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Cash and Miles/Points
[Oct 2009 Issue]
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We take a close look at the cash plus miles or points options for award redemption.


From what we recall, the first program to offer members the possibility to combine cash and miles when redeeming for an award ticket was American Airlines when it ran a promotion back in the 1990s. While American's original cash and miles promotion was a limited-time offer, more loyalty programs these days are becoming flexible with award redemptions by offering cash and miles/points awards. InterContinental Priority Club Rewards introduced its new Points & Cash award option earlier this summer and Delta SkyMiles' Pay with Miles feature for credit cardmembers was announced last year.

In this month's AirPoll survey, we asked members whether they have ever redeemed cash and points or miles. While the majority of respondents have not taken advantage of these offers, most (70 percent) said they liked having the option. Around 25 percent said they have redeemed cash and points for a hotel stay and around 40 percent have used cash and miles for an award flight. Of those who haven't redeemed cash and points, nearly 30 percent think the value these awards offer isn't very good, which leads us to ask the question, are these offers a good deal? Just because more programs are letting you use a combination of miles or points and cash for awards, should you take advantage of these awards?

The programs are keen on these awards because they generate revenue to cover some, if not all, of the costs for an award flight or hotel stay. Members are basically subsidizing their own awards with the cash co-pay and programs can erase a few miles or points from their accounting sheets, decrease their liability and improve their financial bottom line.

But more importantly, are these awards valuable for you, the member? We'll take a look at the programs that allow combinations of cash with miles/points and give our advice on the best time to take advantage of these options (if there is ever a good time). In general, it pays to look closely at the numbers before you plop down your cash with your miles or points.

Hotels
Starwood Preferred Guest

Starwood Preferred Guest was the first hotel loyalty program to offer Cash & Points award nights when it introduced the award in 2002. Many members say they prefer to redeem Cash & Points for award stays; however, there are few who reasonably argue that using points alone for an award redemption is a better value than using points combined with cash for Starwood hotel stays.

How it works:

Starwood's Cash & Points feature allows members to use various combinations of cash and Starpoints to book hotel stays.

Here are the cash and points levels for one award night stay: 1,200 points + $25 (category 1; offered at Asia Pacific hotels only); 1,600 points + $30 (category 2; offered at Asia Pacific hotels only); 2,800 points + $45 (category 3); 4,000 points + $60 (category 4); 4,800 points + $90 (category 5); 8,000 points + $150 (category 6). Cash and points cannot be used for stays at category 7 hotels.

The number of points required for points-only stays are: 3,000 points on weekdays or 2,000 points on weekends (category 1); 4,000 points on weekdays or 3,000 points on weekends (category 2); 7,000 points (category 3); 10,000 points (category 4); 12,000 -- 16,000 points (category 5); 20,000 -- 25,000 points (category 6) and 30,000 -- 35,000 points (category 7).

Members do not earn points or miles on Cash & Points stays and these stays will not count for elite qualification.

Recommendation:

In short, you can't go wrong with Starwood's Cash & Points awards. Generally speaking, the cash co-pay will reduce the point requirement for an award stay by 50 percent or more. For stays at category six hotels, pay $150 and you'll receive a discount of 68 percent on the points required for a stay. BoardingArea.com blogger Gary Leff says, "Cash and points awards are always a better deal than the comparable points-only redemptions. Take for example a category 4 award comparison. An award night is 10,000 points. A cash and points award is 4,000 points and $60. The difference then is cash and points $60 to save 6,000 points, you are buying back your points at one cent apiece. Starwood points are worth much more than that." As a comparison, it costs $0.035 per point to buy points. Ric Garrido explains in his Loyalty Traveler column in this issue how his sister managed to save $1,400 using Starwood's Cash & Points awards.

InsideFlyer editor Randy Petersen is a huge fan of Cash & Points with Starwood and says that every award he's redeemed in the past five years with them has been using Cash & Points. He spent nearly 300,000 points and was able to procure most of the Sheraton Hotel in Mexico for guests at his wedding in 2005---around 300 room nights. Without Cash & Points, he would have needed to spend more than twice as many points.

