(NerdWallet) – With flights getting more expensive around Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, you may be inclined to use accumulated points and miles to try to save some money. About 30% of holiday travelers plan to use points and miles to pay for travel expenses in 2023, according to a NerdWallet survey conducted by The Harris Poll of more than 2,000 adults.
That might have been a dependable money-saving strategy five or 10 years ago, back when airlines published award charts that clearly showed how many points or miles you’d need to book a flight. But most U.S. airlines have switched to dynamic award pricing, meaning the cost in points can fluctuate as much as cash prices do.
So in many cases, holiday flights on points are no longer the deal they once were — and can be high enough to make your jaw drop. In fact, you might get a lower cent-per-point value than usual if you’re not careful.
What the data says about holiday travel on miles
NerdWallet does an annual analysis of the value of airline miles. Conducted in August, the analysis looks at redeeming miles for flights 15 days in advance, for flights 180 days in advance, and for holiday flights. (For the latter, NerdWallet looked at flights departing Dec. 22, one of the busiest days to fly around the winter holidays, and returning Dec. 29.) The results show that airline miles are generally worth less around the last week of December.
If you’re flying domestically, there are two ways to think about getting maximum value for miles.
- One would be to use the airline miles that are worth the most around the holidays, so you’ll need fewer miles than you would if you booked a similarly priced flight on another airline. In that case, your best bet would be to fly American Airlines or Southwest Airlines, because both airlines’ miles are worth 1.5 cents, the highest holiday valuation of the domestic airlines in the analysis.
- The alternative is to use airline miles that have the greatest value at the holidays relative to other times of the year. The analysis found that miles on Frontier Airlines are actually worth more at the holidays, although that comes with some caveats. Meanwhile, miles on Southwest, Delta Air Lines and Spirit Airlines had the same value on holiday redemptions as on nonholiday flights.
If you’re flying internationally, you have other options to maximize your miles.
1.5 cents per mile is good for holiday travel
Among U.S. airlines, American and Southwest have the highest-valued miles when redeemed for holiday flights. Their miles are worth about 1.5 cents per dollar during the holidays. For American, this is slightly lower than its usual valuation at 1.7 cents per dollar. For Southwest, the 1.5 cents per point is the same as nonholiday travel redemptions.
To determine the redemption value of miles, divide the cash price of the flight by the number of miles required to get it.
|Holiday travel valuation (per mile)||Nonholiday travel valuation (per mile)||Difference between holiday travel and nonholiday travel valuation (per mile)|
|Alaska Airlines||1.3 cents.||1.4 cents.||-0.1 cent.|
|American Airlines||1.5 cents.||1.7 cents.||-0.2 cent.|
|Delta Air Lines||1.2 cents.||1.2 cents.||No difference.|
|Frontier Airlines||1.3 cents.||1.1 cents.||-0.2 cent.|
|Hawaiian Airlines||1.0 cent.||1.2 cents.||-0.2 cent.|
|JetBlue Airways||1.3 cents.||1.5 cents.||-0.2 cent.|
|Southwest Airlines||1.5 cents.||1.5 cents.||No difference.|
|Spirit Airlines||0.8 cent.||0.8 cent.||No difference.|
|United Airlines||1.1 cents.||1.2 cents.||-0.1 cent.|
Frontier Airlines is the only airline that fared better in the analysis than usual. Its holiday valuation of 1.3 cents per point is slightly higher than its normal baseline of 1.1 cent. However, this cost considers only the base fare — added fees for seat selection or baggage might decrease your value per point.
To maximize your points, consider international airlines
The highest-valued miles during the holidays don’t come from U.S.-based airlines. If you’re planning on vacationing during the holidays and aren’t tied to a specific location, you could blow the 1.5-cents-per-point mark out of the water if you were to fly, say, ANA (All Nippon Airways) or Singapore Airlines to Asia.
Not only do both airlines consistently rank as the world’s best in Skytrax’s rankings, but they also still have award charts, so their award flight prices generally don’t go up as much as the dynamic prices in other programs. ANA’s miles are worth 2.8 cents per mile during the holidays, the same as usual. Singapore’s miles are worth 2.1 cents per mile during the holidays, up from 1.5 cents usually.
If you haven’t flown these airlines recently (or ever), you might still be able to book with miles if you have a travel credit card that transfers to either of these airlines’ loyalty programs. ANA is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, and Singapore Airlines is a transfer partner of both AmEx and Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Use the same strategies to save as you would on flights booked with cash
If the price in miles makes your head spin, remember that the principles for saving are the same for flights booked in cash and points. To reduce the cost of holiday flights, you can try:
- Flying on less popular days. Less demand equals lower cash prices. And less expensive flights mean they usually cost less in miles, too. According to Transportation Security Administration data, you’ll want to avoid days like the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which is generally the busiest single travel day in U.S. airports all year.
- Use a combination of miles and cash. Delta and United offer the choice of paying for your fare partially in miles and partially in cash, which is a nice option if you don’t have sufficient miles for the fare you’re booking. Booking through your credit card’s travel portal also yields a miles and cash option. Lastly, consider other ways to unbundle your travel like paying cash for a one-way flight and miles for the way back.
- Go international when everyone else is going domestic. Thanksgiving week can be a cheaper time to travel abroad because it’s not a holiday in other countries. If you’re thinking about going abroad around the end of December, consider Thanksgiving instead.
You may be feeling the squeeze on holiday travel because it seems too expensive right now. Flight cash prices can still feel high, even though data from the consumer price index actually indicates that they are lower than they were before the pandemic (September 2023 airfares were about 6.5% lower than airfares in September 2019.) Redeeming miles can be a good way to lower your travel costs, but make sure you’re not spending more miles than it’s worth.