Why You Should Take A Short Term Approach To The Points Hobby

Reader/professional dissenter/Hilton fanboy DCS left the following comment on a post yesterday, which I found interesting:

The mentality in the travel blogosphere that emphasizes short-term gains over longer-term returns needs to be discouraged, in my view.

One of the things I love about this hobby is how virtually everyone takes a different approach towards it. I know people that earn and burn their points, and I know people that view their points as a retirement account of sorts, and just hoard them for decades on end.

I don’t want to concretely say that one approach is better than the other, but I definitely fall more in the former category than the latter.

I’ve been in this hobby for about a decade now, and I think the best way to sum up my approach is that I take a long term approach to short term gains.

I guess the best anecdote would be asking whether the points hobby is a marathon or a 100m sprint. I view the points hobby as a series of 100m sprints, I guess.

Let me explain:

I believe in earning and burning

As I’ve explained many times before, I take an “earn and burn” approach towards points. That’s to say that while I earn millions of points per year, I also make every effort to burn millions of points per year.

Why? Because having a large balance of points is no different than having a large balance of cash sitting around not accruing any interest. Points invariably devalue over time, so I aim to never have more points in an account than I could reasonably redeem within six months, if a devaluation were to occur. This limits the downside potential of the hobby.

I don’t assume anything is around to stay

Last week we received word of the big changes coming to the Club Carlson Visa Card, whereby the second night free benefit will be eliminated as of June 1, 2015.

Club-Carlson-Email

Many said the benefit was too good to be true. And in many ways it was. The benefit was around for years, we had plenty of opportunity to take advantage of it, and I really don’t blame Club Carlson or US Bank for eliminating it.

Would it have been nice if it stuck around? Absolutely. But we also can’t hold this business decision against them, other than voting with our wallets.

What I’m trying to say is that I never assume that any one value is around to stay. The best I can hope for is that if a program decides to make changes, they give at least a couple of months of advance notice. The way a loyalty program can most break my trust is by not giving proper notice of changes.

Be careful what you wish for regarding points

Once in a while I hear people say “the government needs to regulate miles/points, they’re a currency that the airlines/hotels have full control over.” That’s true. And that’s also not necessarily a bad thing.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually own our points. The loyalty programs do, and our points are entirely at their discretion.

On one hand that seems insane. There’s a direct opportunity cost to earning miles through credit card spend. For example, you could get a cash back credit card instead, so you’re giving up some amount of cash for each point you choose to earn on your credit card.

That being said, it’s also good news. Since we don’t own the points we earn, we can’t be taxed on them. So while I sometimes don’t love the changes programs make, ultimately we should be happy we don’t own the points — it prevents us from being taxed on them, and ultimately allows the programs to be so lucrative.

No single aspect of the hobby is sustainable, other than the hobby itself

As I said above, I don’t assume that any aspect of any particular program is around to stay. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So devaluations and eliminations of “sweet spots” are a function of when, not if.

That being said, in the decade I’ve been involved in this hobby, there has never been a time without a bunch of “sweet spots.” So while any one aspect/benefit/promotion/sweet spot isn’t sustainable, as long as you stay on top of things and are flexible, I think there will always be great rewards in the hobby.

Even I’m a hoarder… sometimes

As much as I preach earning and burning, I’m a hoarder under some circumstances. Specifically, with flexible points currencies.

I don’t mind holding onto hundreds and hundreds of thousands of points with American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, etc.

Amex-Membership-Rewards

Why? Because the points aren’t as volatile as an individual program’s points currency, given that they can be transferred to a huge number of airline partners. That limits your risk somewhat.

That’s not to say I won’t redeem them, but rather that I make an effort to redeem transferable points last, since they’re least “at risk.”

Hoarding all points isn’t necessarily bad either

As much as I personally do everything to avoid hoarding most points currencies, I don’t want to say that hoarding across the board is bad. I know plenty of people that are business travelers, always on the road, and have millions of miles.

And with how much they travel, the last thing they want to do is redeem miles to travel even more. Or I know people who apply for credit card bonuses even though they know they won’t be able to redeem those miles for at least a decade.

As long as you understand that your points will devalue massively over the course of a decade, there’s nothing wrong with hoarding. Just make sure the cost at which you’re collecting points is only a small fraction of what they’re worth now, so that you have plenty of “leeway” if there are devaluations over the years.

Bottom line

While I can’t speak on behalf of the rest of the “travel blogosphere,” hopefully that explains my approach towards this hobby. Would it be nice if programs never devalued and “sweet spots” stayed around forever? Sure.

But that’s not realistic, so I’d rather think of what’s likely to happen rather than what would be nice. And for me that means consistently focusing on short term opportunities.

