When's the best time to use frequent flyer miles to book flights? Two economists crunched the numbers on maximizing their dollar value

Traveling during major holidays like Thanksgiving can be expensive, since so many people want to see their friends and families, wherever they might be.

It’s especially hard this year with inflation soaring at the fastest pace since the early 1980s. Airline fares were up 43% in October from a year earlier – only a handful of categories increased by more.

One way to ease the blow to your wallet or purse is by using frequent flyer miles. While there’s quite a bit of research on when is the best time to use cash to buy flights, we wondered – as travel lovers – if there’s an optimal time to use miles. So with the help of our research assistant, we investigated this question, with a focus on flights over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Americans return to the skies

The day before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days to travel in the U.S.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended travel, the Transportation Security Administration screened 2.6 million people on Thanksgiving eve of 2019, just shy of the 2.9 million record. While the number plunged in 2020 as demand dropped, it picked up to 2.3 million last year and is expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels this year.

The surge in demand, along with significantly higher jet fuel costs, are key factors in leading to more expensive air fares.

To offset these higher costs, many consumers may turn to frequent flyer miles – whether accumulated from other travel or from credit cards – to avoid forking over so much cash.