Top 6 mistakes every points and miles beginner makes
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There’s a reason that dozens of all-encompassing, detailed resources exist for maximizing points and miles: this is a complicated hobby. If you’re new to all this, you’re withstanding the proverbial fire hose of information and trying to navigate potential pitfalls and mistakes — which probably feel like they’re everywhere.
At one time or another, points and miles humble us all. It doesn’t matter your background, personality, strengths or weaknesses — there are errors that all points and miles beginners make, and yes, even seasoned pros. Let’s take a look at six of these mistakes in the hopes of saving you from the stomach-churning realization that you just gave up — or missed out on — significant value.
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Believing All Points and Miles Are Equal
Think of loyalty currencies just like foreign cash currencies. You can “buy” the same products (in this case, award flights and hotels) with different types of currency, but depending on which one you’re going to use, the amount of currency required varies significantly. Just like one U.S. dollar isn’t equal to one British pound, one Chase point is not equal to one American Express point, which itself is not equal to one American AAdvantage mile. Every currency has its own unique value.
Compounding the confusion are banks like Capital One and Discover, who refer to their rewards as “miles.” If we go to dinner and I ask why you’re using the American Express® Gold Card to pay instead of your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, don’t say because the Amex Gold earns 4 points per dollar spent while your Sapphire card only earns two.
A better answer would be because you value an Amex Membership Rewards point higher than a Chase Ultimate Rewards point. That way, you’re comparing the value of the rewards earned, not the number of miles earned. So make sure you understand the value of the currencies you’re collecting and which will help you achieve your award travel goals most efficiently.
Not Understanding Airline Partnerships
In my opinion, this is the largest knowledge hurdle to overcome for beginners to maximize redemptions. Redeem miles for partner-operated airline flights typically yields the highest value for your miles. But to someone who’s never heard of this concept before, the idea of using Delta SkyMiles to fly Garuda Indonesia is as foreign a concept as trying to use British pounds to pay for groceries here in the U.S.
The process of redeeming miles on partner flights also confuses beginners. When booking a partner flight, the key thing to remember is that you do everything with the program whose miles you hold.
So in the above example, you’d use Delta SkyMiles on delta.com or with a Delta phone agent to book the Garuda flight and pay according to the price Delta charges. If you make changes to the ticket later, you’d do it with Delta. There’s no transfer of miles from Delta to Garuda. In fact, you don’t do anything with Garuda until it is time to check-in and fly — then you board the plane with Garuda Indonesia painted on the side.
Transferring Points Before Confirming Availability
Transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards are the most valuable and highly coveted loyalty currencies. The flexibility they provide via multiple airline and hotel transfer partners gives you many ways to make award travel a reality. However, they can easily trip up beginners in many ways when it comes time to redeem them.
Before transferring these points to a specific airline partner, you need to do everything possible to ensure the award seat you want is actually available and will still be available for booking when your points show up in your airline account.
Some websites like united.com, britishairways.com, and Flying Blue are known to show seats in the initial search results as available, only to have them unable to be confirmed on the final checkout page. We call this “phantom availability.” You need to confirm with a phone agent that the seats you want are actually available before transferring your Chase, Amex or Citi ThankYou points to the airline.
Some programs, such as American AAdvantage and Korean Air SKYPASS, even let you put award tickets on hold without the miles required in your account, so be sure to ask about that option before transferring.
You may think you’re organized, but points and miles will test even those who think they’re the best at keeping things in order. Tracking your credit score, card application dates, bank account log-ins, payment dates, minimum spending requirements, annual bonuses, annual fees and the loyalty currencies you hold is a daunting task. Failing to keep these organized could mean hundreds of dollars in interest and late fees, or thousands of missed points and miles.
The lure of holding mid to top-tier airline or hotel status for the leisure traveler can invoke irrational behavior and significant expense — both in time and money — that is absolutely not warranted.
My personal rule of thumb for status is pretty simple: unless you routinely fly for business (funded by your company or client), allowing you to earn and enjoy status benefits organically, then you should be an airline free agent and avoid chasing status. The only exception is if you are targeted for top-tier status via a challenge or match and you can complete it with almost all organic travel.
Before the pandemic, I would get dozens of questions from readers who were contemplating mileage running and incurring hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in expenses plus days of their time to achieve airline status whose benefits they may utilize just a handful of times a year. Don’t let airlines lure you with their shiny elite cards and (devaluing) statuses. It’s not worth it for the leisure traveler.
Fearing Annual Fees
I completely understand the beginner who cannot comprehend paying $550 for the privilege of using a credit card. That is a lot of money and would induce skepticism. True to form, I answer roughly 100 questions a week about what credit card readers should get next, with a sizable portion of those stating they aren’t interested in paying annual fees.
As a beginner, it’s important not to get sticker shock when looking at an annual fee. Instead, analyze all the benefits that the card and its loyalty program are giving in return for that fee. If you were offered a business class ticket to Europe in return for $95, you’d probably take it. Well, several cards routinely have sign-up bonuses capable of getting you that ticket — you just need to pay the annual fee, and that’s only if it isn’t waived in the first year.
Similarly, recurring travel benefits like lounge access, airline credits, primary car rental insurance, trip delay protection and concierge service can easily justify an annual fee. So don’t avoid cards just because you see a fee — do the math and see if the cost makes sense for you.
Related: Guide to credit card annual fees
These beginner mistakes aren’t meant to dissuade you from your pursuit of points and miles, but rather to bring awareness. It’s important to set realistic expectations and remind all of us about the time and effort required to truly maximize our loyalty portfolios. So be proactive in protecting against mistakes, and make sure to reach out in any of the numerous forums that exist for help when you’re unsure!
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
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