First, you are still in the right place. I would love to work with you to plan your next trip. However, I also want to share my advice on maximizing your use of points & credit card miles to enable or enhance your experiences. To start off, I want to discuss the importance of selecting a single point system and sticking to it. There are a lot of ways to earn points and miles, from credit cards, traveling with airlines, staying at hotels, shopping online, and many more.
If you don’t think about, it is very easy to end of up with a few points scattered across many different companies, and very often will lack sufficient points to get any real value out of them. If you’re like me before I started learning about systems, you’ll end up getting cash back on your credit cards, subscribe to a few magazines for free, and maybe get a couple of gift cards.
However, if you plan it out, you can get some serious value out of your points. In subsequent entries, I’ll go into more depth on my specific system, both the earning as well as spending points to maximize value.
WHY NOT JUST TAKE CASH BACK?
Most people love cash back cards, and getting money directly taken off of their monthly statement. Today, there are a huge number of credit cards from many banks that offer rewards with at least 1.5x miles or 1.5% cash back. Citi Double Cash even offers 2% back. However, many cards can be used for a great deal more value, and connect with what you’re already doing or trying to accomplish in your travel goals.
To tease what is possible, the picture to the right is a picture of me a few years ago flying first class on United to Barcelona. My wife and I were able to get two tickets for about 140,000 points ($1400 if we had taken it as cash back), but were able to receive airline tickets worth over $10k each! This means that our points were worth over $0.10 each, and we received 10x the value that we would have obtained from merely taking cash back. Given, we definitely wouldn’t have paid the ticket price of this experience, but we rationalized it as the cash back equivalent was approximately the cost of an economy ticket for the same trip, so we got a “free” upgrade to the front of the plane. Also, if you haven’t had the opportunity yet to fly long haul business class, the experience is substantially better than economy, and makes spending 10+ hours on a plane more part of the trip than a means to get to your destination. Between lay flat seats, upgraded food, unlimited drinks, and improved service, I proudly say that the two worst things I’ve ever done in my life are (1) learning what good wine is, and (2) flying international business class. Once you do either, it’s hard to go back, and life gets a lot more expensive.
The Barcelona trip wasn’t a fluke in points valuation either, as we have done the same on multiple trips over the past five years, traveling from San Francisco to London, Paris, and Monte Carlo all on points, with valuations consistently around 10x their cash equivalent.
Before we get into more elaborate credit card systems, my biggest and most critical piece of advice is do not carry a balance on your credit cards. While the rewards you can get from travel credit cards are substantial, the amount you pay in interest fees quickly exceeds the rewards value. Rather than choosing premium cards with the biggest rewards, focus on lowest interest rates, 0% balance transfers, and actively work to eliminate all of your credit card debt before embarking on a more elaborate credit card system.
GETTING DOWN TO IT, ONE GOAL-ORIENTED SYSTEM
Before selecting a system, assess what you really want to accomplish in your travel.
STEP 1: WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?
If your travel goals are domestic travel, or focused on transcontinental flights, or an occasional Caribbean cruise sailing out of North America, I would work towards a different system than if you want to explore Europe via river cruises.
STEP 2: WHERE DO YOU TRAVEL FROM?
If you live in Florida, and love cruising, investing in airline points likely doesn’t provide a lot of value, as you can typically drive to your destination. If traveling by train is your goal, work towards that (and Amtrak points are quite valuable in terms of return). If you’re like most people though, you will become familiar with your nearest airport. Depending on your location, there may be an advantage to partner with a specific airline based on availability. If you live near a hub of a major airline, that is likely your best bet. Here’s a list of the hub locations for North American based airlines if you’re unsure.
For me, living in the SF Bay area, I’m lucky enough to have several airports to choose from. If my goal was primarily domestic travel, I would follow a system based on flying with Southwest and fly out of Oakland. With our goal being more directed at international flights with destinations in Europe and Asia, I focus on earning points compatible with flying United and Star Alliance partners.
STEP 3: PUTTING IT TOGETHER
I am an advocate for you making your points work for you and being goal oriented. If you never want to fly, getting airline specific credit cards would be a terrible choice. If love staying with a certain hotel chain, or even one specific resort, think about how to get more value out of that experience. If you’re not sure, or you are flexible, consider a system that works with a number of different partners. Do some online research, find others that like the trips that you do, and ask. I’m happy to help research for your as well and offer potential suggestions to enable your goals. I’d also encourage you to check out other websites, such as The Points Guy, particularly to understand the valuation of points, and which airlines, hotels, and banks offer the greatest return.
As a quick overview of my system, I’m committed to Chase Ultimate Rewards. While my primary goal is enabling international airfare with Star Alliance, I appreciate the various other partners that would be possible with my points. In addition, I love that both Chase and United offer a variety of ways to earn points, particularly beyond just spending more money on credit cards. If your goal is to book flights with 140,000 miles, it makes sense that you need to be committed to a single system to hit that level.
I hope this was helpful and best of luck in achieving your travel dreams with the help of points and selection of a single system.