When To Use Your Miles, And When To Pay For A Ticket Instead

Filed Under: Advice

Given the new onslaught of readers from all around the world this week, we here at OMAAT are operating on somewhat of a “back to basics bootcamp” mentality, to welcome those new to miles, points and “gaming” the travel industry — and also to remind regular readers that we can all lose sight of common sense from time to time when we’re caught up dreaming of champagne and caviar service at 35,000 feet.

Nearly everyone I know has some sort of airline- or hotel-affiliated credit card, though very few of my friends know what to do with all the points they accrue. I find myself scratching my head when my friends tell me they have 50,000 miles generated from credit card spend on Airline A, which they hate, because they love flying Airline B so much more.

More to the point, I’ll see friends excitedly “cash in” 25,000 points — or far more — for a domestic economy ticket, simply because it’s possible and because the credit card companies have taught us, as a society, that you can get a free roundtrip domestic economy ticket! is an aspirational goal.

Now, there are certainly instances when domestic coach awards can make sense, especially around holiday periods when ticket prices might border on criminal…. however, in those peak periods, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to snag a “low-level” 25,000 mile roundtrip to begin with.

While there’s a mantra on this website to “earn and burn” versus hoard miles, the sweet spot in the value of miles is long-haul premium cabin travel, which can cost upwards of 150,000 miles per roundtrip ticket, depending on airline and destination. So it is worth building up your mileage vault and not draining it in 25,000-50,000 increments on domestic trips that might only cost $300 out of pocket. Credit card signup bonuses, which can earn you as much as 100,000 miles off the bat, really help in this regard.

That said, knowing when to use miles and when to save them is a bit of an art, so let’s walk through some basics and some scenarios where paying makes more sense than using miles, and vice versa.

Miles and points do have a value (though that value can be subjective).

Ben, from time to time, will publish what he considers the “value” of an airline or hotel program’s mile or point currency. It really ends up being entirely subjective, of course, but it’s certainly helpful to know how the points stack up against each other, and to assign them a dollar value.

Let’s look at the US domestic airline programs, since this is sort of the focus of my post (more or less).

Ben assigns the following value to US programs:

  • Alaska Mileage Plan:  1.6 cents per mile
  • American AAdvantage: 1.8 cents per mile
  • Delta SkyMiles: 1.3 cents per mile
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards: 1.4 cents/point
  • United MileagePlus: 1.4 cents per mile
  • Virgin America Elevate: 2.0 cents/point.

Very roughly speaking, this would mean that you shouldn’t use miles for a domestic roundtrip unless the ticket is rather pricey.

Do you really want to cash in your award miles for this?
Do you really want to cash in your award miles for this?

For example, at the lowest level of award availability — 25,000 miles roundtrip, which is universal across Alaska, American, Delta and United (Southwest and Virgin operate on a different currency system, more or less, so aren’t comparable) — you’d still want to pay for a ticket out of pocket if that same itinerary cost $400 on Alaska, $450 on American, $325 on Delta, or $350 on United.

But I see people breaking this rule constantly. What’s much worse is when I see people use “standard award” redemptions — i.e., redemptions for domestic roundtrips that can cost substantially more than 25,000 points — on tickets that aren’t much less than $500 roundtrip.

And I get it — the cash outlay can “sting” and feel a lot more real than simply dipping into “free” miles you earned on your credit card, or through flying.

Keep in mind, though, that you don’t earn any miles or elite qualifying points on an award ticket, but you do on a paid ticket. So while you’re paying $500 for a ticket, you’re putting additional miles into your account for future travel.

Even when the math works out and you might want to consider a redemption, it’s worth considering other reasons why you might want to save your miles for something other than a domestic ticket in coach.

The value proposition gets a lot better in first and business class, even domestically.

Low-level roundtrip domestic tickets in first class can be had on the legacy carriers for 50,000 miles. Using Ben’s valuations above, this means that redeeming miles for a first class ticket makes sense if the ticket would cost more than $800 on Alaska, $900 on American, $650 on Delta or $700 on United.

While paid first class tickets are definitely trending downward in price, and while you’ll occasionally see roundtrip first class fares from, say, LAX to Washington, D.C. for around $900 (in which case, on American, at least, it might still be better to purchase the ticket outright), most first class tickets on mid- and long-haul flights within the US cost $1,000 and up. There is considerably more value in using points in this case, versus on an economy ticket.

Is domestic First Class way better than domestic economy? Yes.

Typical domestic first class cabin. Nicer than the back, and free Bloody Marys, but... worth your miles?
Typical domestic first class cabin. Nicer than the back, and free Bloody Marys, but… worth your miles?

But keep in mind that while domestic First is nice, and the free Bloody Marys are great, and it’s nice to have the extra legroom, you’re still on a ~5 hour flight at most. By the way — please, please don’t redeem 50,000 miles for a 2-hour flight from New York to Florida or from Denver to L.A. just to sit in First.

There are longer flights, sexier destinations and far better premium cabin experiences to be had if you use your miles to fly internationally.

It also goes without saying to always search Google Flights, Kayak, or your preferred airline’s website to see how much a paid first class ticket would cost on your trip. Sometimes first class is far less expensive than you’d think.

So while it’s, again, an entirely subjective matter as to what you do with your points, consider that while dropping 50,000 miles for a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Tampa up front might be nice, dropping 62,500 miles for a one-way trip from San Francisco to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific’s legendary First Class might be way nicer.

International travel is the sweet spot…

Everyone who reads this blog has a different reason for doing so. Some people love the challenge of “gaming the system.” Some people love the idea of “getting stuff for free,” even if we’ve established nothing is really “free.” 😉 Some people just love to travel. And some people love the idea of attainable luxury.

62,500 one way using AAdvantage miles
62,500 one way using AAdvantage miles

Given that I could drool at one of Ben’s fancier trip reports for hours, I think I’d consider myself a member of that very last category.

International First Class — the realm of suites, obsequious service, $150 champagne, swanky airport lounges that make an Admirals Club look like a homeless shelter — is the holy grail of this blog, it would seem.

Ben’s beloved Cathay Pacific first class cabin is certainly lovely. I’ve flown it — it’s fantastic. And it only cost me 62,500 AAdvantage miles one-way.

Think about that. American is probably trying to sell you on “Business/First AAnytime” one-way award from LAX to Boston for 55,000 miles one-way. So for 7,500 more miles, you can fly to another country, nearly 3x the distance, and on a world-class premium product… instead of in American’s crappy domestic first class cabin with inedible food and sometimes cranky flight attendants.

55,000 AAdvantage miles one way... to fly to Boston in domestic first
55,000 AAdvantage miles one way… to fly to Boston in domestic first

But don’t buy all the hype. When international first class awards and business class awards are available on a long-haul route, Ben is right: spend the incremental points and fly First on a foreign carrier (it makes less sense to do so on American or United, where the international first cabins are an afterthought).

But Business Class is super nice too, you guys!

Really. It’s lovely. Ben and I have differing opinions on this, but international First Class is one of those dream-vacation, once-or-twice-or-three-times-in-a-lifetime things to do. He flies First Class like you or I might take an Uber.

Business class, however, costs less miles, has (generally) much more award availability, offers decent food and even champagne, and is totally comfortable for a 7- to 15-hour flight. Ben loves Cathay Pacific business class, for instance, and with good reason (he loves other airlines, too, just so you know – but Cathay’s one of the most attainable using miles).

Cathay Pacific business class - just 50,000 AAdvantage miles one-way
Cathay Pacific business class – just 55,000 AAdvantage miles one-way

…but you should sometimes still pay for a ticket. Even in business class.

