Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vacation in Hawaii for four, just $20. Not possible you say?

I want to tell you about my recent rewards success story. But first, let me explain something. There are a few schools of thought around credit card rewards programs, and here they are:

1) It takes too long to rack up the points and are too much trouble

2) The points are good to have when one wants to get something that one might not otherwise purchase on one’s own

3) Points are another form of currency, to be spent as wisely as any other form of currency

Most rewards cardholders who spend a few hundred bucks a month on their cards likely fall into the first category. That’s because redemptions typically don’t begin until 2,500 points (for which one can usually just get a measly gift card). At a few hundred points a month, it can take years to earn a simple reward.

My pal GridMaster subscribes to the second point of view – racks his points up to buy that splurge item he wouldn’t otherwise consider (see “Watch Your Point Values When You Redeem” below).

But me – I subscribe to the third point of view and look at my points balance as if it were cash, and I weigh my redemption options with the same level of care that I choose to spend my hard-earned coin.

As a result, I recently struck the “deal of a century”. I redeemed 270,000 points from my hotel rewards program for a full week at a category 7 (i.e. top notch) hotel and three tickets (non-stop) to Hawaii.

My rewards program allowed me to take 120,000 points (included in the 270,000 points) and deposit it into the airline frequent flyer program of my choice (this is not typical - usually 120,000 airline miles would cost close to 250,000 miles alone, but my rewards program offered a great hotel/air combo deal). So, I chose the airline account that had a 30,000 mile balance – that gave me 150,000 points – more than enough for 4 round-trip tickets – all I had to pay was $5 a pop for my online booking fee. As a result, I’ve got a full week in Hawaii with airfare for just $20!

I figured this was the best value I could get for my points – here’s how it breaks down:

7 nights at the JW Marriott in Oahu – normal room rate = $440/night including tax. Total value = $3,080. Point cost = 150,000. $ value per point = $0.0205

3 round trip tickets (from points) = $480/ticket, $1,440 total value. Point cost = 120,000. $ value per point = $0.012. I “paid” for one of my tickets from my existing miles account balance.

Total trip value (not including fourth ticket) = $4,520. Total points “spent” = 270,000. Total value per point = $0.0167.

Sure, I could have saved 120,000 points and used them for a future vacation at a higher cash value, but I determined it was better to spend the points now, keep the $1,440 I would have spent on airfare and use it when I get to Hawaii for meals and entertainment.

Consider this – most points programs approximate the value of a point at around $0.01. So, when you “earn” one point per dollar, you’re really getting a rebate of about $0.01.

In reality, it’s probably a little less on average across all points programs. So, when you go to “spend” your points, you can maximize your value if you get more than penny per point value. Or, you can redeem for merchandise, cash back or something else for a value under a penny per point. In the case of GridMaster, he got a $200 surround system for 36,000 points. That’s a value of $0.00556. Not a great exchange, but like he said, he got something he wanted but wouldn’t buy on his own. GridMaster did say he prefers to exchange for cold hard cash, so I’m sure that’s one of his card’s better benefits – hopefully he’s getting a minimum of a 1-to-1 exchange (100 points = $1.00).

In my case, as I mentioned before, I advocate the “combo” programs like the hotels and airlines. They’re a great way to rack up points that much faster. Since I travel frequently, I rack up points at a great clip just by staying at the same hotel chain over and over again. Then, I got their credit card, which earns me extra points with each stay (15 times what I would get with another card), plus the standard 1 point per $ on everything else. The points I earn on my credit card spend get deposited into my hotel loyalty program. So, it took me about 8 months to rack up enough points to turn into a week in Hawaii, airfare included. Not too shabby.

In the end, it boils down to your lifestyle and your appetite for spending. If you’re not a big card spender, don’t take too much time to worry about it because it will take years for you to rack up anything of value. Concentrate instead on the card’s other features such as rate and terms. However, if you are in it for the points – do your homework and squeeze the most out of your rewards, then turn them into something you really want. After all, it’s your money!


gridmaster said...

Nice deal there! I've been thinking for years about taking the family out to Colorado for a ski trip one of these days. Maybe I should start focusing on the trip and putting all my efforts into racking up the points.

Anonymous said...

Unheard of!! What a deal. I read somewhere that hotel reward cards are better than airline cards. Your deal sure sounds like it. I use a single airline card - a Chase Southwest - and I pay just about all the bills I can with it. I also have a business Chase Southwest card for business travel and expenses. Bottom line - I average about 6 to 8 free roundtrip passes per year plus I have earned a companion pass for the past 3 years which allows my wife to fly with me for free.

We fly for free out to California a couple times each year to visit the grandkids. Knowing how to use your credit cards to get the best rewards makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

I just got some bad news. My US Airways miles, over 87,000 miles, were retired-canceled. When I called to find out why, they referred to a clause that said I hadn't flown on US Airways nor used their card (I tore that up years ago) in 18 months, so "good bye" miles. However I could reinstate by paying $300 or by opening a new CCaccount and using it. After the first months bill is paid the miles would be reinstated. That's what I did. I usually don't read all that junk email. It is a good thing I did this time. I will now pay more attention to the rules in my rewards programs.