A miles vs points dilemma: Redeem an award or “pay” with points?

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Back when I started collecting airline miles and hotel points, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about their exact value, as I’d mentally committed to never using them for less than 2c per point in value. Since 2% cash back was the best alternative at the time, that made sense as the barometer against which to compare, and I intended to use my miles and points for premium cabin international airfare and swanky hotels, where I knew I could count on getting a lot of value. But I’ve found myself reconsidering that metric.

Of course, valuing your miles and points can be tough. Some will redeem 100,000 points for a flight with a retail price of $8,000 and claim to have gotten 8 cents per point in value. While I guess that feels true on some level, it doesn’t seem like a reasonable method for figuring your redemption value to me because I never would have spent $8,000 on a flight in the first place.

This is a fun way to fly, but I don’t really consider myself as having gotten $10K or $20K or whatever Emirates charges cash customers in value from my points / miles.

Some would say that you can only calculate your cents-per-point value based on the cash price you would otherwise be willing to pay. I understand and appreciate that argument, but I don’t totally buy into that one, either. With the plethora of airfare sales to Europe from the East Coast these days, the most I’m willing to pay for a cash ticket to Europe is about $400 round trip, and I’ve flown WOW and would fly Norwegian if I had to pay cash and they were the most economical options. That said, I’d much rather fly in Singapore Suites class. That experience — the comfort of the seat, the service, the food, the novel “fun” of flying in style beyond what I could/would pay in cash — is definitely worth more to me than $400, though I couldn’t justify spending much more than $400. Truth be told, before I knew about airline miles and hotel points, I probably had about a $500 cap in terms of the price I was willing to pay for any airline ticket as I’ve long been spoiled by competition out of New York making for frequent enough sales to be able to get to most regions at that price with patience and sale-stalking.

This is worth more to me than the cost of an economy class ticket, but how much more?

And so valuing my miles became kind of tough — though truth be told I’ve never redeemed miles to fly business class to Europe as a final destination as I haven’t been able to justify the number of miles in comparison to the cheap cost of cash tickets. It’s easier for me to feel comfortable with redemptions to other parts of the world, where it is less common to find tickets so cheaply – though I have often kept that “2c” valuation in mind.

And that brings me to a current dilemma. It looks like I will be taking an unplanned trip to Asia in a few weeks and I need to determine how to get there and back. Economy class flights are around $1,000+. I’d be booking for two and there is no way I’d spend two grand plus. Thankfully, I have plenty of miles and transferrable currencies that I figured it would be no problem to use my miles and points. I can further admit that I’d rather use miles to fly in business class when traveling so far as Asia. While I spent years traveling to dozens of countries in economy class on my own dime before the luxury of miles and points, those currencies have spoiled me with a more comfortable experience that is hard to pass up on long journeys, especially since I’ve put the time and effort into earning the miles.

My balances in terms of airline miles and transferrable currencies make it possible to do the trip with any of the major alliances, but availability isn’t great. Here is a chart with the immediately obvious options:

 Airline  Region  Business Class  First Class
 American  Asia 2  80K  110K
 United  North Asia  80K  120K
 Aeroplan  Asia 1  75K  105K
 Alaska  Asia (varies) 50K Cathay
50K Hainan
65K Japan Airlines
105K Korean (RT only)
 70K Cathay
— Hainan
75K Japan Airlines
— Korean
ANA Asia  85K RT on ANA
95K RT on Star Alliance

This is by no means a complete list; veterans will note that I have excluded some key programs. First, I excluded carriers with distance-based award charts like British Airways both because the connections required and availability made it undesirable. I left out programs that are only transfer partners with SPG because I would rather hold my SPG points for the shot at an off the charts property come August 1st.

However, those prices obviously only represent half the story: there also has to be availability. Cathay Pacific has no availability in business or first class and my dates are pretty tight (I have at most 2 possible departure days and 2 possible return days).

Ultimately, I need to get to Shanghai, but if I can get to Hong Kong or Beijing or generally within a few hours of Shanghai, I know I can probably get an economy class ticket / train / etc, to complete the journey – so I have some flexibility in searching for awards in terms of destinations, but not much in terms of dates.

Alaska

At first glance at the list above, Alaska and ANA stand out – let’s start with Alaska.

Unfortunately, as noted above, Cathay has no availability. Neither does Korean have availability. Hainan does, though surcharges are higher than I’d like ($250+ per person). That eliminates the options for around 50K in business class.

On the way to Asia, Japan Airlines only has economy class availability, which leaves me with oneworld or Star Alliance options to get to China as I haven’t seen anything from SkyTeam.

However, JAL does have availability on the way home. In fact, they even have first class availability from Tokyo to New York that would work, so that is an attractive option for 75K Alaska miles. I’ve only ever flown Japan Airlines regional business class on a 787, so I’d be interested in the Tokyo to New York route. What’s more, while I don’t have much time flexibility, I could probably squeeze in a day in Japan since Alaska allows a stopover on a one-way award.

JAL’s first class looks pretty nice.

For argument’s sake, let’s say I flew out to China using United miles (80K) and back in JAL First Class with Alaska miles (75K). While miles certainly aren’t all equal, my total cost in terms of miles would be 155K miles per person.

ANA

ANA certainly looks like a much better alternative. At just 85K miles round trip on its own metal or 95K round trip on Star Alliance members, it would keep more miles in our pockets. As ANA is an Amex Transfer Partner, we have plenty of points to transfer.

ANA has no availability currently on its own flights, though United.com shows some Star Alliance availability on Austrian, Lufthansa, Swiss, and Air China as well as on a mix of United (including the new Polaris on a 777-300ER to Tokyo with ANA to Shanghai). ANA adds fuel surcharges on Austrian and Lufthansa, but they do not on Swiss, Air China, or United.

