The Value of a Mile or Point

The Value of a Mile or Point

One of the questions I get asked most often is what a mile or point is worth. People seem to wonder both what the cash value and the relative value of a mile is (though knowing one, it’s easier to figure out the other). Why does the cash value of a mile matter? Because in the past few years, the airlines and hotel chains have been doing a lot more straight selling of miles and points than before. Beyond that, the relative value of miles or points is quite significant, as you often have to choose between earning miles or points in various programs. For example, for many of my Hyatt stays I choose to earn miles instead of points if the numbers work out in my favor.

There are a few things to keep in mind before I get started with my actual valuations. First of all, when “rating” a dozen or so programs, it’ll be easy for anyone to provide a counterargument for any one program. So please keep in mind that the numbers I come up with are just my perspective; there is no right or wrong valuation, as we all have different things we use our miles and points for.

Second of all, a question I’m frequently asked is whether to use miles or pay for a revenue ticket. Hopefully this post will help in the decision making process. So if your option is between booking an $800 ticket from New York to Singapore or using 65,000 miles for coach, which will you go with? There’s one important factor people often overlook, which is absolutely vital–on the revenue ticket you’d earn miles, while you wouldn’t on the award ticket. So let’s say you’re flying from New York to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Singapore roundtrip, and have top-tier status with United. By booking the award you’d be giving up 45,000 redeemable miles (actual flown distance of 22,500 miles, plus the 100 percent elite bonus), which needs to be factored in when making your decision. So now the question is whether you’d spend $800 for what essentially amounts to 110,000 miles, and that doesn’t even begin to take into account the status benefits you could get from the revenue ticket.

Next, some may completely disagree with me about the absolute value of points. I don’t base the values of my points on the revenue price of a flight. I know many people like to say they get 15+ cents of value per mile, and that’s fine, but when that’s based on a $20,000 ticket to Singapore, I doubt you’d actually pay that. I like premium cabins, but ultimately I don’t “value” a first class ticket to Asia at more than $2,500 or so, when coach would be half the price. Of course I’m also a college student and don’t make a million dollars a year, so that’s a big part of it.

Lastly, my valuation will be based on what I think the miles are actually worth, and not how much they can be purchased for. US Airways, for example, has offered promotions for a couple of years now whereby it’s possible to purchase miles almost continuously for around one cent each. If I valued those miles at one cent each, though, this post would be pretty worthless, since I’m more focused on comparative value. So everything below is based on what I consider them to be worth in relative terms, as opposed to in absolute terms.

Anyway, without blabbing on forever, here are my thoughts:

Airlines:
Aeroplan — 1.8

I consider Aeroplan to be the most valuable mileage currency for a few reasons. First of all, they have one of the most favorable award charts. From the U.S., first class to Europe is only 100,000 miles, first class to most of Asia is only 120,000 miles and first class to Australia is a mere 140,000 miles. Beyond that, they don’t charge any fuel surcharges as long as you don’t fly on Air Canada, and they have some very liberal routing and stopover rules. On intercontinental awards, you’re allowed two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw, which is very generous. They allow you to route from the U.S. to Asia via the Atlantic or the Pacific, or even one in each direction!

Furthermore, I have quite a bit of faith in Aeroplan. They’re an independent company from Air Canada, so they have an incentive to keep their redemption rates reasonable, especially since they get a lot of their “business” from Membership Rewards, which people transfer miles from. Screw up the redemption values and they’ll be out quite a bit of $$$.

There’s nothing I love more than the 120,000-mile redemption option from the U.S. to Asia. Last year I went to Istanbul and Hong Kong on an award (via Chicago, Zurich and London, returning via Bangkok, Munich, Zurich and New York), and I just got back from an award to Singapore and Seoul (via Washington, Tokyo, Bangkok and Frankfurt).

Alaska Mileage Plan — 1.4

I consider Alaska Airlines to be the slut of the skies, in the most endearing way possible. They’re partners with dozens of airlines, and have very reasonable redemption rates. There are some real bargains in their award charts, and they are partners with some real world-class airlines, like Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Actually, there are very few oneworld and SkyTeam airlines they aren’t partners with. And they also have some very nice routing rules. For example, they’ll let you fly from the U.S. to Australia via Asia on Cathay Pacific.

