As someone who is enthusiastic about collecting and redeeming points and miles, I always like to hear the opinions and experiences of others who share the same interest. Therefore, I decided to offer my thoughts on the topic and how being a budget traveller affects my approach to loyalty programs. (Or you can just scroll to the bottom for a wee bit of Canadian loyalty point nostalgia.)
My History of Loyalty Program Participation
According to email archives, I joined Priority Club (now IHG Rewards Club) in September of 2010. My interest in the loyalty program for Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental etc. stemmed from a discovery that one could redeem Air Miles by phone for Priority Club points back then. That initial dive into the points and miles scene led to a hobby that has continued till today. Over the years I’ve learned a few things and formed some opinions about loyalty programs.
The following are in no particular order.
1. Points and miles make travel planning more complicated
Before I got into points, planning travel was a much simpler exercise. You just watched for good deals and and booked something in your budget.
Now, however, there is so much more to consider, especially when it comes to accommodation. What rates are available in the various chain hotels? What promotions are the programs offering? Are there any good package rates or targeted offers to stack? Is it better to pay cash and earn points or is it better to redeem them? What about cash + points options?Are there any upgraded rooms available on points? Does it make sense to buy points? What about non-chain hotel deals for earning Hotels.com stamps or using fixed value points like Scotia Rewards?
Using miles for flights is also more challenging than paying cash. You’re constantly checking for availability or sorting out an itinerary to avoid fuel surcharges. Are there any great one-way cash fares you can combine with a reward ticket? And which miles should you use? What about nested itineraries? One of my favourite redemptions was when we made three trips out of two Aeroplan bookings but it was a little stressful putting it all together.
2. Loyalty programs are not just for frequent travellers
There is a fairly common perception that it would take an average person an eternity to earn enough points to redeem for anything really good. I held this view for a long time myself. However, the truth is that as long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can derive significant benefit from loyalty programs. Being a passive collector as a non-frequent traveller won’t get your very far.
As someone who takes 3 or 4 trips per year that typically range from 3 to 10 nights, I find it absolutely worthwhile and have enjoyed many trips that would not have happened without points. This is especially true if you’re flexible with your destination and dates of travel.
3. Don’t actually be loyal (if you’re on a budget)
When you do a search for points and miles info, you’re likely to run across countless tales of luxury. The loyalty blogosphere puts considerable emphasis on so called “aspirational” redemptions. Focusing your points-earning energy on one or two programs and acquiring elite status for the various perks are common strategies in the pursuit of high-end travel experiences.
But, in my view, if you just want to save money on travel, consider forgoing any actual loyalty to a specific airline or hotel chain. I believe the frugal traveller is better served by a “follow the deal” approach to points and miles. Spread your “loyalty” around.
Of course, dabbling in lots of programs requires more work to stay on top of all the promos and making sure you don’t end up with too many “orphan” points. I’ve never really had a problem holding points in multiple programs. As long as you’re careful to keep them from expiring, you’ll eventually find a good use for them. I currently have points in IHG, Marriott, Choice, Radisson and Hilton and have redeemed Best Western and Wyndham points in the past as well.
And sometimes it’s better to ignore the chains entirely and take advantage of a bargain unrelated to points. It’s good to keep all your options open when trying to make a trip happen.
4. Reward value is subjective
As mentioned, there is a popular trend in the points and miles community to redeem for very expensive flights or hotel stays. On a cents per point basis, this often achieves the highest value for your loyalty currency. But using your points like this doesn’t actually save you more money because you would never have paid for that luxury hotel room or business class seat out of pocket. If you believe the best redemption means getting more value for your points, you have to define “more value”, and opinions on its meaning will vary.
For example, let’s say there are two hotels in a hypothetical hotel chain. One is a akin to a Holiday Inn Express or Hampton Inn and one is of the St. Regis or Waldorf Astoria ilk. The first is $100 or 10,000 points per night and the second is $1000 or 50,000 points per night. If you have 50,000 points you could redeem for 5 free nights at the ordinary hotel or a single free night at the luxury property. Which redemption yields more value? From a cash value perspective, you get the equivalent of $1000 for your points at the expensive hotel versus only half that at the cheaper one. Yet one could argue that five free nights has more value in the sense that it could perhaps cover all of your lodging costs on a trip instead of only one fifth.
The same question applies to redeeming frequent flyer miles for economy versus business class seats. It comes down to the individual and how you want to use your points according to your personal assessment of value and in light of your current point balances and future travel plans.
I generally fall into the camp that prefers to stretch points into more trips. I’ve made a few exceptions along the way, but for the most part, luxury travel doesn’t hold enough appeal to motivate me to spend more points on a single redemption.
I do enjoy reading reviews of luxury travel, in part because it helps confirm that it doesn’t have the same draw for me as it does for others. I just want clean, comfortable and convenient lodging at my destination. A lie-flat seat in business class sounds great but for flights to Europe I can manage fine in economy and keep those extra miles for another trip. It’s possible my preferences may change though. Who knows.
Anyway, it’s important to go your own way and recognize that others may choose differently. There’s no objectively optimal way to use your points.
5. It’s not just about credit cards
Earning points through the responsible use of credit cards is a great way to build up your balance, but it’s not the only way to accumulate enough points for meaningful rewards. Still, for some folks, especially those primarily interested in generous sign-up bonuses, the points and miles hobby is synonymous with credit cards.
