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Should You Book Your Next Trip With Points and Miles or Cash?

Find out how to get the most bang for your buck (or points).

Advertiser Disclosure: Most products in our articles are from partners who may provide us with compensation. However, opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain.

Anyone who earns travel rewards is faced with a constant choice: to redeem them or just pay cash for their travel reservations.

While this could seem like a simple decision, there are lots of factors you should consider if you want to achieve the maximum value of your points and miles while also saving as much money as possible.

When to Redeem Points and Miles for Travel

sleeping man

When you redeem your travel rewards points or miles, you can make reservations at little to no personal cost. This can help drive down the overall cost of your trip, but it’s not the only reason why you should consider using your points or miles more frequently.

Travel rewards points and miles lose value over time and don’t earn interest. Because of this, it doesn’t make sense to hold on to them for the long term, waiting in the hopes that you can redeem them for the best possible rewards sometime in the future. 

The Best Times to Use Points and Miles Instead of Cash

High-Value Point Redemption Opportunities: You can often receive the most value from your travel rewards when they’re redeemed for premium class international airline tickets at the lowest mileage levels. When you find these, you should always pull the trigger and unload your points and miles. These are tickets that often sell for $5,000, but cost less than 150,000 miles, giving you a value of over three cents per mile.

With hotels, the high values usually come during special events when rates are high and empty rooms are scarce. When you can book a room during these types of events, you can also receive value that’s far above average.  If you’re unsure how much your points and miles are worth, check out Slickdeal’s monthly valuation guide.  

Values are approximate, and you don’t have to always redeem your miles for more than these values, but they should give you a good place to start. 

Clearing Out Low Point Balances: You may have several relatively small balances of points and miles from credit cards you don’t use often, or from traveling with an airline or staying at a hotel chain infrequently. When you have a chance to redeem these small balances, you should do so, even if you aren’t receiving exceptional value.

When You’re Points-Rich: If you make it your hobby to earn as many points and miles as you can, then you may be what I call “points-rich.” This means you have enough points and miles to take care of your travel needs for the next year or two.

If that’s the case, then you shouldn’t continue to hoard points on the hope that you’ll eventually receive outstanding value from them. If you can receive average value, and you have enough rewards to last you another year or two, then it’s better to spend your rewards than to pay cash. 

Reasons to Pay Cash Instead

booking a flight online and selecting seats

Despite the allure of cashing in on travel rewards points and miles, it often makes more sense to pay for your travel reservations instead. Here are several situations where you would be better off paying for your trip in cash:

If You’ll Receive Poor Redemption Value: Many airline and hotel programs make it difficult to redeem your travel rewards for the most possible value. In some cases, travelers are even shown prices that are two or three times as much as the best available. Never redeem your rewards for terrible value. Instead, consult Slickdeals’ monthly valuation guide to get an idea of what your points and miles are worth.

When There are Low-Priced Alternatives:  Let’s say an airline is charging 25,000 miles for a round-trip ticket that’s selling for $500. This appears to give you two cents in value per mile redeemed, which can often be a good deal.

But if you check other the prices on other airlines, you might find a discount carrier that will fly you on a similar itinerary for just $250. Now that you know this, you have to conclude that you’re only receiving one cent in value per mile redeemed, which isn’t that great.

The point is you can’t just compare the value of your awards to what that airline is selling their tickets for, you must compare it to the price you would have paid if you shopped around. And if you can find very low-priced travel options, it’s often better to pay in cash rather than redeem your miles. 

Tax-Deductable Trips: If you’re a small business owner, then you should save your points and miles for your leisure travel. That’s because the cost of business travel is typically a tax-deductible expense. 

When You’re Trying to Earn Elite Status: With the airlines, you usually don’t earn elite status from award trips (Delta is an exception). So when you’re close to earning the next level of status, this is a good time to save your points and miles for another time. But with hotels, award stays usually count towards elite status, so this isn’t a factor. 

How to Get the Best of Both Worlds

Amazingly, it’s often possible to get all of the benefits of paying with cash when redeeming your points or miles. While many credit card rewards programs allow you to redeem your points directly for travel reservations, there are two that offer value that can approach what you would often receive from redeeming your miles. 

The Chase Ultimate Rewards program offers Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders 1.5 cents per point redeemed for travel reservations through Chase. And if you have an American Express Business Platinum Card, then you can receive a 35% rebate when you redeem your Membership Rewards points through Amex travel for business or first-class tickets. You can also receive this bonus when you use points to purchase economy class tickets with the carrier that you selected for your $200 annual fee rebate. This works out to 1.54 cents in value per point redeemed. 

But in either case, the airline tickets you receive will be the same as any other revenue ticket. So you can earn miles from the ticket, and credit towards elite status, just as if you had purchased them with cash. 

Bottom Line

Just as it’s important to earn as many points and miles as you can, it’s also critical that you spend your rewards wisely. By carefully considering when to redeem your rewards, and when to purchase your reservations, you can be sure to stretch your rewards and your dollars as far as possible. 

While we work hard on our research, we do not always provide a complete listing of all available offers from credit-card companies and banks. And because offers can change, we cannot guarantee that our information will always be up to date, so we encourage you to verify all the terms and conditions of any financial product before you apply.

Jason Steele
Jason Steele
Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.

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