Let’s continue our series on How To Get Started in Travel Hacking. Today we will focus on the type of points and miles you should be collecting. This is a bit of a divisive subject because just like everything else out there, it’s going to depend on what you are trying to do. Rather than tell you the best points program or the best card within that program, I’ll just lay it out there and let you decide based on your specific goal.
If you have already set a goal for what you want to with your points, let’s move on. If you haven’t, I would point you to Part 1 of the series to once again convey the importance of goal setting and having the proper expectations.
The Type of Points/Miles To Collect
In the world of Travel Hacking, miles and points fall into two general categories:
- Fixed Value Points – points or miles that hold a specific redemption value regardless of when and how you travel. For example, WestJet Dollars (WSD) are earned through spend on the RBC Mastercard or by paying for travel on WestJet. Each WSD you earn is worth … you guessed it, $1.00 towards a WestJet or WestJet Partner flight.
- Transferable Points – points or miles that are accumulated in a 3rd party currency that can be transferred to an airline or hotel program. For example, American Express’ Membership Rewards are earned through spend on certain American Express cards and those points can be transferred to airline or hotel programs, which can then, in turn, be used to redeem for flights or hotels.
Your next question is, which type is better. Well, that depends on you and how you like to travel.
If the following describes you then Fixed Value Points are your jam:
- Don’t have the time to learn the ins and outs of different points programs – Fixed Value Points allow you to have simple redemptions so there isn’t any need to learn about sweet spots or find amazing value for flight redemptions. The downside here is that you will never get more value than the points are worth.
- You like to look for seat sales and travel when they come up – depending on the program, seat sales can benefit you if you have Fixed value Points. Usually the cheaper the fare, the fewer points you need to redeem.
- You mostly fly economy, either domestically or internationally – if experiencing lounges, great food and lie-flat seats isn’t something you care about and getting from A to B is your goal, Fixed Value Points make a lot of sense.
- You can only fly during peak season – if you are a teacher, grad student or someone that has seasonal work that only allows you to fly during school breaks or holidays, Fixed Value Points are definitely the way to go unless you plan on planning your travel a year in advance.
If the following describes you then Transferrable Points are where it’s at:
- You love to learn – if you want to develop a skill that will allow you to travel in luxury for the rest of your life and you’re willing to invest some time to learn the ins and outs, stick with Transferrable Points.
- You want to experience Business and First Class – by transferring these currencies to airline programs, you can quite easily redeem for Business and First Class products but you have the prerequisite of point #1 above.
- You love a good deal – Transferable currencies represent the ability to extract extreme value in your redemptions. With fixed value points, you can redeem for a fixed value, call it 1.5¢ per point whereas with transferable currencies, you can get over 10¢ per point if you fly Business or First Class. If you are interested in how we calculate value, take a look at how CPM is determined.
- You are flexible – redeeming airline points means that you have to be either well planned out or flexible in your travels. If you want to fly out on the Friday of Spring Break and get back on the Sunday night before work starts, you can do so, just plan on making arrangements a year in advance. If you can travel on the Monday and get back on the following Tuesday (or anything in between), you have a lot more options available to you for award redemptions.
Credit Score and Understanding Credit
Before I start recommending what you do to accumulate points, we need to talk about being responsible. The number one rule when it comes to Travel Hacking is to be fiscally responsible. That means never ever carrying a balance on your card(s). The reason for this is that even if you can redeem your points for 10¢ (10%) value, it is immediately erased when you carry a balance because most reward credit cards carry an interest rate of 18.9 – 29.9% on balances. You can see how quickly you erode the value of your points if you carry a balance.
If you do not have this financial discipline, I would recommend undertaking this hobby once your house is in order. I hope this doesn’t come across as too harsh but I have seen people get into a lot of financial trouble chasing points. Please do not do this.
By having poor financial habbits, it jeopardizes your credit score and your risk profile with lenders, which can put you at a severe disadvantage when you need credit (think mortgage or car loans).
Now that we’ve talked about credit, let’s talk about how to get points quickly.
What Does PointsNerd Do?
I personally have points in both types of currencies but it is heavily weighted towards transferrable currencies. I would say that 90% of my points are within the transferable currency realm while 10% is in fixed value points. Just as you would balance a stock portfolio, you want to consider how you want to balance your points portfolio.
If you are starting out, you should concentrate your earnings in one type of currency and then look to diversify once you have enough points. If you are a couple that wants to travel to Europe, maybe consider collecting enough points to get you there in Transferable Currencies and then collect Fixed Value Points to help fund things like car rentals or stays in independent hotels/hostels/AirBNB’s.
