When you finally get enough frequent-flier miles for a free ticket, it's tempting to cash in those miles and go someplace fun.
Not so fast.
That ticket from Los Angeles to Washington to visit the Capitol may not be worth the 25,000 miles that would come out of your frequent-flier account. How can you know?
The key is calculating exactly what your miles are worth. According to travel experts, airlines value them at about 2 cents per mile. Using that valuation, the 25,000 frequent-flier miles usually needed for a domestic-coach award ticket are worth $500. So to determine whether you are getting the most value for your frequent-flier mile:
1. Divide the best price you can find for a paid ticket by the number of miles needed for the award.
2. If the number is less than 2 cents, you should lean toward paying for the ticket.
For example, a search of flights from Los Angeles to Washington in late February found a fare of only $221 on America West. Using the above formula, the trip is worth only eight-tenths of one cent per mile ($221/25,000 miles). Not a good idea to use frequent-flier miles for a "free" ticket.
In addition, if you paid for the flight, you would accrue 3,490 frequent-flier miles, or about 14 percent of the miles needed for a free domestic coach ticket. And if you are a member of the airline's frequent-flier program, you would likely get bonus miles, adding even more miles to your account.
Since you can usually find a domestic coach ticket for less than $500, it's usually worth buying a ticket, and using your miles for a first-class upgrade. United Airlines recently offered a coach ticket from Los Angeles to Washington for $536 - $3,051 less than the first-class fare. With this coach ticket, you need 10,000 miles to upgrade to first class. Using the formula ($3,051/10,000 miles), we find the upgrade to be a value of 30 cents per mile - a great bargain.
An even better option is to build up those miles for expensive, long-haul international travel. In most cases, 120,000 frequent flier miles qualifies you for a first-class international ticket. At 2 cents per mile, those 120,000 miles would have a value of $2,400. A check of a first-class ticket from Los Angeles to Sydney costs $13,500!
Using the formula ($13,500/120,000 miles), the trip is worth over 11 cents per mile. A great deal!
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor