There’s No One Right Way To Use Your Airline Miles


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I love the miles and points hobby because it has allowed me to visit places I may not have otherwise visited, allowed me to stay at properties I would not otherwise have been able to afford and to travel around the world in a level of comfort I could only have dreamed about just a decade ago…but there are negative aspects to the hobby as well.

There can be quite a bit of snobbery and oneupmanship in the miles and points world and you’re never very far away from someone who will eagerly tell you that they never get less than x cents of value out of whatever currency they’re discussing (a number which is almost always wildly exaggerated) and who will go on to tell you that you’re using your miles and points all wrong.

If you encounter such a person my suggestion is that you ignore them and move on – arguing with them is pointless as they’re never wrong.

American Airlines Los Angeles (LAX) Flagship Lounge

While there certainly are some very bad ways to use miles and points there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone so, just because one person gets the most out of their miles & points one way, it doesn’t mean that the same way will work for everyone else….that’s part of what makes this hobby fun.

Reader Michael posted this in the comments section yesterday:

I’m one of the few who does not use his miles for flights. Instead, I use them to renew my Admiral’s Club membership each year. I also use them for free hotel stays. Being able to use a combination of miles and dollars lets me stay at five-star hotels in countries around the world for a fraction of what they’d normally cost. I’ve never bought miles from AA before, but I’d consider it if it was a good enough deal. I’m just curious what you think of this way of using miles.

I can just imagine what a miles & points snob would say about this (they’d almost certainly claim that there are better uses of AAdvantage miles) but this is an interesting point and it’s one that’s central to my miles & points philosophy (if you can call it that).

I strongly believe that miles and points should be currencies that are used in whatever way makes us happy, saves us money and/or allows us to experience travel in a way we probably wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.

If spending AAdvantage miles on Admirals Club memberships and hotels is saving Michael money and allowing him to experience hotels that he may not otherwise have experienced then that’s fantastic and there’s nothing wrong with that at all – you don’t have to book high-end airline cabins just to get good use out of your miles.

Etihad A380 First Class

While I’ve no doubt that Michael could probably get more theoretical value out of his AAdvantage miles if he used them to book First Class awards on the likes of Cathay Pacific, Etihad and JAL that doesn’t mean that the way he’s currently using his miles is wrong.

Award bookings can be very constraining due to the ever decreasing availability of premium cabin award seats and, if you don’t have a lot of flexibility, it can be genuinely hard to use AAdvantage Miles effectively….so why not use them in other ways which save money?

If Michael is booking a trip to Europe and has a straightforward choice of using 115,000 miles to save $700 (for example) on his hotel or to use the same miles to book a roundtrip Business Class flight (which would otherwise cost over $2,000) then clearly the choice to use the miles for his hotel stay would be a poor one….but that’s not often how things play out.

Quite often we’re faced with a situation where there simply isn’t any award availability for the dates we wish to travel (and to the destination we wish to visit) so what’s the better option then….

  1. Hold on to the miles in your account and use cash for all bookings?
  2. Use the miles to help offset the cost of your aspirational hotel stays during your trip?

If you know that you have a number of trips that you’re hoping to take in the coming year then option (1) may be ok (you’ll get another chance to use your miles soon) but there’s a strong argument that suggests that most people should go for option (2)….and that goes against what most miles & points snobs will tell you because you wouldn’t be getting an amazing return on your miles with option (2).

Ritz-Carlton St Thomas

Holding on to miles in your account for any extended length of time isn’t a great idea because they have a nasty habit of devaluing without much notice so, in a lot of cases, it’s preferable to extract what value you can out of your miles before that devaluation comes around.

If that means using your miles to save money on great hotels then I can’t see anything wrong with that.

A Caveat

One of the primary reasons for using airline miles for something other than an airline fare (which is where the best returns are often to be found) is that finding award availability can be tough (and that’s a valid reason to look elsewhere)…but that doesn’t mean that all other options are good ones.

