Cheap economy flights vs award tickets to Europe — which is best to book right now?

Oct 1, 2021

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Travel to Europe is (mostly) back — and so are cheap transatlantic flights.

But with so much lingering uncertainty around travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, should you book a cheap airfare instead of redeeming an award ticket? After all, a round-trip ticket to Portugal for less than $500 sure is tempting, but it comes with its own set of issues that might have you thinking twice.

As will the fact that the European Union recently removed the U.S. from its “safe list” due to rising coronavirus cases (though few countries have actually banned Americans from travel). If rules do change again, refunds might be hard to come by on cheap paid tickets, giving you little recourse beyond a flight voucher.

Here are a few considerations you should take before booking a cheap fare to Europe this winter. You might just find that it’s more worthwhile (and easier) to use your points and miles to book instead.

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In This Post

award tickets vs cheap fares to europe

Lufthansa and United planes at the gate in Frankfurt airport
(Photo by Nate Hovee/Shutterstock.com)

It might be tempting to book the first cheap paid ticket you see, but it’s not always worth it. Here’s why you may want to consider spending points instead of booking a cheap economy ticket to Europe.

Award tickets are usually more flexible than paid ones

One great thing about award travel in the pandemic era is how flexible ticket change and cancellation terms are.

Now, many award tickets booked with American, Alaska and Delta and United can be canceled and refunded free of charge (before booking anything, be sure to review your specific mileage program’s terms and conditions). Many popular credit card transfer partners like Air Canada Aeroplan and Air France-KLM Flying Blue have also relaxed some of their rules. One major exception that comes to mind is Avianca LifeMiles.

When you cancel a paid ticket, on the other hand, you might only eligible for a flight credit which must be redeemed with the same airline you booked within a certain time frame. For instance, if you cancel an Air France flight, you will have to rebook an Air France or KLM flight in the future. In most cases, you’re also liable to pay the fare difference if the flight you move to is more expensive than the ticket you originally booked.

This could leave you stuck with flight credit you can’t use. Worse, these credits often have expiration dates so you must travel by the time it’s set to expire.

Of course, there are some exceptions here. You might be eligible for a cash refund if your flight’s schedule is changed significantly by the airline, or if the airline cancels the route you’re set to fly. But there’s no guarantee this will happen and the policy varies by carrier.

Personally, I’ll only buy cheap tickets sold by domestic airlines like American, Delta and United where I can use the flight easily on domestic flights I’m likely to take regardless.

Most cheap paid flights book into basic economy

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Basic economy tickets are the most restrictive fares sold by airlines. While some U.S. airlines have made these tickets more flexible through the end of the year, not all international carriers followed suit.

Basic economy fares typically do not offer checked luggage on most international carriers — just a personal item. Checking a bag on these fares can incur large fees, negating the value of your cheap ticket. For example, expect to pay  $150 round-trip for a checked bag in Virgin Atlantic’s Economy Light class from New York to London.

On the flip side, most international award tickets book into standard economy. This means you’re entitled to a carry-on and, more often than not, a checked bag, saving you on fees.

You also can’t upgrade most basic economy tickets, or even select seats in advance of check-in. As someone over six feet tall, being stuck in the middle seat on a six-hour flight sounds particularly awful. This is even worse on transatlantic flights from the West Coast.

Consider whether or not dealing with these restrictions is worth it to save some cash or points. If not, you may want to consider booking an award ticket.

Related: Where to credit your basic economy flights for maximum returns

When to pay for that cheap Europe flight

Virgin Atlantic 747 at LGW airport
(Photo by Willy Barton/Shutterstock.com)

That’s not to say you should never book these cheap flights. Here are a few times it makes sense to book a cheap ticket to Europe over an award ticket.

The math works out

Sometimes award tickets aren’t that good a deal. Flights to/from the U.K. on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, in particular, incur high fuel surcharges and departure tax that make even award tickets off-puttingly expensive.