Generally, there’s been a trend lately in airlines offering more reasonably-priced international business class fares. This isn’t always the case, but we’ve seen some really incredible fares over the last year or so:

My Virgin Atlantic lie flat bed... at $1,500 roundtrip
My Virgin Atlantic lie flat bed… at $1,500 roundtrip

In each of those instances, buying a ticket outright — while maybe not “cheap” in absolute terms — is infinitely preferable to redeeming miles for the following reasons:

  1. When you buy a ticket, you choose the dates, times, and routing. You can buy multiple tickets. You don’t have to worry about being flexible for award availability — the itinerary is on your terms.
  2. Paid business class tickets earn more miles (both redeemable miles and elite-qualifying miles, for those who care) than economy tickets, and on a longhaul trip, those miles can add up. You could get 20,000+ elite- and redeemable miles, or more, from such an itinerary. That’s huge. You could do a couple bargain-basement business class fares and earn elite status with any of the major airlines.
  3. The math works out. Yes, those fares are all well north of $1,000, but let’s use Delta SkyMiles as an example. A roundtrip award to Madrid, for instance, on Air France would cost you 125,000 miles plus a not insignificant amount of taxes and fees. Meanwhile, valued at 1.3 cents per mile, we’d see you “spent” $1,625 in miles on top of taxes and fees… or you could have just spent $1,450 or so and gotten a paid ticket on your own preferred schedule.

Of course, plenty of business class itineraries price out at $3,000 and above. First class itineraries cost $5,000 and up, at least. Very few of us can pay that out of pocket. Miles become the real value in these cases.

But, again, before you redeem 125,000 miles and up on an international business class redemption… check out this blog, search on FlyerTalk for cheap business class fares and look online. It may make more sense to pay for business class tickets in cash and use those miles for airline status and the perks that come with it.

Bottom Line

Miles and points really are a currency. Just as you wouldn’t spend $20 on a paper clip, you also shouldn’t spend 25,000 AAdvantage miles on a Phoenix-to-Salt Lake City roundtrip just because you have the miles and it seems “free” to redeem them.

There are legitimate reasons to use miles for domestic economy tickets, especially when traveling as a family and especially when paid tickets are prohibitively expensive. If you have a million miles to spend, by all means – this is a good use for them.

But if you’re reading this blog because you want to be sipping champagne on a flat bed over the Pacific Ocean, you ought to save those miles so you get a much better bang for your buck.


  1. Sometimes for a weekend getaway domestically its hard to justify $400 airfare (times 2 for 2 people), plus hotel and rental car and gas and restaurants/show.

    As a result, the weekend getaway simply does not happen if you’re looking at spending well over $1000 for just a weekend getaway.

    Having miles makes those quick weekend trips possible, several of them.

    Also, long-haul premium redemptions only work if you’re super flexible with your dates which isn’t possible for most people. Plus, unless you have a substantial bank of miles, you won’t find your round trip for two people on your ideal dates, so you’re looking at spending money atleast one-way still.

    Not everyone is a digital nomad or retired you know? Maybe look at it from other people’s perspective and see that redeeming domestically for weekends etc is really a very very very good use of miles.

    The same number of miles for long-haul premium will give you a proper vacation roundtrip – and no matter how good Krug is, at the end of the day its just a nice seat with drinks you can pay for elsewhere.

  2. @N These are all solid points, but they certainly aren’t universally applicable. It all depends on your priorities. Sure, $1,000 is steep for a weekend getaway, but if I can afford it I’d rather pay out of pocket and use miles for premium international (or transcon) travel.

    I could be getting lucky, but I’ve had a lot of luck getting exactly what I need for international premium travel. Last year, I went on my honeymoon (which had incredibly rigid dates, as you can imagine) in lieflat seats EWR-HNL-NRT-EWR. This year, I have to be in Germany on a Saturday for a wedding and can’t take Friday off, but was still able to get two business class tickets on Austrian leaving Friday night. Twice in the past two years I’ve also been able to get lieflat transcon on the dates I needed for a weekend getaway from NY to California, once on United and once on AA, for two. Again, I could just be getting lucky, but it seems like if you look often enough and have some flexibility in points currency you can pull it off.

  3. Long time reader here with a comment.

    “For example, at the lowest level of award availability — 25,000 miles roundtrip… you’d still want to pay for a ticket out of pocket if that same itinerary cost $400 on Alaska, $450 on American, $325 on Delta, or $350 on United.”

