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People complain about frequent flyer programs. When the The New York Times writes about how to use your miles to get an award seat, a laundry list of complaints come up in the comments. There are legitimate annoyances with award tickets:

  • Low-miles-price tickets are capacity controlled. If you want to fly at peak times, you have to pay double the miles you were expecting to pay.
  • More award tickets are requiring a large cash component in the form of fuel surcharges.
  • You often have to book by phone. It takes a few minutes to ticket a cash ticket online. It can take quite a bit longer to book if you have a complicated award and incompetent phone agents who are booking it.

But award tickets are better than cash tickets in most cases. Here are some huge benefits of award tickets, areas where cash tickets are inferior.

1. Award tickets have better change rules.

Change rules on award tickets vary based on the miles you used, but they’re pretty favorable compared to cash tickets.

I buy the cheapest nonrefundable fares I can when I buy cash tickets. On American Airlines, such tickets cost $200 plus the fare difference to change. If I need to make a change, it is likely to be at the last minute when the fare difference between the cheap ticket I bought and the last minute ticket I need is huge. In short, changing a paid ticket is generally incredibly expensive–several hundred dollars.

Award tickets cost much less to change. On American, you can change the date of your award for free if you make the change 22+ days in advance. If you want to change something else–origin, destination, airline, cabin–it costs $150.

So some changes to award tickets are free, and the rest cost less, and sometimes a lot less, than changes to cash tickets.

2. Award tickets have better cancellation rules.

Delta, American, and US Airways charge $150 for a full refund of the miles and taxes you paid for the award ticket. British Airways charges only $40.

Compare that to nonrefundable cash tickets, which are nonrefundable. You can’t get back what you paid for the tickets in cash.

3. Award tickets have better stopover rules.

Some cash tickets allow free stopovers. I see a lot of chances for free stopovers on paid Turkish Airlines and Iceland Air tickets at their hubs.

But on most cash tickets, adding a stopover will cause the ticket to price differently and often much higher.

Compare that to award tickets. United, Delta, and US Airways allow one free stopover per roundtrip awards. American allows two free stopovers per roundtrip award. British Airways allows unlimited free stopovers on all awards. (Restrictions and caveats apply to all of these.)

That means a cash ticket will generally take you to one city, but an award can take you to two, three, or more cities for the same price.

4. Award tickets allow free oneways.

Similar to the free stopovers advantage that awards have, try to add a free oneway to your next cash ticket. It will certainly price as a separate ticket instead of free.

5. Award tickets have better upgrade rules, kind of.

If you buy a cheap cash ticket on United to Europe and want to upgrade to business class, it will cost you $550 plus 20,000 miles to upgrade one way!

If you book an economy award to Europe and decide later to change that award to business class, it will cost 20,000 miles plus $75 because this is just a standard award change.

6. First class and business class are attainable on award tickets.

Next year, I’m flying from New York to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class. Roundtrip flights on the route go for over $26,000 in First Class.

Most people will never have $26,000 extra to spend on flights. But most people can earn 135k American Airlines miles pretty easily to get the flights by opening a few credit cards.

(Even easier is getting 67,500 miles for one way in first class and booking the return in economy. That’s another benefit of miles, you can mix-and-match cabins easily.)

For many people, this is the best part of awards, flying on less than an economy budget and having access to the most luxurious commercial flights in the world.

7. Many award tickets are the same price at the last minute.

Cash ticket prices go through the roof in the last few days before departure. To fly Los Angeles to New York this week roundtrip is $870, about $500 more than if you had booked in advance.

Low-level awards cost the same number of miles no matter when they’re booked relative to departure, and many airlines even open up extra award space in the last few days and weeks before departure.

Some airlines charge a fee for ticketing awards within 21 days of departure of up to $100, but some airlines like British Airways and Delta don’t even charge an extra cash component.

8. Award tickets have far better routing rules.

For instance, next month my award from Argentina to Europe will have a nine-day stop in South Africa, which would not have been possible on a cash ticket.

Or you can route from the east coast to the west coast to Europe on American Airlines awards.

These flexible routing rules let you meet your goals for your next trip more easily with awards whether those goals are seeing more places, adding a free oneway, or getting more flying in a premium cabin.

Plus the main reason award tickets are better…

The best award tickets only require you to pay the taxes out of pocket, which are often less than a hundred dollars instead of paying for a ticket that can cost thousands of dollars.

What other reasons do you prefer award tickets to cash tickets? What did I forget?

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