(Kapu means “forbidden” in Hawaiian)
Nearly all of us have made regrettable points mistakes early on, and not so early on, in this hobby. Such is the case generally in life, right? “If only I knew then what I know now.” Or, “I should have known better.” Here’s a list of the top 3 frequent flyer mile and points mistakes and how to prevent them. Each could have its own post, so we’ll just hit the highlights.
1. Concentrating all points in one program (to the exclusion of other programs)
As with investing, it’s unwise to put all your mile and point eggs into one proverbial basket. The wise don’t put all their cash into a single company’s stock; but rather, they Diversify Their Portfolios: spreading money over mutual funds, multiple individual company stocks, bonds, etc. So if one goes belly-up, the Farm hasn’t been bet–and subsequently lost.
With miles and points, it’s not so much that a single loyalty program’s currency will go poof; rather, you want a widely diversified collection of points to draw upon when you need them. I often read in the blogs and forums that American Airlines (AA) miles are useless. They may be useless for some–and they may find out too late that award ticket availability to their destinations of interest, at the time of year they want to travel, is non-existent. While for Mandy and I, AA miles have been terrific for flying to Hawaii in shoulder season: May and September, out of our home airport (RDU).
It can also be a mistake not to collect miles in programs that seem counter-intuitive. For example, you may ask “Why would I ever want to collect Alaska Airlines (AS) miles if I don’t want to go to Alaska?” Because Alaska Airlines has multiple partners that can get you to other places like Hawaii, Asia, and Europe. Look beyond the names of the airlines and get to know their partners.
With hotel points, the more programs you participate in, the greater your chances of finding availability for a location at a given time. Case in point, Mandy and I found availability during the total solar eclipse, at a hotel in a hotel program we rarely use, when the prices of rooms were stratospheric; and there was very little availability, points or otherwise, in town.
Over time, build up a broad portfolio of mile and points currencies. You’ll never know when you need a particular one to achieve a given travel objective. No one has a crystal ball and flux is the only constant here. Partnerships change. Currencies get devalued. Individual hotels change ownership from one chain to another. If we all had a clear view into the future, none of us would need to look for cheap travel.
There are some terrific transferable points programs such as Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR), where you can earn points in one place and redeem or transfer to a variety of hotel and airline partners. Sounds great, right? And so it is. But unless you’re putting many tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards that earn UR points, they’re not likely to get you very far. I call this the “One Card Problem.” This causes many an otherwise capable, potential free traveler to conclude that miles and points don’t “work.” While there are exceptions, the best way for middle class families to get nearly free travel is to diversify–largely through multiple credit card sign-up bonuses
2. Missing the High Water Mark for credit card sign-up bonuses
So, you go googling. And you find a Chase Southwest Airlines credit card offer for 25K miles. Great! So you apply and are approved. A month later you see an offer for 50K miles–double what you got. Oopsies. Don’t feel bad–common rookie mistake.
Know that offers change over time; and the value of the bonuses may wax and wane. What you google for now may not bring the best deal. It may not even be the best currently available offer. The fix is to:
- Read miles and points blogs and forums to find the best deals
- Become generally aware of patterns in sign-up bonus offers
- Be patient! Especially when it comes to certain issuers like American Express–they have a policy of offering only one sign-up bonus per card product per person per lifetime. So when you apply for an Amex card, you really want to know you’re getting not only the best current offer, but preferably the best known highest offer
If you do sign-up for a card and a higher bonus offer appears shortly thereafter, you may be able to get the better offer. How? Logon to your bank and send a Secure Message (SM) describing the situation, and asking nicely if they’ll match you to the new offer. If it’s only been a month or two since you applied, you may be surprised by the results. No guarantees, but you won’t know unless you ask.
3. Letting miles or points expire (ignorance of expiration policies)
One day you log on to your loyalty account to see a balance of zero points. Zero?!? But I had 100K points a few months ago! This is a cardinal sin in our hobby. And a shocking event when it happens. I’d like to say “if” it happens; but this seems to occur to all of us–at least once. It’s going to hurt. Sorry. Going forward, as with other posts, I’ll use “points” generically to mean airline miles, hotel points, and bank program points.
A few notes about various types of point expirations:
- Some points truly never expire. Delta SkyMiles for example. No fine print there. But it’s the rare case.
- Some points expire without qualifying activity in a certain number of months. This is where most loyalty program points fit. For example, IHG Reward points expire in 12 months without qualifying activity. And I’ve seen a generous 36 month period with British Airways.
- Some points expire no matter what you do. Wyndham Rewards points expire after 4 years of earning; and there’s nothing you can do to set the clock back. In fact, they’re a special case hybrid in that the points will expire even earlier–in 18 months–if there’s no qualifying activity on the account. Both Choice Hotels points and Lufthansa Miles and More points have fixed lifetimes. But fixed life points are rare.
- For points associated with bank programs like Citi ThankYou, Amex Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards, you may lose the points immediately after canceling the associated credit card or shortly thereafter. Never cancel one of these cards without knowing the consequences and/or redeeming all possible points.
- For each loyalty currency in your portfolio, know the expiration policy
- Know what Qualifying Activity means for each program wherever it applies. Does redeeming points count? Or is it earning only. This can change over time. Stay current.
- Don’t necessarily believe it when a program claims its points never expire; there’s almost always fine print having to do with Qualifying Activity. In fact, be quite skeptical when a program claims its points never expire. The two exceptions I know are Delta SkyMiles and JetBlue TrueBlue points. Their points do seem to never expire, in contrast to nearly all others.
- Look for cheap ways to keep points alive, re-setting the expiration clock, e.g. some loyalty programs have online malls where you can buy a single song on iTunes. Donating a small amount of points to charity may keep points alive. Purchasing a small quantity of points can also work.
- If you discover your points have expired, and you had a substantial amount, sometimes you can get them redeposited for a fee. Whether the fee makes the process worthwhile is a game time decision.
So, we’ve reviewed the Top Three rookie mistakes: not maintaining a diversified points portfolio, missing the best offers on credit card sign-up bonuses, and not knowing when, or even that, points expire. There are other mistakes one can make. But it would be an error to overwhelm you with more at this time. We’ll revisit further rookie mistakes in another post.