But there’s one major problem, or maybe it’s a good thing: they’re safe about their sluttiness–they don’t let you mix and match partners. This can be incredibly frustrating and challenging. So if you want to fly Cathay Pacific, you can’t fly American Airlines to a Cathay Pacific gateway, even though American is another one of their partners. They will, however, allow you to book Alaska to a partner airline gateway for no additional cost, but that’s not all that valuable unless you live on the West Coast.

So if you live in a city that has international service by one of their partners your miles are probably worth a bit more, but living in Tampa I’d have to buy a ticket to a gateway.

It’s also worth noting that they have a limited number of good partners to Europe. British Airways is a partner, but they charge fuel surcharges of up to $500 for award flights on them.

American AAdvantage — 1.5

American has a reasonable award chart, though I wouldn’t call the redemption options bargains, really. They do allow one-way awards, which means you can mix-and-match cabins, but when they started offering that they also eliminated stopovers. Stopovers are one of the things I loved most about awards, and what really added value to them compared to a revenue ticket.

American has some great airline partners, including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, JAL, LAN and Qantas. Unfortunately, you can’t fly British Airways between the U.S. and Europe on an award using AAdvantage miles, which is a real negative. So that really limits the selection of quality airlines to Europe.

Continental OnePass — 1.6

Continental miles have become much more valuable since the airline joined the Star Alliance. Unlike United they don’t block any partner award availability, and they allow one stopover AND one open jaw on award tickets. Their award chart isn’t a particular bargain, but they do seem to have access to some award space that other airlines don’t have access to. Not sure how, but they’ve had quite a bit of space on both Singapore Airlines and Swiss that other Star Alliance members don’t have access to, which makes their miles a bit more valuable.

There is a bit of uncertainty surrounding OnePass miles as the merger with United progresses. We know they’ll still exist, but the question is whether United’s policies of Starnet blocking will be adopted, which could devalue OnePass miles a bit.

It’s also worth noting that Continental is partners with Emirates for the time being, which is pretty cool. That means A380 business class award space isn’t too tough to come by at a reasonable cost.

Delta SkyMiles — 1.0

They’re called SkyPesos for a reason. Delta miles are the absolute bottom of the barrel mileage currency. They used to at least be redeemable for Singapore Airlines flights, including in first class, but that partnership recently ended. Now there are no options to redeem miles in international first class.

With Delta miles you have access to the rather limited SkyTeam award availability, and space on Delta is especially tough to come by. Through their “tiered” award system, they’ve basically made the low level awards near impossible to come by. Even off season, most business class award tickets to Europe will cost you 150,000 miles.

United Mileage Plus — 1.3

Ah, United miles. They’re so close to being awesome, yet so far away. United’s award chart looks very similar to Continental’s, with one huge asterisk–they block some Star Alliance partner award availability, which is referred to as Starnet blocking. This is especially common on airlines like Lufthansa, where you might find award space using various tools, but when you call United they don’t “see” the flight. Unfortunately there’s no transparency either, as there’s no way to search their Star Alliance availability online, with the exception of Continental and US Airways.

United does allow one-way awards on their own flights (not on partners), and on all intercontinental Star Alliance awards allows one stopover OR one open jaw, but not both.

We can hope that if/when the United/Continental merger goes through, Starnet blocking will be a practice of the past. But I’m probably just dreaming.

US Airways Dividend Miles — 1.6

Ah, US Airways miles. They’re comically valuable. US Airways constantly has promotions through which they give away sell miles for anything from 0.7 cents to 1.3 cents each, but if used properly, their miles are worth so much more. They recently increased the cost for some Star Alliance awards, but their rates are still reasonable.

Most importantly, though, they have virtually no routing rules, at least in practice. Agents will allow almost any kind of ticket to be booked. I’ve even heard of people going from the U.S. to Europe via Asia!

The one thing that prevents me from valuing US Airways miles at more than Continental miles is that I just don’t trust US Airways. And I’m not even talking about them going out of business, but rather in terms of the way they run Dividend Miles. There’s just some small bit of uncertainty in me that prevents me from keeping too many US Airways miles in my account at once. But if you can earn and burn right away, they’re great.

Hotels:
Hilton HHonors — 0.7

As of early this year, top Hilton hotels go for 50,000 points per night, which is quite steep. Fortunately, they do have some really nice properties, which make it worthwhile.

