Points & Miles

TACTICAL OVERVIEW

  1. Accumulate points & miles with multiple programs
  2. Efficiently spend miles & points for travel and cash

THE GOOD NEWS

Congratulations! If you’re reading this page, you’ve already completed the biggest hurdle to creating value with miles and points. The decision to suck it up, buckle down, and actually learn what these programs are all about is the most important (and painful) step towards free travel and free money.

MY EXPERIENCE

Before getting into the points and miles game I only knew two things about these programs: 1) My Wells Fargo check card earned me 1 pt per dollar spent, which I would redeem for $0.01 in cash or gift cards. My REI co-branded US Bank credit card earned me the same amount but skipped the points middleman and just refunded 1% of all purchases every year. And 2) Airline frequent flyer programs were just that: programs to reward people who spent a lot of money to fly frequently. I had a vague notion that credit cards and frequent flyer programs were somehow connected, but I figured it was too complicated and too exclusive to frequent travelers to make it worth looking into. Boy was I wrong!

It wasn’t until a good friend demystified these programs for me that I really gave them any thought. My friend laid out the basics of how these programs work. More importantly, he told me about how he and his wife were going to spend 4 nights at a $550+/night Hyatt resort in Aruba for a total of about $200, including airfare. He showed me that is was worth it for me to find out more about points and miles. It was inconvenient and annoying to learn something as tangled and complex as the world of points, miles, bonus offers, expiration dates, redemption values, etc. but there is plenty of help out there. Knowing someone who had personally maximized the value of these programs motivated me to find out if I wanted to do it for myself.

With this website I want to be your friend who has actually learned the ropes and tried this stuff out; someone who has validated or invalidated the claims you see all over the internet and your junk mail about miles, points, bonuses, and special offers. I want to show you the basics and motivate you with my own success stories so you go out and find whatever additional details and tactics you need to create some success stories of your own!

IS IT WORTH IT?

YES! I got my first points-earning credit card in the summer of 2012, and as of January 2015 I have redeemed points for over $2000 cash, over $32,000 in airfare, and over $350 in hotel stays. And my current points/miles balances far exceed the value of what I have already redeemed. And what did all that value creation cost me?

  • Learning the programs: You’ll already have a good jump start just by reading this page. Learning these programs takes a little time, that’s all.
  • Credit usage: If you haven’t already guessed, credit card sign-up bonuses are the major source of points and miles. I actively monitor and maintain my credit score.
  • Mental stamina: To make the most out of the tactics used to maximize points and miles, you have to have some level of organization. For me this involved fighting my nature and being diligent in tracking everything with spreadsheets. If you are an organized person to begin with, disregard this as a cost.
  • Time: It takes time to do everything listed above. It can take a lot or a little, depending on how far you want to take it. For me, a half hour or an hour a week to update spreadsheets and monitor blogs is well worth the rewards.

TACTICAL DETAILS

The world of points and miles can certainly seem daunting at first glance. These programs have grown up and evolved over the years, and jumping in right in the middle of it all can put you at a disadvantage. Let’s try to remove that disadvantage by laying out the very basics for you…

Type of Currency
Depending on the program, you will earn different forms of “currency.”  This could be points, miles, vouchers, cash, etc.  Let’s look at the main forms of currency:

Airline Miles
This is the big one.  Airline miles are what started this whole industry, back when the only way to earn them was by buying full fare tickets and actually ‘frequently flying.’  People still earn miles when they fly, but the most popular way to earn a lot of miles nowadays is by using co-branded airline credit cards.  Specifically, the sign-up bonuses for these cards, which can be 50,000 miles or more.  Most airline cards earn 1 mile per dollar spent, so you would have to spend $40,000 – $50,000 on the card just to equal the typical bonus.

Because miles are typically earned at the rate of 1 per dollar, I look at these miles as being worth a minimum of $0.01 each.  That is to say, any old credit card can get you at least 1% cash back, so if I can get at least $0.01 of value out of each mile, it is worth more than the standard, basic credit card point.  In reality, these miles can usually be redeemed for far more than $0.01 each.  Let’s look at an example:

I picked some random dates in August and searched for airfare from Chicago (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA).  Priceline has a few itineraries with hellish layovers for just over $1000 round trip.  The cheapest tickets with a decent itinerary (11h 15m, 1 stop) are going for $1223 on Aer Lingus.  Booking a similar round trip flight directly through American Airlines is $1795.  The business class product (quite a desirable upgrade on a long, transatlantic flight) on American Airlines is $3696.  The first class seats were sold out for these particular dates, but can easily run over $7000 for a transatlantic flight.
If you can find a saver level American Airlines award seat on the same dates (several available currently) you will be spending 60k miles for the economy seat, 100k on the business class, and 125k on the first class.  So using $0.01/mile as our base or minimum value, let’s look at what these miles would be valued at in this case:

Airfare Example: ORD <–> FRA, mid August

Cabin Airline Price Priceline Price AA Miles Mile Equivalent at 1¢/mile Mile Value – Airline Booking Mile Value – Priceline Booking
Economy 1795 1223 60k $600 2.99¢/mile 2.04¢/mile
Business 3696 2478 100k $1,000 3.70¢/mile 2.48¢/mile
First ~7000 3569 125k $1,250 5.60¢/mile 2.86¢/mile

As you can see, airline miles can be extremely valuable if you are planning on doing any traveling in the future.  For trip planning purposes, it’s helpful to have miles in several different airlines’ programs.  This will add a lot of flexibility to your planning.

Hotel points
Hotel points work just like airline miles.  You earn points when you stay at a hotel in a chain connected to a particular program.  But just like frequent flyer miles, the best way to earn many points quickly is with a co-branded credit card and its sign-up bonus.

Vouchers
Vouchers are a type of bonus for a free “something.”  Commonly vouchers are for hotel stays.  Hyatt and Hilton have historically have the best voucher bonuses on co-branded credit cards.  For example, the Hyatt Credit Card from Chase gives you two free nights, in a standard room, at nearly any Hyatt property in the world.  If you used these at Park Hyatt in Zurich in July, that’s a $1530 value!  Vouchers are normally only good for a year from the date of issue, so card with these bonuses should be applied for strategically.

Cash back
Some cards earn points for a stand-alone program which can be used to purchase merchandise or gift cards, to book travel, or to redeem for cash.  These points are referred to as fixed value points because whether you get merchandise, gift cards, or cash, they are generally all worth $0.01 each.  So 10,000 points is worth $100.  While these points are versatile (what’s more versatile than cash?) they have a capped value per point.  Since all redemptions are worth the same $0.01 per point, I usually recommend people take the cash to maximize the utility of the reward.

Reimbursement
This type of point is similar to cash back, but it usually has some extra stipulations.  For example, Barclay Arrival miles are only worth $0.005/point.  Redeeming 10,000 miles only gets you $50 cash.  But if you use those same 10,000 miles to reimburse yourself for a travel expense purchased with the card, you’ll get a $100 credit.

Some cards have reimbursements as an additional bonus.  For example, the Wells Fargo Propel has a sign-up bonus of 40,000 Wells Fargo Rewards points (basically cash back), but it also reimburses up to $100 per calendar year for airline expenses purchased with the card (excluding airfare).  This covers in-flight purchases, lounge access, etc.

Another example: periodically airlines will offer $50 airfare reimbursements as part of their sign-up bonus offers on co-branded credit cards.

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