[Editor's note: I'm currently traveling so responses to comments and e-mails may be slightly slower than usual. —FQF]
Regular readers know I don't chase signup bonuses any more, for two simple reasons:
- if I need some particular loyalty currency for my strategy, then I can't wait until an elevated signup bonus comes along to start earning it;
- and if I don't need that loyalty currency for my strategy, then I don't need a lot of points any more than I need a few of them!
Think of signup bonuses as temporary bonus earning rates
The appeal of large signup bonuses to travel hackers is that they offer much larger earning rates than even the bonused earning rates of cards you'd otherwise use to manufacture spend.
For example, signing up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card with a 40,000 Ultimate Rewards point signup bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months produces a net earning rate of 11 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent for the first $4,000.
Since the next-highest earning rate is 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores with the Chase Ink cards, if you value Ultimate Rewards points highly enough you might rationalize applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (but please product change to Freedom as soon as possible!).
Comparing bonus earning rates
Before we can say whether a particular signup bonus is good or bad, we have to establish a frame of reference. So here are 11 popular signup bonuses and their associated earning rates (data from Frequent Miler's Best Offers page). These aren't the absolute best offers out there, just what I hope is a representative sample; in other words, the cards I'd apply for if I were building a strategy from scratch.
The mean signup bonus from these cards is an earning rate of 21 miles or points per dollar spent meeting the minimum spending requirement.
The British Airways bonus is tiered — but only the first tier makes any sense
The 100,000 Avios signup bonus for the Chase British Airways Visa is earned in three stages:
- 50,000 Avios after spending $2,000 within 3 months;
- 25,000 additional Avios after spending a total of $10,000 within 12 months;
- 25,000 additional Avios after spending a total of $20,000 within 12 months.
Since the card earns 1 Avios on every dollar spent, that means this card has three bonus earning rates:
- 26 Avios per dollar on the first $2,000;
- 4.13 Avios per dollar on the next $8,000;
- 3.5 Avios per dollar on the next $10,000.
In other words, the signup bonus is slightly above average for the first $2,000 you spend (although there's an identical offer with the annual fee waived the first year), but radically below average for the next $18,000 in spend.
Even if you relentlessly chase signup bonuses, you should use the $18,000 in spend this bonus requires meeting the minimum spending requirement for the signup bonuses of other, better cards.
The second and third bonus tiers are better than manufactured spend for earning Avios and only Avios
Spending $18,000 on the Chase British Airways Visa, above and beyond the $2,000 bonus tier, will earn a total of 68,000 British Airways Avios.
Spending $18,000 on the Chase Ink Plus at office supply stores will earn 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to Avios at a 1-to-1 ratio.
That leaves you with a 22,000 Ultimate Rewards point surplus. If your cheapest method of manufacturing non-bonused spend costs $7.90 per $1,000 in spend, and office supply store manufactured spend costs $34.75 per $1,000 in spend, you'll spend $483.30 manufacturing spend at office supply stores instead of putting your cheapest manufactured spend on the British Airways Visa.
Since 22,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth $220 when redeemed for cash, you'll end up with a $263.30 surplus using the British Airways Visa instead.
Is that worth doing? You already know my answer: it's worth doing if you have a specific, high-value use in mind for those Avios.
Avios are a valuable, but not versatile, rewards currency. If you can find domestic low-level American or Alaska award space, Avios will almost always be the best way to book it.
Many bloggers will tell you that Avios are best for nonstop flights, and they're right: they're best for nonstop flights, but you'll often end up paying the same or fewer Avios even on itineraries with connections.
Likewise, if you can fly on Iberia metal to Spain and then connect to your final destination (or just visit Spain!), Avios provide a cheap way to get across the pond.
But since Avios are only rarely the best way to book long-haul awards, unless you have a plan for such a large balance, you're better off not earning them.