And can we really complain about this hobby? I just flew Cathay Pacific first class to the Maldives, and am presently sitting in a villa which retails for ~$1,500 per night while overlooking the Indian Ocean. This hobby doesn’t suck!

PH-Maldives-1

Comments

  1. In Budapest now ,flew business class AA miles , Art otel Radisson points . Diner tonight $100.00 last year it would of been $135.00. It can go the other way ????? Dream

  2. “So devaluations and eliminations of “sweet spots” are a function of if, not when.” You probably meant the opposite.

    So you got upgraded to Park Pool Villa?

  3. I get the “earn & burn” mentality, but that doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. My limiting factor as far as travel is time, so there are only so many trips I can take each year. I still keep signing up for new cards to get bonuses, knowing that I’m building up the accounts for somewhere down the line where hopefully I will have more time. It’s not like it’s possible to play catch-up in regard to the signup bonuses. If you’re not continuously doing them, you can’t suddenly do 10 at once if you took a couple of years off (well, at least not without some creative spending). Yes, there’s always the risk of devaluation, but I’m willing to accept that. Even if my points/miles eventually decrease in value, my redemption preferences still put me way ahead compared to a cashback card.

  4. Also worth noting that there is a reasonable middle ground especially for family travelers. If you earn, e.g., 200-300k miles/points per year and want to travel international first class with a family of four, basic math is pretty much going to limit you to one trip every year or two.

  5. Well said, Lucky. I’ll add that once you have dead weight–I mean children–earning and burning becomes more challenging if you want to bring the kids. Flying in premium cabins is exponentially more difficult because of you need another biz class award and/or lap child fees come into play. Your free time seems to disappear. But hey, there are still good opportunities out there even if you can’t play the game the way you used to!

  6. except it is not really a hobby anymore because of folks such as yourself who have turned it into a commercial enterprise and have, on net, had a negative impact on the hobby as a whole. I dont mean to pick on you in particular because you were doing it long before this space got commercialized, but when everyone and his dog has a blog selling credit cards and trying to monetize credit card links, it is not at all a surprise that there arent as many “sweet spots” left.

  7. Hey Ben, so you can’t book the Club Carlson bonus night stay after June 1st, but you can book now and use after that date, correct?

  8. I try to earn and burn, but I can only take a few trips a year, and I am pretty lucky with my vacation time (5 weeks). Well, lucky for the US I guess.

    I am also hamstrung by my profession (which requires me to try and stick around DC when Congress is in session) and my partner (who has the same amount of vacation time as I do, but an office culture of vacation=you are not a hard worker=bad rep.)

    Still, we try for one spring and one summer trip a year, plus I head off on my own sometimes when he can’t. We don’t have enough of a hoard to prove to be a huge problem… but I think we have 200K Club Carlson points that I am not sure how we are going to use between June 1 2015 and June 1 2016 while also keeping our Hyatt Diamond status. Hmm….

  9. In my view saving points, hoarding I think you call it, ain’t a bad thing. But the American way – if you got it spend it – is more in line with your philosophy.

  10. I’m in a similar situation as Lauren since I only get 5 weeks vacation each year which is quite generous in the USA but I tend to go on vacation for 2 weeks in Feb/Mar, another 2 weeks in Sept/Oct, and the last week taken during the holidays in Dec.
    I understand the earn/burn concept but at the same time, I’ve learned award availability becomes a LOT better after a devaluation so I don’t mind hoarding points at all.
    In your analogy of several 100m sprints, I think it’s more like a 100m, 200m, 200m, 400m, 400m, 400m, 800m, etc. sprints since after each devaluation, it’ll take a longer time to accrue the number of points/miles for the same award given how rare it is to see 50k/100k intro bonuses compared to a few years ago.

  11. > Since we don’t own the points we earn, we can’t be taxed on them

    First, there are close to 200 countries, and their tax laws are different from each other, so this statement is way too broad.

    Limiting it to the U.S. (a mere 4% of the world’s population), your statement is totally incorrect: the IRS cuts through the legal fiction and never said that miles are not taxable, quite the contrary: those earned for business travel are taxable, but the logistic is so complex that they’re not “pursuing an enforcement program” (announcement 2002-18). For miles earned when paying a ticket yourself, or through credit card spend or similar programs, these are simply rebates, and are never taxable. It’s the same whether you get cash back, airline miles, or confetti.

    Incidentally, not all programs make the outlandish claim that miles are theirs: can you please point out where American, the world’s largest airline, makes such a claim?

    Finally, there is never a case where society is worse off with fair dealing and transparency.

  12. I’ve enjoyed this hobby for nearly 30 years and can say its as interesting as the travel industry itself. The airline industry, from its inception, has always been crazy-risky having earned a collective net loss. Enjoy the best new offerings today because nothing is permanent.

