While we may have been flying economy for most of our lives due to prohibitive cash prices for long-haul flights in First or Business Class, the same does not hold true when it comes to redeeming points and miles. In fact, it is rarely worth it to redeem points for economy class tickets. In most scenarios, purchasing a cash ticket is a better value when flying economy. If you’re flying long-haul, redeeming points and miles for First or Business Class seats will give you the best value — and it doesn’t cost as many points as you’d think.
What people don’t realize is that when booking through credit card portals, they are in essence using points to buy tickets for cash from the airlines (much like if they were buying a kitchen appliance or, say, a computer). They aren’t actually tapping into award seats. By transferring credit card points to airline miles, you can sometimes book the same flights for up to 10x fewer points.
Cash vs Points Comparison
To give you an idea of how cash prices compare to points and miles prices when it comes to both economy and premium cabin seats, let’s take a look at a couple of different scenarios.
San Francisco to Tokyo round-trip, nonstop on All Nippon Airways (ANA)
Approximate cash price for a flight in Spring 2022 (searched on April 29, 2021)
- Economy: ~$1,300 cash or 50k ANA miles
- Premium Economy: ~$1,900 cash or 72k ANA miles
- Business: ~$9,000 cash or 85k ANA miles
- First: ~$20,000 cash or 110k Virgin Atlantic miles
If you don’t have ANA or Virgin miles, you can easily acquire them by transferring some of the major credit card points currencies into airline miles. American Express Membership Rewards can be transferred to both programs at a 1:1 ratio and you can also transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citibank ThankYou points to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles at an even 1:1 exchange. Since ANA is one of Virgin’s airline partners, you can book ANA flights using Virgin miles — and at an even better rate for First Class than ANA’s own frequent flyer program.
Comparing the cash price to the points price, you’ll see that a cash ticket in Business Class is nearly 7x more than the price of Economy, whereas it would only require about 1.7x the number of points. At the extreme level, a cash ticket in First Class is 15x more expensive than Economy, but if you pay with points, it’s only slightly more than double.
Let’s take a look at another example for a flight to Europe.
Newark to Athens round-trip, nonstop on Emirates
Approximate cash price for a flight in Fall 2021 (searched on April 29, 2021)
- Economy: ~$850 cash or 45k Emirates miles
- Business: ~$3,300 cash or 90k Emirates miles
- First: ~$7,500 cash or 135k Emirates miles
Although this isn’t as extreme as the previous example, you’ll still see the same trend. Business Class seats can be attained for only double the amount of points as Economy, while a cash ticket would cost nearly quadruple the price. And First Class tickets are about 3x the Economy price in points, but nearly 9x the price in cash. In this case, all major credit card currencies transfer to Emirates Skywards miles, so whether you have Amex, Chase, Citibank, or Capital One points, you can get these amazing deals for premium seats on one of the best airlines in the world.
Long-Haul Flights vs Short Flights
Deciding when to use points or miles or use cash also depends on the type of trip you’re looking to take. For domestic flights or short flights to places like Mexico or the Caribbean, cash tickets are generally recommended since the cash value of your points compared to the lower cost of cash tickets in these markets tends to present a situation where you may want to simply save your points for a more valuable redemption on a trip overseas. There will always be exceptions, but this is generally sound advice among points and miles aficionados.
Another thing to consider when flying shorter flights is the quality of the First or Business Class cabin. In many cases, you’ll simply get a few more inches of legroom and a wider seat, whereas most long-haul First and Business Class cabins have lie-flat seats and extensive service. It will surely be a more rewarding experience to redeem your points and miles for a long-haul flight in a premium cabin.
Set Your Travel Goals
In short, it’s best to have a plan for all of those credit card points and airline miles you’ve been earning. If you have any bucket-list trips in your future, the absolute best value you can get from transferable credit card points is to use them to book flights. There will always be cashback offers, but the minuscule 1% or 2% cashback pales in comparison to the amount of money you can save when booking flights. And don’t get stuck thinking you can only afford Economy Class. If you have around 150k points or miles, First and Business Class travel is closer than you think.
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