When’s the right time to use those coveted miles? Spoiler alert: there isn’t one right answer. The main consideration is the cents per point value of award tickets, but there are a variety of other factors to consider:
Frequency of travel–How many chances do you have to use points?
Points accrual–How quickly do you accumulate travel rewards (from credit cards, travel, or other sources)?
Budget–How much money are you willing/able to spend on a trip or plane tickets?
Elite status–Do you have a chance of earning status with a frequent flier program this year?
To determine the cents per mile value of an award ticket, use this formula:
(Cost of revenue ticket) minus (fees on award ticket) divided by (award points needed) times (100) = cents per point value
Here’s an example: a revenue ticket from ATL to SFO costs $388.20 or you can purchase the same flight for 25,000 Skymiles plus $11.20 in fees.
The value would be ($388.20 – $11.20) / 25,000 = .015 x 100 = 1.5 cents/point.
On a basic level, you’re aiming to find the most expensive ticket for the least number of points to optimize the award value. The Points Guy publishes a monthly list of what he thinks points and miles are worth. It’s a good baseline to use for determining whether or not you should buy an award ticket. This month, he has Delta Skymiles valued at 1.2 cents/point, so getting 1.5 cents/point on the San Fransisco tickets isn’t bad for a domestic economy ticket. It’s worth noting that international and/or business class tickets often have a better award value, but you have to have enough points for that to be a possibility in the first place.
Once you’ve figured out the value of your potential ticket, it’s time to look at the other factors:
Frequency of travel–Is this the only flight you’re planning to take this year? Are you foregoing a chance to use these points at a better value for a different trip? If don’t have any other potential trips on the calendar, it might be best to go ahead and use your points at a decent value. Airlines frequently have reward program devaluations, so you don’t want to hoard points for too long (or they might lose value).
Points accrual–If you can barely scrape together enough points for one flight, you’ll understandably want to be more thoughtful about your decision to spend them. If you have tons of points pouring in from work travel, credit card rewards, or other avenues, you might be less sensitive about waiting for a really good value redemption.
Budget–Sometimes your budget can’t accommodate the cost of plane tickets, so it doesn’t matter whether or not an award ticket has a good redemption value. In that case, the value comes from being able to go on the trip at all. Or perhaps buying your plane ticket(s) on points will free up budget money to stay at a fabulous hotel.
Elite status–You don’t earn points when you purchase an award ticket, so there’s an opportunity cost beyond the points that you’re using. If you purchase a revenue/paid ticket, you earn points that help you reach elite status. If there’s a chance you might earn status with a frequent flier program, it could be worth paying for your ticket to progress toward those elite benefits.
Now you’re equipped with the value formula and factors to consider, and it’s up to you to do your own cost-benefit analysis. Best of luck, and happy traveling!