Sometimes, collecting frequent flyer miles with a credit card pays off

Are frequent flyer miles worth collecting anymore? I’ve asked that question elsewhere, and have been advocating the use of credit cards paying up to 5% cash back as a better alternative for many travelers who rack up most of their miles using airline-affiliated credit cards. For many people, now that there are new fees associated with cashing in miles, the answer is no.

Most of us travel domestic economy, and $25,000 spent on a frequent flyer credit card only gets you a domestic coach ticket, assuming you can even find available seats and aren’t paying a fee to cash in the miles at short notice or to redeposit them if you change your mind. That same $25,000 spent on a 5% cash back card gets you $750 which you can spend anyway you wish. You might even be able to find a seat to Hawaii. Try that with your frequent flyer miles.

So do I personally collect miles with a frequent flyer credit card? You bet I do. Recently, I applied for a British Airways Chase Visa card ($75 annual fee), but only because they were awarding 100,000 miles after you charged a paltry $2000 to the card (caveat: sadly, this offer is no longer available). My BA Executive Club account had something like 300 miles in it, so it was time to top it up. I wasn’t planning on going anywhere in particular, but just a few days ago I learned that my Oxford college was having a reunion, and I thought, fun, might as well go.

So I went to spend some miles. What I found at was pretty shocking. On the day in April that I wanted to fly from New York to London, I had exactly one option: a first class seat for 75,000 miles. And the return didn’t look much better, although there were several business class seats on BA’s new London City Airport to JFK all-business-class flight for 50,000 points. Award seats in economy (not that I was devastated) were sold out in both directions.

Needless to say, I didn’t have enough points, but BA kindly suggested that I buy the outward-bound first class flight with miles plus $285 in cash and $163 in fees and surcharges. Not that my return flight was free either. I got hit with a fuel surcharge plus taxes and fees of $358.

So my “free” flight, including the BA Chase card’s $75 fee, ended up costing me $881. Still, not bad considering that when I checked on, these same flights would have cost over $14,000 had I bought them with cash. Lesson learned: if you play your credit cards right, collecting frequent flyer miles with them can indeed pay off. Just don’t expect to have a lot of seat choice or to get something for nothing.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.