If your goal is multiple aspirational redemptions, juggling a number of credit cards is certainly understandable. It’s also important to acknowledge the challenge of collecting points for family travel. There’s a huge difference between a solo trip and a family vacation when it comes to amassing enough points.
I just want to underscore the fact that there are many avenues beyond credit cards to acquire points. None of my IHG, Choice, Radisson or Air Miles redemptions involved points earned through credit cards. Explore all the possibilities in loyalty point promotions. Figure out how one trip can effectively pay for the next one.
6. It’s not a game (at least to me)
This one largely relates to credit cards. For those who push the boundaries of points earning through endeavours such as credit card churning, it’s often likened to a game. As in, sometimes you win and that promo link you used (but weren’t targeted for) works and sometimes the HUCA (hang up, call again) method to find an extra helpful phone agent doesn’t succeed as you hoped.
I dislike the “game” reference just as I dislike the term “travel hacker” even though neither necessarily implies a nefarious intention. Referring to the points and miles hobby as a game can however connote “gaming the system” as in engaging in activity that could constitute “abuse” as determined by the loyalty program which could exercise its discretion to close the account.
Anyway, the characterization just doesn’t fit well with how I approach loyalty programs – I guess because I’m not really a player. As I’ve written about previously, I try to adhere to terms and conditions and follow the rules as best I can to minimize risk to my accounts, and thereby my travel plans, and frankly, my mental health.
7. Earn and burn (don’t hoard your points)
It’s widely accepted that holding on to very large point balances is not a wise move. Loyalty programs are subject to devaluations over time, and there is a chance your points will be wiped out if you fail to ensure they don’t expire due to account inactivity. It’s always disheartening to read about people who’ve lost loads of points because they were unaware that they needed to keep the account active.
My problem is my tendency to want to keep points on hand for future unexpected use. Clearing out an account feels drastic even when it’s completely sensible in the circumstances. So I don’t always practice what I preach. The pandemic has been a good reminder that the future’s uncertain and you might as well use up the points when you have them and are able to travel freely.
8. Get used to devaluations
You learn very quickly after you start collecting points that they generally do not go up in value – only down. That hotel room for 25,000 points today could be 30,000 points tomorrow. If these kinds of changes really bother you, you’ll have a tough time maintaining your enthusiasm for the hobby.
With the pandemic putting the brakes on travel and causing a lot of financial hurt to the industry, we’ll have to see what the future holds in terms of promotions when leisure travel resumes.
I recall when I first became interested in loyalty programs, the hotel points promotions were more generous and redemption rates were lower. Now many loyalty programs are turning to a dynamic reward structure. Air Canada’s new Aeroplan program set to launch very soon is an example of this trend.
9. Don’t expect to get others on board easily
When you first realize that you can use loyalty programs to make trips happen, there is an urge to spread the word. You assume that many other people will share the same excitement. You soon discover that you are in fact mistaken.
Human beings are creatures of habit who don’t easily deviate from their usual tendencies. Unless one’s desire for free stuff or travel savings is particularly strong, the hassles or perceived hassles will prevent them from joining in the pursuit of points. A few people will get on board but in my experience, they are the exception.
That’s the reason I started this somewhat primitive blog. If I’m on the lookout for useful information to save on travel anyway, I might as well put it out there in case someone else might benefit.
10. It’s not just about the flight and accommodation
If you’re a frugal traveller, you already know that transportation, sightseeing and food costs can really add up and the saving strategies don’t end with your airfare and lodging. Fortunately, you can use loyalty points toward those things as well, albeit indirectly.
I recently wrote about changing my Air Miles earning preference from Dream to Cash. Although the main idea behind points like PC Optimum or Cash Air Miles is to redeem for everyday purchases such as gas or groceries, those savings can be directed to anything including a travel fund for future trip expenses that can’t otherwise be covered by points.
Saving money also means researching for things like the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants or the cheapest deal on local transport. Over the years reading trip reports, it always struck me as odd when someone would take great pride in scoring a free hotel breakfast but then do something like buy a walk-up train ticket at double or triple the price they would’ve paid for an advance purchase discount fare.
One way around this is to seek out destinations that are more reasonably priced for tourists. Central and Eastern Europe are good examples. Or if your sightseeing goals are fairly specific, choose a place where you can enjoy your favourite activities at a comparatively low cost. For instance, if you really like museums, cities like Washington, DC or London, England are excellent for world class museums with no admission fees.
My Earliest Interest in Loyalty Programs
Now for a little Canadian points and miles nostalgia. I recently found this school project of mine that I believe is from Grade 4:
A blast from the past. Cassette tapes and Club Z. Apparently my interest in loyalty programs goes back a little further than I realized. According to my brief internet research, Club Z was introduced in 1986 which would have been when this strange little storybook about Martians going shopping was created.
The main thing I’ve learned from my points and miles hobby is something that applies to all hobbies – it has to be enjoyable. The fun factor is what sustains any pastime including one that involves poring over terms and conditions, analyzing point charts, reading travel blogs and forums, monitoring loyalty accounts and daydreaming about lots of trips that likely won’t happen. One way I know that I’m a crazy points person is that in my four trips to New York City I have not stayed at one hotel for the duration of any of them. I remember when hotel hopping sounded nuts to me. I guess I’m nuts.