Initially, I was a little disappointed with the prospect of using ANA miles as I’d really kind of like to fly home in Japan Airlines first class, but it would be hard to justify burning an extra 50K miles/points per person rather than flying a perfectly good business class trip on one of these Star Alliance options.

However, ANA’s site is unfortunately only showing options in United Polaris business class. Thankfully, it is on the new 777-300ER, which certainly looks comfortable enough to me — though not as exciting as a more glamorous foreign carrier. I’m not sure if ANA isn’t showing the other options because they represent phantom space or if there is another reason for the glitch – I’ll have to look into it further as plans firm up.

United isn’t known for its glamorous business class, but this would certainly be a comfortable enough way to fly.

Still, overall, paying 95K Membership Rewards points for round trip travel to Asia sure isn’t bad. Flying United takes some of the “fun” out of flying international business class, but it would get the job done.


American / oneworld

Less attractive but not outrageous in terms of pricing is using American airlines for AA flights or oneworld partners. American shows some “mixed cabin” space on its own flights…all of which includes economy class across the Pacific. Thanks to American’s award routing rules, I can only connect within Asia 1 / Asia 2, meaning that my only partner options are Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

Not exactly my idea of a business class itinerary.

However, another option has been tempting me. Qatar Airways does have some availability, either on the way to Shanghai from Atlanta to Doha to Shanghai or on the way home including Doha to New York in the new Q Suites business class. I’ve flown Qatar once before and the business class lounge in Doha is pretty amazing. However, since American will not allow transit via a third region, I would have to pay for two separate award tickets — one from North America to Doha and a second from Doha to Shanghai (or vice versa) — if I wanted to go this route. That would cost me a total of 110K miles one-way in business class. This is by far the most expensive option and I would only consider it in one direction or the other. It certainly appeals to me from the standpoint of enjoying a journey I’d otherwise never pay for, though it’s hard to justify the price tag….especially when I consider the final option…

I could just use points at 1.5c to buy a ticket

But then another option dawned on me. I used some of the techniques Greg outlined in How to find great business class fares with Google flights and I found that business class tickets have been on sale from Boston to Beijing — from just over $2200 round trip. From there, I could easily get to Shanghai.

In fact, early in the day yesterday, both American and United were showing the same price on this route (though today only American still has seats at this price). If I could book a $2,210 flight via the Ultimate Rewards portal at 1.5 cents per point, that’s about 147,000 points round trip. That’s not as good as ANA, though it’s better than my other options — and the ticket earns miles. In fact, the international segments on American Airlines would earn at least 150% mileage flown if credited to Alaska. As an MVP member, I’d actually earn 200% — which would come out to about 27,000 redeemable miles earned on some of the itineraries I considered.

I’d pay even fewer Membership Rewards points. Thanks to holding a Business Platinum card, I get a 35% rebate when using Membership Rewards points to pay for flights through Amex Travel. A flight that costs $2,210 would be 221,000 Membership Rewards points initially, but I’d get 35% of the points back for a net cost of 143,650 Membership Rewards points — a few thousand less than Chase. Again, if I flew on American Airlines, I’d earn about 27K Alaska miles — for a “net” mileage cost of about 116,650 miles (again, recognizing that Membership Rewards and Alaska miles are not necessarily equal). That’s a net 21K more than ANA would charge me for flying United. Is American worth 10.5K more each way than United?

Of course, I run into the same issue I had with ANA in that it takes some of the “fun” factor out of redeeming miles to fly in a business class that doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as some of the foreign carriers, though it does give me some freedom to choose an itinerary that fits my needs rather than being limited to award availability.

But then I’m redeeming for less than 2 cents per point…sort of

Of course, the problem with this plan is that it “feels” like I’m redeeming for less than 2 cents per point, which was my original barometer. I say “feels” like because, while I’m obviously only getting around 1.5 cents per point towards airfare, I would be earning miles that have some value. If we value Alaska miles at 1.4 cents each (as found in our Reasonable Redemption Values), that’s about $378 in value (though it could certainly be more). If we account for the value of the miles earned, my “cent per point” value creeps closer to 2 cents each.

But the more I earn miles and points, the less I feel tied to redeeming them at 2 cents each. Most of my points were earned at better than 1x as most of them came from signup bonuses / bonus categories / referrals / promotions / etc. When I consider the source of my points, I’m still beating out a 2% cash back card. But it’s a slippery slope when we start justifying redemptions that way.

Ultimately, I’ve found myself able to accept 1.5 cents per point in value more than I would have expected before the launch of the Sapphire Reserve, and that is in no small part due to the availability of great business class fares that create situations like this, where a “paid” ticket would cost me fewer points than the airline miles necessary for an award.

But this of course creates a new dilemma: if I book with airline miles instead, am I not accepting even less than 1.5 cents per point in value? Of the options above, only ANA gives me better value than booking with points through Amex or Chase. Sure, I can book a “better” business class (or even first class) with Alaska/United/American miles, but if I use Chase and Amex as an alternative, it starts to make my airline miles feel much less valuable….which makes me question my 2 cent metric altogether as being unrealistic in today’s highly competitive airfare environment.

What would you ultimately do?

Would you redeem miles to fly a more “fun” route, like something including Japan Airlines First Class and Qatar Airways Q Suites? Would you go the low mileage route with ANA? Or would you redeem points through Chase or Amex to buy a cash ticket and earn miles? I’ll be making a decision in the coming days, but I’m curious about reader input.

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