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Lately, I have been giving some serious thought to my miles and points strategies.
After attending Family Travel for Real Life 6 last year and listening to Jason Steele sing the praises of plain ol’ cash back, I’ve tried to make sure I do a better job deciding whether to “invest” in miles, flexible points or straight up cash. Jason went as far as to say that “cash back is the new black”, suggesting that this should be people’s focus, given the number of good options on the table.
I’m not quite sold that far, but I definitely did see his point. There are a couple cards that can give 2-3% cash back, and some with category bonuses that are even a bit higher. The first couple cards that come to mind are the Discover It Miles (really just cash back for travel) and the Alliant Visa Signature card. Both offer a 3% return on all purchases their first year. Alliant after that is 2.5% on everything.
Yet I’m still split between cash and flexible points since flexible points are, well…flexible. Given the number of programs out there that give you very good return for flexible points when booking “cash” tickets (the Amex 35% business Platinum rebate, BarclayCard Arrival+ miles, FlexPerks), focusing on points that can be used for cash or transferred to partners for booking awards seems best. As economy airfare continues to be very reasonable, you can often get a better deal using the UR portal for booking flights rather than converting into partner miles (SEE: The folly and fallacy of using miles for economy tickets).
Even so, earning 1.5 UR on everything and using them through the Chase Travel portal for an overall return of 2.25% still falls short of 2.5% cash back with Alliant. In any case, both tend to beat earning a straight 1 mile per dollar on an airline card. So here are 3 reasons to focus more (or all) of your spending on cash back cards or flexible point cards (that you can use to book cash airfare) rather than on airline co-branded, mile earning cards:
Transferrable points and cash are soooo flexible
This is the best perk of holding lots of cash back for travel or having flexible points you can use to book a ticket. First, you aren’t held hostage by changing or limited award space. You also aren’t limited to the one airline with which you have miles. Instead of having to book a SFO-DFW-LGA ticket with American airlines miles the day after your ideal travel day and flying through the night on a red-eye in a middle seat, you can book a nonstop SFO-EWR ticket on United at a convenient time, potentially using a similar number of total points. The flexibility of transferrable points and cash back cannot be understated.
SEE: The difference between “points” points and “cash” points (and why it’s important)
Cash back and transferable points also keep you from burning points for poor value. I am one of those people that tends to hoard points and miles, always holding out for the better redemption that will be coming down the road. Flexible points let me pick the lowest cost airline (well…maybe not Allegiant) and save more of my points. Sure, you don’t get the massive value you would if booking business class, but if 70,000 UR can fly your family of five on a vacation round-trip rather than just you one-way to Europe in business, it’s probably the better decision.
If I can use my cash back or use points that are valued proportionally to the amount I’d pay in cash and still at a reasonable value, I’ll gladly burn them. For a $209 fare to Chicago from SFO, I could use a mere 13,933 Chase UR points if I have the Sapphire Reserve and redeem through the travel portal at 1.5 cents each. Sure, it’s not the 5+ cents per point I can get for business class, but it’s waaay better than 25,000 Unites miles. In addition…
You can double dip
The cool part is that even though I’m flying on an “award” ticket in the above example to Chicago, I’ll be earning miles! It is an award in my mind because I’m using credit card rewards to fly for “free”, yet the ticket is a revenue ticket, so the airline will credit me miles for the flight. Sure, this particular flight won’t ear a lot, but every bit helps. I like to use WhereToCredit to figure out where I’ll earn the most miles.
Keep this in mind when booking a flight. For example, I could book a nonstop flight on Alaska from the Bay Area to Hawaii (couple different options) for about $450 a few months out on Alaska Airlines (30,000 UR points at 1.5 cents each through the portal). This ticket would also cost 25,000 British Airways Avios if there is saver award space.
It would appear that the better option is transferring to Avios. But you forget that the flight will earn you about 5,000 Alaska miles if booked through the portal. Now it’s a harder decision. Personally, I’d still burn the Avios since I value Chase UR for other things, but it definitely makes you consider a bit more. Given that we’ve seen $300 fare sales to Hawaii, burning 20,000 UR versus 25,000 Avios would definitely win.
Return is often the same (or better) for economy tickets
This isn’t always true, but it hearkens back to the point about flexibility. With all the fare sales, it really doesn’t make sense to use miles to fly economy (Again, SEE: The folly and fallacy of using miles for economy tickets). Of course, this isn’t true in *all* cases. But it is worth doing the math before transferring your points and booking an award ticket.
As an example, consider a $618 SFO-BKK Air China fare that I found on Google a while back. I could book this ticket through Priceline for 61,800 Arrival+ “miles” or 49,400 Chase UR (assuming a rate of 1.25 cents per mile) through the UR portal. The Arrival+ option is on par with most airlines award charts between the U.S. and southeast Asia. My one hesitation would be the loss of flexibility to use those points for non-air travel spend.
The UR portal redemption is hands-down better. There isn’t a UR partner to which I could transfer those points to book the trip more cheaply. The only big “if” here is whether or not I actually want to fly Air China rather than another carrier.
Additionally, the ticket is in fare class L. Using WhereToCredit, I found that I could credit this flight to Avianca Lifemiles, earning 100% redeemable miles and 100% status miles for the trip! Or I could credit at 70% to Asiana Club, another lucrative program.
So…for my 61,800 “miles” (or 49,400 UR points), I’ll actually earn just shy of 16,000 redeemable miles, which is nearly enough for a one-way ticket to Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean. Suddenly, the return is looking even better! My “net” cost for the UR option (if you’ll permit me to compare apples and oranges) is about 33,000 miles round-trip.
Miles certainly have their place
Don’t get me wrong…I’m a huge fan of collecting airline miles. I’m even partial to certain programs (SEE: 5 reasons I prefer collection miles with StarAlliance programs). But I’m realizing that I need more flexible points (or cash back) available to be able to jump on some of the insane fare sales we’ve seen. And simply to be able to have options to get us where we want to go.
There will always be a sweet spot for miles. If you want to fly business or first class, using airline miles for an award ticket are overwhelmingly the way to go. If you want to fly economy, however, consider leveraging you non-miles options if the routes are competitive. There are certainly cases where burning miles on economy tickets make a ton of sense, typically when you’re booking a destination that is always expensive.
So…do the math for yourself for your next travel plans. Consider the average cost of an economy ticket and figure out if it is actually worth collecting miles versus saving flexible points or cash-back and booking through a portal or OTA. Both have their place, but more and more I find that flexible points and cash back are the way to go for the economy flier.
My only issue this year is that I am trying to use my Delta Platinum American Express card enough to meet the MQD waiver. I’d much rather have UR than Skypesos.