Flying internationally used to always imply an expensive trip. A few of my friends had a rotation of credit cards to game miles and points, but this never appealed to me for a few reasons:
- Miles lock you into an airline or airline alliance, even if there is a better deal elsewhere
- Redeeming miles often comes with restrictions that may not fit your planned travel schedule
- Miles can take a long time to accumulate, especially if you travel on a budget frequently and travel with a family
Instead, I focused on reliably finding great deals on flights to the point where even buying international flights outright can be cheaper than buying with miles.
Miles Can Be Expensive To Accumulate
Miles are designed to reward you for spending, and as such, accumulating miles can be costly. Beyond buying miles directly, the most common ways of earning miles are:
- Flying miles to earn miles
- Earning miles per $1 spent on a credit card
- Earning miles as a bonus for opening a new credit card
Earning enough miles by flying to redeem for a round-trip international ticket often means you are already a frequent traveler. However, even frequently travelers may have trouble accumulating miles. Basic Economy and other reduced fare seating often comes with reduced mileage awards. From the perspective of an airline this makes sense, the most expensive tickets earn the most miles.
You can also earn miles per $1 spend on a credit card, with certain categories earning more miles than others. To go through an example, say the average is 2 miles per $1 spent. If you fly American Airlines during an off-peak time from Chicago to Europe, the minimum miles needed for a one-way flight is 22,500 (see the award chart for other sources and destinations).
You need to spend $22,500 (to get 45,000 miles) on the credit card to earn enough miles for described round-trip ticket. If you want to redeem more than one ticket, multiply $22,500 by the number of people traveling.
Earning miles from a credit card bonus can seem very appealing. For example, you may be able to earn 50,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 within 3 months of opening a new card. This would be enough to redeem the flight.
However, earning bonus miles from opening a card assumes:
- I want to open a new credit card
- I want the credit card with the bonus miles
- I get approved for the credit card
- I spend enough on the card to get the bonus miles
I do not want to open a new credit card every time I want to travel somewhere nor incentive myself to meet spending threshold just to earn points.
Buying International Flights Can Be Cheaper Than Redeeming Miles
Increasing spending to earn miles via credit cards would work if miles were the cheapest way to buy flights. Today, this is not necessarily true. Flights are priced by demand and not necessarily by miles flown.
To provide an example, a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas in Economy cost me $420. The flight way quite full, leading to an increased price, despite weeks in advance. Using my strategies mentioned in Reliably Find Great Deals On Google Flights, I purchased round-trip, Economy class flights from Chicago to Europe for $400, and Chicago to Japan for $525 roughly the same number of weeks in advance.
Both Japan and Europe are much further from Chicago than Las Vegas. Unlike the flight to Vegas, both of these flights were not full and the demand was not yet high enough to justify a higher price.
More surprisingly, buying the international flights directly was "cheaper" than redeeming miles. The Point's Guy valued American Airlines miles at 1.4 cents (see what your miles may be worth),
45,000 miles (round-trip Europe) * 0.014 (1.4 cents) = $630
65,000 miles (round-trip to Japan) * 0.014 (1.4 cents) = $910
Here I used the best-case scenario for the number of miles needed and the costs are still higher than buying a flight directly. Depending on when you want to travel you may need up to 3x more miles to redeem a ticket.
When Are Miles Worth It?
If buying a flight directly can be cheaper than using miles why care about miles at all?
- Upgrades. Airline miles are worth more per-mile for Business and First-Class tickets. For many travelers, the only feasible way to fly in Business or First-Class is to use miles.
- Elite Status. Depending on how you travel Elite Status can be a game-changer. Check out Why American Airlines Gold Is Worth It.
Fortunately, neither upgrades nor elite status is required to travel internationally meaning miles are not required either.