The best airlines for holiday travel on points

Oct 24, 2022, 4:00 AM | Updated: 6:28 am
FILE - A traveler walks through Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2...

FILE - A traveler walks through Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Ill., Dec. 28, 2021. In NerdWallet's annual analysis of airline mile valuations, holiday flights often don't provide the highest per-mile value. For example, Delta, Southwest or American Airlines miles are generally worth 1.5 cents each when redeemed for flights. However, they're only worth about 1.4 cents when you use them for flights around the holidays. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

If you’re seeing Halloween decorations at the store, you should take that as a sign the holiday travel season is just around the corner. Cue the expensive flights! If you’re relying on points and miles to cover the cost, you might want to consider whether booking award flights for the holidays is the best use of your travel rewards.

In NerdWallet’s annual analysis of airline mile values, holiday flights in December often didn’t provide the highest per-mile value compared with flights booked 180 days out or 15 days out from the date of departure. With flight prices up 43% from last year, according to the latest Consumer Price Index data, you’ll likely have to use a lot of miles to pay for the flight. If you’re a points and miles maximizer, you probably would prefer to save your miles for a time of year when you might be able to get more value.

But if fares are getting too expensive, you may choose to book award flights instead. The best airline for holiday award travel based on the value of its points is a four-way tie among American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

Here’s how we came to that conclusion, plus more advice on how to shop holiday flights on points.

AIM FOR 1.4 CENTS PER MILE

NerdWallet examined nine major U.S. airlines and analyzed the prices of nearly 600 domestic flights in 2022. In this analysis, holiday flights were defined as those departing on Dec. 18 and returning on Dec. 29. Of the nine airlines examined, four airlines tied for the highest baseline value for miles spent on holiday flights, which was 1.4 cents per mile. If you fly American, Delta, Frontier or Southwest, you should aim to get about this much when you divide the cash price by the number of miles.

For example, a $600 round-trip flight should cost about 42,857 miles (or less, if you’re getting an even better deal).

Here is the full list of each airline’s valuation per mile when used for holiday flights.

— Alaska Airlines: 1.2 cents (nonholiday valuation: 1.2 cents).

— American Airlines: 1.4 cents (nonholiday valuation: 1.5 cents).

— Delta Air Lines: 1.4 cents (nonholiday valuation: 1.5 cents).

— Frontier Airlines: 1.4 cents (nonholiday valuation: 0.9 cent).

— Hawaiian Airlines 0.9 cent (nonholiday valuation: 1 cent).

— JetBlue Airways: 1.3 cents (nonholiday valuation: 1.5 cents).

— Southwest Airlines: 1.4 cents (nonholiday valuation: 1.5 cents).

— Spirit Airlines: 0.7 cent (nonholiday valuation: 0.8 cent).

— United Airlines: 1.1 cents (nonholiday valuation: 1.2 cents).

Frontier presents a unique opportunity among the four front-runners.

For the most part, 1.4 cents is slightly below the nonholiday valuation of these airlines’ miles; American, Delta and Southwest miles are usually worth about 1.5 cents each.

Frontier is the exception where redeeming your miles during the holidays is smart because miles are worth more than normal. Frontier’s nonholiday valuation is 0.9 cent. However, this cost considers only the base fare — added fees for seat selection or baggage might decrease your value per point.

AVOID USING MILES WHEN THEY’RE WORTH LESS THAN 1 CENT

This is a good rule at any time, but particularly during the holidays. A valuation of less than 1 cent per mile is abysmal considering you can often redeem credit card points for cash back at a standard rate of 1 cent each — and that’s low when compared with travel credit cards that let you redeem through their travel portals at 1.25 cents or 1.5 cents each.

For the holidays, you probably won’t want to book Hawaiian or Spirit flights with miles, which are worth 0.9 cent and 0.7 cent, respectively.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH MILES

NerdWallet’s data shows airline miles are generally worth slightly less when you use them to book holiday flights. That means you’ll probably spend more miles on holiday flights than you would on nonholiday flights. There are still a few ways you can save on holiday travel, though.

BOOK WHEN THE FLIGHTS ARE LESS EXPENSIVE. Most U.S. airlines use dynamic award pricing, so if the cash price is lower, the number of miles needed to book will be lower, too. According to data from Google Flights, the average price for flights around Christmas usually drops from 20 to 88 days before departure.

