Are Award Tickets Even a Good Deal?!

With rampant devaluations in the world’s most popular frequent flyer programs, it is important to ask a question that was once a given: are award tickets even a good deal?

The answer, like most travel topics, is quite complicated. For the most part, programs like Delta, United and American that have coupled mileage amounts to revenue ticket fares are essentially capping the value of their miles at a low, fixed redemption value - perhaps slightly over 1 cent each. This enables these programs to offer last-seat availability to all members, but at what cost? It’s often best to skip these pricey awards as partner awards are typically better value. How does that work in practice? Well, consider a hypothetical 300k AAdvantage award for AA business class LAX to Sydney. If you have millions of miles in your account, maybe that doesn’t seem like much, but most people who see 300k as acceptable probably spend a lot on AA tickets (or their employer does). If paying cash is an option to save those miles from being used poorly, it’s certainly better in the long run assuming you do find Qantas or a cheap AAward at the last minute. Otherwise why even collect miles?

To give a few more specific examples of unlocking award travel value that still work today:

  • Air Canada’s flexible awards are fully refundable – and importantly, repriceable – meaning you can always call in (possibly even change online, now that they’ve added that functionality) to get that lower non-flex price after your plans have firmed up. But until then, it can be wise to secure availability on the main leg(s) of your trip using flex awards.

  • If your travel plans change often, consider that award tickets with most US-based programs are fully refundable. This increases the value of miles substantially even in light of these devaluations. You can easily recoup the value of high award fares by simply repricing (or canceling/rebooking) when you find cheaper awards at the last minute (often the best time to book!) – perhaps even on a different airline. You can’t do this with cash tickets, as they’re unlikely to drop in price and in many cases, you’ll get a difficult-to-use travel credit with an expiration rather than a proper refund, like you would with an award ticket.

    • Southwest’s cheap Wanna Get Away fares can represent a great value when redeemed with points, considering they’re fully refundable, unlike the cash fares which would only produce a travel credit upon cancellation.


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