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Why mile and point valuations don't always rule my world

Sept. 06, 2019
14 min read
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
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Working at The Points Guy is pretty incredible because every single week day hour, I learn something really useful about miles and points from a colleague. The number of stories I've bookmarked by Mommy Points, Ethan Steinberg, Katie Genter, JT Genter and others is pretty staggering. I rarely book a hotel or flight without first checking to see if it's been reviewed by Nick Ellis or Nick Ewen, and Richard Kerr's columns get me thinking about -- and questioning -- the status quo in travel. If you ever have the chance to attend any of The Points Guy's live events and meet the team, do it!

It was my newfound access to that type of points brain power that had me worried when I started this job almost a year ago. I was nervous because, truth be told, I have what some would consider an ugly secret: I don't always get the most value for my miles and points. To be honest, I sometimes don't even try.

Instead, my motto is:

"Focus on earning so you have a cushion when burning."

That's in contrast to many travelers that try to get as much value as possible from every single mile and point, and often look to TPG's monthly valuations to help make sure they do. And, that's a wise course of action -- especially when you're new to this hobby.

Understand valuations -- and learn when to push them

I saw a terrific documentary about Picasso once that explained that his Cubism period was so successful because he had a solid foundation from which to expand. He couldn't have dominated that art movement if he hadn't first mastered traditional drawing and oil painting earlier in his career. Learning about miles and points is like that, too. It's imperative that you learn the relative value of the different loyalty currencies. Only then will you know when it's "safe" for you to push the boundaries of those currencies. Looking to the valuations The Points Guy himself puts on miles and points will help you do just that.

When I was new to miles and points, I'd agonize over redemptions and wonder if I was eking out "enough" value. I'd comb through sites like The Points Guy to try to determine if I was doing this hobby "right."

I'd jump on every opportunity to book a low-cost flight award like Delta's recent flash sales, chase a first class award seat to Hawaii for just 12,500 miles or visit far-off places like the Maldives just because the hotel redemption was an incredible "value."

W Maldives
W Maldives. (Photo courtesy of the hotel)

But, as I became more savvy in earning miles and points -- and set my own valuation terms -- I began to worry less about whether or not I was getting the "best" value. I now focus on the experience the miles and points can grant me. I take the trips I want to take, whether the value is there or not.

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Life is too short -- and unpredictable so I use my miles and I don't let them sit and stagnate just because the "perfect" redemption hasn't presented itself. While I am very value-oriented in most aspects of my life, I no longer stress out and twist myself up into a pretzel every time I seek out an award flight or hotel redemption.

You can do the same by earning enough loyalty currency to redeem it for the rewards you want, when you want them -- no matter the price.

Invest in your miles and points education

Before you start to blindly collect any miles and points from a zillion different programs, read Samantha Rosen's Beginner's Guide Part 1: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards. It will help lay the groundwork so you can begin to formulate the best plan to earn miles and points that can be redeemed for the actual trips you want to take in the future.

Then, sign up for TPG's daily newsletter and the TPG Alerts Twitter feed for the latest deals.

Once you've done that, go to Facebook and join the private TPG Lounge and/or TPG Family groups. These are great forums where you can learn from other hobbyists and TPGers. Use the "Search this group" tool and you are guaranteed to find the answers to many of your burning questions. Or, post a query to get advice personalized to your situation.

Zero in on programs that make sense for you

A few times of year, a fever comes over people who want to earn Southwest's Companion Pass, with good reason. With the pass you can basically get buy-one-get-one free flights (just pay the taxes and fees on your companion's ticket) for the duration of the pass (one to two years, depending on when you earn it).

It's a phenomenal deal, but every time there's Companion Pass talk among my points friends, I restrain myself from jumping on the bandwagon. Southwest just isn't a perfect fit for me for a variety of reasons, so I pass on easy Southwest Rapid Rewards earning opportunities because I don't think I'd ever use them. It just doesn't make sense for me -- though it does for tons of other people.

The same goes for participation in Avianca's LifeMiles program. I know using LifeMiles can provide a ton of value but I've never been able to make it work for my family. So I'm not using this frequent flyer program right now -- even though it can present tremendous value to some. Here's everything you need to know about Avianca LifeMiles.

My point is, decide which programs work for you and don't worry if everyone seems enamored with one program that's a dud for you. That's OK. It's awesome that Grandpa Points loves Spirit Airlines. He proves that if a program works for you, use it. We are all travel snowflakes with different needs and wants and there's no reason you need to go all-in on every program. Pick and choose the ones that work for you and put the ones you've ruled out for valid and specific reasons on the back burner. You can always revisit them later.

Focus on transferrable points

Make a point to earn flexible points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards or Capital One miles. With flexible points, you can transfer them to a variety of airline and hotel programs and even use them like cash to book travel arrangements through their associated portals or "erase" purchases coded as "travel" on your credit card statement. If you have flexible points, you can transfer them to other programs when you want to make a redemption. Many transfers are instant.

American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to: Aer Lingus, AeroMexico, Air Canada, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, ANA, Avianca, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, El Al, Emirates, Etihad, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, JetBlue, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic plus Choice Hotels, Hilton and Marriott

Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to: Aer Lingus, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Iberia, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic plus IHG, Marriott and Hyatt

Capital One miles transfer to: AeroMexico, Air Canada, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, Avianca, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, EVA Air, Finnair, Hainan Airlines, JetBlue, Qantas, Qatar and Singapore Airlines

Pool your miles and points

Pay attention to programs that offer family pooling of points and miles. Combining points from multiple accounts -- say yours and your partner's -- can help you get to an award faster than if you were counting on just your own loyalty currency. It's possible to pool certain flexible points, frequent flyer miles and hotel points. Here's TPG's ultimate guide to points pooling and sharing.