TRANSFER MILES FROM A CREDIT CARD. Two of the airlines with the most valuable miles around the holidays are credit card transfer partners. If you have a card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, you can transfer your credit card points to Southwest. Cardholders who earn American Express Membership Rewards can transfer to Delta. These might be good options if booking with airline miles provides better value than booking in the credit card issuer’s travel portal.

BOOK WITH A COMBINATION OF POINTS AND MILES. This option will take a bit more math to ensure you’re getting the best deal, but some airlines, like Delta, allow you to book with cash and miles if you don’t have enough miles to cover the entire cost. Even if you’re not flying with Delta, consider other ways to unbundle your travel like paying cash for a one-way flight and miles for the way back.

The value of your points and miles will depend on your redemption. Do the math and aim to get 1 cent to 1.4 cents per mile. If the value is lower than that, pay cash for your holiday flight and save your miles for any other month than December.

___________________________________

This article originally appeared on the personal finance website NerdWallet. Meghan Coyle is an editor at NerdWallet. Email: mcoyle@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @inkwaves

METHODOLOGY

NerdWallet conducted an analysis of 714 flight bookings in 2022 — including both domestic and international locations — looking at cash prices, award prices, and associated taxes and fees. Airline data was broken down into three categories: bookings 15 days out, 180 days out and travel during the winter holiday season.

RELATED LINKS

NerdWallet: How much are travel points and miles worth in 2022? https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-airline-miles-and-hotel-points-valuations

NerdWallet: Travel inflation report: October 2022 https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-travel-price-tracker

NerdWallet: Cash back vs. travel: How to choose credit card rewards https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-cash-back-vs-travel-how-to-choose-your-credit-card-rewards

NerdWallet: How to save money on holiday travel https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-how-to-save-money-on-holiday-travel

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

2 dead as bomber hits Pakistan police protecting polio teams

QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide bomber blew himself up near a truck carrying police officers on their way to protect polio workers outside Quetta on Wednesday, killing two people and wounding more than 20 others, mostly policemen, officials said. Ghulam Azfer Mehser, a senior police officer, said the attack happened when the policemen were […]
24 hours ago
Lauren Gilbert, a senior manager at the Center for Jewish History (CJH), participate in a global on...
Associated Press

Holocaust survivors offered DNA tests to help find family

NEW YORK (AP) — For decades, Jackie Young had been searching. Orphaned as an infant, he spent the first few years of his life in a Nazi internment camp in what is now the Czech Republic. After World War II he was taken to England, adopted and given a new name. As an adult, he […]
24 hours ago
John Kraft sits next to his yawning cat, Tux, at his hilltop farmhouse in Clear Lake, Wis., Wednesd...
Associated Press

No longer fringe, small-town voters fear democracy’s demise

HUDSON, Wis. (AP) — A word — “Hope” — is stitched onto a throw pillow in the little hilltop farmhouse. Photographs of children and grandchildren speckle the walls. In the kitchen, an envelope is decorated with a hand-drawn heart. “Happy Birthday, My Love,” it reads. Out front, past a pair of century-old cottonwoods, the neighbors’ […]
24 hours ago
FILE - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., right, listens as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi o...
Associated Press

Congress prepares to take up bill preventing rail strike

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is moving swiftly to prevent a looming U.S. rail workers strike, reluctantly intervening in a labor dispute to stop what would surely be a devastating blow to the nation’s economy if the transportation of fuel, food and other critical goods were disrupted. The House was expected to act first on Wednesday […]
24 hours ago
FILE - A man protests outside the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors auditorium prior to the boar...
Associated Press

Election certification delays few, but a ‘test run’ for 2024

Before November, election officials prepared for the possibility that Republicans who embraced former President Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud would challenge the verdict of voters by refusing to certify the results. Three weeks after the end of voting, such challenges are playing out in just two states, Arizona and Pennsylvania, where Democrats won the […]
24 hours ago
Associated Press

Today in History: November 30, birth of Winston Churchill

Today in History Today is Wednesday, Nov. 30, the 334th day of 2022. There are 31 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On Nov. 30, 1782, the United States and Britain signed preliminary peace articles in Paris for ending the Revolutionary War; the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783. On […]
24 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
...
SCHWARTZ LASER EYE CENTER

Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.
The best airlines for holiday travel on points