The 5 Things You Can Do to Make the Most of Your Points And Stay Protected Against Change

With the gutting of Delta Skymiles, the major devaluation of United MileagePlus especially for premium cabin international partner awards, and now with no-notice changes to American AAdvantage awards you probably don’t book, it’s worth re-evaluating and thinking through your strategy to approach frequent flyer loyalty.

This all comes after a year of major changes to hotel loyalty programs, none so extreme as the destruction of Hilton HHonors.

The Best Values Don’t Last

You can pretty much assume that any outsized offer providing materially better value than the rest of the industry isn’t going to last. That doesn’t mean you avoid playing the game. You take advantage of great value while you can, just assume it’s going to be short-lived. Short-lived may mean years, even. The last major adjustment to the US Airways award chart was four years ago, and at that time US-Asia awards didn’t change much. The 90,000 mile business class North Asia award lasted many years. But it was bound to go away.

For some of the best values even as US programs make adjustments, consider reading up on my Devaluation Plan B.

You Need to be a Loyal Free Agent

Put another way, loyalty is a two-way street. If your loyalty program changes its value proposition, you need to re-evaluate your loyalty and be willing to adjust to seek out the best value.

When Credit Card Programs Devalue, It’s Usually on the Earning Side Not the Redemption Side

Chase Freedom eliminated the Chase Exclusives program 10 bonus points per transaction. That benefit was rich, and abused with large numbers of penny transactions.

American Express changed the bonus category earning for its co-brand Hilton product.

A card program may find that the extra money they’re spending on bonuses isn’t getting them the juice they’re looking for — the consumer response from higher spending, the categories may not resonate well enough with consumers. Or the card is just spending too much to acquire customers and incentivize spend.

So they’ll pull back on the earning.

When Redemption Options Change It’s Usually Because of the Redemption Partner, Not an Across-the-Board Cut

The times we see changing on the redemption side is when the program has to go out and buy tickets directly. Citi Thank You Points have gone through round after round of devaluation over the past 5 years. Capital One has had its own devaluations too.

The miles-to-points transfer bank programs don’t’ change nearly as much, and when they do it’s mostly the loss of a partner rather than a change to transfer ratios. Or as in the case of American Express Membership Rewards, it’s the passing on of costs like charging a tax recoup fee for transfers to US airline frequent flyer programs (where the government does impose an excise charge).

The Credit Card Program that Did Devalue

The major devaluation of a points-to-miles transfer program was Diners Club. When the US version of the card became a MasterCard, we saw the end of 60 days to pay, the end of the restaurant savings program (seriously, Diners Club with no dining benefits!), and increase in foreign transaction fees. We saw a reduction in earning bonuses and transfer bonuses. So it does happen, a card can become a stepchild of its issuing bank. And in the case of Diners Club, Citibank even eventually sold it to Bank of Montreal.

The Credit Card Program That May Be Overvalued Now

Chase Ultimate Rewards is almost too good.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

  • 40,000 points after $3000 spend within 3 months, plus 5000 more points for adding an authorized user to the account and making a purchase
  • Double points travel and dining
  • No foreign currency transaction fees
  • $0 fee the first year, then $95

Chase Ink Plus Business Card

  • 50,000 points after $5000 spend within 3 months
  • Quintuple (5x) points at office supply stores and on telecommunications (cell phone, internet, cable/satellite tv)
  • Double points at gas stations and hotels
  • No foreign currency transaction fees
  • $0 fee the first year, then $95

Both cards let you transfer points one-to-one into United, Korean, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Southwest. They let you transfer to Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, IHG Rewards, and Amtrak.

I don’t expect the earning partners to disappear, at least in the short-term. In most cases Chase issues the co-brand card for the loyalty program so they have a good long-term relationship.

But the earning is so good, that my personal strategy and my advice is to take advantage of the cards now and earn as many points as possible now.

