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The best airlines for holiday travel on points

Oct 23, 2022, 4:00 PM | Updated: Oct 24, 2022, 6:54 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

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The best airlines for holiday travel on points