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I don’t consider myself a super fancy guy in general.  Yes, I have flown first class around the world (on JAL and Emirates first class), and we just got back from flying LAN Business class to Peru.  On really long or overnight flights, having a lie flat bed is super awesome (though I have tips to survive a red eye in economy), but for most flights, I’m really quite fine flying in the back of the plane.  Here I am on my last red eye – getting ready to try and catch some shuteye

a man wearing a red hoodie and sunglasses

Recently, a few examples have really underscored how bad most miles and points redemptions are for economy travel, and I thought I’d share some of my findings.

Example 1: US to Sweden

My son and I are planning a trip to Sweden for later this summer.  I scoured fare deals for awhile but finally ended up finding a roundtrip cash ticket for about $550.

a screenshot of a flight schedule

If I wanted to book this as an award ticket with United, it would cost me 60,000 United miles (US to Europe one way in economy is 30,000).  Instead, I used 30,000 US Bank FlexPerks flex points (before they change their program later this year).  Even adding 10,000 miles per person for positioning flights from CVG to EWR, that’s still a way better deal than 60,000 United miles, unless you have United miles to burn.

Another way to think about it is looking at it in terms of Chase Ultimate Rewards cost.  If you don’t have a stash of United miles, you might be transferring your Chase points to United.  In that case, an award flight booked with United would cost 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards (transferred to United).  Compare that with booking your $547 flight through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, which would cost 43,760 UR if you have a Sapphire Preferred or Ink card, or 36,467 if you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve.  I’m not saying this is the best use of Ultimate Rewards, but it would be better than transferring them to United

[Why it pays to check the Ultimate Rewards portal before transferring points]

Keep in mind that if you book the cash ticket (even with Chase points), you’ll also EARN miles on your flight.

One other thing to consider is that with an award ticket, you could potentially add on additional connecting / positioning legs, open jaws or take advantage of the United excursionist perk.

a group of tickets on a purple surface

Even an AMAZING points deal fails

After I shared an example of the amazing lie flat business class availablility to South America, a commenter suggested one sweet spot was the LAN flight from New York to Guayaquil Ecuador (JFK-GYE).  Because of British Airways’ distance-based award chart and the fact that JFK-GYE comes in at just under 3000 flown miles, it only costs 12,500 Avios to fly one-way, or 25,000 Avios roundtrip

Again, comparing this to booking cash flights through the Chase portal, 25,000 Avios for a roundtrip ticket is equivalent to a $312.50 or $375 roundtrip cash ticket.  That would be a good deal, but not an unheard of deal, given the cheap cash fare deals we’ve seen lately

Perhaps a few exceptions to this rule

Of course, any “rule” worth its salt wouldn’t be a rule if there weren’t a few exceptions, right?  When cash tickets are incredibly expensive for various reasons, like close-in or one-way tickets or

Here are a few times where I’ve felt like I’ve gotten a pretty good return on my miles, even flying economy

  • We flew our family of 8 on Delta from Cincinnati to Sacramento with an open jaw returning to Cincinnati from San Francisco.  This cost 22,000 miles roundtrip (times 8), compared to cash tickets over $400. (SEE ALSO: How our family of 8 stayed a week in California for under $600)
  • After we took the Amtrak Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle, we flew back to Cincinnati again on Delta.  The nonstop tickets were again 11,000 miles each (again, times 8) whereas the nonstop cash tickets were near $250.  We could have flown with stops for cheaper it is true, but with miles being (relatively) cheap, it was worth the premium
  • Speaking of Delta, I am currently looking at going from Cincinnati to Salt Lake City at the end of September for my 20th mission reunion.  Cash tickets are ranging around $400 for the flights I’d prefer, or I can spend anywhere from 22,000 to 29,000 miles

I’ve also made what I might classify as “mistakes”, such as when I used 20,000 US Airways miles to fly from Cincinnati to Miami instead of either using Avios for a direct flight or paying cash.

And of course, the whole “point” of points and miles is to get you where you want to go for as cheap as you can.  So don’t let me or anyone else tell you that any redemption is a “bad” redemption.  If it gets you to where you want to go, and you’re happy, then go for it!  Plus, with signup bonuses being one of the best ways to get a lot of points, it’s easier to get a lot of miles and points than it is to get a ton of cashback bonuses.

What are your thoughts?  When (if ever) does it make sense to use miles and points for economy tickets?

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