The Best Strategy Going Forward

Here’s the five point plan:

  1. Diversify points. Don’t put all your points in one program. I have way too many American and way too many US Airways miles (and will even pay to accumulate more). But since different programs make changes to different degrees, and they don’t do so all at the same time, you want to spread out your balances to the extent you can.
  2. Focus on the most trustworthy programs. For me that means mostly Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints. Each have made changes in the past, but I trust them more than other programs. Programs will still disappoint you. I trust American AAdvantage – even with today’s changes – more than Skymiles or MIleagePlus. Perhaps that’s naïve. But focusing on high value programs that have built a reservoir of trust will, on a portfolio basis, serve you well.
  3. Focus on the banks. They want to keep earning your business every day, focusing on generating additional revenue from spend, rather than reducing the liability of accrued points. Their incentives are better than those of airline and hotel programs.
  4. Chase the best values. There are fantastic values in the world of miles and points. They don’t last. That doesn’t mean you should run away from the game. It means you take advantage while the opportunities are there and remain alert to the next opportunity.
  5. Earn and burn. Enjoy your points now. The will not ever be worth more in the future than they are worth today. Earn miles, spend them rather than saving them for years, and you will do fine — essentially earn and burn under the same award chart and valuation structure. Then earn some more, and burn some more.

There will be changes, but keep up on those changes and spread out your points and you will do very well in the meantime and you’ll be prepared for when changes come.

That’s why I’ve got Chase points, I’ve got American Express points, and I have (not nearly enough) Starwood Starpoints. I still have United MileagePlus miles (more than I’d like) and Hyatt Gold Passport points. And six figure balances across a variety of other programs, too.

(Note that cards in this post offer credit to me if you’re approved using my links. The opinions, analyses, and evaluations here are mine. The content is not provided or commissioned by American Express, by Chase, by Citibank, US Bank, Bank of America, Barclays or any other company. They have not reviewed, approved or endorsed what I have to say.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Please Gary do us all a favor and tell Chase again in big bold letters that their credit card program is too good for the consumer. Maybe hire a plane and fly one of those banners over their headquarters? Not sure if you’re having an off day here or an off year….

  2. The way to beat these programs is to earn lots of points at negative cost – and it can be done without clicking every affiliate link that’s shoved in your face…

  3. @Michael – I don’t need to tell Chase, they know it or at least my guess is that David Gold who runs the United co-brand portfolio tells leadership there that on a weekly basis.

  4. Are you kidding me?? First you stubbornly tell us ‘and now with no-notice changes to American AAdvantage awards you probably don’t book’ even though many have responded we do book Explorer Awards, and then you try and throw in Chase advertisements? I just removed you from my bookmarks and will recommend my colleagues do as well.

    After reading your blog for 5 years, this has got to be the worst day for quality.

  5. @Tyler – genuinely sorry that you feel that way, I try to do my best with my blog each and every day, and I share what I think — which is that the biggest thing to the American changes is that they were done without notice, the changes themselves (while unpleasant) are neither unexpected nor central to the program for most members. I do not like these changes. I think they take away value. But I had sort of already capitalized them as baked into the cake. I just wish they had been willing to tell members they had X amount of time to book any distance-based awards they still wanted to ticket.

  6. Yes – I agree Tyler – I am removing this blog from my RSS feed as well. The crass links (are you going to rub it in now that the stopover, etc. are no longer?) and fear-mongering (get this credit card now now now!) are over the top. I thought this was Gary’s blog but I see it is a project of Miles and Points Consulting, LLC. Goodbye Miles and Points Consulting, LLC! Good riddance.

  7. Gary, it’s quite possible that you are right and the Chase United portfolio is ‘too good for the consumer’.

    But let’s be perfectly blunt:

    The Chase United portfolio is FAR too good for affiliates.

    Somehow I doubt you disagree with me, yet this has not been part of your barrage of content today…..

  8. “the changes themselves (while unpleasant) are neither unexpected nor central to the program for most members.”

    BS. The biggest change to the united program was theassice increase in first class partner international awards. This was not central to the program to most members, but you saw it complete differently

  9. @Jim I do use an LLC for this blog because I really don’t like the idea of getting sued for stuff I say on the internet. I really do not think I’m rubbing in that the stopover rule was changed on American. I don’t like it, I certainly used it, I’ve just tried to temper my own disappointment with changes with bringing your their narrative on why they’re doing it, that I do think they’re a bit surprised by the volume of reaction they’re getting etc.

