How to Play the Game Now That Your Miles are Becoming Worth So Much Less

I explained ten years ago why points programs devalue. They’re private currencies without any binding constraints. The Supreme Court even limited your right to sue this year. Programs can do as they wish with impunity.

There’s tremendous value in frequent flyer programs but you should not save points now for some future day in which you might spend them.

In general your points will never be worth more tomorrow than they are today. The only real exception to that has been the introduction of alliances. The ability to redeem across partners, even on the same award ticket, made existing points more valuable not less valuable.

In general I recommend points that transfer to other programs, you’re diversifying your points holdings even by accumulating a single currency. Starwood, Chase, American Express (and to a lesser extent Diners Club and Citi’s Thank You Points) are more desirable than individual airline miles because you can put your points where you need them when you need them later.

But this isn’t a panacea. Transferrable points can devalue. American Express has lost transfer partners many times in the past (US Airways, Continental, Northwest, to name a few). Starwood has devalued its transfer ratios… Qantas used to be 1:2. United used to be 1:1. For a time Singapore went down to 2:1 but was brought back up to parity. And their acquisition by Marriott could mean the end of lucrative points transfers.


SkyCity Marriott, Hong Kong Airport

There are two lessons:

  1. Burn as you earn. You don’t care about devaluations as much if you are earning and burning in roughly the same period, under the same award chart. It’s much easier to earn points than it used to be. What’s a problem is earning points 10 years ago, when it was harder to do so, and spending them now when awards are more expensive.
  2. Diversify your points. I like having Chase, Starwood, and Amex points.. and also points with various airline and hotel programs. That way I don’t take a hit to my entire portfolio when a single program devalues.

These two pieces of advice sound somewhat in conflict and they are. Diversifying involves building up large points balances that you aren’t likely to spend right away. The truth is I earn points too quickly to spend them right away, so I want to have them spread out as best I can. Plus I don’t know what my future self will want or need in terms or rewards. I’m hedging not just devaluations but unknown future preferences.

People should still play the game – at least sign up for accounts, accumulate points, track them with something like Award Wallet and keep points from expiring. But not have their decisions swayed by a frequent flyer program, don’t spend more to stick with an airline.

There’s the rewards part of a program, and there’s the recognition part. Elite status still matters for those who fly enough. And for those who fly regularly but not enough for status, getting the program’s co-brand credit card makes sense (but not putting spending on that card).

United has the best international business class awards, considering the lack of fuel surcharges and availability through Star Alliance. A United mile is worth more than an American mile but I still maintain an American mile is worth more than a Delta mile, even with American’s pending devaluation.


American Airlines Airbus A321T at New York JFK

Delta doesn’t even offer international first class awards at any price (which is what American is increasing the price of the most). Their upgrade awards are astronomically expensive, much more so than American’s. I’ll still take American’s upgrade policies and miles over Delta’s, despite Delta’s better inflight product.

The programs do matter for folks traveling enough to earn status. But the casual traveler absolutely shouldn’t spend more for the miles because the redeemable miles aren’t good enough to justify it — unless it’s Alaska. Alaska remains under assault from Delta in Seattle. They’ve said their program is a great differentiator. And they have the best operating margins of any US airline. Still, they were the second airline to go 3-tier redemption charts. And they were rumored to be one of the first to consider going revenue-based. So how long until they tip?

The key takeaways are:

  1. Transferrable points programs are best
  2. Foreign points programs like Korean Air Skypass, Japan Airlines Mileage Bank, and Avianca LifeMiles continue to offer good value
  3. Earn in the same period you burn, and be careful not to spend too much at the margin to accumulate miles.
  4. Have great experiences now, premium cabin long haul awards are the ones getting more expensive to the greatest degree. The same tends to be true at hotels, with the most luxurious and highest cost options becoming relatively more expensive.


Emirates Airbus A380 First Class

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. 5) Realize that today’s business class products are as good or better than yesterday’s F products, and make decisions accordingly. While everyone likes to push F for bragging rights, modern J will get you there quite nicely, with a big chunk of miles left in your pocket.

  2. Good stuff and totally agree re diversification. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to want to accumulate amex membership rewards. Was going roughly 33/33/33 Amex/UR/Starwood in tranferable points. In view of BA devaluation, I am thinking I might be better off with a much higher UR ratio as amex points are mostly covered by UR (not to mention expected Starwood devalue via Marriott). Only exception of note for me btwn amex and UR is Air France. Are there other distinctions between these 2 that I am missing? I realize there are sometimes transfer bonuses but again BA deval has lessened the appeal of these for me. Also, United is main US carrier for me due to location and award availability with United card and points.

  3. Everyone continues to bang on Delta, but I’ve found their intl biz availability to be much better than AA and United lately. I needed to book an award to India in January – plenty of availability for 70k each way, even on Delta metal. And they have good availability for J awards to Europe next summer at the low level.

