Everyone must start somewhere. The points and miles game is learned, not something innately understood. Yes, some people are wired in a way that helps them navigate the complexities of ‘where to credit’ and ‘this can be tricked’, but even they need to learn the basics. The following three tips, while lengthy, provide some important insight beyond “the deals” and are helpful to understand what you’re getting yourself into when entering this hobby.
Not Every Point is Created Equal [and nor is every person]
Your RBC Avion point is going to be worth less than an American Express Membership Rewards point, but more than an Air Miles point. Or maybe not. An Aeroplan point could be worth more to Jack, but less to Joel, who gets better value from British Airways Avios. This is the thing: points have objective and subjective value.
For example, objectively, an Air Miles point is almost worthless. Their value is relatively pegged, and everyone can extract the same Cents Per Mile (“CPM”) value out of them. RBC Avion are more valuable because they can be converted into different programs, which produces objective value. Same with Membership Rewards, who transfer to more valuable partners. However, an RBC Avion point is of poor value to someone in Prince Edward Island who is unable to extract any value from their conversion partners (because no partner carriers fly to PEI), while someone living in Vancouver can easily convert them into BA Avios points and redeem for several flights on Cathay, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines.
Geography and personal goals dictate subjective value. You see, I like Aeroplan because their partners fly to places I want to go, and they have many flight options from my hometown. However, if you live in Vancouver and want to go to Hong Kong, you might be better off investing in Alaska Airlines points, which can be redeemed at a substantially lower rate than with Aeroplan for a similar trip.
When you get into this game, it’s important to understand that while some people tout a set value for a point (an Aeroplan point is worth X CPM, while RBC Avion is worth Y CPM), those numbers are more-or-less gibberish. Start by determining who flies where you live or can easily get to, and most importantly, what your travel goals are. If you live in New York City and want to go to Brussels, I’d say “go with Etihad miles” where you can travel in Business for very few points on Brussels Airlines. However, do you live in Vancouver and just want to visit your family in Halifax? Etihad points would be useless for you.
Once you’ve determined who you can fly from where you live to where you want to go, then determine what is the feasibility of you getting the miles you want for that trip quickly enough that you don’t: (a) change your goal, or; (b) have the points program change the rules on you. The latter part is where this blog helps, providing you with the tips and tricks about how to earn and redeem points and miles, and staying one step ahead of the points and miles programs.
While a point has objective value, you can only realize value from it if you can use them for travel to where you want to go. Figure out the basics, then work your way on figuring out how to get there.
You’re Probably Better Off Flying in a Premium Cabin
Again, points have value. You can even sell them on the grey market. So, when you redeem 60,000 Aeroplan points and $200 of taxes and fees to Europe, you’re pissing money down the drain. Just don’t do it. You’d be amazed how cheap airfares can get in Economy, and trust me, your points and associated taxes/fees are going to be worth way more than just purchasing the ticket (remember, when you purchase a ticket you earn miles, offsetting the cost). Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes you need to travel when fares are obscene, or there’s a points redemption that presents an obscenely good value (250 Skymiles Canada – US ain’t bad). Generally, you’ll be better off redeeming your miles for premium flights, where tickets can easily run in the tens of thousands of dollars. This hobby is about offering experiences you couldn’t otherwise afford, and while valuable like currency, points shouldn’t be treated as such. They should be treated as a special thing that gives you special trips, because you know, life is short and then you die.
And some of my readers are probably thinking this is just pretentious drivel. However, if you look at the math, it makes sense. Let’s pretend that 60,000 miles in program X can be redeemed for a $1000 European round-trip economy flight, with an additional $200 of taxes/fees. That’s a pretty normal redemption in economy. Not even going into the sale of miles, think about how you earned that 60,000 miles. You probably used a credit card. Say you got a 25,000 points sign-up bonus, and got the remaining 35,000 points through spending (1 point for 1 dollar). There are cards that easily give you 2% cash-back. On that $35,000 of spending, you could have earned $700 cash instead. And that sign-up bonus? It’s easy to get a $200 sign-up bonus in cash. So now we’re at $900 of value. Let’s tack on the $200 of taxes/fees for the redemption, and now you’re looking at $1100. Also, on a paid ticket, you can easily earn $100 worth of miles back (a reasonable assumption). So now your “free” economy ticket is costing you $1200. Trust me, you can buy your ticket for way less.
Now, say we look at a reasonable business class ticket to Europe. Let’s pretend it costs $4000. On Aeroplan, that would cost you 110,000 miles and say $200 in taxes/fees. Let’s do the same math. 110,000 – 25,000 (sign-up bonus) = 85,000. 2% of $85,000 of spending is $1700. We’ll also add $200 for the theoretical sign-up bonus. We’re at $1900. Let’s also add $200 worth of miles on the paid ticket (you get more miles flying business than economy). We’re at $2100. In this example, you see your delta between the paid ticket and theoretical opportunity cost is $1900. The math is clear: you’re generally better off redeeming for a premium product than for economy.
Of course, the numbers above are hypothetical, and they’re missing a number of nuances, but I’d hazard that most experts in the points and miles community would generally agree on them and the conclusion.
Good Things Don’t Come Easy!
Miles aren’t free. Points travel isn’t free. There’s the opportunity cost of thinking about this stuff all the time, doing the research, etc. There’s also the clear monetary costs: yes, it’s worth it to get 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points for $450, because 75,000 points are objectively worth more (worst case scenario, they can be converted into $750 cash), but regardless, you still must pay that $450. That’s a lot of money. And if you get serious in this game, you’re going to be paying a lot of fees. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in annual fees, hundreds of hours researching and worrying about any mistakes I may have made, and making actual costly mistakes. Now, you can limit your fees by diligently researching deals and tricks, but nobody is going to be spoon feeding you. This blog has useful information, but I’m not telling you everything. I certainly don’t know everything, but there’s a lot out there. Don’t do this game thinking it’s going to be an easy ride. That would be a costly mistake. You can make tremendous profit and live a life not consummate with your income, but if you fail to research and ask the right questions, you profit margin can disappear.
I’m not trying to scare you away. Heck, I want you to get my credit cards because I get a kick back! However, it’s also extremely important to understand yourself, what you’re willing to invest both in terms of time and money into this hobby, what your limits are, and be willing and able to spend days and nights reading content outside of my [awesome] blog. Those who extract the most value out of this hobby know that the most profitable ventures are earned through diligent research and networking.