Not Anatomy of an Award: Just Book with Cash

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This is a blog about frequent flier miles. Almost everything I write is designed to help you accumulate miles and points efficiently then redeem them for free travel–up front if possible.

But sometimes using points for a ticket is a huge mistake. Sometimes, just book with cash. JBWC. I’ll give two examples, and I’ll tell you how to figure out whether you should book with cash or miles on a particular trip.

LAX to Honolulu

The first example comes from yesterday. A friend and I were discussing how he’d never been to Hawaii, which I think should be a crime. (Not a felony, but definitely a misdemeanor.)

I asked, “How would you like to go in December?” He was excited, so I pulled up AA.com to search for award space.

We’d be flying LAX to Honolulu roundtrip, so I knew if I could find space on a flight operated by American Airlines, I could book us each for 25k Avios and $22 roundtrip on BA.com.

I started the search on AA.com even though I planned to use Avios because AA’s calendar function makes it much easier to see the possible dates of travel.

Any day with space at the 17.5k level or 22.5k level will be available for 12.5k Avios as long as the space is on a flight operated by American Airlines or Alaska (and not Hawaiian.)

After finding the latest dates we could travel in December–most dates around Christmas don’t have sAAver space–I went straight to ba.com to book the exact flights I had found on aa.com. (Here’s a post on using the ba.com search.)

Within two minutes of getting on ba.com–and withing ten minutes of bringing up flying to Hawaii–I was at the payment page.

Things looked good superficially because 25k Avios and $22 per person is the cheapest way to book an award to Hawaii. (See this post on the cheapest ways to get to Hawaii.)

Plus I discovered last time I used Avios to Hawaii that booking an AA flight with Avios grants Priority AAccess, so we could breeze through security and board earlier.

Then the following conversation occurred completely in my head since selling or bartering points is against program rules.

“How much would you charge me for the ticket?”

“Well, I value Avios at 1.7 cents. That means including taxes, each ticket ‘costs’ $447.”

“Is that a good deal?”

As it turns out, that’s not a good deal. I went to kayak.com, searched the same dates, and I came up with two paid tickets for $362.40 each.

Plus the paid flights had better departure times to get us another 16 hours in Hawaii. And we’ll earn Hawaiian Miles.

While Avios from LAX to Hawaii is often a great deal, it’s always important to check the deal against paid flights. Let me give another example.

Mama Miler from Hanoi to Singapore

A few weeks ago, I was booking an award for the Frequent Miler’s mom. The main award had been booked using a stopover and open jaw.

Detroit to Bangkok, Singapore to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Detroit.

But there was one segment we couldn’t fit on the first award from Hanoi to Singapore. I sent her this email about that segment.

Options for Hanoi to Singapore

Singapore Airlines has a direct flight:

3/2
HAN-SIN 1:00 PM – 5:30 PM
3:30

Business is 17,500 UNITED miles and $16 per person. Economy is 12,500 UNITED miles and $16 per person. Economy should not be considered as you’ll see below.

The route is operated by a 2-class 777-200 (http://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Singapore_Air/Singapore_Air_Boeing_777-200_2.php). You would be on angled lie flat seats in business class.

I also checked cash options, and you can fly direct on Tiger Airways for $80 each. That flight time is 11:00 AM – 3:25 PM. I have never flown Tiger. I know they’re a low-cost carrier based in Singapore.

$80 is an incredible deal. Since I value Ultimate Rewards at 2 cents, the award on Singapore would be worth $266 per person in economy and $366 in business.

I see the only two decent options being Tiger Airways for $80 or Singapore business for 17,500 miles and $16.

One other factor is Tiger’s bag fees, which can be found here and would start at $20 per person. (Chart in Singapore dollars not US dollars: http://www.tigerairways.com/sg/en/fees2.php)

So in this example, the economy class award made no sense since an economy flight on another airline could be had for 1/3 of the value of the miles that would have to be shelled out for an economy award.

This doesn’t say anything about whether buying the economy ticket or booking the business award is better. That answer has to do with how much she values a business class flight versus economy. But if she wanted an economy flight, my advice would be simple. JBWC. Just book with cash.

How you can apply this

This is where my Mile Value Calculator comes into play. You can use the calculator to figure out whether to book an award or book with cash.

