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Both 2013 and 2014 have seen a trend in loyalty program devaluations. Hilton kicked off the devaluation parade in early 2013, followed by Delta and United over the past several months. Even Southwest devalued their Rapid Rewards program at the end of March, a challenge to their reputation as “The Friendly Airline.”
In this new climate of loyalty-currency decline, TPG reader Donald emailed me to ask:
“Now that Delta and United will be awarding miles based on money spent instead of miles flown, how do you think their point-transfer situation will play out? It seems that if the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express transfer ratio remains at 1:1, Starwood points will be even more valuable.”
I believe that an IRS-proposed change to the tax code is the inspiration for those in the travel industry to devalue their loyalty programs. Historically, companies with loyalty programs have been able to award large stashes of points and miles without having to pay taxes on them until they’re redeemed, sometimes as long as 18-36 months later; however, it’s possible that any company with a loyalty program could soon get stuck paying taxes on their loyalty currency at the end of each fiscal year, regardless of whether the points and miles have been redeemed. The math behind these loyalty program devaluations is simple: if hotels and airlines award fewer points and miles, they’ll have to pay less taxes.
However, using a credit card to earn points and miles – without even having to book a room or set foot on an airplane – will continue to be a viable means of gaming the system. All these loyalty program devaluations will ultimately make credit card points more valuable, because earning points and miles via hotel stays and flights will become more difficult, and we’ll have to increasingly rely on versatile points transfers like those available through Amex Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.
As hotels and airlines increase the amount of points and miles you need and restrict the ease with which you accrue them, it’s possible that award availability will improve, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Fortunately, I think credit cards will continue to be an easy option, because not only do they already employ a revenue-based system, but for some time now sign-up bonus offers have been remarkably high. Just this week, for instance, Capital One doubled the sign-up bonus on their Venture card to 40,000 miles. Barclaycard and Chase also have some great current offers, including 40,000 points for the Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (with a $3,000 spend in 3 months) and 50,000 points for the Ink Plus Business Card and Ink Bold Business Card (with a $5,000 spend in 3 months), and Starwood Amex has 30,000-point offers through June 30, 2014.
At this point, the real way to win the game is to leverage the very best credit card deals and make sure you’re diversified rather than overexposed to one hotel or airline currency, because these will surely continue to devalue. This news may not be great for frequent flyers or loyal hotel customers, but for those of us who are credit card spenders and maximizers, the future is still bright.