When you’re booking travel with credit card points and airline miles, it’s not always obvious if you’re getting the best deal for your points. For example, if you have 100,000 American Express points, is it better to use them for one or two seats in business class, or a whole bunch of tickets in economy? Of course, it’s all subjective—some people care about flying comfortably in the front of the plane; others just want to travel as often and as cheaply as possible.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to know how to determine the value you’re getting out of your points when you use them to pay for flights. In this guide, I’ll show you a logical and objective way to compute a value called cents per point, so you can be more confident about how you spend your rewards.
To calculate the value of your points, you need to do some math.
When we’re talking about numbers and values, math is inevitably going to be involved. Sorry! Rest assured, however, this formula is straightforward and will help you better understand how credit card points and airline miles work—and what counts as a good value redemption for you.
To find how much mileage your points are getting you, we need to find the cents per point (CPP), i.e. the cash value of a point when it’s used to book a flight instead of paying for that flight using actual money. The formula goes like this:
Cents per point = [(Cash price of the flight – the taxes and fees to be paid in cash for an award booking) / the cost in miles] x 100
To put that into practice, let’s look at a real-world example: Earlier this year, I booked a flight from Athens to New York via Munich, traveling in Lufthansa first class—a ticket that would have cost me $7,717 had I paid in cash or with a credit card.
Instead, I booked the trip with points through Aeroplan, the airline loyalty program of Air Canada, which is a Star Alliance partner of Lufthansa. The ticket was priced at 100,000 Aeroplan points and about $150 in taxes and fees.
To determine how much value I’d get by redeeming those 100,000 points, I plugged in all the numbers into the cents per point formula, like so:
[(7717 – 150) / 100,000] x 100 = CPP
Let’s walk through the math together:
Since I had to pay the taxes and fees in cash anyway (costs that are baked into the full price of the ticket), I subtracted that $150 from the $7,717 price. $7,717 – $150 = $7,567
Next, I wanted to use points to pay for that remaining amount, so I divided $7,567 by 100,000, the number of points required. That yields a number that represents how much of that cost is covered by an individual point. $7,567 / 100,000 points = $0.07567 per 1 point, or $0.076, rounded up.
Finally, the easy part: To turn that weird number into a cent value (I mean, who really says “zero-point-zero-seven-six dollars”?), I multiplied the numeral by 100. $0.076 x 100 = 7.6¢
That means, in this redemption, we’re getting a value of 7.6¢ per point. That’s a fantastic use of points, especially when you consider that credit card points are only worth 1¢ to 1.5¢ when redeemed through the travel portals at Chase, American Express, Capital One, and Citibank.
(For more on redeeming points through credit card travel portals vs. by transferring them to airline loyalty programs, and which option offers a better value, read this guide.)
You may get even better value if you pay more in fees, but less in miles.
While I was booking that first class Lufthansa flight, Aeroplan offered me the option to modify how many points and how much in fees I paid for my trip. (This is possible on all Aeroplan award bookings.)
Instead of the original award that cost 100,000 Aeroplan points and $150 in taxes and fees, I chose to pay 80,000 points and $395.44. So the CPP formula for my adjusted award looked like this:
[(7717 – 395.44) / 80,000] x 100 = 9.15¢
In the end, I came out ahead with a value of 9.15¢ per point for the booking, which is pretty amazing. Before booking, I did transfer 100,000 American Express points to Aeroplan, thinking I would redeem them for the original award, but I’m glad I mixed it up. As I write this, I have a balance of 20,000 Aeroplan points that I can’t transfer back to Amex, but I’m not worried. I’ll redeem that for another award soon enough.
That said, not all points and miles redemptions will get you such extreme value.
Here’s another scenario: You need to get from New York to London in business class on March 12. You find a one-way ticket for a Delta One seat on Delta flight 1 between JFK and LHR that costs $1,910. To book that flight with points, you go over to the Delta site, log into your Delta SkyMiles account, and search for that flight. The points cost? 375,000 SkyMiles and $6 in taxes and fees. Let’s do the math.
[(1910 – 6) / 375,000] x 100 = 0.5¢
In this redemption, those SkyMiles are worth only 0.5¢ per point. Yikes! That’s less than a penny!
If you’re trying to use your stash of SkyMiles, you get better value by taking that flight in economy. The cash price for a Main Cabin ticket would be $517, whereas the points cost would be 66,000 SkyMiles and $6 in taxes and fees. Here’s that math:
[(517 – 6) / 66,000] x 100 = 0.77¢
That value of 0.77¢ per point is still atrocious, but still more than what you’d get for the redemption in Delta One; in this scenario, a single award for a one-way flight in business class is worth at least five (5!) one-way tickets in economy. And if what you have are Delta SkyMiles, then you’re limited to the pricing that’s available directly through Delta.
(This is also why I recommend prioritizing credit card points, which you can transfer to different airlines, over earning miles directly with airlines themselves. You have more flexibility with credit card points. For example, you can transfer points from American Express to Delta to make this redemption, sure, but your Amex points could get you further if you transferred them to another program like Air France Flying Blue.)
That said, sometimes Delta has economy flash sales bookable with points that are worth jumping on. For example, Going recently alerted Elite members to a flight deal for travel in Delta economy class from the United States to Auckland, New Zealand, that cost 44,000 to 50,000 points and $88 in fees, roundtrip(!), depending on the date and departure city—a trip that would cost $1,548 in cash. The math?
[(1548 – 88) / 50,000] x 100 = 2.9¢
Elite members who booked this deal got a value of 2.9¢ per point—not as grand a redemption as a Lufthansa first class flight, but still a mighty value compared to the single cent per point you’d get by redeeming with a credit card travel portal.
At the end of the day, choose what’s most important to you.
As you get a handle on booking travel with credit card points and airline miles, it’s up to you to determine whether a value like 0.77¢ or 2.9¢ or even 9.15¢ per point is a good enough value for you. (I know a points and miles hobbyist who won’t get out of bed for a valuation less than 10¢ per point, which, fine—different strokes for different folks, I guess.)
Ultimately, the question you have to ask yourself is this: Does this points redemption allow me to take a trip I wouldn’t be able to otherwise?
So whether you’re booking directly with an airline, or taking advantage of partner bookings, or redeeming points in a travel portal, the important thing is that you get to travel for almost free, to experience another adventure that you couldn’t experience before.
This math that I’ve shared with you is not a hard-and-fast rule for traveling with points, but it is a tool that can empower you to make travel choices more confidently in this wide, wild world of points and miles.