  4. If you are a frequent-flyer, beware the “wisdom” of “diversifying” at the expense of sticking with with one FF program and one hotel loyalty program and reaching top elite status, which is how the highest earn rates and, consequently, the most fun can be had with this hobby…

    As a UA 1K, I earn (11 miles+change for co-brand CC)/$ spent on a revenue ticket, which is a much higher earn rate than can be achieved with the “best” credit card out there. Likewise, as HHonors Diamond, I earn at least 32 HH points/$ on revenue hotel stays for which I pay with my AMEX Surpass; no credit card out there comes close to achieving such a high earn rate. Throw in the kind of lucrative promos associated with revenue or award stays that HHonors has offered this year and you are on your way to earning some 1,000,000 HH points in a single year, as I am (a record) this year 🙂

    I do “earn and burn” (most my 1M HH points are gone), but to diversify how I earn would be counter-productive in my case…

  5. @Josh – DL J availability to India is atrocious because of the journey control they have implemented. USA – CDG/AMS and CDG/AMS – India may both have individual J availability but they will price it at 105,000 miles each way instead of 70,000 miles each way because of journey control. Awful.

  6. @AnonCHI – that has not been my experience. Also, there are TPAC options using KE, CZ, MU, etc – many of which have brand new planes with better J products than the angled flat AF still has on most of their routes

  7. Good summary and review.

    @ Josh above, I’m glad you find value with DL. Please stick with DL so you don’t ever compete with me on UA and AA awards. At 6’2″ with a husband that is 6’5″, having the chance to get a true international F award is reason alone to avoid DL for us. Otherwise, being that we use all airlines to secure premium award flights, I have to agree with our author that DL is the worst of the big 3. You may have found what you are looking for in one circumstance, but we look to fly internationally 4-5 times every year at least, and DL is always the worst. The last time we flew using DL miles was domestic; it’s been years since we’ve used DL miles to fly international. Just last week I flew DL J LAX-PVR…but using AS miles–since it was 60K AS miles roundtrip vs 140K DL miles for the same flights on DL metal. DL is much worse overall, even if your one data point and anecdotal experience tells you otherwise.

    @ DCS above, our United 1K/Hilton Diamond traveler, I think you’ll discover that the 1 million Hilton points is about equivalent to 300,000 or so SPG points, or 400,000 Hyatt points. Hilton lets you earn more, but it takes a lot more points for an award stay compared with SPG and Hyatt. If you like average, standard Hilton hotels, perhaps that works for you. But if you like luxury/aspirational properties, Hilton is as bad as Marriott–with award nights going for up to 70-80K. Compare that to 30-35K maximum at most of the best SPG and Hyatt luxury hotels, and consider that SPG and Hyatt have more and better luxury/aspirational hotels overall. Marriott’s takeover of Starwood very well may change that equation, which is why so many SPG elites are flocking to Hyatt.

  8. I’m new to the miles/points game and all the recent changes have been very discouraging. However, I’m glad you point out its easier to earn points now. I’m in my mid-30s and wish I had started a decade ago!

  9. As we approach 2016 and travel reservations starting to shape up, it is indeed decision time on the 2016 strategy. In 2015, my preference (living in Austin) was:
    Air (I made a mistake and overestimated my travel, I had 120 total segments by June and only 30 after that, I spread evenly between AA & UA and lost top status in both settling for AA Plat & UA Gold…oh well bring on the economy+ seats post Feb):
    1. AA (connections via DFW, ORD)
    2. UA (connections via IAH, ORD)
    3. DL (because they are my company’s preferred carrier ) I tried my hardest and only flew 1 time because they are best to get to ATL. Luckily, I even earned a $500 VDB for taking a flight 1 hr later but never used it, that’s how much I despise them.

    Hotel (spread a total of 120 nights between the 3, prioritizing 50+ on 1 & 2 below, will be keeping an eye on how 2&3 merge):
    1. Hyatt
    2. SPG
    3. Marriott

    Rental Car:
    1. National (why pick something else, pick your own car, their cars the newest and generous rewards program)
    2. Hertz (because they are my company’s preferred but have worst cars among National, Avis, Hertz)

    Other than the free days due to National 1-2-Free promo, I have drained all other accounts with 2016 reservations, agree with Gary, earn & burn.

  10. @Bill – please, for everyone’s sake, don’t get DCS restarted on hhonors vs. other hotel programs. His viewpoints are minority so he gets piled on by this very Hyatt-friendly crowd. But they are actually accurate – if you look at the earning per dollar of Hilton spend versus other chain spend you actually, as a top tier member can do quite well. Everyone has to do their own math for where THEY stay but your own numbers (the 1M/300k/400k and 70-80k/30-35k per night) actually show it to be pretty much a wash for the same amount of spend. My math agrees with yours too – I earn Hhonors points at about 3x the rate I would earn other hotel currencies and then spend them at about 2.5-3X the rate as well, so basically everything is scaled up by a factor of 3 but really is about even. That said, DCS is going to get going again and then that will be that and everyone will complain.

  11. @Mo – Also based in Austin. Am currently AA EXP, SPG Plat, Hyatt Diam so our travel preferences/patterns are somewhat similar. The AA changes have me considering Southwest (and going for companion pass) as my domestic airline for 2016 given their ~30 nonstop destinations form AUS. No upgrades, but all non-stops. Am I crazy? Would use miles for all international leisure trips.