I haven’t written a lot about Fixed Value Points in the blog outside the Capital One Aspire Card, which I maintain is still the best Fixed Value card in Canada. Unfortunately, Capital One stopped offering the card to Canadians for the time being.
Outside the Capital One Aspire, my recommendations are based on what I know of the programs out there and what others have told me are good value cards. They are:
- Scotiabank Gold American Express Card
- 25,000 Scotia Reward Points after $1,000 spend in the first 3 months
- 4x bonus on all eligible gas, grocery, dining, and entertainment purchases
- Earn 1 point for every $1 you spend on all other eligible purchases
- 100 Scotia Reward Points = $1.00 of travel credit
- Use your points to purchase travel online or over the phone through our full-service travel agency. Or book your own travel using your card and go online to redeem points for the purchase
- Annual Fee Waived for the First Year (normally $99)
- WestJet RBC World Elite MasterCard
- $250 WestJet Dollars for a signup bonus on the first transaction
- First bag checked free for cardholder
- Annual Companion Pass
- $99 for Canada and North America
- $299 for Hawaii, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean f
- $399 for Europe
- Earn 1.5% towards travel on everyday purchases and 2% on WestJet purchases
- $119 Annual Fee
For Transferrable Currency, I strongly believe that American Express is the hands down winner in Canada. In fact, in my humble opinion, nothing even comes close. Membership Rewards Points can transfer to the following airline and hotel partners:
- Air Canada Aeroplan at a 1 to 1 ratio
- British Airways Avios at a 1 to 1 ratio
- Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles at a 1 to 0.75 a ratio
- Alitalia’s MilleMiglia Miles at a 1 to a 0.75 ratio
- Delta’s Skymiles at a 1 to 0.75 ratio
- Etihad Guest Miles at a 1 to 0.75 ratio
- Hilton Honors at a 1:1 ratio
- Starwood Preferred Guest at a 1 to 0.50 ratio
Membership Rewards can also act as a Fixed Value Currency through American Express’ Fixed Points Travel Program:
As you can see, Membership Rewards provides incredibly flexibility for travel redemptions, which is why the program is so incredibly powerful. You really can’t ask for more from a program and AMEX makes it very easy to transfer or redeem your points.
Membership Rewards can be earned with the following cards (all links below lead to my reviews of the cards – read about the card and its benefits before you decide which one is for you):
- American Express Gold Personal – 25,000 Membership Rewards after $1,500 spend – $150 Annual Fee
- American Express Gold Business – 40,000 Membership Rewards after $5,000 spend – No Annual Fee for the First Year
- American Express Platinum Personal – 60,000 Membership Rewards after $3,000 spend – $699 Annual Fee (get that to $299 – info in the review)
- American Express Platinum Business – 75,000 Membership Rewards after $5,000 spend – $399 Annual Fee
- American Express Colbalt – 40,000 Membership Rewards Select points. Get 2,500 points on a monthly basis based on meeting a minimum spend of $500 per month. Get an additional 10,000 points if you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months – $10/month fee ($120 per year).
If you are looking for a recommendation as to which AMEX card to get, it’s going to be the standard answer of “it depends”. If you are looking at the best bang for your buck, go with the American Express Platinum Card because there are so many benefits with the card and the annual fee can be as low as $399. You can also QUICKLY earn 60,000 Membership Reward Points so if you have upcoming travel plans, look to cards with big sign up bonuses.
I would then probably focus on the Gold Business Card because of the Annual Fee waiver and the 40,000 MR sign up bonus, though fair warning, there is quite a large spend requirement so be careful how quickly you get these cards.
Another card that is worth mentioning is the MBNA Alaska Airlines World Elite MasterCard. If you live in Western Canada, (BC and Alberta), Alaska and their Partner Airlines offer incredible redemption value. The card itself is very easy to churn, meaning you can get the card, earn the bonus, cancel and reapply after 90 days.
There is no magic one-size-fits-all solution for everyone in Travel Hacking. Get a sense of what kind of Travel Hacker you are and then set yourself down the path to collect the points you need for travel.
Earning points is the easiest part of Travel Hacking which is why it is easy to understand why there are over $18B in unredeemed miles and points in Canada alone. Once you have a good grasp on how to earn the miles, we can talk about how to use those miles.
I’m going to assume that if you are reading past Part 2, you are like me and want to collect Transferable Points. Part 3 will be about some of the things you can do with your points and how to extract value.
Also published on Medium.