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2017 Travel Credit Card Study

When it comes to the value of travel points, your mileage may vary

By Erin El Issa
April 11, 2017

You can trust that we maintain strict editorial integrity in our writing and assessments; however, we receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners and get approved. Here’s how we make money.

Advertiser Disclosure

2017 Travel Credit Card Study

By Erin El Issa
April 11, 2017

You can trust that we maintain strict editorial integrity in our writing and assessments; however, we receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners and get approved. Here’s how we make money.

For many consumers, travel rewards credit cards offer the ideal combination of convenience and benefits. The best ones have large sign-up bonuses, high ongoing rewards and great travel perks, making them among our favorites at NerdWallet. But just because you’re swimming in travel points [1] earned on your credit card, should you use them to pay for your next trip? Not necessarily.

NerdWallet booked sample flights using the 20 most popular routes [2] and the four largest U.S. airlines [3] to see whether consumers booking their flights for summer vacation would be better off paying cash or using the points they’ve accumulated in airline loyalty programs. We examined how point values differ depending on the distance and class you fly, as well as whether you fly internationally or domestically, one-way or round-trip. And we devised guidelines to help you decide how to pay for your next flight.

Key findings

  • If you’re flying domestically this summer, you’ll get the best value by choosing economy class. Points were worth an average of 1.03 to 1.08 cents apiece on such round trips [4], more than the average for all economy flights.
  • In business and first class, longer flights provide a better point value than shorter ones. For business- or first-class flights under 1,000 miles, points averaged 0.72 cent in value; for flights over 1,000 miles, it was 1.13 cents per point.
  • Almost two-thirds (62%) of one-way flights offer better point values than round-trip flights. One-way flights are often more expensive on a per-mile basis than round-trip, but they don’t require extra points. That means you could get the greater flexibility of one-way tickets for the lower price of a round trip.

Staying in the States this summer? Use your points and fly economy

Americans flying within the States this summer will get the most value for their points on economy round-trip flights. Point values for those fares — 1.03 to 1.08 cents — exceed the roughly 1 cent average for economy flights.

Point values for domestic round-trip flights in business or first class are significantly lower, averaging 0.83 to 0.86 cent each. If you prefer to fly business, you might want to pay cash, or save your points for an international and/or one-way flight.

Booking a short flight in business class? Use cash

On the 20 routes we examined, point values were much higher on long business-class flights than on short ones. The overall average for business- and first-class flights was 0.89 cent per point. On flights of less than 1,000 miles, points were worth an average of 0.72 cent; on flights longer than 1,000 miles, points averaged 1.13 cents.

That difference in value between business- or first-class flights under 1,000 miles and those over 1,000 miles was 10 times as big as the difference for economy flights.

As a simple rule of thumb, if the value of each point is less than 1 cent, use cash and keep your points for a higher-value opportunity.”

Sean McQuay NerdWallet’s credit and banking expert

Buying a one-way ticket? Use points, especially on international trips

Almost two-thirds (62%) of the one-way flights we looked at have higher point values than round-trip flights. In most cases, if you’re paying with points, the price of a one-way trip is half the cost of a round trip. When paying with cash, however, one-way generally costs more than half the price of a round-trip ticket. Therefore, per-point values are higher when flying one-way.

Here’s how the math works: Say a round-trip ticket costs $400 or 50,000 points. Each point is worth 0.8 cent ($400 / 50,000 = $0.008). Now say one-way tickets are $300 apiece or 25,000 points. When you get two one-way tickets, each point is worth 1.2 cents ($600 / 50,000 = $0.012). Higher cash prices often mean better point values. Because one-way tickets can be very expensive, your points will go further.

This is especially true for international flights; about 7 in 10 routes (69%) we looked at provide better point values on one-way tickets. So if you’re heading overseas this summer, a one-way ticket might be the way to go.

“Many people automatically book round-trip fares for vacations, but if you aren’t sure about your itinerary and you’re using points, you should absolutely consider booking a one-way ticket,” says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s credit card and banking expert. “The trip will likely cost the same number of points overall. But you’ll have flexibility, allowing you to go home earlier or later than you planned, or continue your adventure in another city or country.”

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Airline loyalty programs consistently devalue their points every few years, and many close accounts that are stagnant. …”

Sean McQuay NerdWallet’s credit and banking expert

More tips and tricks for summer flyers

Every rule has exceptions, and this holds true with the guidelines provided above. Here are some additional tips to help you determine whether to use cash or points for your summer vacation.

HOW TO CALCULATE THE VALUE OF YOUR POINTS

Point values are easy to determine. Just take the price of the ticket and divide it by the points required for the trip to get the value of each point. For even greater accuracy, take into account the special tax on airline tickets often referred to as the “9/11 security fee.” These fees are rolled into cash prices, but when you use points you have to pay them separately.

Let’s say you want to book a flight that costs either $300 cash or 25,000 points plus $11.20 in security fees. Subtract the security fees from each price, and the math works like this:

$300 – $11.20 = $288.80

$288.80 / 25,000 points = $0.011552 / point

That means the value of each point is 1.16 cents. That’s a pretty good deal, McQuay says. “As a simple rule of thumb, if the value of each point is less than 1 cent, use cash and keep your points for a higher-value opportunity,” he adds.

WHEN TO USE POINTS AT LOW VALUES

Sometimes it makes sense to use points even when their value is less than 1 cent each. Consider doing so if either of these situations applies:

  • Your points are expiring soon
  • You may have to cancel or reschedule your flight

Some airline frequent flyer programs award points that are valid until the end of time, or at least until they merge with another airline. But other programs’ points expire after a certain amount of time. If your points are on the verge of expiring (or will expire before you take another trip), use them now, regardless of their value.

“Airline loyalty programs consistently devalue their points every few years, and many close accounts that are stagnant for a year or so, so make sure you use your points while you can,” McQuay says. “Saving them up for some big future vacation might sound nice, but I’ve heard too many horror stories of people losing their points or not being able to use them as planned.”

If you might have to reschedule or cancel your trip, paying with points can save you money down the road. Change fees for cash tickets are usually significantly higher than the fees involved with those paid for with points, known as award tickets. In fact, for the three airlines [5] in the study that charge change fees, they averaged $358 for tickets purchased with cash, compared with $129 for award tickets.

Erin El Issa is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: erin@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @Erin_El_Issa.

Methodology

NerdWallet looked at 320 individual trips — 160 for one-way tickets, 160 for round-trip tickets — to capture information on domestic, international, peak, off-peak, economy and business/first-class fares. We used averages to provide our advice above, but we encourage you to use our simple calculation to determine whether you should use cash or points for your next flight.

Expand for footnotes

Footnotes

[1] Throughout the study, we refer to frequent flyer miles as “points,” and actual miles flown as “miles.”

[2] We examined fares on the top 10 domestic routes and top 10 international routes originating in the U.S., as determined by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Fares were checked March 7-14, 2017, for travel on May 15, 2017, and June 15, 2017.

[3] The four largest U.S. airlines based on number of passengers are American, Southwest, Delta and United, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The most recent data is from April 2016, based on 2015 U.S.-based enplanements, or passengers boarding.

[4] Peak summer travel is defined as the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day; off-peak summer travel is defined as the several weeks before and after those holidays. We used June 15 for our peak sample date and May 15 as our off-peak sample date. For round-trip flights, we assumed a return date of one week later.

[5] Southwest doesn’t charge change fees on flights booked with points or cash.