  12. CW says:

    “5) Realize that today’s business class products are as good or better than yesterday’s F products, and make decisions accordingly”

    Uh, no. Not at all.

  13. Do as I say (spend miles) not as I do (accumulate miles for later use). Unfortunately the reality for the vast majority who don’t churn cards or fly 100k miles is that they must accumulate miles over the course of years due to NECESSITY. This does not negate Gary’s fine advice but presents a very different reality than those aspirational awards sought by solo or duo travelers who churn and manufacture spend. Even those of us who fly 100k are often locked to a specific carrier due to corporate contracts or hub-captivity.

    I think Gary is right to advise people to spend miles – but he should probably caveat that with “when you find a good opportunity.” This means spending them on saver awards, even for F domestic, when the value is good. Rather than saving for those EK suites or even 2 business class seats to Australia that may never materialize.

  14. @Bill on December 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm — You clearly have not read any of my highly edifying “lectures” in this space on the relative value of loyalty points, because your attempt at preaching to the choir is full of bad notes, especially b-flats!

    The relative costs of awards have been discussed here and elsewhere ad nauseam, and had you been aware of this you would have known that 1,000,000 HH points are equivalent to about 166,667 starpoints or 333,333 Hyatt GP points. Therefore, off the bat it shows that you are clueless about how far 1M HH points can take me.

    Second, the way to compare the relative costs of awards is not to compare the “raw” numerical costs in points that are listed in each program’s award chart because loyalty points are not created equal. Rather, you need to compute “the spend per free night (SPFN)”, which takes into account the earn and redemption sides of the mile/equation because that tells you the true cost of an award (i.e., you must spend real money to get redeemable points, which do not grow on trees!)

    Based on the SPFN metric, HHonors, Marriott Rewards and Hyatt GP awards cost about the same, whereas SPG awards are, BY FAR, the highest-priced in the business. How expensive are SPG’s top-tier awards? This expensive: to earn enough starpoints for a single award night at one those top SPG properties that you touted as highly ‘aspirational’, a SPG Pure Platinum elite would need to spend almost as much as I spend a year to earn the HH Diamond status on spend, i.e., ~$12K!

    How far can I stretch 1M HH points? I can tell you exactly because I have already booked award stays for between mid-December ’15 and Jan 11, ’16, at the following Hilton properties:

    a) Hilton Shanghai (cat 6) — 3 nights; 112,407 points
    b) WA Beijing (cat 9) — 3 nights; 227,433 points
    c) Conrad Koh Samui (cat 10) — 5 nights, 380,000 points (cost in cash: ~$1,000/night!)
    d) Conrad Hong Kong (cat 9) — 3 nights, 240,000 (cost in cash: ~$500+/night!)

    Total duration for the 4 stays: 14 days (two weeks!)
    Total cost in points: 959,840 HH points

    So, I do “earn and burn” but NOT at “average” Hilton properties…

    …which finally brings me to the ridiculous claim that Hilton, with highly ‘aspirational’ properties like the Trianon Palace Versailles (right up there with Park Hyatt Paris Vendome) or Rome Cavalieri – to just name two – does not have aspirational properties, echoing another canard propagated in the travel blogosphere echo chamber. Just because a property is expensive, as most SPG properties were (past tense), does not make it “aspirational”!

    In fact, I just returned a couple of days ago from Hilton’s iconic ” The Drake” hotel in Windy City, where I scored an upgrade to junior suite (my 9th Diamond suite upgrades in 11 stays) and had a late checkout request approved without a fuss. Yes, I am and will remain a very satisfied “Hilton traveler”. I am in good company because Hilton, along with Marriott, which you disparaged, are not only very big hotel chains but they also rank consistently highest in customer satisfaction in most reputable surveys, while Hyatt is somewhere in the middle and SPG is usually last or next to dead last.

    Make sure you know your sermon, chapter and verse, before you start preaching to the choir!

    G’day!

  15. Damn it. I was going to give the same warning CW gave. Please, people, don’t poke the Hilton-whore. He’s an insufferable know-it-all who lives to see himself take over the blogs. I wish he would start his own and leave Boarding Area alone. He could call it: “100 ways to be turned on by Hilton.”

  16. @mbh — I envy you for being so completely free of the “ravages of intelligence”…

    The last time I checked, there was one and only one Gary Leff running this blog, and, to the best of my knowledge, he has never tried to muzzle dissenting voices. You could learn a thing or two from that or it is you who should consider starting your own blog where you can invite only those who agree with you and you can say “amen” to each other. Moreover, you might also learn a thing or two from @CW who you invoked, but had this to say about that “insufferable know-it-all”: His viewpoints are minority so he gets piled on by this very Hyatt-friendly crowd. But they are actually accurate…” AMEN!

  17. I’d say that the hotel reward programs offer better value now. Transferring my AMEX MR points to Starwood SPG gives me much more value than transferring those to Aeroplan.

    And if hotels go the same way as airlines, customers will eventually drop points based CCs and go with cashback rewards. These devaluations are simply rewarding loyalty less. And there will be consequences for the airlines in the long run.

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