What is the value of miles and points by airline, hotel and credit card program? Miles used to be thought to be worth 2 cents. I think that conventional wisdom developed out of the idea that a cross country flight cost about $500… or 25,000 miles. 20 years ago that was generally true, and award availability wasn’t really a problem either.
That was long before:
- Airline alliances opened up huge possibilities for miles.
- Mileage programs increased the cost of many awards.
- Awards became tougher to get with flights full.
Plus the 2 cent number probably wasn’t ever a true value of miles to begin with.
Many different folks have taken a stab at how much miles are worth. For this post I’m not going to give you a single number. I’m going to share my own rough and ready number for several different programs. And I’m going to explain how I think about the value of miles — why they are different for different people, and for different circumstances of how you plan to use them.
I haven’t published updated valuations in over a year so it seemed like a good time to look at the value of miles. Plenty has changed affect the value of the underlying currencies since I looked at this last. For instance,
- Awards on American Airlines flights have gotten even tougher to book (availability)
- United’s routing rules have tightened up
- Several Delta award chart devaluations and then increasing the price of partner awards… a lot
- Singapore Airlines no longer gives a 15% discount for booking online, and raised the price of Singapore-only saver awards, while eliminating fuel surcharges
- Citi Prestige’s ability to redeem points for American Airlines tickets at a premium goes away in late July
- Marriott points now transfer back and forth to Starwood (1:3), and Virgin America points move to Alaska (1:1.3)
How to Think About The Value of Miles
Here’s how to think about the value of miles and points by airline, hotel and credit card program.
It depends on how you redeem them. What value are you going to get for your points? The important thing here is not to use the retail price of a ticket you’re getting, since
- with premium cabin rewards you might not have been willing to spend that much cash.
- Frequent flyer tickets aren’t necessarily worth as much as a paid ticket. They don’t earn miles. They may not be upgradeable. And you can’t necessarily just pick whatever flight you want, you have to be flexible and worry about award availability.
It depends on when you’re going to redeem them. You don’t earn a rate of return on miles and points like you might with cash in a bank or investment account. And you need to discount to present value if you’re going to use the points later. Plus there’s substantial risk of devaluation with many points currencies.
It depends on how many you already have. The value of points at the margin is different than an overall average value. As you approach having enough points for an award, the marginal value of a few more points goes up substantially — since those extra points are what make the award possible. On the other hand, once you have more points than you’ll redeem in the near-term the value of additional points falls since you may not ever use them, or may not use them under current award charts.
The value of a mile is the amount at which you are indifferent to holding miles versus cash.
If a mile is ‘worth’ 2 cents you should be equally happy with a mile or two pennies, if you’re offered a mile at a price of 1.9 cents you would be a buyer — you’d consider yourself to be earning a 5% margin.
Put another way, when we put a charge on a credit card, that doesn’t earn any bonuses (it earns 1 mile per dollar spent), we’re effectively buying that mile for 2 cents since the opportunity cost is putting the charge on a 2% cash back card. You’re revealing a preference through your behavior that you believe the mile is worth two cents.
Here Are the Valuations
Airline Frequent Flyer Miles:
The most valuable points, at the top of my currency list, are transferrable points. That means Starwood, American Express, and Chase points. You can transfer those into a variety of programs. Earning those gives you tremendous flexibility and optionality.
I value Chase points higher than Amex points because of their specific partners, such as United (no fuel surcharges) and Korean (great first class availability, great value award chart) as well as Hyatt (the only really good value hotel transfer partner). I love Citi points but their best partners are duplicated elsewhere (Singapore, Air France, Etihad).
You’ll see I don’t value a Barclaycard point at a full penny, even though you can redeem points for one cent towards airfare and the Arrival+ card even gives you a 5% rebate on those redemptions. That’s a function of the discounts I take relative to cash, and for currency risk (they’ve devalued before).
A single Virgin America Elevate point is the most valuable airline mile, but their points-earning and redemption tables are somewhat deflated. At this point the value is driven by transfers to Alaska Airlines at 1-to-1.3.
How to Use These Valuations
Since valuation here is the amount at which you are indifferent to holding miles versus cash this figure is useful for:
- Comparing when to spend miles or cash. Should I spend 50,000 miles for an award ticket or $700?
- Comparing when to spend on airline’s miles versus another for the same award. Should I spend 25,000 United miles or 35,000 Delta miles?
- Comparing the value of different credit card signup bonuses. Is an 80,000 point offer from Marriott better than a 75,000 point offer from Hilton? In fact, I view a 50,000 point offer from Chase Sapphire Preferred better than both (and that’s without the 5000 extra points for adding an authorized user to the account).
- Determining which hotel chain offers the better value reward when you’re considering staying at two different hotels. Should you spend 12,000 Starwood points or 35,000 Hilton points?
- Deciding whether to buy points when there’s a big bonus promotion.
- Figuring out how much extra you might be willing to spend to earn points through a bonus promotion, or figure out whether a hotel promotion should influence your decision about where to stay
But since the value of miles isn’t precise I won’t actually pay 1.5 cents for an American mile. I want to accumulate American miles when they’re substantially less costly than 1.5 cents apiece. And I know I am clearly not a buyer at 2.5 cents.
In practice these are fairly blunt tools that tell me “1 cent a point for American miles is a really good deal” but that I’m not going to spend 2 cents unless there’s a very specific scenario — like a few points at the margin to top off an account for an award I’ve put on hold — where it makes sense (and in that scenario, my valuation of each point is higher since they’re helping me to save with a real redemption).
How My Valuations Compare to Others
How Do You Value Your Miles?
What is your value of miles and points by airline, hotel and credit card program?
Let me know if you think I’m off base on any of my valuations and make your case between me, Lucky, and Brian Kelly for whose valuations are most reasonable.