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Airline miles don’t grow on trees — they can take a long while to earn. So when it’s time to book an award flight, you normally want to spend the smallest possible amount of miles or points.
But in some cases, paying more miles or points for a flight than necessary actually makes more sense.
Why should you book a flight with points even if it isn’t a good deal? Here, we highlight when it could make sense, plus how to know if you're getting a good deal when booking a flight with points in the first place.
When you might opt to spend more points
1. Fuel surcharges are too high
Some airlines pass on exorbitant fuel surcharges when you redeem miles for flights on their partner airlines. Others don’t.
For example, All Nippon Airways’ loyalty program, Mileage Club, can be a good way to book flights on partner airlines. You need just 88,000 Mileage Club miles to book a round-trip flight between North America and Europe in business class, but with some of All Nippon’s partners, you’ll pay huge fees on top of those miles. The Lufthansa-operated flight below, for instance, costs 88,000 miles plus $1,583 in cash.
But if you use a different loyalty program, for example Avianca LifeMiles, you can book the same Lufthansa flight. You'll pay more miles — 126,000 of them — but the out-of-pocket is just $184. In this case, the answer to the question “Why redeem more miles for a flight?” is easy: You save a lot of money.
2. You don’t have miles in the program you need
Some loyalty programs offer fantastic redemption rates, with chances to book great flights for a surprisingly small number of miles. But if you don’t have a good way to earn miles in that program, your only option is to pay more elsewhere.
For example, here’s a business class flight between Los Angeles and Dubai on Emirates. JAL Mileage Bank, Japan Airlines’ loyalty program, offers some of the lowest redemption rates on this route. For 130,000 Mileage Bank miles, you can enjoy about 16 hours of luxury in the sky in each direction.
But Mileage Bank miles can be hard to earn. Worse, unlike loyalty programs that let you transfer points from Chase Ultimate RewardsⓇ, American Express Membership Rewards or another transferable points program, Mileage Bank doesn’t partner with these programs (you can transfer in points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 transfer ratio). Also, you can’t earn a lot of miles using a credit card because the airline’s co-branded card, the JAL USA Card, doesn’t offer great points payouts.
You can book the same Los Angeles to Dubai trip with 165,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. Although that’s a lot more miles, those Alaska miles are easier to get.
Alaska Mileage Plan doesn’t partner with a transferable currency, either, but at least its Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card earns 3 miles per dollar spent on Alaska purchases. Plus, you can earn welcome bonus miles when you sign up: Get 50,000 bonus miles plus Alaska's Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account.
3. You need a one-way flight
Some airline programs, such as ANA Mileage Club and Iberia Plus, require you to book round-trip flights when redeeming miles on partner airlines. This means that you can’t book a one-way flight at half the rate.
Here’s a round-trip American Airlines flight from Salt Lake City to Miami with a layover in Dallas in both directions. The redemption rate of 28,000 Avios is what you find when you book this award with Iberia Plus. That’s 14,000 Avios each way, but you can only book a round-trip journey.
But what if you need to fly one way? Say you bought a car in Miami and need to drive it back? Or perhaps you want to continue your journey to another destination and don’t need to return to Salt Lake City? Or you’re moving to Miami?
Well, you can book your one-way flight to Miami with British Airways Executive Club for 18,000 Avios.
This program allows booking one-way awards on partners, so you have more flexibility. Of course, that 18,000 miles is more than the 14,000-mile rate through Iberia, but it’s less than the 28,000 Iberia Avios you’d have to pay with that airline’s round-trip booking requirement.
4. Cash rates through a portal are competitive
The Chase Ultimate Rewards® points earned with these cards can be redeemed toward airfare through Chase’s travel portal at 1.25 to 1.5 cents per point. Or, you can transfer these points to airline partners to book an award flight directly through the partner. Because the Chase points price is based on the cash price of the ticket, this method could, at times, be cheaper (or more expensive) than transferring the points.
If the cost is slightly higher in the portal, it might still be worth spending the extra points. The reason? When you book through Chase’s portal, you'll earn frequent flyer miles for the airline, and your trip can earn credit toward elite status with that airline. Plus, you won’t pay taxes that usually apply to award flights.
» Learn more: The best Chase transfer partners — and ones to avoid
5. You have limited flexibility in plans
The beauty of using miles for flights is they can save you a lot of money. The downside is that you won’t always find availability on the dates you want to travel.
For Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus, the number of miles you need for a flight can vary from day to day, so it’s hard to know if you're getting a good deal when booking a flight with points. Your flight might be cheaper a day or two before or after your preferred travel dates. Or a connecting flight might cost fewer miles than the nonstop you want.
If your dates are somewhat restricted, it can be better to just book the more expensive award flight that is best for your travel preferences or plans and not sweat the extra points you're burning.
The bottom line
In a perfect world, our preferred award flights would always be the cheapest flights and we'd have plenty of miles to pay for them.
In the real world, we have to consider high cash co-pays, rewards accessibility, program rules and other obstacles to getting a good deal on an award flight. Sometimes it makes sense to redeem more miles for the same flights to avoid fuel surcharges, use the miles you have or fly on the dates you want.
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:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card