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Beware ‘miles and money’ or ‘pay with miles’ airline deals

by on Tue August 9, 2011 • No Comment

Some airlines like United and Delta are enticing flyers to use their miles by offering ‘miles and money’ or ‘pay with miles’ deals that let you pay for a flight with a reduced number of miles in exchange for some cash, which is less than the retail price of the ticket.

Sound good? Maybe not…

Your goal with frequent flyer miles should be to earn more than 1% on your spending and preferably 2% or better. Earning 1%, or a value of $0.01 per mile, is the base rate you should never go below as no-annual fee cash back credit cards offer this earning rate. You can and should do better if miles are part of the equation.

Here’s an example of how miles alone are a great deal, but miles + money are less so:

Flying around Thanksgiving from New York to California on United Airlines…

  • Buying the ticket for cash is $518
  • Buying it with miles is 12,500 each way or 25,000 total. $518 / 25,000 = 2% (each mile is worth $0.02) — a healthy return
  • ‘Miles and money’ for 10,000 miles and $370…your 10,000 mile save you $148. That values your 10,000 miles at $0.015, or a 1.5% return.

United Airlines miles and money

In this case your worst option is to buy it with cash, your best to use miles alone. But if you don’t have enough miles for 25,000 then this is a decent alternative, but a bit disappointing since you’re missing out on a very good value for your miles. We’re not going to scoff at a 1.5% return, but 2% or more should be your real goal, beating nearly all cash back credit cards on the market.

Delta Air Lines never a good deal for ‘pay with miles’

Delta’s ‘pay with miles’ feature, available exclusively to Delta Sky Miles credit card holders, is not in our view a good deal. The value of your miles as cash is fixed at 1% ($0.01 per mile) — so 25,000 miles gets you $250 worth of credit. You can get that with just about any cash back credit card, even those without annual fees.  At least United Airlines offers miles and money deals with a better than 1% return, like the one above.

Delta Pay with Miles

On Delta you’re better off holding off using miles for your entire ticket — as in those cases the amount of miles required isn’t tied to the cost of the ticket. So you could end up in a situation where a $500 ticket only requires 25,000 miles, or a 2% return on your miles.

British Airways worth consideration

Like United, British Airways often offers ‘pay with miles’ offers that are 1.5% or better return on your points in terms of dollars saved. They vary quite a bit, so it is worth checking as some can hit 2% or more. Just remember whenever you pay with miles of any kind, you won’t earn miles for that particular trip.

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