have gotten would have been about $550, so he got about 3¢ per mile.

Salt Lake City to Atlanta on American 25K Miles One Way in Business

When I flew out to Salt Lake to see my daughter, I flew as a nonrev on Delta.  I really needed to be back home to watch my grand kids, so I used some of my AA miles to do so.  I also wanted a layover at the Dallas airport to visit the Centurion club there.  Flying American made sense because DFW is one of their bases.  Saver tickets were not available and Anytime tickets and business tickets were both 25K miles, so I got a business class seat.  I could play the game that I got a huge per mile value on the business class seat, but if economy had been available I would have gotten that.  An economy ticket would have been about $300, so my per mile value was about 1¢/mile.  This was a splurge, but every once in a while I like to treat myself with a first class ticket.

London to Atlanta on American 30K Miles One Way in Economy

A. will need to come back to the States for a while this summer, so he needed a one-way from Europe.  He needs to stop by his bank in London, so preferred to fly from there, in spite of the UK duty.  He will be flying during the summer so will have to pay 30K AAdvantage miles for his ticket, with $189 in fees.  A cash ticket would have cost $1300 (high because of flying in mid-summer) so his valuation is 3.7¢ per mile.

Atlanta to Portland on American 25K Miles Round Trip in Economy

My daughter M. and her family of four went on a driving vacation out in Oregon.  She and her husband each had 50K American miles from two credit card sign ups. They used one of their accounts to book one way tickets from Atlanta to Portland for 12.5K miles each. They did have to pay last minute fees on the outbound.  They then used the other account to book the return for 12.5K miles each.  They got a value of about 1.5¢ per mile.  This was their first mileage redemption.  I was proud of them for applying for the cards, doing the minimum spends, and booking their own award tickets.

Where We Used Cash

Atlanta to Los Angeles on Delta $348 Round Trip in Economy

A. and I went on a Casinos at Sea cruise during Spring Break.  Because the trip took place during the high-demand spring break time, only high-mileage award tickets were available.  We would have had to spend 50K miles per person on any of the airlines.  We were able to get Basic Economy tickets on Delta for $348 round tip per person.  If we had used miles, each mile would only have been worth 0.7¢/mile.

Orlando to Seattle on Frontier $144 One Way in Economy

This was one of A.’s last minute trips.  The flight would have cost him at least 25K miles on American or United, and he would have had to pay the $75 close in fee.  This would have resulted in him getting less than 0.3 cents per mile.

Vancouver to Atlanta on Air Canada $355 One Way in Economy

This flight was much more expensive as it was booked the day before travel.  There would have been 25K miles with the $75 close in fee, and all available award flights were horrible routes.  His valuation to use miles would have been about 1¢/mile.

Various Short Haul Flights in Europe in Economy

A. has been doing a lot of last-minute short hauls in Europe.  He flew from London to Paris, from London to Madrid, and from Barcelona to Bordeaux.  In each case, he decided within days of each flight (sometimes the day before!) when and where he would go.  He gets a cheap flight on a low cost carrier like EasyJet for $100 or less per segment.  I don’t see much point in using points when you can get these cheap last-minute flights.  I did check Avios in each case, and never could find availability, probably because I was always looking so close in.

The Decision to Use Airline Miles or Cash Depends on Several Factors

I am more careless about spending miles that my kids are because I have more miles than they do.  I have many different currencies so usually have a choice of which miles to spend. I  like to splurge occasionally on first class tickets when I have a lot of miles in any one account.

M. and her family cannot afford to travel unless they use miles.  I was proud of her when she changed their vacation destination to make the best use of miles.  She is willing to accept a lower evaluation in order to get the airline tickets for a once-yearly family vacation.  They also only had American miles so had to use those to travel.

A. flies so often that he really cannot use award tickets for everything. I book all his tickets for him, and won’t allow a valuation below 1.5¢ per mile.  He buys tickets as often as he redeems his miles.



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