There are, however, two disadvantages to booking a Cash & Points night at Starwood Hotels. Cash & Points award nights are subject to blackout dates and have limited availability, unlike award nights where any standard available room is available for points redemption. Plus, you won't earn any points for your stay even though you are shelling out cold hard cash. Cash & Points are only available at Asia Pacific properties at category 1 and 2 hotels and if you want to stay at Starwood's best hotels that have been designated as category 7 properties, your only choice is to save up enough points.

Another tip from Leff on booking these awards--"it's worth calling Starwood whenever you're looking for a cash and points night and the Web site says it is unavailable." He says he's been able to book Cash & Points stays over the phone even when they were unavailable online.

goldpoints plus

With goldpoints plus, you will need to do the math before deciding whether to redeem points or a combination of points plus cash for a particular award stay because goldpoints plus Points + Cash rates vary according to the individual hotel.

How it works:

For example, the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Westside is available for 30,000 points (all points) or 5,000 points plus $74.40. In this situation, you are saving 25,000 points for $74.40, which can be viewed as "buying" 25,000 points for $.003 each--a good deal if you were set on redeeming points for a hotel stay.

But another way to evaluate the offer is to look at the hotel rate, which is $124 for this hotel on the day we checked. By spending 5,000 points, you will get a $50 discount, making each spent point worth $.01, which isn't terrible, but we wouldn't say it's a great value either. Something to consider is that with goldpoints plus Points + Cash, members will earn points on the cash portion of the stay. In the example above, a member paying $74.40 plus 5,000 points would earn 1,488 points (20 points per dollar spent), so you're net point spend is only 3,512 points, making each point worth $.014.

Another example is the Radisson Hotel Chicago O'Hare, which we found for 5,000 points plus $62.40 or 25,000 points. The rate in cash is $104, which means you'll save only $41.60 at this hotel with the points and cash option, making each point that you spend worth $.011 (factoring in the 1,248 points you would earn on the cash part of the stay).

Recommendation:

Combining points with cash can be the best deal with goldpoints plus, but not in all situations. FlyerTalk member jpdx said, "On occasion, the cash portion of points and cash rates can exceed the actual cash only rate. Doing one's homework really pays off with this program."

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Priority Club Rewards

Using Points & Cash, members of InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards have two options when it comes to combining their cash and points.

How it works:

Members can spend $30 and reduce the point requirement for an award night by 5,000 points or pay $60 to reduce the points required by 10,000 points. Either way, members are essentially buying points for $.006 each instead of the $0.015 to $0.0135 normally required to purchase points. While the value of Points & Cash award nights isn't outstanding, it's definitely worth considering. But keep in mind that Priority Club members will not earn any points for Points & Cash awards.

Recommendation:

There is a backdoor way to get a great deal with Points & Cash if you combine the offer with the discounted PointBreaks awards that are only 5,000 points. Because Points & Cash award nights can be cancelled, you can book an award and pay the $30 co-pay for 5,000 points or $60 co-pay for 10,000 points and later cancel the award. All of your points will be refunded, including the 5,000 or 10,000 extra points you "purchased" with the co-pay, but you won't get your money back since you essentially bought the points. You can then use the extra points to book a PointBreaks award for 5,000 points and you've only paid $30 for a stay. PointBreak hotels, however, change every quarter and you will need to book them soon after they are announced for stays at the best properties being discounted.

Airlines
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan


Of the airlines, only Alaska Airlines and Midwest Airlines offer miles and cash combinations to all members. The legacy carriers offer cash and miles options only to members who carry their co-branded credit cards.

How it works:

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan offers a Money & Miles award starting at 7,500 miles one way and 15,000 miles roundtrip. With this award, members receive up to a 50 percent discount on most fares for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air flights. There is a cap on the amount of money you can save and the maximum discount is $250 off the base fare when redeeming 15,000 miles and $125 off the base fare when redeeming 7,500 miles.

Recommendation:

Mileage Plan members can earn miles on these awards but at the rate of only 50 percent of the miles flown and elite members will not receive complimentary upgrades when taking advantage of a Money & Miles award. Because of the discount cap, this offer isn't as valuable as it could be, but it's still a reasonable option. It's useful if you don't think you'll earn enough miles for a miles-only award trip or just want to save some cash, but the most value you can get is around $.017 per mile--which is a decent value and equivalent to what you would receive if you redeemed a 25,000-mile coach award for a ticket that would cost you $417.50. This option is most valuable on flights where the base fare is close to $250 or $500 so you can get the maximum discount without exceeding the limit.

Alaska Airlines also allows members to redeem miles for one-way flight awards, which may turn out to be a better deal than a miles and cash combination. For example, we looked at award availability and airfare for a flight between Seattle and Boston at the end of October. We found award seats at the cheapest Super Saver level for 25,000 miles roundtrip. A Money & Miles award on this itinerary can be redeemed for 15,000 miles plus $205.80. You can also redeem 12,500 miles for the outbound flight and pay $195.20 for the return trip.

In this case, you would save 2,500 miles and $10 by redeeming miles one way and paying for the return trip. You would only earn miles on the paid portion of the itinerary, but Money & Miles awards only earn 50 percent of the miles flown anyway so you wouldn't be missing out on earning any miles.

Midwest Miles

Midwest Airlines offers a roundtrip ticket on Midwest Airlines or Midwest Connect for 15,000 miles and $199 (plus taxes and fees) through its Dollars and Miles program.

How it works:

For example, we found a roundtrip flight from Kansas City to Milwaukee for $254.70 (including taxes and fees). If a member chose the Dollars and Miles option in this situation, they would end up paying 15,000 miles plus $235 ($199 + $36 in taxes and fees). Redeeming 15,000 miles for a $19.70 discount is obviously a very poor value for your miles.

However, we saw a roundtrip flight from Seattle to Boston for $1,234.10 (inclusive of taxes and fees). Unlike Mileage Plan, Midwest Miles does not have a maximum discount allowed and the cost for this trip would be 15,000 miles plus $329.84 ($199 + $130.84 in taxes and fees), a savings of around $900. Not bad for 15,000 miles. Then again, you can save your Midwest Miles and money by searching for a much cheaper Seattle to Boston fare on another airline. Members do not earn miles on Dollars and Miles awards.

Recommendation:

This is probably a deal most members will pass up, but there are situations where the Midwest Miles Dollars and Miles award option makes sense. If award seats are sold out or the flight you want to book is expensive, then this may be your best option. Keep in mind that you will have to pay taxes and fees on these awards, but there is no fare limit so the higher the fare, the more attractive this award becomes.

United Mileage Plus

With United Mileage Plus Choices, Mileage Plus Visa cardholders can redeem miles for any available seat on United, United Express or Star Alliance flights booked on united.com with no blackout dates.

How it works:

Each Choices mile is worth $.01 and after you purchase a ticket, you can redeem a minimum of 5,000 miles for a statement credit up to the full amount of the flight. For example, you can purchase a $320 ticket and redeem 32,000 miles for a Visa statement credit that will pay for your flight.

Recommendation:

There are a couple of disadvantages to the Choices program. You will never get more value from your miles than $.01 per mile, which is unacceptable for some savvy flyers who are accustomed to getting an eight to nine cents per mile value when redeeming miles for premium class international travel. Also, you will only earn Choices credit from purchases made with the Mileage Plus Visa. Miles earned from flying on United, staying at hotels or completing other partner activity will not accrue Choices credit. Only tickets booked online at United.com are eligible to be reimbursed with Choices miles so you won't be able to call reservations and book a flight if you want to redeem through this program.

There are a few benefits, however, that make the Choices program valuable in certain situations. Unlike with award tickets obtained from redeeming miles only, members can redeem miles to cover the entire cost of the flight, including taxes and fees. Plus, you will earn redeemable flight miles and EQMs/Segments for your flight, which is key if you are close to the end of the year and still need to qualify or requalify for elite status. And there are no blackout dates so if award inventory is sold out but there are still open seats on a flight, a Mileage Plus Visa cardholder could still redeem miles for a flight.

FlyerTalk member WineCountryUA describes a situation where using Choices was a better option than using miles on a flight between San Francisco and Boston where the price in W class was $378. A standard award was available for 50,000 miles. Paying for this flight with Choices would cost 37,800 miles and earn 10,800 miles plus 5,400 elite-qualifying miles (for a 1P elite member). Plus, the flight is upgradeable. Taking into account the miles earned from flying, the net cost in miles would be 27,000 miles. "Very good deal compared to 50,000 Standard and even a good deal compared to 25,000 Saver, if available (considering EQMs, upgradeable and seat availability). With some generalizing, less expensive tickets are probably better with the Choices point approach and the advantage decreases as the ticket purchase price increases."

