A point hoarder’s approach to booking domestic flights

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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.

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