Take this Virgin Atlantic itinerary for example. A round-trip economy award from New York-JFK to London-Heathrow (LHR) costs 30,000 Virgin points and $491.75 in taxes and fees.

Virgin Atlantic JFK to LHR award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of virginatlantic.com)

By contrast, you can book the same flights for just $704 in Economy Light; the carrier’s equivalent of basic economy. Standard economy tickets cost $854.

Virgin Altantic ticket in Google Flights
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

This means you’d be getting just 0.71 cents per point in value based on the Economy Light fare, or 1.2 cents per point on the standard economy fare. Both of these are well below TPG’s valuation of 1.5 cents per Virgin Atlantic Flying Club point, so you’ll want to save your points to book something like a Delta One ticket to (non-U.K.) Europe for 50,000 Virgin points with much lower taxes and fees.

In particular, I’ve often found booking cheap economy awards with Air France-KLM Flying Blue, ANA Mileage Club, British Airways Avios and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club not to be worthwhile given the high taxes and fees they still incur. Each of these programs pass on fuel surcharges when the operating carrier charges them, which makes it difficult to find a good deal if economy flights are cheap.

Always do the math and see if it makes sense to book a cheap ticket over an award ticket. If the inexpensive paid ticket works in your favor — and you’re comfortable with the risks of booking a ticket you might have to cancel — it makes sense to book a cash ticket over an award ticket.

You’re booking at the last-minute

Booking cheap tickets at the last minute can make more sense than booking award tickets, too.

There’s very little chance of borders closing with zero notice, so if you’re leaving within a week or so of booking, paying for a basic economy ticket with all its restrictions still carries relatively little risk. This is especially true if you’re booking a flight ticketed by a U.S. carrier where you can easily use the credit if you do need to cancel.

Bargain airfares are pretty easy to come by these days, too. For example, this basic economy ticket from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Lisbon (LIS) with United Airlines costs just $427 four days before departure. If you can commit to traveling in that time frame, why not go for it?

United flights from IAD to LIS in Google Flights
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

You’re chasing elite status

Booking cheap paid tickets to Europe rather than using miles can also be a good way to boost your elite-qualifying activity before the end of the year.

For instance, if you need to earn a few thousand Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) to your American AAdvantage account before the end of the year, booking a cheap American or British Airways ticket to London can be a good way to get the points you need — again, if you’re comfortable with the fact that you might need to cancel your trip.

Also beware that basic economy fares might not earn as many (or any at all) elite-qualifying miles as other types of fares, and earning rates on partner flights can also vary, so always confirm the earning rules with your frequent-flyer program of choice.

There’s no award space

The U.S. is reopening its borders to Europeans in November, and most European countries are open to Americans. That means award space is becoming more actively booked by travelers on both sides of the Atlantic who are itching to vacation and visit family and friends overseas.

This has made award space harder to come by on some routes — even in economy. For example, there’s very limited non-stop award space on United between Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and London-Heathrow (LHR) this December and early January (though this is also probably due to the busy holiday travel season).

United Award Availability from ORD to LHR
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

However, you can book round-trip nonstop tickets on the same route for under $600 on many of the dates where award availability is nonexistent..

United ORD to LHR in Google Flights
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

With that in mind, it could make sense to book the cheap economy ticket if you want to avoid a layover or can’t find award space on your flights of choice.

Related: Why this is the year of easy elite status

Bottom line

There are pros and cons of booking cheap tickets to Europe. On one hand, award tickets often provide more flexibility and make it easier to change or cancel tickets than basic economy fares would if borders close or your plans change. But, you might not get a great cent-per-point value when paid tickets are cheap.

If you decide to book the inexpensive paid ticket, just make sure you’re comfortable with the risks and downsides. You may be locked into basic economy and need to pay for extras like seat assignments and a checked bag that can make your trip less affordable than you thought. Likewise, you might not be eligible for a simple cash refund, whereas changing or canceling an award ticket might be much easier.

Feature photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy.

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