    This is what most mainstream bloggers advocate. While it may resonate with some, it’s terrible advice for me. This is only true if you can’t replenish your mileage balance easily. For me it’s fairly easy to obtain all the miles we need in a year, in that year, while maintaining a steady balance. I book all the flights and hotels for the family that our schedules will allow and we’re back to our starting balance at the end of the year. In this case I’d argue it doesn’t make sense to use cash, period, for anything that can be paid with miles.

  4. “In each of those instances, buying a ticket outright — while maybe not “cheap” in absolute terms — is infinitely preferable to redeeming miles for the following reasons”

    You’re kind of assuming someone has a few thousand lying around. I guess nobody should fly business class from the USA to Europe for their vacation unless they can afford a $1500-2000 plane ticket? If that represents a pretty large portion of your vacation budget, well, too bad, you prole, stick to other things like riding Greyhound?

    At some point the actual cost of things matters. If you’re using your miles to get things you normally would not be able to afford (like pretty expensive airplane tickets)… what’s the problem? If your goal is “well, I want to fly to Europe and not be squashed into tiny seats”… I don’t see why spending miles that presumably will eventually get devalued is less preferable than spending money you don’t have, or just not traveling because “well, it’s a bad redemption in cost per mile”.

    “You could do a couple bargain-basement business class fares and earn elite status with any of the major airlines.”

    Most (if not all) of the benefits of elite status are included with an international business-class fare. The place where elite status comes in most handy is when your ticket’s in the back of the plane. Also, getting sucked into the elite status rat race has pitfalls- what if this year’s business class deal’s on SkyTeam but your status is with Star? It might not also be possible to do multiple paid vacations where you’re dropping $3k on airfare, and doing business class “mileage runs” just to get the status so you can do more mileage runs so you can get the status so you can do… I don’t get the point. But I’m not an AV geek. I enjoy travel to visit people and places and I like some comfort, but not so much for travel’s sake…

  5. @Andrew F: 500K miles is more than enough to get your family of 4 to Europe in business class, so if you can’t afford $8,000 in discounted business class tickets, by all means use the miles! If the cost to acquire them is well under $8,000 (and it should be), you still come out way ahead of spending, say, $4,000 on economy class tickets to the same destination.

  6. Long-time Lurker here. First off, great article. I now understand the Airline FF point/mile value system and when to spend vs. redeem. Thank you for this.

    Second, Virgin America (VX) is coming to our neighborhood in HNL starting in November, and I’m looking to switch from HA to VX for transpac flights to the West Coast. In your article, you stated that VX has a different currency system from most other airline programs.

    Question: What would be the recommended method(s) to determine when to pay cash for a ticket vs. redeeming my existing VX Elevate points towards a transpac ticket from HNL?

    Also: What do you (or any other staff here at OMAAT) think of the VX Elevate program and its Elite tiers? Is this worth pursuing?

    Thank you for your help.

  7. It all depends on priorities. I spent 35000 miles roundtrip on a domestic economy roundtrip ticket when I had to be someplace with no advanced notice. Had I paid for it, my ticket would have cost $800 r/t!
    I personally don’t monetize my miles to 1.4 cents per mile or 1.8 cents per mile. Rather, I have a dream goal, let’s say flying Cathay Pacific First Class (this was my dream back when I was a kid and flew CX in economy transpacific). I then plan out a strategy on how to earn 62,500 AAdvantage miles. I rarely ever fly AA but I was able to earn those miles through one credit card signup and dining/shopping portal bonuses. It took me close to a year to earn those miles but I thought it was well worth it. Ok so if there was a mistake fare and it only costs less than $1000 to fly CX First from the USA to Hong Kong, then hellz yeah I would have paid for it! 😉

  8. Great post/great advice. You might want to mention OMAAT’s Avios strategy regarding short-haul travel in the US. Also, while I agree that the incremental cost of redeeming F vs. J tickets is well worth it the reality (at least for a lot of us) is that it is getting closer to impossible every day to find partner F availability on premium carriers. Not that this isn’t the best blog out there, but more reviews of long-haul business class products would be great.

