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Double miles vs. cheaper ticket: What to do?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 9, 2013

QDear Eva,

I have a United rewards card that gives double miles on purchases with United. I'm looking for tickets from Miami to Dallas for Thanksgiving. Based on the times I'm looking, my flight is $560 with United and $420 with American (which I don't earn rewards for). So the American flight is a better deal, but I wouldn't get the extra rewards for booking that ticket or the extra miles for the actual flight. I was hoping you could help me figure out if it's worth it to book the United flight to get the rewards, or if I should base my decision on money saved. — Xavier

AHi Xavier,

This conundrum has many airline rewards cardholders scratching their heads. You have the opportunity to earn extra miles both for the value of the ticket and for the trip itself, but you'll have to fork over an extra $140 to do so.Ask Eva

That's a big chunk of change, and you're right to question if those miles are worth it. Let's break down your little math problem piece by piece. Keep in mind that you'll need to run the numbers again right before you buy as ticket prices are constantly fluctuating.

Doing the math
First, calculate the miles earnings on the trip itself. If you plug your start point (Miami) and destination city (Dallas) into United's mileage calculator, you'll find that you can earn anywhere from 1,000 to 1,900 miles each way, depending on where you connect. So let's take the average and say you get roughly 1,500 miles each way for  3,000 miles on the round trip with the lowest-cost economy ticket.

For the ticket itself, you'll earn double miles on $560, so you'll pick up an extra 1,120 miles, giving you 4,120 miles for the trip.

The rule of thumb is that one airline mile is worth one cent. So divide by 100, and those 4,120 miles are worth $41.20. Since you'd be paying an extra $140 for those rewards miles, you'd be out almost $100 in extra costs. Not such a great deal!

Even if you were to get an unusually great deal on a ticket when you redeem your miles, you'd still be paying quite a bit for those extra miles. Let's say you are able to redeem for 1.5 cents per mile (those redemption deals are harder to come by, but you can find them). Now the value of the extra 4,120 miles earnings grows to $61.80. However, you're still paying almost $80 extra just to get the miles.

So once you look at money saved alone, you might find that spending the extra cash isn't worth it.

Why it still might be a good deal
For some fliers, however, there are other considerations that come into play. For example, people concerned about earning elite frequent flier status with an airline might decide that the extra cost is worth it, if the extra miles will push them into the elite flier category — and the added benefits that come with it (seating upgrades and lounge access, for example). But generally speaking, frequent flier elite status is best suited for people who fly frequently enough that they can qualify for the elite status without having to spend extra money to get there.

Another important consideration is how many miles you already have in your United frequent flier account. If taking this flight gives you the final push you need to earn a free international flight for that vacation you've been planning, spending an extra $140 could be well worth it.

The solution?
So what should you do? Well, if you're really motivated to get the miles but don't want to spend extra, you could look into flying at different times, when you might find a better deal. But you may find that you're not willing to go through the extra hassle just to earn $40 or so in rewards miles.

You could also wait a week or two before booking and see if the price changes. Airline ticket prices adjust all the time with market availability. You can use a flight aggregation site to set up an alert for a specific itinerary, so you will be automatically notified, should the price change. Of course, with a Thanksgiving trip, prices are more likely to go up than down, so this strategy could backfire.

When in doubt, just keep it simple: Buy the ticket with the best travel times at the lowest cost you can find, and be done with it. Let the rewards fall where they may.

It all depends on how patient you are and how much bargain hunting is worth your while. Good luck!

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