Airline Miles and Hotel Points Give Your Travel Plans More Flexibility


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  • Airlines almost universally will not allow you to change or cancel a paid basic economy fare.
  • Hotels offer flexible cash rates that are often 10% higher than the nonrefundable prices.
  • By reserving travel with airline miles and hotel points, you have exponentially more flexibility to change your travel plans.
  • Read Insider’s guide to the best travel rewards credit cards.

Several years ago, I lost $1,500 in nonrefundable hotel stays when my travel plans to Dubai fell through.

I may never get over forfeiting such a sizable chunk of money. What I have done ever since is avoid prepaid travel like the plague. There’s a better way to book rock-bottom rates while minimizing the damage if your itinerary changes.

If you make any habit of booking nonrefundable travel, you should be using airline miles and hotel points instead of money. That’s because the airfares and hotel rates you’ll get are significantly more flexible than paid rates.

Let’s take a look at the benefit of using airline miles and hotel points over booking with cash.

Why airline miles are better than cash

Regular APR

16.24% – 23.24% Variable

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent

Regular APR

16.24% – 23.24% Variable

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent

More Information

  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back(SM), your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.

After the coronavirus blithely ravaged the travel plans of every person on earth in 2020, airlines began to swap their harsh ticket change and cancellation restrictions for more customer-friendly policies. Many airlines now offer free flight changes.

There’s a glaring exception to these new leniencies: basic economy fares. Basic economy is the cheapest fare option airlines sell which are tangled in red tape and restrictions, the most egregious being that you can’t cancel them — and you often can’t change them.

Take a look at the current cancellation policies when booking the lowest fares with popular North American airlines.

Yes, not all airlines offer completely free changes and cancellations. But in every example, you’re afforded significantly more flexibility in one way or another. If you anticipate your travel plans changing and you typically book basic economy fares, it’s a much better idea to book with airline miles instead of cash.

Here’s a quick example. Basic economy flights from New York to Los Angeles cost $125, while Main Cabin seats cost $155. A $30 upcharge isn’t crippling, but it’s also not insignificant — especially if you’re traveling with a large family. 

American Airlines revenue fare from New York to Los Angeles in August 2022

American Airlines

This exact same ticket costs 10,500 American Airlines miles. If your plans change, you can cancel your flight for free, and your miles will be immediately deposited back into your account. The cheapest fare that offers changes costs $155, therefore your miles were worth effectively $155 — not $125.

American Airlines award flight from New York to Los Angeles in August 2022

American Airlines

Why hotel points are better than cash

Similarly, points bookings almost always adopt a hotel’s flexible rate. If you’re in the habit of booking “advanced rates” where you can’t change or cancel your reservation, you’re definitely getting the best deal — but you’re also rolling the dice on your upcoming trip.

Flexible rates are often at least 10% higher than nonrefundable rates, so travelers resist them at all costs if they think travel plans are a sure thing. But by using points, you wouldn’t have to worry about changing plans in the first place.

Here’s an example from the five-star Waldorf Astoria Park City for February 1, 2023 (during ski season). You can pay $1,300 per night to get the best price. But these rates are completely nonrefundable — and your trip is nine months away. Or, for $1,424 per night, you could book a more flexible rate, which allows you to cancel up to 30 days before arrival. That would give you eight more months before you’d have to commit.

Rates for Waldorf Astoria Park City during peak season


The base award rate, however, costs 95,000 Hilton points per night and receives the same cancellation policy as the flexible rate. The award night’s cancellation states that you can cancel by January 1, 2023, which is one month before check-in.

Award cancellation policy for Waldorf Astoria Park City during peak season


In this situation, your 95,000 points are worth $1,424 (instead of $1,300), because you’re booking a flexible rate.

When you cancel a hotel stay, your points are immediately deposited back into your account for free. You can book and cancel as many times as you like with no penalty. That’s something you can only do with expensive flexible rates when using cash.

Bottom line

You probably know how using miles and points to book your travel can help you to afford some amazing experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have paid for in cash. But an unsung benefit of using specifically airline miles and hotel points is that your flights and hotel stays are far more flexible than the cheapest paid rate.

If your travel plans have a tendency to change, you’ll save a lot of stress (and money) by booking your flight with airline miles and your accommodation with hotel points. Save your cash for food and activities.

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