  9. Looking at your AA Business/First AAnytime award chart above, you should have grabbed that 0K seat on Sept. 2!

  10. This is why you have to look for those really good deals.. For instance, I’m planning a trip from SEA – NRT RT in ANA 787 Business Class for 75K MR + ~$270… The normal fair for that same flight would be $5,545 which gives me a redemption rate of $0.07 a mile. That is worth it…

    Would also love to hear how the this specific route and cabin compares to others.

  11. This assumes everyone’s aspiration is to fly internationally. Mine is not. It’s to fly free, where ever, whenever I want to go. I bank American miles (mostly) because that’s what flies from my tiny regional airport and flights to and from small airports are typically always more expensive than a hub so often I get the ‘values’ you set as benchmarks. However, you point out…
    “Miles and points really are a currency. Just as you wouldn’t spend $20 on a paper clip, you also shouldn’t spend 25,000 AAdvantage miles on a Phoenix-to-Salt Lake City roundtrip just because you have the miles and it seems “free” to redeem them”

    I argue if that’s where I want to go and it’s a value TO ME and I’m not saving miles for anything else in the near future then I really don’t understand the logic to pay out of pocket and bank miles for a time that might never come or a point horde that may be devalued. This article mistakenly takes the ‘personal’ side out of the equation.

  12. Southwest is having a sale on its reward points right now. For 20,000 miles you get a bonus of 10,000 points. Well doing a quick check flying from Washington to Ft Lauderdale, it basically costs the same paying for the ticket as it does to purchase the needed miles on this 50% bonus deal. I’m not sure how the value for Southwest is 1.4 cents/point. Would you mind elaborating on the valuations?

    Great article! New reader btw….. Very excited to be here!

  13. Everyone criticizing this post because you don’t personally want to redeem for premium cabin travel are kind of missing the point. Just because you personally wouldn’t do something doesn’t change the premise of the post – that those are the most valuable redemptions. In many cases, international business class is less than double the amount of miles as economy class, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue that international business class is not twice as valuable as international economy.

    Also, I think it goes without saying that you should tailor all advice to your personal constraints and preferences. Does Nick really need to go out of his way to say that? Obviously if you never want to fly internationally, or sole goal is to ONLY fly for free, you should go ahead and do that! That doesn’t make anything that Nick is saying wrong, however.

    In conclusion, it’s perfectly fine if you choose to use your miles in a way that doesn’t maximize objective value. Clearly everyone’s personal value is going to be different, and only you know best what that value is. The point of Nick’s post is to try to place an objective value on miles and the best redemptions, and I think it does a good job of laying that out.

  14. When I started as a newbie my friend, like you, explained the virtue of international premium cabin being a better deal than a domestic redemption. However, I had 1 CC and was accruing miles very slowly, and when I finally hit the 25,000 mark I was just happy to finally fly for free.

    It isn’t until I learned more flew more, and earned more, that I appreciate the value of international premium and how much better value it is. When new people come ask me, I did what my friend used to do and try to explain the value of international premium, only to get the same reaction I used it give: Don’t care, just want that free ticket already.

    I finally realize that this is something everyone has a different value system for and that they need to progress at their own comfort level. I can talk to deal about the 135k Cathay First RT redemption, but to my friends that are just starting out with 30k sign on bonus and maybe 500 in spending a month, 135k is *years* away. They need a closer milestone, a low hanging fruit, to get a taste of the reward of the free travel first. Once they are sign of being a non-rev in economy for a while, the itch for premium cabin redemption will follow

  15. One comment—it may be worth it to use miles domestically in two other situations:
    1. Last-minute travel
    2. Alaska/Hawaii flights

    Example: I had to travel for a job interview within a week from ANC to ALB. It would have cost $1,200 in economy or $2,800 in First on United. I used 60,000 miles instead on a Saver award. Mostly because I didn’t have $1,200 to drop. For the roughly 12 hours of flying I had to do in either direction, it was worth it.

  16. @Nick

    Great article, and I cracked up with laughter when I read your comment “swanky airport lounges that make an Admirals Club look like a homeless shelter” 🙂

    And did you finally convert Ben, Nick, given the surprise statement Lucky made on his Australian TV appearance on “Sunrise” the other day, when he came out with the statement “Trust me, nobody wants to fly American Airlines”. Was not expecting that!

