Paying Cash for Airfare can make sense — but not most of the time

Award Booking Service focuses on redeeming your miles for flights for international trips. These represent the best general value of using miles and points for travel (most of the time).

One downside of miles and points–for the most part–is they cannot be used for every single flight on the schedule. They are capacity controlled either by number of miles/points required or simply not available using miles at all. Award seat availability is controlled by each airline’s revenue management team just like the cash prices. Availability changes constantly!

Whenever possible we try to redeem miles or points for our own flights but there are times when paying cash can make sense. For us this is not terribly often but it does happen.

A few reasons for paying cash versus using miles for trips:

  • You need exact dates or even exact flights with no flexibility–and there are no award seats available
  • You find super cheap cash fares or mistake fares for flights you need
  • You value airline elite status and are very close to the next elite level with benefits you desire
  • You need to buy a positioning short haul flight to connect to your international long haul award flight

Examples of each of the above scenarios:

Inflexible travel dates and no award availability can happen from time to time. Holiday peak travel is a great example. If you need to depart and return on specific days or even specific flights for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday it is likely that no domestic award seats are available. This leaves you with paying for flights, travel by some other method (train, car, bus, etc), or skipping the trip entirely.

Super cheap fares (and to a much lesser extent mistake fares) can come up and align with your travel dates. In the past we have taken weekend trips to New Orleans and New York. In low season found fares as low as $80 round trip. In this case we chose to buy the fare and save our miles for more expensive trips in the future. In most cases miles makes more sense than spending cash but this is an exception. That $80 fare would have cost us 25,000 miles on most domestic carrier programs. We have also booked $99 fares to Iceland in the past year that would have cost at least 60,000 miles round trip! It is always good to compare.

Elite status can have value if you travel frequently on cash fares that are reimbursed or paid for by your company/employer. If you are close to crossing an elite status level threshold but don’t have any reimbursed flights left for the year you can pay for a trip to achieve the next status level. This can be worth it if you use the elite benefits enough to justify the costs.

Positioning flights paid with cash are becoming a much more common necessity than they used too. We are seeing more and more that award seat availability is not lining up between domestic connecting flights and the international award seat availability that you want to book. You can fill this gap by purchasing the domestic portion of the trip and leaving plenty of time to connect in case of delays. We have had clients who have done this to fully book a trip. It is usually worth spending a couple hundred dollars versus scrapping the trip entirely because of 1 or 2 short flights not available with miles. This is especially true if you live in a smaller city or town that doesn’t have much direct international flight service.

Cash fares are our last choice in most flight booking situations but they do have their uses in the big picture of booking travel. Miles and points do lose value over time so you should always try to use them first unless you have a special reason (such as the ones above) to pay cash instead. Earn and burn your miles when possible and use cash to fill in the gaps.