Cool Tools: Miles or buy?

George Clooney's character collects 10 million miles in "Up In the Air"

My friend John was debating on Facebook whether he and his partner should spend $200 each on a plane ticket or 12.5K miles for a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. Lots of opinions came in, mostly – “no! spend the money! the miles aren’t worth it unless you’re traveling” overseas, more than five hours, etc.

It’s a constant debate: is it worth $200, or $300, or shell out your miles? $300 is still a good chunk of money, and if you’re flying with someone else as John is, it’s $600 for two of you.

A single flight in the 48 states is 25,000 miles, and a ticket is usually around $300 or less except maybe around holidays and hard-to-get places. I always save my miles for overseas flights, but those can add up: the Caribbean in high holiday season (like between Christmas and New Year’s) is 60,000 miles, but any other time, even February, is only 35,000. Same with Hawaii. Europe can sometimes be as low as 40,000 miles depending on when you fly, but normally you have to budget aroune 60,000, or $800.

John pointed me to a cool tool: “Miles or Buy” (though slightly outdated – it lists now-defunct Northwest Airlines) that will help you decide whether you should buy a ticket or trade in your miles. It is sort of like a “Pick your Own Adventure!” book, in that it guides you through your entire flight purchase decision from where you’d like to travel all the way to helping you search for the ticket price on Kayak. The most useful portion of the tool, however, is this calculator which determines the CPM (cents per mile) of a ticket and whether it’s worth buying the fare or trading in miles.

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