  10. @jay – I actually disagree, premium cabin partner awards are a central motivator for a pretty large portion of customers even if that’s not many of them redeem most of their points. The United changes were huge over at Chase for instance who saw them as a real risk to their card business as I understand it.

  11. @hobo13 This is my genuine take on the value propositions of programs, and how I approach my own strategy of earn and burn. And I’m actually not suggesting that the Chase United portfolio is too good for the consumer, I’m saying that the United folks don’t love how generous the Ultimate Rewards program is because it siphons business off of them.

  12. Gary, you say “I trust American AAdvantage – even with today’s changes – more than Skymiles or MIleagePlus.”

    After what they did today, the only thing I trust is they cannot be trusted.

    Unfortunately, the same thing is happening to your reputation. As someone who reads your blog every day, I’d hate to see that solidify. Please turn around.

  13. Thanks Gary. Like all kinds of “investing” diversification is king. No doubt. This post drives that home! I’m working on building those balances as fast as I can. And traveling as often as I can. Still feel British is an under used partner for travel benefits across the Chase portfolio. I can’t tell you how many times I use the points out of Miami for a short trip weekend to the Caribbean or even Northern South America or Central America. I do find them to be one of the most valuable resources, and I’m really glad that Chase partners with them. I also think that perhaps it’s important to take a step back and realize how fortunate we have been to be able to earn as many points in miles as we have, considering many of my friends who live overseas look on with jealousy when they realize all the lucrative benefits and offers that are out there for us. Just my two cents.

  14. @Gary:

    I wouldn’t worry about the nay-sayers. Every blogger has days when what they say annoy the readership. Unlike (apparently) some people, when that happens I just let it go. There’s no rule that says every blogger I follow has to agree with me on every issue. But that’s hardly a reason to complain loudly or unsubscribe. I don’t necessarily love every meal I eat, but that doesn’t make me stop eating.

    If I had a peeve, it’s that I’m slightly annoyed at the “changes to AA programs you probably didn’t book”. I only just (for reasons of being new to this and not focusing on AA) discovered that the “oneworld explorer” awards existed and was beginning to think about how to use one. As annoying as it is that that sort of award has vanished, it grates a little to keep hearing that it’s “something I don’t do”, as it’s something I *wanted* to do and was going to do.

    But that said, it’s no big deal. Things change, bloggers have their own POV and I’ve definitely learned lots and benefited from your and other blogs…

  15. @italdesign – I say what I think, no matter what, and I’m happy to be judged on that.

    I try to have a bit of a longer memory than most folks reading, that I hope is part of my value-add, and not only get excited by the news of the moment.

    It totally sucks that they did these changes without notice. I will personally miss some of the features that are going away. But I am trying to avoid being disproportionate to the changes themselves. There are much worse things that can happen — and still might happen.

  16. “I’m saying that the United folks don’t love how generous the Ultimate Rewards program is because it siphons business off of them.”

    Other UR redemption partners undoubtedly feel the same way. I smell a no-notice devaluation of UR to airline points conversion coming, possibly sweetened by some new 75k UR signup bonuses.

  17. Gary I have to agree with the others that you are having an off day and annoying your readership.

    When you telegraph to a loyalty program that what they are giving away is “overly generous,” it sets the expectation that a devaluation is coming… And that it’s acceptable. Too many times a devaluation has come and you have said “this devaluation is acceptable because it was inevitable.”

    Defend your working class readers who are hustling to be able to take trips they ordinarily could not. We get reamed, and we’d like you — as an influencer — to have our back.

  18. I agree that one should earn and burn, but it can literally take years to save enough miles for a family to get an overseas J/F award, only to find the goalposts have been moved.

  19. Though I believe your intentions mean well, I do feel this post was too soon after the mAAsacre in terms of sensitivity.

  20. After todays utter gutting of their program, without giving any notice, having just sold millions of points, and encouraged massive spending on the MC Elite cc, it just seems absurd to use the word “trust” in connection with AA.

