Smart Tips On Buying Discount Airline Tickets

by Guest Blogger on 2010-12-1410

If you fly a discount airline, are you getting value from your miles? I like discount carriers. I can remember 20 years ago when my family took a ski trip to Switzerland because the flight was less expensive than a trip to Colorado. With the penetration of discount carriers to nearly every market, airfares are remarkably affordable; they have remained flat for years despite inflation.

Unfortunately, airlines have substantially increased their mileage required for a round trip ticket, while curtailing availability. Many make the pretense of offering a domestic round trip for 25,000 miles, but offer little, if any, seat inventory on some routes. They are happy to offer you the award seat for twice the miles, destroying the value equation.

Smart Tips On Buying Tickets On A Discount Airline

So, at what point does cash back make more sense? When you purchase tickets with cash, you have more flexibility, and can also receive frequent flier credit for the flight itself. I was going to take a vacation to Florida this winter and planned to fly there from my home in Denver. I had wisely accumulated miles in Southwest, an airline that offers very reasonable availability of award flights. With the help of my Southwest Airlines Visa card, I had earned two award tickets. Each one was the equivalent of $19,200 spent on my Southwest Visa, although many of the miles were earned through promotions, transfers, and actual flying. This is better than with other airlines, were you would have to spend $25,000 to be eligible for the elusive 25,000 mile award.

When it came time to get the award, we realized that purchasing a seat (via rewards) was a mere $250. As we are a family of three, two of our seats will be on awards, and one will be purchased, so we are happy to fly for $250 rather than $750. On the other hand, I am questioning the value of my Southwest Visa card. For a $250 flight, my miles are only worth 1.3 cents each.

discount carrier tickets
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Alternatives To Miles And Points

It might just be worth my effort to switch to a good cash back card, like the Amex Blue Cash, or perhaps even to the new Capital One Venture card. While technically not a cash back card, the Venture card offers 2% back as a statement credit good for airline travel, hotels, and car rentals. Obviously, 2% beats 1.3%, but the flexibility and the points accrual during reward travel (issued as a statement credit) should seal the deal.

Other dedicated cash back credit cards offer features like quarterly rotating categories where you can earn 5% rebates on certain types of expenses. Many also offer discounts and rebates when you shop online through their shopping portal and with their merchant partners.

By combining cash back cards or simply being savvy about using these cards, you can earn anywhere from 2% to 3% on average every year, and this can sure beat earning and using miles for domestic airlines.

In today’s world where cross country travel often costs less than $400, and award seats are scarce, it may make sense for reward card holders to start weighing the benefits of airline cards against those of reward cards that offer cash back or a generous statement credit. You can find some great airline credit cards here.

This is a guest post by Jason D. Steele, who has been reviewing credit cards for since 2008. He also hosts his personal blog, Steele Street where he writes about Travel, Aviation, and Consumer Issues.

Copyright © 2010 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Worlds Headlines December 15, 2010 at 2:01 am

Really nice tips you shared here. It will surely help me on my next trip.

IRS Hitman December 15, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Excellent tips that I’m definitely going to try. Can you recommend any other alternatives to Miles and Points?

krantcents December 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm

You are on to something! Cash back cards can compete successfully! The airlines offer bonuses that can make it uneven. I use miles to fly business or first class internationally. Even if I banked the cash back, it would take longer to afford a similar ticket.

Silicon Valley Blogger December 15, 2010 at 7:10 pm

@IRS Hitman — what goals do you have? Are you looking for how to get airline discounts besides using miles and points? Or are you looking for other rewards from your card beyond miles and points? Just wondering.

Consumermiser December 16, 2010 at 7:14 am

Also, you should know yourself. I do not fly much personally (a lot more for business) and I am terrible about redeeming miles on future personal flights. I find that there are too many restrictions, it’s overly complicated, and there are often better deals online through websites. Therefore cash back programs work the best for me.

Eric December 16, 2010 at 11:52 pm

I follow Jason’s posts so I definitely believe in his expertise on flying cheap. I don’t travel often by plane but I’m always looking for a cheap flight when I need it.

Grounded! December 17, 2010 at 8:22 am

Gee, this is more of a post about credit card strategies than buying airline tickets.

I expected something along the line of “what’s the best day of the week to fly?”, “here’s a list of good sites”, “try regional airports”, etc. Instead it’s “use your cash back card for 2%”.

Silicon Valley Blogger December 17, 2010 at 9:16 am

You make good points and I’ll work on those topics you’ve asked about, regarding airline ticket purchases. Also, this is a financial site, so you can expect a lot of coverage on the best use of credit cards over here.

Tai Yuni December 31, 2010 at 9:26 am

Great tips, thank you! You wouldn’t normally expect the cash back cards to be more beneficial than airline reward cards for air travel.

iCheapAirfares September 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

With all the restrictions and amount of miles required to attain a decent flight, it is definitely at the point where having a 2% back credit card has more value than the best miles/rewards program. However, when great offers such as “get 50,000 miles after your first purchase” pop up, then those should be utilized and considered in addition to all other positive elements.

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