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Spend less with cash and miles

What should you do if you don’t have quite enough cash in the bank or miles in your frequent flyer account to get you to your destination? You may want to consider cash-and-miles promotions as an option. Members of Alaska Mileage Plan, American AAdvantage, Continental OnePass, and Midwest Miles can take advantage of ongoing cash-and-miles programs to purchase regular or last-minute airfare.

Instead of paying the regular published fare or redeeming the normal amount of miles for economy award travel (usually 25,000 miles), all four airlines let you redeem a reduced amount of miles on some routes, with a co-pay starting at $29 (or, in Alaska’s case, a 50 percent discount off the full fare). The amount of cash and miles you spend depends on either the distance you plan to travel, or the total price of the fare.

Typical examples of cash-and-miles offers are last-minute travel offers and ongoing offers. Plus, we offer advice about when these offers are most valuable.

Last-minute travel offers

Continental and American send e-mails promoting their last-minute fares for the following weekend, and both include cash-and-miles offers as part of their weekly deals. For instance, we found a continental.com Specials fare for last-minute round-trip domestic travel, departing on a Saturday and returning on either Monday or Tuesday, of $79 from Cleveland to Nashville. OnePass members can choose to either pay the full fare or opt for a combination of $29 and 7,500 miles. Although subject to change, Continental’s fare-to-miles conversions remain fairly consistent from week to week, and are currently as follows:

  • $79 flights: $29 and 7,500 miles
  • $89 flights: $29 and 7,500 miles
  • $99 flights: $29 and 7,500 miles
  • $109 flights: $29 and 10,000 miles
  • $119 flights: $29 and 10,000 miles
  • $129 flights: $29 and 10,000 miles
  • $139 flights: $29 and 12,500 miles
  • $149 flights: $29 and 12,500 miles
  • $159 flights: $29 and 15,000 miles

More expensive flights will cost $29 and 15,000 or more miles.

Similarly, American sends e-mails promoting its domestic Net SAAver fares for departure on the next Friday evening and all day on Saturday, with return on the following Monday or Tuesday. Fares that range from $79 to $189 in increments of $10 can also be booked via phone at 800-882-8880 for a combination of $39 and 4,000 to 16,000 miles. Also subject to change, American’s fare-to-miles conversions are currently set at:

  • $79 flights: $39 and 4,000 miles
  • $89 flights: $39 and 4,000 miles
  • $99 flights: $39 and 7,000 miles
  • $139 flights: $39 and 13,000 miles
  • $149 flights: $39 and 13,000 miles
  • $169 flights: $39 and 13,000 miles
  • $189 flights: $39 and 16,000 miles

Although these airlines often plug cash-and-miles options as convenient reduced-award offers, you’ll want to think twice before redeeming your miles on fares that are already deeply discounted. You can figure out the total value of your trip by calculating the price of your miles. The common industry estimate of the value of a mile is about $0.02.

In the case of Continental’s $79 fare, you’d pay the equivalent of $100 more for the cash-and-miles offer than if you just purchased the fare (7,500 miles x $0.02 + $29 = $179)?not a praiseworthy deal, not to mention that you could earn miles for your trip if you paid cash for your fare. In reality, most of American’s and Continental’s cash-and-miles offers cost more than their corresponding deeply discounted fares.

You can receive weekly offers for last-minute travel deals from your departure city by subscribing to SmarterTravel.com’s Last-Minute Airfare Specials newsletter.

Ongoing offers

American, Alaska, and Midwest feature cash-and-miles promotions that are not associated with discounted fares. Because the full fare for your desired destination might be much higher than a deeply discounted last-minute airfare, these cash-and-miles promotions have a higher potential to actually save you money.

Alaska has an ongoing offer that allows you to pay a combination of 15,000 miles, plus half the price of a full-fare ticket, up to a $250 discount. This offer applies to round-trip or one-way peak full-fare tickets, which are valid for travel to anywhere Alaska or Horizon flies, without seating or date limitations. For example, if the full-fare price is $500, you’d pay $250 plus 15,000 miles, but if the full-fare price is $700, you’d pay $450 plus miles.

Is this a good deal? Since 15,000 miles x $0.02 = $300, and your cash savings are only $250, you’ll always pay the equivalent of $50 more than the price of the ticket. The only way this offer will benefit you is if you’re short on cash but have miles to spare and this is the only way you can afford a ticket. Also note that a restricted domestic award costs 20,000 miles, a value of $400, so if possible, your best bet would be to earn the remaining 5,000 miles and book your trip as a full award.

Should you decide to use this offer, call Alaska at 800-ALASKAAIR (800-252-7522) and request an AS50 award.

American also offers ongoing cash-and-miles deals, called “Special Mileage Awards,” for first-, business-, and economy-class travel within continental North America and to destinations in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central America, South America, Europe, and Japan. Some awards are valid year-round; others can be used on specific dates only. A domestic award costs $295 and 10,000 miles, $225 and 15,000 miles, or $125 and 20,000 miles, and is valued between $495 and $525. For a comprehensive summary of American’s Special Mileage Awards, visit American’s website.

Midwest’s cash-and-miles option is the newest and simplest of all the offers. For $125 and 15,000 Midwest Miles, you can fly to any destination that Midwest or Midwest Express serves. Currently, you can only book online, and you must purchase your tickets by December 31. Using the industry standard, the value of this ticket is $425 (15,000 X $0.02 = $300), making it one of the better domestic deals, but still most valuable on longer, more expensive flights.

When cash-and-miles offers become valuable options

Many of these cash-and-miles offers do not save you a significant amount of money, if any, unless you are flying on a very expensive ticket. However, there are two instances when these offers could become valuable options:

  1. If you’re tight on cash but have plenty of miles to use up.
  2. If you have “orphan” miles in a frequent flyer program in which you rarely participate.

If you don’t foresee yourself earning enough miles in a frequent flyer program for a full economy award, which for most domestic airlines starts at 25,000 miles, your miles are effectively worthless. In this case, cash-and-miles promotions might be your best bet for using up the orphan miles you have in that program, while you concentrate your regular earnings with another airline. Because these miles no longer have monetary value for you, your cash-and-miles ticket will be worth only the amount of the co-pay, and therefore becomes a great deal.

Pricing your travel options is always important, but as frequent flyers well know, sometimes taking the deal that seems more expensive really costs less for you when you factor in the miles. Cash-and-miles offers, if used wisely, can help you stretch the value of your money and miles. Weigh your options, keeping in mind that a mile is the equivalent of a rebate, and save on your next trip.

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