There is, however, an annual fee for the credit card--$60 for the Mileage Plus Visa and $140 for the Mileage Plus Platinum Class Visa.

Delta SkyMiles

Delta's Pay with Miles is only offered to SkyMiles members with a Gold, Platinum or Reserve Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express. Unlike United's Mileage Plus Choices program, SkyMiles does not designate between miles earned from credit card spending and other ways of accruing miles so all of the miles in your SkyMiles account are eiligble to be used with Pay with Miles.

Northwest WorldPerks members could take advantage of both Cash and Miles awards and PerkChoice awards where members could redeem miles one way and cash for the return, but both of these programs will be eliminated with the program's integration into SkyMiles.

How it works:

With Delta's program, if your base fare is less than $100, you can redeem 25,000 miles to cover the total fare (including taxes and fees). For base fares between $100 and $249, you can redeem 10,000 miles for $100 off the total fare and increase in increments of 5,000 miles ($50 off) to cover the total fare, up to 25,000 miles for a $250 discount.

For base fares between $250 and $1,000, you can redeem 10,000 miles for $100 off the total fare or increase the redemption in increments of 5,000 miles ($50 off) to cover all or part of the total fare (15,000 miles for $150 off, 20,000 miles for $200 off, etc.).

For flights that cost $1,000 or more, you can redeem 10,000 miles for $100 off the total fare or increase the redemption in increments of 10,000 miles ($100 off) to cover all or part of the total fare (20,000 miles for $200 off, 30,000 miles for $300 off, etc.).

Recommendation:

Pay with Miles can only be used on Delta or Delta Connection flights (unlike United Choices that can be used on Star Alliance flights as well) on any available seat and members will not receive miles or upgrades on tickets purchased fully or partially with Pay with Miles. As with United Choices, the greatest value you can get for your miles is $.01 per mile. And you will need to redeem miles in increments of 5,000 or 10,000 miles, making Pay with Miles not as flexible as Choices. The annual fee for the Gold SkyMiles AMEX is $95, $150 for the Platinum and $450 for the Reserve Card.
Because of the way Pay with Miles redemption is set up, we advise against ever redeeming miles if the base fare is less than $100. Even with the taxes and fees included, you'll only get about a $.005 per mile value if you redeem 25,000 miles for a ticket just under $100. Those same 25,000 miles can be used for a $250 discount off a more expensive fare.

Continental OnePass

Continental's TravelBank credit card is similar to United Mileage Plus Choices and Delta's Pay with Miles, offering a way for members to get credit for money spent that can be used for award flights. Continental also offers limited-time cash and miles offers on discounted, last minute flights.

How it works:

Continental Airlines TravelBank World MasterCard members earn one TravelBank credit for every dollar spent on the card and three credits for every eligible dollar spent on cable, wireless or telecommunications purchases. An additional $5 will be deposited into your account when purchasing tickets at continental.com and $25 every year you spend $10,000.

TravelBank Credits can be redeemed for a discount off Continental airfare at--you guessed it--$.01 per credit. For example, you can redeem $250 TravelBank credits for a $250 discount. Again, the advantages and disadvantage to this card are similar to Delta's Pay with Miles and United's Mileage Plus Choices. But keep in mind that OnePass members can earn miles on tickets purchased with TravelBank credits and the annual fee on the card is lower than the others at $29.

Every week Continental publishes special deals where members can spend a combination of OnePass miles plus a fee. Because Continental's cash and miles offers apply to discounted, last-minute fares, in most cases you're better off paying for the flight and saving your miles. Spending $119 on a roundtrip flight from Houston to Austin is a better deal than the 15,000 miles plus $36 fee for a cash and miles trip. However, you may find a deal where the cash and mile combo works out in your favor. For example, we saw a roundtrip flight from Houston to Bogota, Colombia for 20,000 miles plus $36. You would need to spend 35,000 miles to book this same trip using all miles and $36 is definitely worth the 15,000-mile discount.

Recommendation:

Unlike the other two cards, TravelBank credits can only be used as cash credit towards the cost of a flight--you cannot earn OnePass miles for credit card spending with the TravelBank card. A benefit of this card is that members will earn miles on tickets purchased with TravelBank credit. This is basically a variation of a one percent cashback card where you can only redeem the cashback on Continental flights.

