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Maximize Monday: Using Airline Miles For Hotel and Car Awards – Worth It?

by on August 19, 2013 · 14 comments

in American, Delta, Elite Status, Maximize Monday, United

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While most of the time we talk about airline miles in terms of award flights and how to get the most value out of them, many airlines actually let you use your miles for non-flight travel redemptions as well including car rentals, hotel stays, and packages. I don’t tend to think about those options much, but this article in one of last week’s Wall Street Journal issues pointed out that elite flyers often get preferential rates when it comes to mileage redemptions for hotel stays and car rentals, and that it’s easier than ever to use your miles for them, so I thought I’d take a look at the options myself and see what kinds of values you can get from your miles if you choose to redeem them for non-flight travel awards.

Though the value you get from these redemptions isn’t always the best – usually around the 1 cent per mile mark, or even less in some cases – it’s still good to have the option in case you are all stocked up on miles but low on cash.

What you might not know, however, is that having elite status can get you a lot more value for your miles – sometimes double or more – since airlines offer their elite frequent flyers preferential mileage redemption rates on these types of awards. So for today’s Maximize Monday, I thought I’d take a look at the rates you get when using miles from American, Delta and United to book non-air travel, as well as the boost in value you get as an elite member.

American Car Hotels

Keep in mind, you’re still getting values of about 1.2 cents per mile at best, even as an elite, so these aren’t your super-premium high-value awards, but if you’re looking to save some cash (and some miles thanks to elite status), these could be something to consider. If you have elite status with several airlines, then definitely cross-check the hotel/car/package you want across their sites and see which one will give you the best deal. In the examples I looked at, I found American’s redemption levels to be the lowest, but I might not go with them because AA miles can be harder to rack up than United or Delta ones, so I might be willing to spend a few more miles and use either of those kinds instead of American.

On the other hand, one big positive is that even if flight award space is scarce, these non-air redemptions are usually pretty plentiful, so it can be a lot less frustrating to redeem your miles for them, which makes life easier for a lot of travelers for whom convenience is the most important factor.

As always, the value of a redemption is in the eye of the traveler – if you have the miles and can use them to take the trip you want, then you might well think these redemptions a bargain, even though strictly in terms of raw cent-per-mile value they are not the highest out there.

American Airlines

American has a dedicated page for car and hotel award, which you can find here.  You can use miles to book a hotel, a car, or car + hotel packages.

Without logging in, I did a quick search for hotels the third weekend in September, and the search is powered by TripAdvisor. The first two that came up were the Westin Waterfront for 42,750 miles per night and the Marriott Copley Place for 64,500 miles per night.

AA Boston hotels

Just going through the “Plan Travel” tab for hotels on the AA.com homepage and doing the same search, the Westin was coming up with a nightly rate of $274 and the Marriott was charging $414 per night – yielding a per-mile value of 0.64 cents. Not great.

However, when I logged in to pay for the room with my AAdvantage account, as an Executive Platinum, my total for two nights at the Westin dropped from 85,500 miles to 42,800 points – just about 50%! That brought my per-mile value to 1.28 cents.

American Elite Hotels Discount

Just to test it out, I had TPG Managing Editor Eric try the booking and log in with his AAdvantage account since he has Gold status, and he got the same preferential rate as I did, so it didn’t depend on our elite status tiers.

Just one thing to note, while Starwood itself priced out the Westin right around the same $274 mark, Marriott actually priced its hotel at $329 per night when booking directly, so that would bring my per-mile value down significantly to 0.51 cents as a non-elite and 1 cent per mile as an elite. Always double check to make sure you’re getting the best price – and again, remember that these redemptions aren’t always the highest value out there.

Boston Marriott

For the car rental portion, I put in the same dates, but in San Diego instead and got a bunch of different options, but just looking at the Avis ones, I could get an Economy car for 5,750 miles per day (11,500 total) or a Compact car for 6,500 miles per day (13,000) total.  Just booking the cars would cost me $59 or $60 a day (both Orbitz and Avis itself gave me values of $58 and $59 respectively, so I feel comfortable quoting the AA site), giving me a value of between 0.9-1 cent per mile.

AA Car rentals

However, when I logged in, those numbers dropped by half to 2,100 miles per day for the Economy and 2,400 miles per day for the Compact bringing my per-mile value to 2.8 cents for the Economy car and 2.5 cents per mile for the Compact – much better.

American cards elite discount

I also searched Car + Hotel packages by putting in the same dates for Seattle. The system priced out a room at the W Seattle and a compact rental from Budget for a grand total of $566.93 or 80,000 miles when booking just through the Plan Travel tab. That works out to a value of 0.71 cents per mile.

AA Vacations pricing Seattle

When I logged in with my AAdvantage account to the payment page, there was no mileage discount, though it did let me choose to pay with a mixture of cash and miles – basically I was buying miles back at the rate of $5 per 1,000 miles (about half a cent each, which I would definitely do if I were choosing this method since American usually sells you miles at the rate of 3.5 cents each – so this is a discount of 85%).

