When you should hold onto your frequent flyer points and when you should use them

Don’t blow your miles on a cheap vacation.
Don’t blow your miles on a cheap vacation.
Image: AP Photo/Rick Hossman
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You’ve worked hard to earn those airline rewards points, traveling the globe, going to boring conferences, splurging on clothing, forcing your friends to Venmo you back for those three rounds of French 76s you put on your credit card back in November.

But think carefully before blowing your point stash on a flight for your next vacation. The value of those points varies depending on when you go, how far you’re trying to fly, and where you sit in the plane, a new study by personal finance website NerdWallet found. Sometimes, it’s worth just paying cash (and earning more points!).

The website analyzed 320 different trips on the 20 most popular routes—10 domestic and 10 international—from US airports, and the point values for programs run by the country’s four biggest airlines: American, Delta, United, and Southwest.

To calculate the value of your points, start with the cost of the flight. For example, say it’s $400 or 25,000 points. Then divide the dollar cost of the ticket by the points requirement to get the points value. In this case it’s $0.016 cents, a great deal. On average, miles are worth about $0.01 each for domestic economy flights, NerdWallet said.

Here are some of the findings:

If you can stomach it, fly economy

Finally, something good for the folks in coach. Point values for economy tickets are worth about $0.0108 during off-peak travel times. If you need to fly during peak periods, like national holidays, they’re worth a bit less, around $0.103. If you need to fly in the front of the cabin domestically for some reason (please note it is nothing like this), miles are worth just $0.0086 for off-peak flights in business or first-class. So just pay cash for that domestic business-class ticket. We won’t tell anyone.

Go far, far away

Regardless of whether you’re planning on traveling to Santiago, Chile, or Dayton, Ohio, economy class points are worth about the same, close to $0.01 per point. But if you’re planning to travel in style, travel as far as you can. Points for short first- or business-class trips, under 1,000 miles, are worth on average just $0.0072, versus $0.0113 for trips longer than 1,000 miles. Broaden your horizons.

NerdWallet notes that if your points are about to expire, use them, no matter what the value. But for everyone else, while it’s surely tempting to rush out and spend the points now that airlines have made it harder to earn them, it’s still worth it to wait for the right moment.