Step 1 – Value Your Miles

Have a value for each type of mile. I’ve valued United, Delta, US Airways, American, and Avios. You can see the links to that analysis here. For instance, I value Avios at 1.7 cents.

You should value the miles yourself. The basic process is to figure out how much value you get from awards with those miles. (The real process is more complicated.) You can figure out the value you’ve gotten on past awards by using the Mile Value Calculator.

Step 2 – Figure Out the Value You’d Get from a Prospective Award

All you need to do is plug in the ticket value, the taxes and fees, the miles used, and the miles foregone.

The ticket value is the lesser of the cost of an equivalent cash ticket and your personal valuation. For argument’s sake, let’s say I value the LAX-HNL roundtrip award at $500. The cash ticket only costs $362. So I would put in $362, which is the lesser of the two figures.

This is crucial, so you avoid absurdities like saying you get 20 cents per mile on international first class awards that cost $10,000. And it also avoids inflating the value of miles by using a personal valuation for a ticket when a cash equivalent is cheaper.

The miles foregone can be found at gcmap.com by typing in your routing. Adjust for any elite status you have. I don’t have elite status on American or Hawaiian, so in my LAX-HNL example, I would forgo 5,112 miles by using an award instead of buying a ticket and earning butt-in-seat miles.

Step 3 – Compare the Two Figures from Steps 1 and 2

This is the easy part. If the cents per mile you’d earn on a prospective award is less than your value for that type of mile from Step 1, JBWC. Just book with cash.

Let’s take a look at my LAX to Honolulu roundtrip flight decision. I valued Avios at 1.7 cents each in Step 1. In Step 2, I plugged the prospective award into the Mile Value Calculator.

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Specifically I plugged in 362 to the first field. That’s the value since that’s the price of a cash equivalent, which is less than my subjective value.

The award had $22 in taxes, so I plugged 22 into the second field.

The award cost 25k Avios, so I put 25000 into field three.

Booking an award instead of buying with cash would mean foregoing 5,112 butt-in-seat miles, so 5112 is the last datum.

Plug those in, and the award from LAX-HNL roundtrip would only be getting me 1.13 cents per Avios.

I value Avios at more than 1.13 cents–1.7 cents–so this award is not worth giving up those miles. JBWC!

Recap

We all love miles for the money they save, and the experiences they unlock. But if you’re not getting maximum value, you’re not saving as much money or having as many experiences as you could.

Sometimes this means you should save your miles, and just book with cash. I gave two examples of times to book with cash in this post–including booking with cash instead of booking the normally fantastic 25k Avios to Hawaii award.

The Mile Value Calculator is the tool needed to determine whether to book with miles or cash on a case by case basis.

 

 


Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. The only disagreement I would have is if you are someone who earns miles faster than you are able to redeem them, e.g. someone who has limited vacation time to use or someone who has family commitments/restrictions, then I would say redeeming miles even at a lower value per mile is still a better deal because it will still save you cash that can be used to create pleasure in other aspects of your life. I just think each person has to evaluate their own unique situation and decide what is best for them.

    That aside, great post! Thanks

    • I strongly agree that people who earn tons of miles will need to redeem them for a lower value. That means they should lower their valuation of a mile and proceed exactly according to this post. This post is based on math that should capture everyone’s situation in the value sections. Also, if you’re redeeming miles such that your average dollar of credit card spend earns you less than 2 cents worth of miles, you should be using a 2% cash back card instead of a miles card.

  2. OK I agree with your points. What I wasn’t thinking about was the self-valuation of miles; rather, I was using your valuation as the value. I recognize that my valuation of miles (anyone’s valuation) will be different than yours based on our own unique situations. Good thoughts

    • Yes. In that case, your valuation for trips will be very low because you don’t have much money. That means your valuation for miles will be low, and the threshold for using them will be lower.

  3. You do– HANDS DOWN– the best analysis of using points! For me, though, it will always be the case of: I can use my points with impunity, but when I start to outlay hard money greenbacks, my hubby gets cranky. For some of us, travel is much more feasible when it’s “free” and not pulling cash away from the household budget or the kids college fund. I have explained to many friends that I actually can spend LESS when I travel using points than if I stayed home!

  4. Totally agree !!!

    Using your “thinking” or “analysis” as the backbone, factor in our those variables which cant be quantified, variables such as cash rich, points rich, how much vacation time …etc, we will be able to make our best decisions.

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