  13. “That’s to say that while I earn millions of points per year, I also make every effort to burn millions of points per year.”
    Please expand on how you earn Millions of miles each year.
    I have been churning for two years and are hard pressed to get 1 Million a year. Is it due to your blog and clicks and app fees?

  14. I see your point of earning and burning. I do feel like a hoarder with almost 2 million points and miles. However, when you have to spend for a family of four, you can easily burn more than one quarter of that in one single trip. So I don’t mind hoarding because sooner or later I will use the points.

  15. The comment of reader/professional dissenter/Hilton fanboy DCS was taken out of context. BTW, the “Hilton fanboy” has stayed at Park Hyatt Saigon, Park Hyatt Seoul, Park Hyatt Siem Reap, Grand Hyatt Jakarta, Grand Hyatt Taipei, and the list goes on. Therefore, “an equal opportunity contrarian” would be more accurate than “Hilton fanboy” ;-).

    What I had meant was simply that what seems like chasing points just for the hell of it needs to be discouraged because that seems to focus on “short-term gains”. Instead, one should set a clear objective and then tailor one’s earning of points to try to achieve that objective, which would be the “longer-term returns.”

    I would be the last person to advocate the hoarding of points/miles because I burn nearly all of mine at the end of every year on a Big-Time redemption ( https://milepoint.com/forums/threads/2014-year-end-asian-escapade-or-the-anatomy-of-a-big-time-redemption.109108/ ), which represents the long-term view that I had in mind in that sentence.

  16. @Joey said: “I understand the earn/burn concept but at the same time, I’ve learned award availability becomes a LOT better after a devaluation so I don’t mind hoarding points at all.”

    Absolutely true, which is really the dirty little secret about “devaluations”: they paradoxically increase the value of points for point hoarders, who have loads of them, because they [devaluations] increase the availability of awards by making them too expensive for most to redeem 😉

  17. Hi Ben,

    I think your blog is really genuine. I love it a lot. I’m really interested in your Maldives trip. I want to take a trip there. Do you live in “Park Villa”, “Park Pool Villa”, or “Park Water Villa”? I checked the Hyatt redemption, it showed that I can only redeem for “Park Villa”. If I hold the Platinum status, can I get upgrade? Is “Park Villa” located on land or over the water?

    If I apply the Hyatt Credit Card, can I redeem the two free nights award toward Park Hyatt Maldives?

    Thanks a lot

  18. @ Makalo Lee — Yes, you can redeem two nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives. Will have more info on my stay soon.

  19. My de facto strategy was to build up substantial mileage balances with UA and other legacies when I was working full time, then spend them down over a period of years now that I am working half time (and, as a software techie, can work from pretty much anywhere in the world). I knew the Club Carlson “last night free” was not sustainable, so I adopted an “earn and burn like crazy while the good times last” strategy with them. And, like you, I’m now working to build up my UR and SPG point balances (though I view SPG more as a good hotel redemption option than a transfer source).

  20. “And can we really complain about this hobby? I just flew Cathay Pacific first class to the Maldives, and am presently sitting in a villa which retails for ~$1,500 per night while overlooking the Indian Ocean. This hobby doesn’t suck!”

    You didn’t seem too sure that this trip to the Maldives wouldn’t suck! Glad you are enjoying it and looking forward to see some pictures! (Please post some pictures of the surroundings and not only the hotel!)

  21. This comment from “sheldoncooper” is so silly that I just had to respond:

    “except it is not really a hobby anymore because of folks such as yourself who have turned it into a commercial enterprise and have, on net, had a negative impact on the hobby as a whole. I dont mean to pick on you in particular because you were doing it long before this space got commercialized, but when everyone and his dog has a blog selling credit cards and trying to monetize credit card links, it is not at all a surprise that there arent as many “sweet spots” left.”

    1. Negative impact? Without Lucky and a (very small) handful of other online personages, I would have been almost completely unable to pursue this hobby. I learn a tremendous amount from fanatics like him. So on the whole he and others bloggers have had a net positive impact for me, and surely many others as well.

    2. You blame the smaller number of sweet spots on bloggers “monetizing” credit card links. While I’m sure some small fraction of the total number of rewards card applications is due to bloggers, the banks’ massive marketing and advertising campaigns almost certainly generate a LOT more sign-ups. I think you’ve identified a tiny scab and now you’re trumpeting it as a case of smallpox.

  22. What snic said. All I would add is that people like sheldonc. . .. are what I refer to as the “I got mine, and I don’t want anyone else to get any” gang. They are the ones who get all upset on FT every time someone shares a tip on how to find/get/use something that was previously known to just a few. The sheldons of the world think they are entitled to what they have learned, but they’re not about to share with others, less THEY get less. God forbid. (That’s their real objection to blogs like this excellent one–it shares useful tips with we common folk.)

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