A point hoarder’s approach to booking domestic flights

In the post “Opportunistic hoarding vs. earning and burning,” I described my approach to earning points, miles, and cash back.  I earn opportunistically based on the best available deals at the time.  I wrote:

100,000 AA miles for signing up for a credit card?  Yep, sign me up.  Over 20 points per dollar by shopping at Sears through the Southwest Rapid Rewards portal?  Cool, I’ll do my online shopping there.  3000 Club Carlson points for a 20 minute survey?  OK, why not?  3% cash back plus credit card rewards for buying Amex gift cards?  You bet.  5% cash back from buying gift cards at drug stores and grocery stores?  Absolutely.

So, now, given the fact that I’ve gathered lots of points in many different programs, let me describe a recent real-life example of my approach to booking a domestic flight…

My goal was to fly from Detroit to Las Vegas for a specific weekend in September.  My preferences, when flying domestically are:

  • Use as few points and/or as little cash as possible.
  • Fly non-stop, if possible, and at reasonable times (i.e. avoid 7 am flights and red-eyes).
  • Prefer Delta over others because my Platinum elite status gives me perks such as free economy comfort seating, free chance of an upgrade to first class, free drinks, priority boarding, etc.
  • Avoid Spirit Airlines (because I’m a snob?).

Based on certain constraints (including not wanting to fly Spirit), the best available flight was over $500.  Given that, this would have been a good candidate for a saver level round trip 25K award.  So, I checked Delta, AA, and United for one-way awards to Vegas, and then one way awards back to Detroit.  None had saver awards available that met my schedule.  I could have watched and waited for awards to open up (as they often do as you get closer to the date of departure), but with only about a month to go I wanted to lock in my flights.

For what its worth, Kayak said it was time to buy:

KayakPriceTrendDTWLAS

Next, I looked at Southwest.  Southwest’s “Wanna Getaway” fares were available for just over 13,000 points each way.  The flight times for the outbound route didn’t meet my needs, but the return looked good.  I went ahead and booked the return for 13,284 Southwest Rapid Rewards points.

For the outbound leg, I found that Delta had a $220-ish one way non-stop flight that met my needs perfectly timing-wise.  So, I logged onto my Citi ThankYou account and booked the flight with points.  Due to having a Citi ThankYou Premier card, my ThankYou points are worth 1.25 cents each towards flights.  So, my total cost for the outbound leg was 17,587 ThankYou points.  That was only 4,000 points more than Southwest’s option (which didn’t work for me, anyway, time-wise) and I’ll earn about 3500 Delta SkyMiles for this flight (as a Platinum elite I earn bonus miles above the base earnings of 1 SkyMile per mile flown).

Now that the trip was set, I took another look at the return leg.  One way prices were over $300.  This, of course, made me think about my US Bank FlexPerks points.  FlexPerks has a stepped award chart as follows:

Ticket Price Range

FlexPoints Required

$0 to $400           20,000
>$400 to $600           30,000
>$600 to $800           40,000
>$800 to $1000           50,000
>$1000 to $1400           70,000
>$1400 to $2000         100,000
>$2000 to $3000         150,000
>$3000 to $4500         225,000
>$4500 to $7000         350,000
>$7000 to $10,000         500,000

As you can see above, the best value redemptions are those where the ticket price is near the top of the range.  So, flights that costs just under $400, just under $600, just under $800, etc. are good candidates for using FlexPoints.

I considered dropping my Southwest flight in favor of using 20,000 FlexPoints for a paid Delta flight (which would earn both redeemable miles and elite qualifying miles), but decided that the extra 6,700 points weren’t worth it.  But then I had an interesting thought… 

I wondered how much a paid first class ticket would be.  The answer: $387.10.  Now, that was interesting.  For 20,000 FlexPoints I could buy a first class ticket on Delta.  Thanks to the class of service, I would earn even more redeemable and elite qualifying miles (MQMs) than on the outbound.  And, for a 4 hour flight, I’ll get decent value from the first class seat and in-flight meal.  Sold!  I booked the Delta first class return and cancelled my Southwest reservation.

Wrap Up

I certainly could have spent fewer total points for this trip, but I’m pretty happy with the results:

  • Outbound: Nonstop mile-earning Delta flight with economy comfort secured and a reasonable chance of an upgrade to first class.
  • Return: Nonstop mile-earning Delta flight, in first class.
  • Total cost: 37,587 points (17,587 ThankYou points + 20,000 FlexPerks points)

An alert reader might notice that I could have done even better (sans the confirmed first class return) by using 30,000 FlexPerks points to book a sub $600 round-trip flight.  Unfortunately I’ve only recently begun hoarding those particular points so I didn’t have enough in-pocket for this option and, truthfully, didn’t even think about it until after booking the outbound flight with ThankYou points.

When booking shorter flights, I put less weight on the advantages of economy comfort and first class.  In those cases, I look first to see if I can make use of British Airways’ incredible distance based award chart (see “Big Wins”).  Then, if that’s not available, I cycle through the other options. 

