“This Is Us” Theory Explains When to Use Cash vs. Miles for Your Flight

Oct 11, 2018

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Here’s a “This Is Us” theory more compelling than who “her” is during the third season. But don’t worry, I’m not going to give away any spoilers — in fact, I’m going to explain to you one of the top three questions I get asked after someone finds out where I work: When should I use miles to pay for a flight? I just need a little help from my friends Randall and Toby.

If you watched this week’s episode, you may have noticed this little interaction between the two of them.

Without giving away too much, Toby says to Randall, “Did you just fly across the country for this?! Tell me you used miles.” Now, that’s a seemingly harmless statement, and of course, it’s TV; the writers have more important plot holes to think about than the intricacies of using miles for flights (ahem, who is “her”?!). But that’s exactly where we come in.

Let’s use Randall as an example — say he has about 100,000 United miles in his account, and he wants to visit his sister Kate (and her husband Toby) who live in LA. He’s going to need to book a one-way ticket from his house in New Jersey, likely out of Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX). Since he’s booking the ticket last-minute, his first instinct might just be to use those 100,000 miles since they’re “free” and a one-way paid ticket is likely pretty expensive. While he isn’t entirely wrong, there’s something else he needs to consider: The value of those miles.

We value United miles at 1.4 cents each, meaning for each mile you spend, you should aim to get about 1.4 cents worth of travel when you use them. So, if said one-way flight from Newark to Los Angeles is 12,500 miles, the value of that award would be 12,500 X .014 = $175. Now, let’s say that the cash price of that flight as advertised by United is $325. In this case, it would definitely make sense to pay in miles, even factoring in the $75 close-in booking fee that United would charge if Randall doesn’t have elite status. Make sense?

On the other side, if the one-way flight is 32,500 miles, the value is 32,500 X .014 = $455. That’s a big difference! Assuming the paid ticket was still $325, Randall would definitely want to pay by credit card this time.

Ok, this is enough math for me for one day. The point here (pun intended) is that you don’t want to use more of your miles than they’re worth for a flight just because you have a ton of them saved up. Use them when the price is right and save them up for more fun things… like this.

Featured image courtesy of Ron Batzdorff/NBC.

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