American Car Hotel Elite discount

Going through the mileage booking site, however, the package was priced out at 86,500 miles for some reason (0.66 cents per mile), but when I logged in, it dropped to 41,900 miles – giving me a new per-mile value of 1.35 cents per mile – over double the value I would get as a non-elite.

I thought it was worth double checking prices again, however, just to make sure I was getting a decent value from booking through AA, so I checked on Orbitz and found the same package for $602 total including taxes and fees, which is a bit better deal than I was getting through American, whose prices did not include the taxes, but not by a huge amount.

Bottom line: With American, elite status gets you double your per-mile value, or more.

Delta

Delta allows you to redeem SkyMiles for hotels, car rentals and packages through the SkyMiles Marketplace. I decided to look at the same dates and cities when figuring out just how much value you can get from your SkyMiles for non-air travel redemptions.

Delta SkyMiles Marketplace

Delta

I decided to look at the same dates and cities when figuring out just how much value you can get from your SkyMiles for non-air travel redemptions.

Its search engine is also powered by TripAdvisor, and without logging in, for hotels I found the Westin Waterfront was going for 47,627 per night for my dates, yielding a value of about 0.57 cents per mile.

Delta Westin Boston

While the Marriott Copley Place would cost 71,843 per night – a value of about 0.46 cents per mile (going off the Marriott.com price).

Delta Marriott Boston

When I logged in with my SkyMiles number as a Platinum Medallion, however, the Boston Westin Waterfront price went down to 38,662 miles per night – a discount, but not much. My new per-mile value was 0.71 cents.

You can also see that I don’t have enough miles in my account to book this at the moment, so Delta gives me the option of purchasing the 30,453 miles I need for a total of $243.63, or about 0.8 cents each, which is extremely cheap.

Delta Boston Marriott Elite

With car rentals, I plugged in my same San Diego dates and found the Avis rentals available here as well, for 7,923 for an Economy and 8,807 for a Compact, so my mileage values varied from 0.68-0.74 cents per mile.

Delta Avis

After logging in, the mile redemptions dropped to 6,437 and 7,155 respectively, bringing my value per mile to about 0.84-0.92 cents. Still not great.

Delta Avis Elite

In my W Seattle/Budget hotel and rental car package scenario, Delta priced out the package at 102,023 miles total for the hotel room for two nights and the rental car. Based on the same $567 price I got for the package earlier, that would bring my per-mile value to 0.56 cents.

Delta W Budget

Whereas with my elite status, I got it down to 82,893 miles total – a value of 0.7 cents per mile.

Delta W Budget Elite

Although elites do get discounts with Delta, the percentage seems to be a lot less than with American and (as you’ll see below) United. Not only that, but the redemption levels are higher with Delta’s Travel Marketplace in general, meaning you get less value per mile with this program. I might avoid it in favor of one of the other two, but it’s worth considering that Delta is a transfer partner of American Express, which can make it easier to accrue points into the SkyMiles program if you have any of their Amex co-branded cards as well as those that earn Membership Rewards like the Premier Rewards Gold and Platinum cards, so it might be worth topping up your account for such a redemption if it suits your needs.

United

You can also use United miles to book hotels, cars, and packages on this page.

United redemptions

Its award search engine priced out the Westin Waterfront at 37,600 miles per night, and the Marriott Copley Plaza at 56,650 miles per night, giving me a per-mile value of about 0.6-.0.7 cents per mile.

Westin United

Logging in as a Premier Platinum elite, however, my rate dropped 27% to 27,625 miles per night and gave me a per-mile value of just shy of 1 cent.

United Westin

With the car rentals, United was going to charge me 7,500 miles for either the Economy or the Compact, giving me a value of about 0.8 cents per mile.

United cars

That dropped to 4,925 miles per day for an Economy car or 5,475 miles per day for a Compact – not nearly as good as the rates than American was giving me, and a value of 1.2 cents per mile at best.

United elite cars

In terms of hotel and car packages, my Seattle weekend with a Budget Economy car and two nights at the W would cost me 82,550.

United W Seattle

Logging into my account, though, the price dropped to 59,350 miles – a per-mile value of 0.96 miles per point since United’s site was generating the same $567 price on the whole weekend.

United car hotel

I could also choose to pay cash instead of some of the miles up to about 60% of the miles for an outright award, and with the rate they fixed the cash copays at, it would be like buying United miles back at a rate of 0.94 cents per mile – another decent deal and one I’d be willing to take.

The Takeaway

The three largest US legacy carriers all allow you to use your miles for all kinds of non-flight redemptions including hotels, car rentals and vacation packages. That’s good news for travelers with a lot of miles who are frustrated about not being able to book the award flights they want since there is often much greater availability for these non-air types of awards.

However, on the negative side – and it is a major negative! – the value you get from your miles for such redemptions is often well below what you can get when redeeming for flights, and can be right around the 0.5-cent mark. Airline elites are rewarded for their loyalty with much better values for their miles on these redemptions – sometimes even higher than twice the value – but you should always do the math for yourself and your specific situation before committing your miles to a non-flight redemption. As I found above, the values for hotel rooms and car rentals can be inflated based on what else you can find on sites like Orbitz or Hotels.com, and some airlines give bigger discounts to their elites than others.