Use companion flight certificates and hotel free night awards

Once you begin learning more about various frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs, you'll discover the availability of companion flight certificates that let you take someone on a trip with you. Sometimes you just have to wait until the card anniversary and then pay the price of the airline ticket's taxes and fees or a small copay plus taxes. Other deals require that you spend a certain amount on the cobranded card before you can access the companion flight deal. Here's a guide to airline credit card companion tickets.

When it comes to hotel free night certificates, you can earn them by attaining elite status in certain programs or simply carrying the cobranded credit card.

For example, my husband and I both have the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card. Every year on the card anniversary, we each receive a free night certificate that can be used at any hotel with a redemption rate of 50,000 points (or less). That means you can redeem at a Category 6 hotel via a standard award or a Category 7 during off-peak dates. It's a terrific perk that -- along with the card's other benefits -- more than offsets the annual fee. You can get a free night at properties like Oahu's Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Delta Hotels Whistler Village in British Columbia and The Ritz-Carlton, Bali.

Here are the hotel cards that come with a free annual night.

The Ritz-Carlton, Bali. (Photo courtesy of the hotel)

Leverage credit card sign-up bonuses

If you are just starting out and don't have the luxury of booking an award unless it's at the absolute lowest saver rate, you can do a few things now to set yourself up for more flexibility in the future. First and foremost, save your credit card slots -- you don't want to run afoul of Chase's 5/24 rule -- for the really lucrative credit card welcome bonuses to jump-start or pad your accounts.

While it varies dramatically based on the type of point or mile that's up for grabs, consider 50,000- to 60,000-point welcome bonuses to be OK to good, depending on the loyalty currency we're talking about. Welcome bonuses of 75k should pique your interest and anything that gets you 100,000 points or more at once deserve close scrutiny.

If you're starting from scratch, here are two cards to consider applying for:

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Get 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points as a welcome bonus after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of holding the card. $95 annual fee. Here are five reasons to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Earn a welcome bonus of 150,000 Hilton Honors points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of holding the card. $450 annual fee (see rates and fees). Here are seven reasons to get the Amex Hilton Aspire.

Consider all sorts of promotions

Look into any method that grows your mileage balances, either in the background or after you make a transaction. For example, if you're an American Airlines flyer, research its partnership with BankDirect. You can earn miles for opening certain types of bank accounts and leaving money in the account over time. In the past, I've seen similar mile-earning deals for opening accounts with Chase, Citi and Fidelity.

For transactional bonuses, pay attention to your programs' websites and look for any promotions. For example, Amex Offers can be a terrific way to earn some extra Membership Rewards points for buying something you were planning on purchasing anyway. Right now, targeted Amex customers can earn 20,000 MRs with a $1,000 Air France-KLM purchase. That's a nice perk that helps bulk up your Membership Rewards balance.

Use tools that make you a better traveler

Let's face it: It's much easier to know which awards make sense -- and which don't -- when you have a firm grasp of your airline, hotel and bank points programs. For that, there's no substitute for putting in the work … which is actually a lot of fun. It's all the things I mentioned above, from reading The Points Guy, to listening to TPG's podcasts and watching our videos.

But, you also need a few tools at your disposal that will help you more easily find the best awards possible -- no matter what your miles/points balance is.

TPG is working on an app that will be an incredible help to all of us -- whether we're just starting our loyalty accounts or we've got millions of miles and points waiting to be exercised. Watch this site for details about the app this fall.

Meanwhile, check out Expert Flyer -- part of The Points Guy Family. This service, which has both a free and paid subscription option, offers:

  • Seat maps
  • Seat alerts
  • Award searches*
  • Upgrade searches*
  • Flight timetable information
  • Flight schedule alerts
  • Aircraft change alerts
  • And more

*Note: Not all airline awards are searchable via ExpertFlyer.

Here's a beginner's guide to award searches on ExpertFlyer, and here is a great illustration of how ExpertFlyer helped one TPGer save 50,000 American AAdvantage miles on a redemption.

Give yourself permission to let your points buy you time

The older I get, the faster the hands on the clock seem to move. There is never enough time to do it all. From important work projects to spending time with friends and family to volunteering at the local dog park to teaching my own dog fun parlor tricks, there is always something left on my to-do list at the end of the day. You probably have a few things left unchecked on your daily list too.

These days, when I embark on trip planning, I'm much more decisive. I don't worry if saver awards are available for my flight, especially if my family is locked into a certain time frame. Is a reasonable route available for a reasonable-to-me amount of miles? If so, I book it and don't look back.

If you've got more miles and points than time, book your trip and go. Don't agonize or wait for the "perfect" redemption. Decide if the rate is fair and just do it.

Bottom line

When I opened my first frequent flyer accounts and then discovered The Points Guy, I never expected that one day I'd actually work here and be surrounded by folks who know how to stretch the corners of every award chart. But, that's how life is: an unexpected fork in the road presents itself and, if you're lucky, it takes you somewhere wonderful. Your points and miles can do that, too, whether you are stretching that award via a transfer to a foreign program, integrating stopovers and open jaws or simply burning your miles on the exact nonstop flight you want.

For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire, please click here.

Featured image by Mauna Kea Beach as seen from the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Photo courtesy of the resort)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.