Note: NerdWallet strongly discourages traveling in the near future while the coronavirus continues to spread. Check the CDC and State Department websites for current guidance and travel restrictions. Please use the content of this article only to help inform future travel plans.
While the travel industry has come to a near screeching halt due to the coronavirus outbreak, many people have summer events that have now been thrown into limbo. Normally, whether traveling for weddings, family vacations or something less fun, checking prices for summer flights during peak travel times can be dispiriting. “They want how much money? To fly to Cleveland?” But the summer of 2020 may prove to be different as prices adjust to the coronavirus situation.
That said, it’s natural to wonder, when confronted with summertime sticker shock, whether points and miles can offset or eliminate those fares. But is that a “good” use of frequent flyer miles? Or a recipe for getting ripped off?
To answer the question, we compared the normal price of summer flights when paying with cash versus miles. This was hardly a comprehensive analysis (like our points and miles valuations), but we wanted to get an overview of the trade-offs between traditional (cash) and award (miles) bookings during a standard summer travel season.
The short answer: In our analysis, using miles for summer flights within the U.S. yielded above-average value. That is, they were a good use of miles. On the other hand, flights to Europe yielded slightly below-average value.
Finally, note that these flight prices were researched just before the coronavirus outbreak, so be sure to do your own number-crunching (or use the calculator below) to determine whether you should pay with miles or cash based on the fares you're seeing when you're ready to book.
What we compared
We looked at 12 routes between three U.S. cities (New York; Miami; Nashville, Tennessee) and four destinations (Seattle; Madison, Wisconsin; Rome; Prague). For each route, we used Google Flights to find the lowest round-trip cash fares on a full-service carrier (no budget airlines).
We also searched these same routes for award flights with these frequent flyer programs:
For all searches, we used the same dates: Wednesday, July 15 through Wednesday, July 22, 2020. This ensured we were comparing apples to apples in terms of pricing, but also means we were looking at a very specific slice of “summer.”
Overall, this analysis gives a snapshot of the relative value of using points versus paying cash, but it’s obviously far from comprehensive.
» Learn more: How much are my American Airlines miles worth?
What we found
The cash price of round-trip fares on these routes were certainly high but not outrageous: $297 for routes within the U.S. and $864 for Europe. The same held for award tickets: Domestic flights cost roughly 25k miles while European ones were 85k.
The question, however, is whether those numbers represent a “good use” of miles compared with average redemptions. To determine this, we subtracted the total value of award flights (based on our valuations) from the equivalent cash fares. A positive/higher value would indicate a “good” redemption and a negative/lower value a “bad” redemption.
Here are the results:
U.S travel: Value of using miles compared to normal value
Europe travel: Value of using miles compared to normal value
» Learn more: Advanced tips for booking Delta SkyMiles awards
What does this mean? On average (the far right column), using miles to book summer travel within the U.S. provided $47 more value compared to a cash fare, and flights to Europe provided $8 less value.
However, as you can see, this varied by airline. Using United miles for Europe flights resulted in $113 more value than a normal cash fare, while Delta miles offered $132 less value than normal.
The moral of the story is: You should always …
Check for yourself
These results give a big-picture view, but every travel scenario is different. The only way to determine whether booking your summer award travel is a good use of your miles is to compare the options yourself.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to make a nerdy spreadsheet like we did. Just use this calculator, inputting the values you find in your own search:
The bottom line
Our analysis showed that using miles to book summer travel is neither a good nor bad idea, universally. We found that domestic flights generally offered more value from miles than those to Europe, but even these results differed from airline to airline and route to route.
Our recommendation: Compare the cash cost to the equivalent value of miles (using the calculator above). And when in doubt, remember it’s better to use miles than hoard them.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: 9 best airline credit cards of March 2020 Baffled by points and miles? Let the 80/20 rule guide you A beginner’s guide to points and miles