The 5 Times You Should Use Your Miles Instead of Paying Cash

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After a lively office debate at Travelzoo on when it’s best to use miles vs. cash for flights, we called in our friends at The Points Guy for their expert take. What they provided is a deep look at when it makes the most sense to cash in some miles instead of pulling out your credit card. Let Zach Honig, Editor in Chief at The Points Guy, take it away:

Just because you have frequent flyer miles doesn’t mean you should always use them. As I’ll outline below, I save my miles for certain bookings and choose to pay cash the rest of the time.

While it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether to redeem, there are certainly a few tips to keep in mind when you decide whether to burn those hard-earned frequent-flyer miles. Over the summer, with smart planning, I spent just 60,000 AAdvantage miles from Sydney to Abu Dhabi and on to the Maldives to get the Etihad A380 apartment.

A photo posted by @ZachHonig (@zachhonig) on

Here are the five times you should use your miles instead of paying cash:

When you’re booking a last-minute domestic flight

Typically domestic airfares are cheap enough that it doesn’t make sense to redeem 25,000 (or more) miles for a roundtrip flight, but if you need to book a flight a day or two (or even just a few hours) before you travel, redeeming those miles can save you a ton on last-minute airfare. Airlines also tend to open up more award seats at the last minute, especially if a flight has many left to sell, even though lots of open seats often doesn’t mean you’ll find a cheap cash fare.

When you’re booking international business or first class

Many travelers save their miles for aspirational redemptions, like a first-class flight to the Maldives on Singapore or Cathay Pacific, or a business-class trip to Europe on Aer Lingus or Swiss. Many people don’t realize that you can actually redeem miles from a U.S. airline’s program to fly on an international partner where you’ll find better seats, food and service.

When the airline doesn’t add fuel surcharges

Some airlines, most notably British Airways, add enormous fuel surcharges to award tickets. So in addition to the tens of thousands of miles you’ll redeem for an economy flight, you’ll have to pay hundreds of dollars in additional fees. Sometimes you’ll pay nearly as much in surcharges as you would on an entire paid ticket! Use your miles for airlines that don’t add huge surcharges, and if you do have to pay, aim for a first-class redemption, where at least you’re getting a superior experience.

Comfiest bed in the sky in @cathaypacific first. #cx841 A photo posted by @ZachHonig (@zachhonig) on

When you’re not sure you’ll actually be able to fly

One of the greatest advantages of redeeming miles for a flight is that you can often change or cancel the trip entirely for a relatively low fee. Elite frequent flyers can sometimes even do it for free. And if you cancel your award, you’ll usually get your miles back. If you cancel a nonrefundable paid flight, however, you’re probably out of luck.

When you have a lot of miles, but not much cash

Like I said, deciding when to redeem miles is entirely up to you. If you have hundreds of thousands of miles on hand from work travel and no plans to take an exciting leisure trip, it may make sense to redeem them at a sub-optimal rate. Or, if you don’t have much room in your budget to cover other travel expenses, such as hotels or rental cars, if may even make sense to transfer miles to partner programs to cover these redemptions.

About The Points Guy

Founded by travel expert Brian Kelly in 2010, The Points Guy is the go-to resource for travelers looking for tips, news and how-to guides about redeeming points and miles to save thousands of dollars on airfare and other travel expenses.

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Show 4 Comments
  • steve yoder

    is it smart to use your AA miles on a honeymoon you plan a year in advanced?

    • DP

      Alaska Airlines lets you cancel, but it costs more miles to do so. Otherwise they are non-refundable miles if you cancel.

  • Dave

    Point 2 won’t work with Alaska Airlines. Their loyalty program webpages all promise the availability of First Class award travel on international partner airlines. But this is almost totally an illusion. The availability is, quite literally, nearly nonexistent. And on the very very very rare instance one sees an actual First Class award seemingly available, it turns out to be either totally phony, or is made unusable by mysteriously coincidental limitations. For example: A “First Class” fare to Europe or Australia, where the short USA leg to the international gateway is indeed in First Class, but the loooong flight from the USA gateway city to the destination overseas is in economy!! Or sometimes you finally (after hunting for weeks) do find a real First Class fare, but there is only one seat (I rarely fly alone, so this is almost always a nonstarter for me), or it only goes to an airport you can’t use, and then there is no First Class travel on the return.

    This issue isn’t caused by looking for last-minute awards. Rather, it applies throughout the entire 1 1/2 year reservations window. Thus, even when you are looking to book an award many months in advance, there is nothing.

    For those of you joining Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan with the ideal of building up points for a First Class award on international partners, look into what I am saying and give your loyalty to another airline whose awards actually mean something.

    • FairBalAK

      I totally agree. Although I prefer Alaska Air to some other domestic airlines, I use all my Alaska miles for domestic travel, then use my MVP upgrades to travel first class.