Also note that in the text above I glossed over the differential value of various types of points.  In general, if you highly value one type of point system over others, you might not choose to use it for a domestic flight even if it would cost fewer points than other options.  For example, suppose you could use 25,000 American Airlines miles for a round trip flight like this, but you’re saving up those miles for a premium cabin international award.  In that case, it would make sense to use other points or miles or even cash rather than use up your valuable AA miles.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Comments

  1. Great use of FlexPoints. Now, how will you utilize your $25 flexperks credit/rebate (since you’re flying first class and drinks, food, baggage are included? Based on DeltaPoints, he tends to buy $50 delta certificates on the day of the flight, and therefore gets $25 credited back. Other ideas?

    • Good question! Delta certs aren’t worth much to me since I usually pay with points one way or another. Maybe on the day of the flight I’ll try buying a “Trip Extra” to see if they’ll reimburse that.

  2. You made a HUGE mistake! You could have transferred 19,200 Southwest points to AirTran and then transferred them back. That would have gotten you a roundtrip award redeemable to anywhere that Southwest flies. That trick only works until November 1, 2014 when the AirTran program goes away.

    • The problem with this the roundtrip awards on Southwest is that they are not always available – in fact I have found them to be rarely available, and you can’t search if a particular route has availability until you have a roundtrip award (RR 1.0) in your account.

  3. It appears that you were able to use Flex Perks points on a one-way ticket. I didn’t know that was possible. Live and learn!

  4. Did you convert UR to get SW points? I’m always hesitant to only get 1.7¢ in redemption value for my UR when I can easily exceed that by using them as Hyatt points.

  5. How a not point hoarder books domestic flights.

    We tend to fly Southwest with the kids, the AirTran transfer and back trick needs a warning, there are blackout dates and limited seats for the type of award you end up with. Check availability for the specific award type (I’m forgetting what it is called) before you do the transfers!

    I needed last minute flights for four people to get to a sick Grandma’s bedside (and as it turns out, memorial service). Found out Monday that she was sick, got ok from boss to leave as soon as possible by late Tuesday. Flying from small airport to very small airport. Delta had direct flights but I had no delta points available (I know!). The 4 seats and fairly constrained time frame was very limiting.

    Options:
    Pay about $840 RT per person on Delta. Best times and most direct flights.
    Southwest 40,000 pts (about) RT. I would be transferring in from UR. That’s an awful lot of UR points.
    AA SaVVer award, coach there, business home with Citicard discounts. It got us there not too late Wednesday which was the best option. Getting home was a convoluted go wrong direction for three hours then go towards home, then wait three hours at an airport about three hours from home, and finally arrive home 13 hours after arriving at first airport.

    I picked AA because I could book it on the spot w/o needing to transfer points and I had an extra 110,000 points (extra as in not ear marked for anything). Flight there was 8,750 per person and home was 21,750 (ouch) for Business class (no SaVVer coach seats, the SaVVer business seats were less than the non SaVVer coach seats due to Citicard discount). 122000 miles and $344 for close in booking and tax. Not too bad, thanks to Citibank!

    • Well, I don’t claim to be a hoarder in the sense of not being willing to give up points. It was more my way of describing someone who happily grabs whichever type of points are easiest to get at any given time. I have a huge stash of ThankYou points so I’m not worried about missing out on a potential Singapore redemption or two.

  6. A point hoarder will have points in all programs and depending on his level of hoarding would only spend with the program he had most of, or valued least.
    A earner burner approach would take the most direct flight with the best times for you and figure out which points to use to get it…..even if it was not the most economical use of points, it is the best flight. Winning is using the points and getting more, if you have a big total in a program use it for first class when needed (and don’t feel guilty) Inspirational awards aside there is no reason to hoard huge totals and pay out of pocket or use points for flights with bad times or stopovers when traveling elsewhere.

  7. hi FM
    I started playing miles and points game in 2012 (a bit late). but I am Ok now, have about 600K points on AA, Chase UR, SPG etc. My next desire is to get elite status i.e. Platinum on AA or united or Diamond in Hyatt. I do not travel a lot, so is there any way I can get elite status with just credit card spend ? or is there a credit card (say amex platinum) which gives automaic elite status , that is really worth the annual fee
    Thanks!
    Raghu

    • With airlines, only Delta offers a way to get meaningful elite status through credit card spend. With hotels, many cards will give you automatic mid-tier status. Of those, the most useful are Hilton Gold status (from the Hilton Reserve card or the Hilton Surpass card); and Ritz Carlton Gold status which is equivalent to Marriott Gold status (from the Ritz Carlton credit card). Hyatt offers the easiest path toward top tier status with their Diamond Trial. See this post: http://frequentmiler.boardingarea.com/2014/02/11/chasing-diamond-qa/

  8. hi FM
    At the outset thanks for all the education and congrats on the best blogger award in the miles/points category. I started playing miles and points game in 2012 (a bit late). but I am Ok now, have about 600K points on AA, Chase UR, SPG etc. My next desire is to get elite status i.e. Platinum on AA or united or Diamond in Hyatt. I do not travel a lot, so is there any way I can get elite status with just credit card spend ? or is there a credit card (say amex platinum) which gives automaic elite status , that is really worth the annual fee
    Thanks!
    Raghu

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