    “I trust American AAdvantage – even with today’s changes – more than Skymiles or MIleagePlus”. And I trust pickpockets more than Mexican Drug Gangs. So what’s your point. Under direct questioning, AA won’t even promise not to do the exact same thing again later this year. Trust?

  21. Gary, the problem with what AA did today is beyond “it totally sucks”. The lack of any advance notice is a breach of basic decency and puts them “into the categories of programs I do not trust”, as you said when Wyndham did the same thing. Indeed, they definitely lost my trust after today. I’m not sure why they still have yours, especially given your past reaction to Wyndham, Delta, etc.

  22. “@Michael – I don’t need to tell Chase, they know it or at least my guess is that David Gold who runs the United co-brand portfolio tells leadership there that on a weekly basis.”

    Of course Chase knows what’s going on but we don’t need you to rub it in and help stoke their fire.
    The overwhelming sense I get from you lately is that you don’t really care because you obviously must have millions of miles to burn so what dent does another devaluation really make into your portfolio, probably next to none. You are free to write whatever you want but don’t expect people to continue to take your writings seriously if you perform on this level.

  23. It’s precisely because I have lots of miles that I care deeply about devaluations. I have more to lose than most.

  24. I disagree with your statement. It’s the people who have just enough miles for an award ticket who have more to lose than most. If you have 5 million miles and a devaluation of 30% occurs its a big ouch but it still leaves you with more than enough to send yourself around the globe in first a dozen times and that’s the disconnect I sense here.

  25. Yes, those with more miles stand to lose more, but it doesn’t prevent you from taking a trip. It just costs more. For those with small balances, they literally may not be traveling. So I see it both ways.

    This is why I get surprised at how cavalier the sage of Colorado Springs has become lately regarding the devaluations. Several years ago, I think he stated somewhere that he had 17M miles. Depending on how his lawsuit with Carterra / etc. planned out, I can imagine it could be much more now.

    So these guys are exposed, but I challenge you to find one person who will worry about Bill Gates starving if the dollar were to suddenly deflate by 50% overnight.

  26. Wow. Gary, I think you think what you think, and you post what you think. It appears that some people are interested enough to have read what you think but somehow now find your honest appraisals to be problematic or somehow distorted?

    The net is full of idiots and people who lack manners–and who don’t get that what is true for one person in one situation is not true for another person in a different situation. The best solution is to get as many perspectives as possible and then go the way you find best for YOU.

    The bashing I’ve seen here is inappropriate and unnecessary. If you don’t like what Gary has posted, then please feel free to stop reading this post. One’s need to post how upset you are about the post before abandoning Gary’s blog is evidence that you are simply whining and will likely end up continuing to read this blog.

    Gary, I wouldn’t enable such behavior. Stand by your comments, explain and/or clarify when necessary, but don’t entertain such bad behavior.

  27. @Bill your comments show that you’d never be able to write a blog because you wouldn’t be able to take the heat. Gary knows very well that this is part of being in the public eye and if he couldn’t take the heat he would have exited the kitchen a long time ago.

  28. Gary,
    STOP staying how “good” a particular program or award chart is. You motivation of “teaching” your readers is borderline dishonest bec we all know the game of pandering for credit card links’ “clicks”. Why do care if they AA/Chase/UAL devalue as long as you get $200-$500 per credit cards clicks and how many hits you are getting at your site.

  29. I’m happy to see from the comments here, that I’m not the only one who thinks you’ve lost your objectivity in the last 48 hours. It makes me sad.

  30. Another program that is “almost too good”, even after their recent “devaluation with notice”, is Club Carlson. That “2nd night free” on awards for credit card holders can’t last in its present form. But I’m going to leverage it fully as long as it lasts (while not accumulating too many speculative cc points).

  31. Waaa!! Waaa!! Gary isn’t writing what I want him to write! It’s Gary’s blog, he can write what he wants. And I believe he’s said here in the past that he writes to give his opinion, not to get others to agree with him. Stop reading if it bothers you that much.

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