WARNING: Always Check For Paid Flights Before Booking Awards!

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Cash Instead of Miles

Cash Instead of Miles

Sometimes we get so locked into collecting miles and points that we forget that they aren’t always the best option. I have recently written for example about my experiences with Spirit Airlines. In my hometown of Las Vegas they are often challenging my value based mind with their much cheaper prices.

Of course checking the cash price of tickets doesn’t only apply to low cost domestic carriers. It really should apply to all flights that you are going to take. Sometimes the cash price is just cheaper than it would cost in miles. For example, let’s look at the flight I just booked home from Shanghai for next week.

Flying Home from Shanghai

Cash Instead of Miles

Most airlines charge 70K miles or so in business class from China to the United States. You can sometimes do a bit better, but that is the ball park. I was fully prepared to pay that to get home, but I decided to look at the cash prices. Despite the fact that I was doing a last minute booking, I was shocked to find that AA, Delta and United all had sub-$400 one-way fares in economy class.

American was the airline I was really interested in because I am an Executive Platinum with them and have systemwide upgrades to burn. I also have a Citi Prestige card so I can redeem ThankYou points at 1.6 cents each. In other words, my flight home is costing me just under 25K ThankYou points and I SHOULD be in lie-flat business class on a 787. (I am waitlisted on the SWU but there appear to be a lot of seats.)

Paying Cash Without Cash

Of course my situation is unique to me and my status, but that doesn’t matter. Look at all of the ways you can pay cash without actually using cash:

  • Use Arrival+ points (or Venture or BofA Travel Rewards, etc.) to pay for the flight.
  • Use Sapphire Reserve to get 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards point towards the fare. (Or 1.25 CPP with a Sapphire Preferred)
  • Use Citi Prestige for 1.33 cents per point for airfare or 1.6 cents per point on American through next year. (Or 1.25 CPP with ThankYou Premier)
  • Use Amex Business Platinum to get 2 cents per point after rebate with your chosen airline on coach tickets or with any airline on premium cabin tickets

That is a lot of ways you can “pay cash” for a ticket without actually paying cash. Remember, by booking a cash ticket you also:

  • Get elite credit
  • Get elite upgrades in most cases (or can use upgrade certs, etc.)
  • Earn mileage

Miles Cost Money Too

And when you are booking awards, you are also paying taxes/fees on top of the mileage requirement. With flexible points you are rolling everything in. Let’s go back to my example. Let’s say I wanted to fly home from China on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong in Business. That would be 70K  + ~$100. This way I paid 25K + $0 and 1 SWU. Again, that is my situation, but everyone has different statuses, perks and other things they can leverage to make cash fares work in some cases.


You should never blindly book an award without looking at what the cash fare is across all airlines and then checking to see what benefits/status you can use to make it even better. Even if you don’t have flexible points, sometimes it makes sense to pay pure cash instead of inflated points for an award if the cost is high. While my example won’t apply to most, it doesn’t have to. There are thousands of other examples I can think of where it makes sense to book with cash or to use cash equivalents like flexible points.

What is a situation where you booked with cash (or a cash fare with flexible points) instead of using traditional miles? Let us know in the comments!


  1. Great piece which helps. My question is the ultimate pay cash versus use points. I get confused on whether you should just pay the cash , use the points via Citi Prestige/Chase Reserve to buy the ticket or use total points. For example for the New Years holiday it is round trip $6oo from SFO to DCA. All the airlines are charging 50k round trip. So do you pay the cash,burn all the miles, or miles converted into cash?

  2. Apples and oranges. I know you disclaimed that using an SWU is unique to you but then still go on to make the comparison. TPAC Y and J are very different experiences even though they both get you from Point A to Point B so a more accurate comparison would be the cash price of J vs miles price.

    • You really miss the point. It isn’t about my AA flight, it is about searching for airfare before booking to see what options you have for your trip. High level. If the article was about my specific flight and I was talking about how much I saved, etc then fine, but I was just using that as a small example. I also linked to my Spirit article at the beginning. There I spent $82 RT for a flight that would have cost 15,000 miles.

      If you don’t like my example then I apologize, but don’t let it get in the way of the message.

      • Fair enough. I guess my main contention is that if you want J then Y isn’t even an alternative. I don’t travel as often as most of y’all so I am only looking for J/F awards, but I would never pay the cash price for J therefore it doesn’t matter what it is. Definitely irrelevant to me would be the Y cash price.

        • ^ Why would we care if you felt this post is irrelevant to you? Who actually needs to know? You’re arguing with information many would find useful that you were able to read for free. And your contention isn’t even against the main points of the article.

  3. does booking with Citi TY ever interfere with your ability to use an SWU? how about a regular miles+cash upgrade?

    ive been looking at tickets for spring from the east coast to europe, then onward to israel, then back to the east coast. thought for sure this would’ve been cost prohibitive, when in fact, there are tickets that include all 3 legs for as low as $1000 in coach. there is probably a way to rig this up using only 50k Flying Blue miles, but that is going to complicate and lengthen the 3 legs tremendously (probably make most if not all legs a 2-segment ordeal, rather than 1 simple non-stop for each), plus i would miss out on a bunch of EQMs.

    • Sometimes they supposedly use bulk airfare which can get in the way I have heard. In this case knowing that Citi lets you cancel within 24 hours, I booked and then immediately requested the SWU be applied so I was able to confirm it would work.


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