Now that you’ve saved up thousands of miles/points for your summer vacation, do you ever stop to consider strategies for stretching them the farthest? Or do you just book the flights you want and pay whatever it costs?
A new study from personal finance website NerdWallet suggests that the value of your points/miles can vary considerably depending on whether you book economy vs. premium class, one-way or roundtrip flights, and how long your flight is.
For instance, the study found that frequent flyer points (NerdWallet refers to both points and miles as “points” for consistency) are worth significantly more for domestic travel when you book an economy seat as opposed to business or first class – unless your flight is a long one.
Points used to book domestic roundtrip flights in economy were worth 1.03 cents for travel during peak periods, or 1.08 cents for off-peak, NerdWallet found, while the corresponding values for premium seats were 0.83/0.86 cents.
“If you prefer to fly business, you might want to pay cash, or save your points for an international and/or one-way flight,” NerdWallet said.
However, the study also found a big discrepancy in point values for booking premium cabins based on flight distance. On flights of less than 1,000 miles, points had an average value of 0.72 cent, vs. 1.13 cents for flights longer than 1,000 miles – a difference 10 times larger than that for economy flights.
Another finding that might seem counter-intuitive is that you get more for your miles/points when you book one-way flights vs. roundtrips.
In 62 percent of the trips that NerdWallet studied, one-way flights had higher point values than round-trips. “In most cases, if you’re paying with points, the price of a one-way trip is half the cost of a round trip. When paying with cash, however, one-way generally costs more than half the price of a round-trip ticket. Therefore, per-point values are higher when flying one-way,” the company said.
See full Nerdwallet study here.
“The trip will likely cost the same number of points overall. But you’ll have flexibility, allowing you to go home earlier or later than you planned, or continue your adventure in another city or country,” said NerdWallet’s Sean McQuay.
For domestic trips, the average point value for one-way flights was 1.21 cents, vs. 0.99 cents for roundtrips (the average for all classes of service). The gap was even greater for international travel – a value of 1.15 cents for one-way travel vs. 0.89 for roundtrips.
To determine the value of your points for a specific trip, divide the cash price by the number of points required; you’ll generally get a result somewhat higher or lower than 1 cent per point. “As a simple rule of thumb, if the value of each point is less than 1 cent, use cash and keep your points for a higher-value opportunity,” McQuay said.
But he adds that there are times when it’s a better strategy to pay with points/miles even if their value is relatively low. One time is when your points/miles are nearing expiration. Another is in the event you might have to change or cancel your flight – because change fees for tickets bought with cash are generally much higher than those for tickets paid with points.
Readers: What’s the best “deal” you’ve snagged on an award trip? Please leave your comments below.
In the market for a new credit card? See our “Credit Card Deals” tab to shop around! It helps us help you.