How to Know When to Spend—or Save—Your Loyalty Miles

By TripIt

February 18, 2020

By Johnny Jet – For the past 20 years, Johnny Jet averaged 150,000 miles and 20 countries a year. He has been featured in many major publications and appeared on ABC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC and PBS.

To spend or not to spend—that is the question. It can be difficult to know when is the best time to spend loyalty miles. Many of us want to redeem our miles as soon as we have enough for a trip. After all, you don’t want to simply see your hard-earned miles go to waste. In general, it’s better to spend your miles sooner instead of later, but sometimes saving your points for a larger redemption can be worth waiting for. Below are several factors to consider as you determine when to spend your loyalty miles. 

Expiration Dates

Be aware that each loyalty program has a different expiration policy. For instance, miles may expire after 12 months, unless you show account activity by earning more miles or redeem some. Then the countdown timer resets. Other loyalty programs, such as Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, have a firm expiration date of 36 months, beginning from the month you first earned them. No matter how many KrisFlyer miles you earn or redeem, each mile has a 36-month lifespan.

Some airline loyalty programs no longer have expiration dates, like Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines.

It can also be easy to forget that you have loyalty miles or credit card points. You will lose those miles if you close your account. In fact, approximately one-third of credit card points go unused. Fortunately, TripIt Pro users can manage their miles and points programs with Point Tracker, a feature located under the Pro tab in the app. 

Point Devaluations

Another risk to keeping your points is that points may become less valuable. A loyalty program may change and require more points for future award redemptions. So, instead of needing 12,000 miles, you may need 14,000 miles. 

In addition, some loyalty programs now use peak and off-peak season prices instead of charging a standard price for the entire year. While off-peak rates may cost less than before, peak season travel will require more points.

You should also see if the loyalty program uses fixed or floating award charges. Fixed awards charge the same number of points regardless of the current cash price. Floating award prices can be more difficult to predict as the cash price and current travel demand cause the award price to fluctuate up and down.

Available Award Space

Most airlines only offer a limited number of award seats on each flight. The same goes for most hotel award nights. Since the most desirable options usually disappear quickly, you may need to adjust your travel schedule to find available award space. 

Changing your travel dates may help you find alternate award space. However, you will need scheduling flexibility to find the best deals. 

Award Discounts

Airlines and hotels periodically offer award travel discounts. You may check the offers page when you want to book a last-minute trip or to brainstorm travel ideas.

These discounts can stretch your loyalty miles a little further. But, it can still be worth comparing the cash price for your booking. Sometimes you are better off paying cash for these discounts and saving your points for regular-priced travel.

Redeem When Loyalty Miles Are Worth At Least One Cent Each

Most loyalty miles and travel credit card points tend to be worth at least one cent each. For example, 10,000 miles are worth $100 at this industry-average redemption value. You should consider using your miles any time you can get at least one cent of value from each point.

Sometimes you won’t be able to achieve a one-cent redemption value. However, redeeming your points can still be better than paying cash for the entire purchase.

Save Your Loyalty Miles for First Class Travel

Frequent flyer miles are usually worth the most when you can redeem them for a first-class or business class flight. Each mile can be worth as much as six cents each when saving for a premium seat. 

It can take several months to accumulate enough miles for a first-class award flight. Because your miles are usually worth more than a main cabin flight, this is one instance when it pays to wait and book. 

Transfer Credit Card Points

Some travel credit cards let you transfer your points directly to your airline or hotel loyalty account. This can be an easy way to get more value from your points. The same points may only be worth one cent each when redeemed as a travel statement credit for the same flight. Transferring means you may need to redeem fewer miles if they can be worth more.

Before you transfer, it’s a good idea to verify award space is available. You cannot reverse point transfers back to your credit card.

Look for Credit Card Anniversary Awards

Some travel credit cards give you an anniversary award to reward your brand loyalty. You usually have one year to redeem the travel certificate.

Some hotel credit cards give you one free award night after your card anniversary. This night might be part of a multi-night stay, depending on the card. You can either use cash or points for the rest of the stay. 

Airline credit cards may waive the cash price for your companion’s seat when you book an award seat for yourself. It can be worth paying with miles in order to redeem the voucher and save money. 

Avoid Using Miles and Points for Merchandise

Your loyalty miles are usually the most valuable when redeemed for travel. Your points are the least valuable when redeeming for non-travel rewards like merchandise, gift cards, and magazines. 

Though, if you’re simply burning points before they expire, non-travel redemption can be better than watching them expire. But you should still try to redeem them for travel and travel upgrades when possible to get more value. 

When to Spend Your Miles and Points

You might focus on spending your miles instead of saving them in these instances:

  • Your miles will expire soon
  • The loyalty program is preparing to increase award travel prices
  • Each point is worth at least one cent each
  • There is a special discount on select travel rewards

When to Save Your Miles and Points

It’s worth hanging onto your miles in these circumstances:

  • Saving for a first-class long haul flight 
  • Your points won’t expire soon
  • No award availability for your desired travel times 

Managing your travel miles and points can feel like a balancing act at times. The best loyalty programs give you plenty of redemption options. Redeeming your rewards as often as possible helps ensure you get the best value.

DisclaimerOpinions expressed here are author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by TripIt. The author may include references to products from advertisers. For an explanation of this contributor’s advertising disclosure, please click here.