  17. Lucky,

    I have nearly 500,000 Emirates Miles. I fly Business Class Europe/Australia about 5 times a year. Every time I want to upgrade to 1st there are no seats available hence the accumulation of miles, also I am not convinced the difference between 1st and Business is worth the miles (~125k for two of the four legs). I feel that upgrading to 1st is the best way to “spend” the miles since I do not use hotels or want to fly elsewhere. Buying coach and upgrading to Business means lengthy waits (9 hours) between flights instead of the usual 2 hours wait.

    Even thought about selling the miles.

    Any suggestions on getting best value for the miles is upgrading the best stratergy?



  18. Oh dear! Can’t agree more with @Bob about some of the misguided aggro being put in the comments section here.

    Nowhere does Nick say “Verboten! You must only redeem points for Krug & Caviar First Class experiences or I will hunt you down and take your first-born to teach you a lesson for your impudence” (lol).

    Nick is simply trying to highlight that the points you earn are NOT FREE, you paid for ’em one way or another, and that when you are about to redeem points it’s always worth asking “Is this the best value for me?”. Nick clearly highlighted that even redeeming points on a short haul domestic *can* be good value for you given certain circumstances (so it’s misrepresents the whole article to suggest otherwise) but that this is something you should always evaluate before redemption. Far from pushing that First Class Krug and Caviar parties are de rigour for everyone!

    This post voices the same advice to look at the opportunity cost of points usage, as thousands of other articles, posts and blogs across the Internet. That is, points have a value, and you might as well make the best use of them as suits your needs just by exercising some consideration of the opportunity costs. If points are all you have, and you need that flight, then redeeming a short haul coach seat can be just right for you. But, in other circumstances, this can be a truly inefficient and poor option.

    Funny how some here have dreamt up that Nick is trying to force everyone to fit some imaginary mould, yet in argument have tried to do the same to everyone else. It goes without saying that the information put on OMAAT is general advice, and unless explicitly stated otherwise to you personally, is not direct advice tailored to to your individual needs, wants and circumstances. And I’ve yet to come across anything on OMAAT where I’ve been *ordered* to do anything, as some have inferred here (as if Nick has said you mustn’t redeem points for domestic flights!).

  19. Well said, arithmetic is not subjective. Just because you’d rather pay 25000 miles instead of $200 doesn’t make it a good idea. I redeem for domestic Y all the time, but never for less than 1.5¢/mile, even if they’re Skymiles.

  20. @Andrew F: “which if one is savvy enough can get one to about 500K miles per year”

    I get about 2x that without much trouble. All on sign up bonus. 20-25 cards is all it takes.

  21. Thank you for this. Despite a lot of the negative comments, I for one, wish I had this kind of advice and guidance when I started out with miles and points a few years ago. Now that I’m a bit more seasoned, I completely agree that paying for cheap flights, whether domestic or international, is a better strategy. I’m saving my miles for Cathay Business (doing this in November) and Etihad First Apartment (hopefully next year).

  22. I was looking to go from JFK to EZE. No saver awards available at all, so that would be 300,000 in business class, and its a recliner, not a lie-flat seat. I can by that ticket that business class seat for $2,400. I think that’s a pretty good deal even if it’s not lie-flat for a 10.5 hour flight. This is an example of when I would pay cash instead of using miles. I can always use miles to upgrade to first, but that’s not free either. I think it’s 25,000 miles plus $500+.

  23. As a United 1K (true for platinum as well I think), I can cancel award travel with zero fees. I can cancel at boarding time, and all miles, taxes and fees are refunded. If I’m traveling somewhere nice for work, I can book award travel for my wife, and she can decided to join me or not at the last minute. For me, this greatly increases the value of booking with miles, even for inexpensive tickets.

  24. Hi trying to justify if using miles makes sense JFK NY to GGT Georgetown, Bahamas
    Delta Miles 35,000 economy, Cash $543
    Delta comfort 45,000 miles cash $641
    Miles or Cash?

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