The best way to get a better value with Hilton points is by getting the American Express Hilton credit card, because they offer some special award values for cardholders. For example, four nights at a category 7 hotel cost 170,000 points, instead of the usual 200,000 points. They have various types of special awards for card members depending on the length of the stay and category of the hotel, but the savings are substantial.

Hyatt Gold Passport — 1.5

Since a few months ago, Hyatt is my all around favorite hotel chain. They did, however, recently devalue the Gold Passport program slightly, by increasing the award cost per night, especially for top hotels. Top hotels used to cost 18,000 points per night, but now cost 22,000 points per night.

Even so, Hyatt has some incredible properties that are even a bargain at that rate. Some Park Hyatt properties are among the best hotels out there, and Hyatt honors all elite benefits on award stays, which is nice. So as a Diamond member, for example, you get free Internet and free breakfast, even when using points.

It’s worth noting, however, that Hyatt has tons of promotions through which you can earn free nights, which is an out-of-this-world good bargain. For example, Hyatt’s “Big Welcome Back” through which you could earn one free night at any hotel worldwide for every second stay. And they typically have a similar promotion in the fourth quarter of each year. There’s a reason I switched most of my business to Hyatt back in March, and am coming up on 40 stays.

Marriott Rewards — 0.8

Marriott, frankly, is the hotel program I’m least familiar with. Their high elite qualification requirements and limited benefits have prevented me from being loyal to them. But they do have a reasonable award chart and some very nice properties, especially in Europe. A top hotel goes for 40,000 points, and using points the fifth night is free. While I don’t usually spend that much time in any given city, that would bring the cost down to 32,000 points per night for a five night stay. Not bad for one of their super-nice hotels in Europe.

But I just have a hard time valuing them at much more than Hilton or Priority Club points.

IHG Priority Club Rewards — 0.6

I know I said I wouldn’t base the value of points off the price they can be purchased at, but Priority Club points can consistently be purchased for 0.6 cents each using a trick (visit http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?2707), so it’s hard to value them at more. In general I think it’s a fair value, though. Top InterContinental hotels cost 40,000 points per night, and I’d say $240 is a fair value for them, given that you’re not earning points.

One slight frustration with Priority Club points is that they don’t technically honor elite benefits on award stays, unlike most other hotel chains. As a Royal Ambassador, I usually get fantastic in-hotel benefits, so the lack of benefits on award stays reduces the value of points for me somewhat.

At the same time, Priority Club often has PointBreaks hotels, where they offer stays for 5,000 points per night at select properties. This is a complete bargain, and a huge lure for the program. Occasionally there are even top InterContinental hotels on that list, but not quite as often as in the past.

All that being said, Priority Club points are incredibly easy to earn through their various promotions, which is yet another huge plus for the program. So don’t take the low points value as a reason to avoid them.

Starwood Preferred Guest — 2.5

Ah, Starwood points, the most valuable currency out there. A lot of people redeem Starwood points for hotel stays, and that can definitely be a good value, but I’m not in any way loyal to Starwood hotels, but rather only their American Express card. So for me the value is in mileage redemptions.

Starwood allows miles to be transferred to dozens of airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, and for every 20,000 points you transfer, you get a 5,000-mile bonus. So that means that 20,000 Starwood points gets you 25,000 miles in most programs.
But even then, the math wouldn’t add up there if that were it. That brings the cost of each mile to two cents, and I stated above that Aeroplan is the most valuable currency, yet only worth 1.8 cents.

So what makes up for the difference? There have been so many transfer promotions lately, that I’m starting to think it only makes sense to transfer Starwood points when there’s some massive bonus offer. For example, American is offering a 35 percent bonus on Starwood transfers over the next few days, and US Airways is offering a 50 percent bonus. And keep in mind, that’s in addition to the 25 percent bonus when transferring in chunks of 20,000.

The only slight downside to the mileage transfers is that it can take a week or two for the miles to post to the account. That’s quite frustrating, unlike Membership Rewards, where the transfer is typically instant. Lots of times you’ll see the award you want and then make the transfer, but that’s not typically possible with Starwood.

Credit Cards:
American Express Membership Rewards — 2.0

Membership Rewards points can be converted at a 1:1 ratio to many mileage programs. There are lots of options, but the best is definitely the Aeroplan program. In some cases, a transfer to ANA might make sense as well, as they have incredible bargains for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class tickets.

But the flexibility and ability to instantly transfer the miles to many programs is what makes Membership Rewards points incredibly valuable.

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