When it does come time to book a trip, it’s in your best interest to be strategic with the payment. Should you use frequent flier miles when ticket prices are at record lows? Or is it better to use cash?
We asked Brian Kelly, founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, to weigh in with his best tips for buying flights during the pandemic.
If the flight is ridiculously cheap, use cash
As a general rule, Kelly says, if a flight is super cheap (anything around $100 or less), you should use cash if you’re in the financial position to do so.
“In general, you should be looking to get over one cent per mile in value,” Kelly says. “So if a flight is 25,000 miles to redeem your points, if it’s $250 or more to buy in general, I would say use your miles.”
The drawback is that many of the cheapest fares don’t allow you to change or refund your ticket. If your ticket does fall under an airline’s coronavirus policy that allows you to change or cancel your flight, you may be offered only a ticket voucher, not a cash refund.
But for faux travel insurance and flexibility, book with miles
During (and even before) the pandemic, booking with miles guarantees a greater sense of security than booking with cash.
“I would recommend using miles not just to save money, but to give yourself added flexibility,” Kelly says. “Most frequent-flier programs will let you get your miles back for any reason.”
Kelly says booking with miles is a better deal than buying travel insurance for a flight right now. “If you buy the travel insurance that gives cancel-for-any-reason coverage, it’s super expensive,” he says. “You’re going to pay 25 percent of the cost of the ticket to get that.”
That being said, many airlines have tweaked their ticketing rules during the pandemic. At the end of August, United, American and Delta airlines eliminated most of their change fees. But be warned: Those policies don’t apply to all flights.
There are a glut of miles and a reason to use them sooner than later
Just because people haven’t been traveling lately doesn't mean they haven’t been accruing airline miles.
“The way most people earn points is through credit card spend,” Kelly says. “And now that people haven’t been traveling, there is an overwhelming amount of people [who] have more miles than they can use.”
Kelly discourages hoarding miles because if you don’t use them, you could lose them. While the risk of that happening because of an airline bankruptcy during the pandemic is low, Kelly says, a stronger concern is an airline changing the rules of its mileage program because they’re not regulated.
In the past 10 years, U.S. airlines have made it more expensive to redeem trips by increasing the amount of points needed to do so.
“There’s a moving needle, and the airlines have all the power,” Kelly says. “So my recommendations for people during a pandemic is to use your miles, get value today, because you could be disappointed if you wait a long time and the rules continue to change.”
The other issue is inflation. Your miles now may be more valuable than the same miles later. “Once people do start traveling again, down the line there will be an inflation in the amount of miles needed as demand picks up,” Kelly says.
Airlines have more awards seats available
With airlines opening more awards seats on flights, you may find better deals than ever when booking with miles. Kelly recently booked a one-way business-class ticket to Tahiti worth $3,000 with 80,000 American Airlines miles.
“I got over three cents per mile in value from that redemption,” Kelly says. “Historically, those tickets were nearly impossible to come by, but since fewer people are traveling, there’s tons of awards space on flights.”
And remember, there’s no incentive for accruing status this year
Before the pandemic, some people chose to book their trips with cash to gain elite status on an airline. Redeeming miles could get you a “free” or a “cheaper” flight, but it didn’t help you climb in status.
That issue is gone for the moment. “This year, the airlines have extended everyone’s elite status. 2020′s a wash,” Kelly says.