If you have a choice between programs, you should also take into consideration how easy it is to rack up the miles you are going to be using – for instance maybe it’s harder for you to earn American miles than United ones, then even though a particular redemption using United miles might be more expensive than using American miles, it might still be worth it to you since you can replenish your account more quickly.

You can also consider the option to use miles for part of your award and a cash co-pay for part of it since doing so allows you to purchase the miles you need for a fraction of the price (as low 14% in some cases that I found) that an airline will normally charge you for them, so before you go buying points speculatively through the usual “buy miles” page, go through the reservation process and see if you can buy them at a discount that way.

In general, I’ll still be using my miles for higher-value redemptions on premium class airline tickets, but it’s still good to know the options that are out there for putting your miles to use. I only looked at 3 major US-based programs today (and I covered British Airways’ non-flight redemptions here) but if there are any others, including international airlines, I should check out, let me know.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Michael Carey

    Needing a car for five days in LIH, all rental cars were pricing out at around $290-$340 but being Explat with AA, I paid 11000 miles including all taxes…

  • ryan

    As a once AA elite I’ve used the hotel + car redemption a few times at pretty decent rates. Keep in mind, that while for hotels there are no additional fees (perhaps the resort fee on some properties), for car rentals you need to pay the taxes directly to the car rental agency. AA won’t tell you what those taxes are and you won’t know 100% until you get there. In some places the taxes can easily be $20+ per day.

    Also, AA often has specials or discounts on hotels which as an elite can bring it down even more.

    What’s really strange is I have not been an AA elite for over 5 years yet I’m still given the preferential rates. Either they don’t update their systems or it gives me the rates because I have the Citi AA cards – either way I’m not complaining.

  • Eric L.

    I’ve found I have been able to use British Airways Avios for domestic hotels at pretty good rates.

  • milesforfamily.wordpress.com

    I checked SkyMiles marketplace redemption, and the low-end to mid-range hotels returned around 0.8 cents per mile, so perhaps the high-end places don’t get as good of a return? I did check only 4 places, so perhaps you are right. The car rental is not the best place to use miles, because you will usually do better with Ultimate Rewards portal or Priceline. Honestly, it would be better to use Delta miles for flight credit, because the floor is 1 cent per mile on 100 dollar ticket or more. But not everyone lives near Delta hub. I think it does depend on your needs. Good analysis, though.

  • Steve

    The number of domestic AA flight redemptions available for my Avios has been very poor. I can almost never find anything in their system, perhaps because of where I live, near MSP. So, Like Eric L., I’ve ended up using my Avios for hotels, generally in Las Vegas, for decent rates.

  • milesforfamily.wordpress.com

    Have you tried looking at AA.com ? BA.com a lot of times does not show connecting flights on American. But if aa.com shows award availability, you can call BA and ask to waive the fee. The agents should see the same availability.

  • James

    Avios for hotels tends to be right around .01/mile for redemptions – not sure if elites get a preferred rate. Also, because the hotel-for miles portals all use different back-end consolidators for their rates, you may find some really good rates which are hard to find on other search engines.

  • Steve T

    I recently used my Advantage miles to rent a car for 4 days in Reno for Hot August nights when the posted rates were $45 a day for a mid size car (total $240 with taxes). Using Aadvantage miles (I am Platinum) instead cost me only 13,200 miles. Seems like a good deal? Wrong, very wrong. Once you book an award (even car rental) its in blood or pay $150 fee tor reinstate your miles. Turns out the rental car company a few days before picking up the car lowered the rate to $10.80 a day. I was still liable for taxes at the full rate, which in Reno are quite high. Bottom line, wasted 13,200 miles to save a total of $9.00. Very stupid move.

  • Mark

    If I use aa miles for auto rentals will l lose the credit card free collision waiver benefit ?

  • 323kid

    On AA, do Golds get the same mile rates as Platinum and EXPs?

  • BBK

    Same case here, I don’t have elite status on AA but I do have Citi cards and the left part of the screen states “thanks for your loyalty… As a valued Citi card.. you get preferred rates”..

    I have always used it for hotels, for car rental I was afraid of the taxes issue so I never tried (and also for the question Mark makes, I’m sure they will push to sell the insurance since I’m not technically paying the rental with the cards that waive the insurance).

    I do have premier status on United but the mileage cost difference is massive! (sometimes up to double vs. AA).

  • BBK

    Thank you for this great post! I was looking for this information for a long time..

    I’m using AA for hotel nights for a while and I was hapyy with it (specially with the mileage cost of United, sometimes double than AA), but I never did the math comparing to award flights. For your record I’m no elite AA, but the cost after signing is drops about 50% (like your state in the post), the difference seems to be for holding a Citi AAdvantage credit card.

  • BBK

    Yep, as the post says.. And i’m case I not elite AA and receive the rate discount for being a Citi AAdvantage cardholder.

  • BBK

    Can someone please post the math for the maximum value you can get per mile? for example like the “higher-value redemptions on premium class airline tickets” Brian states.. I mean in the BEST conditions one can get (saver award, long expensive routes).

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