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Inflation is a significant concern for many consumers, especially when wages don't keep up with the inflation rate. But for travel enthusiasts, it's not just your money that can lose value over time—it can also happen to your airline miles too.
Because every rewards program is different in how the value of your miles is determined, there's no universal answer for how rewards are impacted by inflation. However, it's important to understand the basics of how the relationship between cash and award pricing works.
How Can Inflation Affect the Value of Your Miles?
As the cost of goods, services and fuel increases, you can expect the cost to book a flight to go up along with it. In many cases, demand for flights goes down as prices increase, but increased demand and rising costs have both contributed to surging airfare prices as people feel more comfortable traveling during the ongoing pandemic.
When the price of flights increases, airlines typically don't change how much value you can get for each mile you redeem—for example, if you could get an average of 1.5 cents per mile with a certain frequent flier program a few years ago, that's likely still true.
But, as with the impact of inflation on the value of your dollar, it also means that your miles won't go as far.
Miles Won't Go as Far
Let's say you could consistently get around 1.5 cents per mile when you book award flights with your favorite airline rewards program. If a flight costs $200, an award ticket may run about 13,333 miles.
But if that same flight now costs $250 because of inflation, you may need 16,667 miles instead to book the same itinerary.
Airline award pricing isn't an exact science because cash fare and award ticket prices can vary depending on the travel dates, flight times, fare class and many other factors. But if fare prices are increasing across the board, you can generally expect to need more miles to book an award ticket.
As a result, it's important to consider the value of your miles when planning out how to redeem them.
Award Programs Get Devalued Over Time
Unrelated to the inflation rate, airlines typically make changes to their frequent flier programs now and then that often result in a devaluation of their rewards currency. So, even if inflation starts to subside, you can generally expect to need more miles to book the same flights over time.
How to Protect the Value of Your Miles
While there's nothing you can do to directly control the value of your miles, there are some tips and tricks to help you maximize their value based on how you redeem them. Here are some potential options:
If you have some flexibility with your travel dates, destinations and other aspects of the trip, compare both cash prices and award ticket prices to determine whether you can change your plans to get the most cash value per mile.
To calculate the redemption value, divide the cash fare by the number of miles required to book. If there are additional taxes and fees on the award ticket, subtract that from the cash price.
Avoid Hoarding Your Miles
Because mileage programs tend to get devalued over time, regardless of inflation, it's best to avoid stockpiling rewards.
Use Transferable Rewards Programs
Frequent flier programs have limited flexibility when it comes to redemption—in most cases, your best bet to maximize rewards is to book free flights.
But if you use a transferable rewards program, such as Capital One Venture Miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards, you can get some flexibility to transfer your rewards to the airline programs that offer the most value or use them in other ways to make the most of your points or miles.
Be Mindful of How You Use Your Airline Miles
In all of this, the most important thing is that you be mindful of how you're using your airline miles. Even if they can help you get a much cheaper flight, it may make sense to hold onto them and pay cash to avoid a bad redemption; in other cases, the value of not having to pay for the full fare in cash can make an award flight worth it, even if the redemption rate is below average.
In every situation, try to have at least a little flexibility with your travels, so you can compare different itineraries to see which one will give you the most value.