With United's Choices, Delta's Pay with Miles and Continental's TravelBank, the value you can get is limited to a less-than-breathtaking penny per mile or credit. But there are situations where you may be able to get more value from these programs than you would otherwise by taking advantage of the fact that these programs give you full access to airline seats without restrictions.

For example, let's say you need to travel across the country over the holidays--you can't be flexible on your travel dates and don't want to pay for a ticket. You probably won't be able to redeem your miles at the 25,000-mile saver level so you'll need to redeem 50,000 miles for an unrestricted seat (60,000 miles for a seat during high travel times on Delta). The cheapest flight we found on Continental between Houston and New York City for leaving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and returning the Monday after is $357.70 (including taxes and fees).

Using Continental's TravelBank credits, you could redeem 35,770 credits to cover the cost of the ticket. If you were unable to find a 25,000-mile saver award (which is likely during the holidays), you would need to redeem 50,000 miles, for a value of less than a penny per mile at around $.007.

Other airlines' take on cash and miles

Etihad offers an innovative 1MileRedemption program and "slider" tool, which allows members to redeem miles as soon as they start to accrue them. And unlike with most U.S.-based programs, you don't need to carry a co-branded credit card to be able to take advantage of cash and miles awards. Members can redeem as few as one mile and can enter any combination of miles and cash for an award ticket. Members can enter either the number of miles or amount of cash they want to spend and the tool will calculate the exact combination of miles and cash required for their itinerary.

American Airlines doesn't allow members to combine miles and cash for award redemptions, but it made a move in a similar direction by introducing one-way awards, allowing members to essentially combine cash and miles by redeeming miles for one leg and paying for the return trip. This option isn't as flexible as some of the other cash and miles programs since you will need a minimum of 12,500 miles to redeem for a coach award ticket one way, but it does allow members to use miles and cash on a single itinerary, which wasn't possible before.

Buying Miles or Points

As a last ditch resort, you can always buy miles or points to reach an award level and customize your own miles/points and cash award. This is almost always the most expensive way to obtain miles and points and we rarely recommend this approach, but it is available and worth considering if you are close to an award. To buy 5,000 miles from American AAdvantage would cost $167.50--over $.03 per mile. If you have 20,000 miles already, buying the miles would give you enough miles for a coach domestic ticket. While the miles are expensive when you buy them from the airline, $167.50 for a roundtrip ticket anywhere in the continental U.S. or Canada isn't a bad deal. But if you can wait to earn the miles by flying or completing partner activity, you could earn another 5,000 miles and fly for next to nothing.

As a comparison, if you were to buy the entire 25,000 miles from American, it would cost $655, which would be a great deal for the airline but not so great for you. Occasionally airlines will offer bonus mile offers for purchasing miles where you can get more bang for your buck but even with the bonuses, buying miles is an expensive route to obtaining more miles.

Conclusion

Cash and miles/points award options are here to stay and we expect to see more programs add these types of hybrid awards as loyalty programs become more flexible with award redemptions.

We asked some of the programs who don't currently offer a cash and miles/points option whether they have plans to add this feature in the future. Our contact at Mariott Rewards pointed out that they allow members to book rooms with points even if they don't have all of the points in their account at the time of booking. A week before the trip if they still don't have enough points in their account, they can decide if they want to purchase points or use cash to pay for the entire stay. A spokesperson for Hyatt Gold Passport informed us, "currently we do not offer the ability to combine cash and miles or points for an award" and she did not elaborate further if it would ever be a possibility. Our US Airways contact told us, "At this time, we don't have any plans to do a miles and cash program." When we asked our contact at Southwest Rapid Rewards, she said, "We don't have the option to combine credits with cash for awards. Currently, a member must earn the credits solely through flights on Southwest or by utilizing our Rapid Rewards partners."

When IHG introduced its Flights Anywhere last month, it took the idea of redeeming points for flights one step further and added the option to combine points and cash for flight awards. Not only can members now redeem points for flights, but even if they are short on points, they can opt for a co-pay and cash in on a flight award.

In the long run, it's all about flexibility for program members. You might not always like the value proposition, but you might still be able to get a seat or hotel room without having to pay full price.


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