My Travel Philosophy for Redeeming Miles vs. Paying Cash for Flights (w/ Account Balances as of March 2020)

Good morning everyone, happy Friday!  I just finished listening to the Miles to Memories podcast (latest episode) and enjoyed listening to them talk about Disney when they redeem miles vs. pay cash for flights.  I don’t have a hard and fast rule that I live by, so I thought it would be fun to share my travel philosophy of when I redeem miles vs. pay cash for flights.  I specifically mention flights because I plan to write a similar article about hotels and didn’t want to make this article too long.  Lastly, when I use the word cash, that could mean paying for the flight with a credit card, or paying with an airline gift card, or using credit card rewards to pay for the flight – basically anything other than booking an award ticket with airline miles.

I also think it is important to share how many credit card reward points I have, since my thinking would be much different if I had 1,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points vs. 1 million Chase Ultimate Reward Points.  With that said, here are my transferable points balances, as of March 2020, from smallest to largest:

I also think it’s important to share how many airline miles I have, since my thinking would be much different if I had 20,000 miles vs. 2 million miles.  With that said, here are my airline miles, as of March 2020, from smallest to largest:

  • Less than 1K miles: Air Canada, Avianca, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Airlines (also sitting on $400 of Delta eGift Cards), Singapore Airlines, and any other airline not listed below
  • 2K Qantas Airlines
  • 3K Southwest Airlines (also sitting on $75 of Southwest Airlines eGift Cards)
  • 4K United Airlines
  • 11K JetBlue (points pooled between my family)
  • 15K Alaska Airlines
  • 15K Turkish Airlines (small transfer from Citi to search for award flights to Hawaii)
  • 21K American Airlines
  • 43K Korean Airlines (earned in September 2016)
  • 48K Virgin Atlantic (earned in September 2017)

As you can tell, I am not sitting on a large stash of airline miles.  My 2 largest balances are with Korean Airlines and Virgin Atlantic since I haven’t found a good use of the miles yet after earning the miles from credit card sign up bonuses 2+ years ago.  My account balance with American Airlines was at 61K miles a few days ago, but I decided to redeem 40,000 miles for 2 domestic flights since I haven’t flown American Airlines in 1.5 years or found a decent use for those miles over that span.

With all that said, my travel philosophy diverges depending on if I am booking a domestic flight vs. international flight.  For Domestic flights, I check Google Flights and try to find the best flight for my schedule – preferably nonstop flights from SFO or OAK and departing Friday evening between 5-8pm after work.  Depending on the destination, there may be 2-3 possible flights.  I will check for award flights, but 90% of time, the award will either not be available or only available with standard (non saver) availability.  After completing my award searches, I check to see if I have any airline gift cards or travel credits to use.  After that, I tend to redeem my Citi Thank You Points for paid travel at 1.25 CPP.  Between having 3 Citi AT&T Access More cards, a Citi Double Cash, and a Citi Rewards+, I tend to earn lots of Citi Thank You Points every month.  And by having the Citi Premier, I can book travel at 1.25 CPP.  Now that my US Bank FlexPerks account balance is worth ~$120, I plan to use these points up for my next ~$120 flight.

Even though I could get more value by redeeming Chase Ultimate Reward Points for 1.5 CPP, I highly cherish my points and prefer to transfer them to Hyatt to book award stays.  Lastly, even though I could get 1.54 CPP with my American Express Membership Reward Points, the process of getting the 35% rebate is a pain and I prefer to transfer points to airline partners instead.

For international flights, I am usually looking for business class award tickets and have some flexibility in terms of departure dates, times, and airports.  The flexibility comes in very handy since I use Juicy Miles to find the best award seats available.  After finding a few award flight options, I like to double check the award space directly with the airline to confirm that the price and flight details are correct.  I will then check Google Flights to see what paid flights cost (just in case there is some mistake fare where flights are only a hundred bucks or something).  I put a premium on the ability to instantly transfer credit card rewards to airline partners, so I don’t mind redeeming a few extra miles if I can transfer and book an award ticket in a few minutes.  At that point, I will log into my transferable point programs and initiate the transfer to the airline.  Since I have so many American Express Membership Reward Points, I prefer to use those points first.  If that airline does not partner with American Express, I will use Citi Thank You Points.  If that still isn’t possible, I will use my Chase Ultimate Rewards Points as a last resort.

So long story short, I prefer to pay for domestic flights using airline gift cards, or airline travel credits, or redeem credit card rewards for paid tickets.  For international flights, I tend to search for award tickets and transfer points directly to the airline.  Occasionally, some international flights are with airlines that do not have award flights or participate in airline alliances.  In those cases, I will use credit card rewards to pay for the flight.  If the airline is not bookable with credit card rewards, I will book the flight directly with the airline and pay with my Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x Ultimate Reward Points and have travel protection (just in case).

If you have any questions about my travel philosophy for booking flights, please leave a comment below.  Have a great weekend everyone!

5 thoughts on “My Travel Philosophy for Redeeming Miles vs. Paying Cash for Flights (w/ Account Balances as of March 2020)

  1. Chris Smith

    Hey Grant. I really appreciate your step by step explanation. There are a lot of great miles & points pros out there but they often use a ton of jargon and acronyms and assume their readers are up to speed on all of it. Thanks for the clarity & great examples.

    1. Grant Post author

      You’re very welcome Chris. I appreciate your comment. I thought this post would be more popular (based on pageviews and comments), but I still plan on writing about my travel philosophy regarding hotels, so stay tuned for that post in the next week.


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