Many frequent travelers have not boarded a plane in months. However, with the holidays approaching, it may be time to wipe out your old airline miles account and book award travel.
Or is it?
Aside from the question of whether it makes any sense to travel at all this winter, we’re going to look at how you can use travel rewards like airline miles and hotel points to book vacation trips here. Do award bookings offer good value compared to paying cash in 2020? And do they offer greater or different flexibility in the event plans change?
By the numbers: Airline mileage
As part of our updated 2020 airline mile ratings, we compared cash and award booking prices on many dates, including “Major Trips” in late December. This allows us to compare the average cents-per-point value for these bookings during the holidays with other times.
This tells us that there is no easy answer to the question, “Is using miles on vacation a good idea?” American, Southwest, and United all had above-average vacation reward bookings in our analysis, while the other airlines had average or slightly below average.
These are also averages and the individual cases vary. Some United redemptions offer poor value while some Delta redemptions (presumably) offer good value during the holidays. The best thing to do is to compare the cash and award booking prices for your own route and dates using a calculator like this one.
Please note that the “value” of an award redemption does not only depend on the number of miles required for the booking, but also on the corresponding cash price. And one of the interesting variables doing this year unlike others is that cash prices for vacation travel remain historically low.
Make sure you check the cash prices
Usually, the appeal of using miles to book vacation travel lies in the sky-high cost of normal cash fares. That said, given the ridiculous price of cash cards, many travelers wonder if points and miles are better value. But that’s not the case this year.
According to Hopper, the airfare tracking app, the 2020 Christmas airfare is 40% lower than 2019, with an average round-trip price of just $ 222. And if demand doesn’t rise soon, these prices are likely to stay low until the last minute.
Graphics courtesy of Hopper.
The price of Christmas flights has actually fallen as the holidays approach and is well below the 2019 average.
Importantly, low cash prices usually translate into lower “value” for miles, as the cost of an award booking is often more fixed than the cash price. That said, the underperformance stated above for some airlines may simply be the result of underperforming cash prices.
Again, it is important to check the relative value of your own route before booking. When cash prices are low, you might not need to dip your miles.
What about flexibility?
With another wave of the pandemic, you don’t want to commit to vacation travel plans. Booking a flexible fare is a must this year. But does booking with miles affect your options if you later have to change or cancel your plans?
For the most part, it doesn’t matter whether you book with cash or points. The same change and cancellation fee should apply to most trips booked before the end of the year (some airlines are changing their policies from 2021).
The following is really important:
- Airline: In general, policies on low-cost airlines like Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant aren’t as flexible as they are with full-service airlines like Southwest and Delta.
- Basic economy: Most “Basic Economy” fares do not allow changes or cancellations. Some of these rules will be lifted during COVID-19, but for the most part it is safer to choose a “regular” economy.
The final result
Should you book a vacation flight with cash or miles? It depends on.
Some airlines, such as American, Southwest, and United, offer above average vacation award booking value. And all airlines offer historically low cash prices. The surest test of whether miles are good value is to compare prices yourself. Like everything else this year, the prices for vacation travel are upside down.