A better way to combine money and miles when flying

Photo courtesy of Greg Williams

 

With the discussion about using connecting cities to find better award availability when flying, I thought I would highlight another option for maximizing travel options and minimizing cost.

I call it the DIY Money and Miles option.

Money and miles

You can redeem frequent flyer miles for awards, but that may not be the best use of them. For example, I don’t recommend redeeming miles for domestic round-trip coach travel, mainly because you’re usually not getting a very good value as with, say, international coach.

(One exception to this rule is during the holidays, since the number of miles usually remains constant, while the cost can skyrocket, in which case it becomes a better deal.)

Some airlines (such as American and Alaska) offer a “Money and Miles” option. This is where you use miles to offset a ticket purchase. This can be a useful option if you have some miles, but not enough for a full trip. And the you still earn miles on the flight, which you wouldn’t on a straight award ticket.

But the big problem here with this is that you don’t usually get a lot for your miles when you use Money and Miles. The way to quantify this is to calculate how many cents each mile gets you.

For example, on a recent search on Alaska (I used an area search of San Francisco to New York City), I found ticket prices in July for about $600 round trip. Using the “Money and Miles” option, I found flights listed as $500+10,000 miles or $400+20,000 miles. So:

  • In the first case, 10,000 saves you about $100, so you’re getting 1 cent per mile (1 cpm).
  • In the second case, 20,000 miles saves you $200, or once again, 1 cpm.
Miles on my money and my money on my...sorry.

Miles on my money and my money on my…sorry.

Either way, it’s not a great rate. Compare it to this trip to Buenos Aires, where a $900 one-way flight went for 20,000 miles (or 4.5 cpm).

And besides, a round trip ticket using just miles is only 25,000 miles (2.4 cpm), so why in the world would would you use 20,000 miles and tack on $400 extra dollars?

But if you still want to use a combination of money and miles, don’t fret. There’s a better option.

Money and miles (the savvy way)

Simply put, if you want to use both money and miles for a ticket, buy one way with money, and the other way with miles.

Which one to pick for each? Find the one that gets you the better deal (money), or has the best availability (miles).

Case in point: talking about my trip to Montreal, getting there was relatively inexpensive (sub-$300), but getting home was $400+. And we know that miles are going to be 12,500 each way, so that’s not a concern. The only concern then is the award availability.

As mentioned, it was tricky to find a good award flight home. But it was also tricky to find a good award flight out, so I was kind of stuck either way, so I decided to split it: buy the outbound ticket with money, and use miles on the return ticket.

My flight out was $280 and my flight back was 12,500 miles plus $70 in taxes, for a grand total of $350+12,500 miles. Considering that the full fare flight would have been $700, this means that I got a value of ($700 – $350) / 12,500 = 2.8 cpm. Which is pretty good.

It should be mentioned that not every airline allows one-way awards. Delta doesn’t, for example, and neither does the soon-not-to-exist US Airways. So if you want to fly on these airlines, this trick won’t work for you. Also, I will only earn miles on the way out, not on both legs, like I would with a traditional Money and Miles option.

But even accounting for all this, the DIY Money and Miles option gives you the most flexibility and allows you the potential to save the most money (and the most miles). Try it the next time you want to combine money and miles.

Have you tried booking your trips with both money and miles? What was your experience? If you have questions about booking award flights, let me know and I’ll see if I can help!

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on May 14, 2015
  • mpinard

    I did this by accident- the first money and miles option, not the more efficient one-way one!- on my latest trip. Great explanation of how to get the most bang for your buck, which I will use next time 🙂

    • Heh great! Anyway, it’s hard to tell if you really got swindled, as you need to compare what you paid with what you could have paid, which is pretty time-sensitive. But chances are next time you’ll get a better deal.