Nowadays, there are a million different ways to book one specific flight – whether that’s directly through the operating airline, through a travel agency, using miles, using a partner airline on a codeshare, paying with bank points, etc. – the options can sometimes feel overwhelming and selecting the best booking method may feel like a daunting task.
Thankfully, flight booking does not have to be complicated – the miles and points community has established guidelines which outline what the best booking method for a specific flight or itinerary is based on a variety of factors – ticket cost, award availability, pay with points ability, etc. Each ticket can be analyzed in terms of cost and then the booking methods can be compared and later selected.
Let’s take a look at a specific flight and we will compare all the ways we can book it, and select the best method.
Random Flight Details
I’ve picked out a random flight from Google Flights and the details are as follows:
- American Airlines
- Seattle to Los Angeles
- random date in April 2023
The cash cost of this flight is as follows:
- Basic Economy: $147
- Main Cabin: $177
- First Class: $376
Flight Booking with Cash
American Airlines’ website displays the prices above for that specific flight and so do most major online travel agencies. If you look up the flight using Google Flights, you will notice that sometimes you have the ability to book a flight using cash through some random travel agencies, which exist online, for perhaps a few dollars less than directly with the airline.
My advice? Don’t book it with a random travel agency online. If your flight is cancelled or significantly changed, AA will tell you to contact the travel agency where you booked your ticket and more often than not, these random online travel agencies don’t bother responding to emails or phone calls – some could even go out of business before you fly. It will be a huge mess, so avoid at all cost.
Generally the same advice goes even if you book with a major travel agency like Expedia – you will wait hours on the phone, likely have to speak to multiple agents before you get what you want and the whole process will take much longer than if you just booked your flight with the airline directly.
Always book with the airline directly.
Paying with Bank Points
Most bank programs that offer the ability to transfer their points to airlines (in order to book an award ticket), also let you use those points towards gift cards, merchandise, travel, etc. The bank will have a travel portal which is powered by an online travel agency and should display the same exact prices of flights that the airline does – however you now have the ability to pay for that flight either with your credit card or with your bank points.
Note that booking a flight through a bank’s travel rewards portal using your bank points is different than booking a true award ticket directly with a frequent flyer program. In this case, all you are doing is swapping points for cash and the ticket is still a revenue/cash ticket which would then potentially earn you miles.
How much your bank points are worth towards travel purchases through the bank’s travel portal depends on the credit card you have and your bank. For example, let’s take a look at these two Chase credit cards and their points value through Chase’s travel portal:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: 1 point = 1.25 cents in value
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: 1 point = 1.5 cents in value
So if we were to book Main Cabin ($177) on that American Airlines flight we found before, the cost in points would be as follows (depending on what card we have):
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: 14,160 points
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: 11,800 points
The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers more benefits and is more expensive than the Sapphire Preferred – which is why it offers more value per point. You could also mix and match cash and points if you wanted to in this scenario.
Booking An Award Ticket
Booking an award ticket on this flight will be possible in two different ways:
- if there is saver-level availability, we can book this flight through any American Airlines partner airline
- if there is no saver-level availability, we can book this flight only using American Airlines miles
In our case, there is saver-level availability in Economy, but not in First Class. Which means we can book Economy Class through a partner airline, like British Airways, but we can only book First Class using AA miles. The cost to book this flight using AA miles is as follows:
- Economy (web-special): 10k miles
- Economy (saver-level): 12.5k miles
- First (web-special): 32k miles
- First (standard): 60k miles
If we want to book First Class using miles, we can only do so using AA miles. If we want to book Economy Class, it will actually be less expensive to book it through a partner program, in this case we can book the same flight for just 9,000 British Airways Avios points because there is saver-level availability.
Flight Booking: What is the Best Way?
So what is actually the best way to book this flight? Well, here are the options:
- Cash: Main Cabin for $177
- Pay with Points: 11,800 Chase UR points if we have the Sapphire Reserve (your bank and credit card may offer different values)
- Award Ticket through AA: 10k miles
- Award Ticket through British Airways: 9k points
First of all, the cash price is too high on this route – Seattle to Los Angeles can easily be purchased for $65 – $90 at which point it is worth paying cash. In our example, we should not pay cash. Pay with Points seems like a good option if we have the Sapphire Reserve as it will only cost us 11,800 Chase points.. but still not the best option. Why? Because we can transfer 9k of those same Chase points to British Airways and then book the same ticket directly through British Airways, which is a winner in this case.
Now, there may be reasons why you would prefer to spend more and book the ticket through the Chase travel portal using Pay with Points – for example, you need more elite credit for status this year, in which case paying the small difference between 9k and 11.8k could make sense.
All in All
There are an infinite number of ways to book a flight – especially if there is saver-level award availability. Every frequent flyer program prices out flights how it wants – some are better than others and therefore sweet spots exist whereby you can book a flight for an exceptionally good deal through a partner airline. Remember to carefully explore all of your options before booking a flight – study the partner airlines of the airline you are flying and see if any of your transferable bank points could help you lock in that ticket for fewer points. Do remember that sometimes, paying cash might be the best way to go – only redeem your miles/points if you are getting good value and not just because you want a free ticket.