There are still choices to be made as there’s more than one easy way to liquidate your airline miles and each of those choices will see you get a different return on your miles.

It’s important to work out what return you’ll get from your miles by using the various options (Admirals Club memberships, hotels, gift cards etc..) so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to deciding what option will genuinely save you the most money (if that’s what your aim is).

Review Admirals Club Miami D30

Bottom Line

In general you’ll get most value out of your airline miles by booking premium cabin awards but that doesn’t mean that you should be put off from using your miles in other ways too.

Sometimes we forget that most people only get a limited number of days off in a year and some have added constraints as well (like only being able to travel during school holidays) – for these guys it can be a serious challenge to find award flights that work for them.

Given the choice of paying cash for a trip (and hoarding miles in the uncertain hope of being able to use them at some point in the future) or using the miles to help offset other costs of a trip the second option looks far more sensible to me….even if it means not getting a fantastic rate of return.

In short, there’s more than one way to use your airline miles so, as long as you’re aware of your options and you understand what returns you’re getting, don’t let anyone tell you that you that you should be doing better – only you know what works best for your circumstances.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I couldn’t agree more. There are definitely many mileage/points snobs out there that rub me the wrong way with their unsolicited advice and “one size fits all” mentality. Do what you think is best for you for your travel needs. That’s THE real value in using your points/miles. And while there can be a definitive math value associated with miles/points, if you’re unable to execute using what you’ve accumulated, then there’s no value at all.

  2. I have a friend who has used points in the past for a Dyson fan, and other non sensible resumptions. It used to make me almost physically sick when she told me what she ordered, and how many points she used, but I had to remember that they were her points, no mine. I guess it works to our favor when many people redeem at crap values-leaves more of the good stuff for us. But, jeez, a fan?

  3. “In general you’ll get most value out of your airline miles by booking premium cabin awards ”

    So true. However, I have talked with people who routinely redeem economy class awards to Europe or Asia on the basis that you can redeem multiple trips compared to business class. That way, you can travel 5 times instead of 3.

    • The big issue with Economy awards (especially ones to Europe) can be the surcharges that come with them.

      In theory I get why people would book Economy awards with no regards to the value/mile they getting because it should mean more trips and less money out of their pockets….but it isn’t always like that. I’ve seen British Airways Economy Class awards where the surcharges were more than the cash fare for the exact same flights.

  4. I get really sick of people telling me the right way to use miles, mostly because I was guilty of doing the same to others.
    I was espousing how some of my friends should use their miles for business at least instead of economy when they very politely told me that the only way they would be able to see their families(this is a couple with a young child) was to use their miles to fly economy. There was no cash for paying for these flights period. If they didn’t use their miles on what I considered a bad redemption rate for the three of them to fly economy two times to opposite sides of the country(one for her family, one for his), they would not being seeing anyone this year. That really knocked me.
    I save my miles for redemptions of higher classes and just assumed that everyone should because the rates are better for that. You know the best rate, though? Free when you don’t have any cash to spend. I started thinking about that and realized that I was paying for things to save my miles for other stuff when it made more financial sense for me to use the points. I think a lot of us forget that most people don’t use points the way we do, they are trying to stretch their dollars like us, but they aren’t willing to forgo important travel on points just because there may be some aspirational one in future.

  5. Normally, I would use my miles for business class tickets. Next year, I have chosen to go cheap (if the tickets are there) when I take myself and 5 others on a trip to Europe using PWM. Doing a dummy reservation for the same period as in 2020, I’m pricing out at 360K + $660.00 taxes and fees versus $10,827.00 using cash. That’s just an example on American. I’m sure other airlines will be comparable. Economy isn’t the way I would normally use my miles but in this case it makes perfect sense and gives me a pretty good rate of return and allows everyone to see Europe, similar to what Beth is talking about above. Spend your points and miles for what works for you and not what other’s think.

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