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Want More Value From Your Travel Points or Miles? Book Economy

Low-priced business-class award tickets are extremely hard to find, but economy-class awards can be plentiful.

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When you redeem your credit card points or miles for travel rewards, you’ll usually receive more value than you would from cash back, gift cards or merchandise. 

Among travel enthusiasts, conventional wisdom says you’ll receive the most value from your points and miles when you redeem them for travel in business or first class. Award travel involves covering the price of airfare, hotel stays or another aspect of your travel by using credit card rewards you’ve earned by making purchases. 

Maximizing rewards by redeeming for business- or first-class seats was true for decades, and it still makes sense in some instances. But increasingly, we’re starting to see more value from miles redeemed for economy-class tickets. 

How to get the most from your points or miles

Credit card points and miles can typically be redeemed for a variety of rewards, including cash back and travel. The key to receiving the most value from your points and miles is to clearly identify the alternative amount you would’ve spent if you didn’t redeem them. 

The typical redemption rate is 1 cent per point or mile -- or less -- when redeeming your rewards for cash back, gift cards or merchandise. A good, baseline value to look for in your points is at least 2 cents per point. Typically, you’ll need to utilize point transfers to see that kind of value.

You can calculate the value of a reward by dividing the value of the reward in dollars by the points required to redeem the reward.

For example, if you can purchase an economy-class ticket to Europe for $1,800 or book the ticket by redeeming 80,000 miles, then you’ll receive 2.25 cents in value per mile redeemed (1,800 / 80,000) -- far better than the typical rate. 

Why booking economy class can save you more

The lowest prices in miles for award flights in international business are typically about double the price of an economy-class ticket. And since an international business-class ticket can sometimes cost three or four times the price of an economy-class ticket, it’s possible to receive even more value per point or mile redeemed.

For example, a one-way, United economy-class ticket from Denver (DEN) to Athens (ATH) would run you $901, while a business-class ticket costs $5,605. 

The economy ticket could be booked for 43,900 miles, which means you’d get a per-point value of 2.05 cents. The business ticket can be booked using 175,000 miles, which translates to a per-point value of 3.20 cents. 

But considering what you’d have spent to earn the business-class ticket, booking economy is likely still more cost effective. Also, were you to have enough miles to book the business-class ticket and you still chose to book economy, you’d have enough miles left over to book one or even two more trips.

Additionally, when trying to use your points and miles to book these business-class awards at the lowest prices, obstacles can arise.

Limited valuable award seats

First, airlines are extremely stingy in the number of business-class international award seats they make available at the lowest prices. In fact, it’s normal for an airline to offer no business-class international award seats on a popular route at the lowest mileage levels. Plenty of seats are often available for much higher mileage levels, but that prevents travelers from receiving a good value from their miles. 

When they are available, business-class award seats at the lowest mileage levels may be for a less desirable route with multiple layovers.

Challenges with group travel

Airlines will often release one or two business-class awards at the lowest mileage levels on a particular flight. This can be great for singles and couples, but families and other groups are almost always out of luck. I have a family of five, and in my experience, I’ve found some airlines will occasionally offer flights with four business-class award seats at the lowest miles, but it’s extremely rare to see more than that. 

Furthermore, these “unicorn” flights that have four or more business-class award seats at the lowest mileage levels, are usually available very far in advance. To have the best chance of booking them, you should start searching as soon as the airline makes reservations available, 11 months prior to departure.

The ease of economy class

Booking economy-class awards typically presents fewer hurdles. Numerous flights have four or more economy-class awards available at the lowest mileage levels. You’re also more likely to get an ideal routing or even a nonstop flight. 

It’s not uncommon for airlines to continue to make economy-class awards available at the lowest mileage levels within a few weeks, or even days, of departure. Experienced travelers know that when you don’t purchase tickets with advanced notice, even economy-class tickets can be extremely expensive. This can make your travel rewards points and miles more valuable. 

Tips for earning more points and miles with your travel card

There are three top ways to earn travel rewards with a card. The first is to earn generous new-account bonuses. The best cards can offer new applicants 100,000 points or miles when they complete a minimum spending amount within a specified time period. 

Next, you’ll want to use the card that offers the most possible rewards per dollar spent for your regular purchases. For example, you might use a card like the American Express® Gold Card that earns 4x points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1x) and restaurants, while using the Chase Sapphire Reserve® that offers you 3x points on travel after spending $300 on travel purchases annually. Then, earn 1.5% cash back by using the Chase Freedom Unlimited® for other purchases that don’t qualify for a bonus.

Other ways to get the most value from your travel rewards

Travel rewards enthusiasts typically love to earn points in flexible travel rewards programs like American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One Miles and Citi ThankYou points. 

These rewards can often be transferred to a variety of airline and hotel partners. By transferring your rewards points and miles to these programs, you’ll often be able to realize the highest possible value from your credit card rewards.

The bottom line

Though it would be great to always travel in business class, it isn’t always possible to do so with your travel rewards. By considering the low prices and greater award availability of economy-class travel, you could stretch your rewards even further.

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

As a freelance personal finance writer since 2008, Jason has contributed to over 100 outlets including Forbes, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News, and NerdWallet. As an industry leader, Jason has spoken at dozens of conferences and is the founder and producer of CardCon, an annual conference for credit card media. Jason also consults with individuals and small business owners to create customized plans to help them earn and spend travel rewards. He can be reached via his website; and on LinkedIn.
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