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Do Better By Avoiding the “Is Award Travel Free?” Distraction

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Points and Miles Goals

Points and Miles Goals

The “Is Award Travel Free?” debate never ends.  Throughout the points and miles news cycle, many describe where they fall on this topic.  Indeed, critically thinking about our rewards is a worthy endeavor.  Recently, Nick at Frequent Miler extensively discussed his views on what he termed “the joy and myth of free travel.”  I certainly appreciate how he tackles the topic, and I generally agree with his notion that rewards enable reduced price, rather than free, travel.  But I tend to avoid the “Is Award Travel Free?” debate.  I find it an unnecessary distraction that saps my most increasingly precious currency – time.  Instead, I focus on the importance of points and miles goals, and everything else takes care of itself.  Today, I share my philosophy (again) of how I do bigger and better things with rewards currencies.  But first, I’d like to reiterate one reality I feel the masses haven’t sufficiently acknowledged.

Remember, We’ve All Been Conditioned

As I’ve previously described, most all of us have naturally thought of rewards and loyalty in terms of travel.  The first frequent flyer program was created over 40 years ago.  In the mid-eighties, credit cards got involved and began hooking consumers.  Then came the internet and people talking about all this stuff for money.   Many consumers enjoy this content, including this writer.  And throughout it all, people have predominantly redeemed on travel.  Such redemptions are the standard.

Points and Miles Goals

A Not-That-New Paradigm

Given this perceived reality, many quickly dismiss everyday reward redemptions unrelated to travel as less optimal, short-sighted, lame, etc.  Many question if another’s redemption doesn’t neatly fit within their own travel redemption norms.  “If you’re not redeeming for travel, you’re doing it wrong,” basically.  My response is that I’m playing a different game, one that is bigger than just travel.

I’ve primarily focused on everyday rewards redemptions for quite some time, and I wrote further on this paradigm shift almost two years ago.  It boils down to this:  consider all credit cards, loyalty memberships, rewards currencies, and elite status as means to obtain “Rewards” rather than unnecessarily-limiting “Travel Rewards.” 

Again, I say enough with the Travel Industrial Complex.  Why have we focused rewards almost exclusively on travel – a comparatively miniscule portion of our lives?  Why not leverage our rewards in a way that applies to the majority, or hopefully all, of our respective lifetimes?  How about enriching yourself continuously, perhaps even daily, with redemptions, rather than dreaming of that award trip that’s booked far in the future?

So then, how am I reconciling these views while maximizing my points and miles currencies?

Points and Miles Goals

It’s About Goals, People

Set and periodically revalidate your goals, then optimally earn and redeem to accomplish them.  That’s all!  By doing so, you’re more immediately, positively enriching your life, whether a goal is travel-related or not.

By listing your goals – actually writing them down – you may surprise yourself.  Here are just a few items which may not end up on your list:

By setting your own goals customized for your situation, deliberating over “Is Award Travel Free?” and related minutiae is completely unnecessary.  Overanalyzing that topic turns into a needless time-suck.  Instead, redeem rewards currencies to help meet your higher-priority life goals, which may or may not include travel.  Oh, and there’s another benefit.

Move Past Cent Per Point Valuations

By focusing on redemptions related to your priority goals, the importance of cent per point (cpp) valuations largely melts away.  If I get less perceived cent per point value, so what?  Accomplishing my goals with points and miles is priceless.  Some cent per point value doesn’t even compare in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, if there are multiple pathways to meet the same goal, one can determine the most efficient ways of redeeming to reach it.  But if a goal hinges on a specific redemption with less cpp value, no big deal!

Points and Miles Goals

Conclusion

I could write a much longer article, but you probably understand my view by now.  Focus on your goals, then earn and redeem rewards accordingly.  Nothing else really matters.  Understand that we all have different goals, and what I may perceive as a terrible redemption in my situation may be perfect in someone else’s.  We can each be correct for our respective circumstances.  What have been your recent points and miles goals and how have you earned and redeemed to reach them?

Disclosure: Miles to Memories has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Miles to Memories and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

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Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.
Benjy Harmon
Benjy Harmon
Benjy focuses on the intersection of points, travel, and financial independence (FI). An experienced world traveler, husband, and father, he currently roams throughout the USA close to expense-free. Benjy enjoys helping others achieve their FI and travel goals.

Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

17 COMMENTS

  1. What it’s really about:
    – Earning points
    – Redeeming points
    – Securing and maximizing benefits
    – Help each other via Q&A
    Yet, some people absolutely enjoy discussing:
    – How some innocuous issue (say, using seat back trays during taxi) becomes a political free-for-all
    – Whether Delta flight attendants will or should unionize
    – How some famous person was kicked off of a flight
    – How airlines must do something about lounge over-crowding, as long as they still get access (for free)
    – Why do the people in first class get champagne and we in economy don’t? (this was an actual comment)
    – How a particular hotel loyalty program stiffs them on tier benefits, yet they still work towards tier status
    – How every airline is a dumpster fire

    • Lee,
      Great perspective about cutting out all the noise. I must admit that I contribute to that noise from time to time.

  2. Absolutely me: “If I get less perceived cent per point value, so what? Accomplishing my goals with points and miles is priceless. Some cent per point value doesn’t even compare in the grand scheme of things.” My goal = “free.” I’ve traveled “freely” for 35+ years, but for some specific situations (i.e., a few times traveling with others without points/miles to split the $ price), all branded hotel and airfare has been reward travel since the late 1980s when I started. But while I’ve always used “free” in quotes to signify some cost, it probably is net $0 totally free if I had the inclination and time to tally up all of the merchant cash rebates, extended warranty and returns benefits used, the occasional buying club profit, etc. On just a single AMEX card there is a tally of nearly $700 in merchant rebates. I believe the odds that overall it has been truly free are pretty strong.

      • LOL, a distant memory beyond being one of the first signing up for programs. I mostly remember lots of Ramada stays and I believe w
        free rooms were more often for every 5 or so paid, point systems were just starting; fuzzy memories. Back then there were so few ways to earn rewards compared to today that for me deflation is an urban legend.

  3. I think debunking the travel with points isn’t “free” mentality is important. I appreciate that you have a broader view of points/miles to involve cash back and have other financial goals but many people in this space aren’t so savvy with personal finance. If people think travel is free, then while they’re pursuing their travel goals, they may not realize how much time/money, they’re actually spending to achieve it. But since travel isn’t free, it’s probably better in the long run for the majority of people to focus on cash back and get their finances in order, like getting out of debt and investing, etc. In terms of why travel – and usually luxury travel, is emphasized, it’s because of FOMO. But it’s also where the outsized value is (at least what’s left of it). Yes, I could work to save up my points for a $500 economy ticket. But I could also pull an extra shift at work to pay for the same economy ticket. Not that huge a savings. But if I can use double the points to book business or first class seat in which I won’t be able to just work 2 shifts to pay for cash for that same ticket (likely would need to work 10+ extra shifts), that opens up a lot more luxury travel possibilities. At least that’s why it makes sense for some people to focus on luxury travel with points.

  4. Great article, Benjy!
    I once had my comments dismissed in a Facebook group regarding a great cashback credit card simply because it earned cashback on travel expenditures and didn’t earn “travel rewards.”
    It’s a bit surprising to see people lose focus on how much their points are actually worth when it comes to CPP calculations too, especially when it comes to suite upgrades using points.

  5. I generally agree with this. One difference is I use the points and miles valuation as a guide for when using cash is better. I am fortunate that travel can be paid that way which allows focusing points usage on higher value returns like expensive hotels in big cities while paying cash in others.

  6. Totally agree with “rewards enable reduced price, rather than free, travel”. Unethical people and con artists are the ones promoting “free travel”. Unless someone gives you free travel as a gift that you did absolutely nothing to earn, then the points and mile travels are not free because you have to do something or pay for something to get it. For example: The IHG free nights are not free because you have to pay the credit card annual fee. The points and miles we get from credit card spend may be free, but the taxes, fees, and time and effort to get them are not free.

    • Jacob,
      I’m a sucker for the IHG card “free” nights. It’s now probably the card I use the least. Thanks for reading!

  7. I completely agree. I don’t waste my time getting caught up in what someone thinks the value of MY points should be. My points are worth whatever I choose to redeem them for.

    I also don’t get caught up in the hype of first class/business class because honestly, the thought of spending 10+ hours on a plane, regardless of cabin or destination, seems extremely unpleasant to me.

    Does that mean I’ll never get to see and experience a good part of the world, yep, and I’m perfectly okay with that. The lower 48 has so much that I haven’t exlporered…I’ll spend my time, energy, and happiness on that rather than chasing an aspirational travel dream of a person I’ve never met.

    In the mean time, I’m off to go and earn some more points and miles so I can travel to Omaha, Nebraska…and then talk about it in the comment section of a blog where I’m sure someone with much bigger aspirational travel dreams will be triggered, roll their eyes at the screen while shaking their head as they say I’m wasting my time and should have never gotten into this hobby. LOL!

    Awesome article, Benjy…I always appreciate your perspective.

    • 2808 Heavy,
      Solid thoughts – thanks for engaging, as always. In the future, let us know about your Omaha redemptions and experiences. (I’m not being sarcastic.)

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