I recently had the pleasure of redeeming 30,000 American AAdvantage miles for a $290, one-way domestic plane ticket, which gave me an excellent opportunity to reflect on some travel hacking wisdom I never get tired of preaching: the least valuable point is the one you don't redeem.
The real risk of underdiversifying is paying cash
The point of travel hacking should be to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take. I'm absolutely indifferent to whether you want to travel domestically or internationally, by plane, train, or automobile, with your family or alone, in first class or in steerage. I just want to help you spend as little money as possible to do it.
Diversifying your points balances is a way of achieving that. With no rewards currencies at all, you'd pay the retail cost for all your travel, minus any savings achieved by booking through online portals, paying with discounted gift cards, taking advantage of best rate guarantees, and the other techniques we have available.
With a single rewards currency, you can start to save money when you're able to find award space with that loyalty program. If you only collect Hilton HHonors points, you're in good shape as long as you're visiting a city with a Hilton property, and that property has award space. You'll still pay cash for your airfare, but hotels can often be the biggest expense on a trip, so the savings there can quickly add up.
With multiple rewards currencies, you can start to bring down your costs considerably. If you earn Ultimate Rewards points with an Ink Plus card, then you'll be able to save money by redeeming Hyatt Gold Passport points when you visit a city served by Hyatt, and by redeeming United, British Airways, Flying Blue, and Southwest points when those airlines and their partners make award space available. Even better, when award space isn't available, you can still get a 20% discount on revenue flights by redeeming Ultimate Rewards points at 1.25 cents each.
I won't belabor the point: having more rewards currencies reduces the chance that you'll have to pay retail for your travel. As long as those rewards currencies are acquired cheaply enough, that means each redemption saves you money on your travel, which, again, is the point of the game.
The real risk of overdiversifying is unredeemed balances
Many travel hackers and bloggers believe that "earning and burning," or keeping points balances as low as possible by redeeming award currencies roughly as quickly as they're earned, is the best approach. The reason normally given for this is that regular devaluations decrease the value of earned miles and points, so your balances will never be worth as much in the future as they are in the present.
Meanwhile, I spend no time thinking about devaluations, and don't think you should either. Your travel hacking practice should be giving you big enough savings on each redemption that even substantial devaluations won't affect the calculus of redeeming miles versus spending cash.
But the logic of diversifying your points balances really can be taken too far!
Above I said that when you don't have the right currency to pay for the trip you want to take as cheaply as possible, you run the risk of having to pay cash and not save any money at all. One way to react to that possibility is to accumulate high balances in as many programs as possible, to ensure that you always have enough of the right currency for the job.
The problem with that approach is that it exposes you to the real risk of overdiversifying: unredeemed balances. From hundreds of interactions with readers and friends in the community, I have come to believe that accumulating large, unredeemed balances is the single biggest mistake made by even experienced travel hackers.
There's no mystery to how it happens: a new credit card is launched, or refreshed, or suddenly has a much higher-than-usual signup bonus. Once the credit card affiliate bloggers get their links, you see two or three weeks of blanket coverage online. Sometimes the coverage even runs over into the mainstream media. Even those who are disgusted by the orgy of profiteering start talking about the orgy of profiteering, bringing the offer in front of even more eyeballs.
And then, like clockwork, people start asking: "I have all these Wyndham/Membership Rewards/Amtrak/Choice/Trump Shuttle points. What do I do with them?"
The answer, unfortunately, is usually "nothing."
Pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take
Without travel hacking, most of us couldn't afford to spend a week in the Maldives. But even without travel hacking, many of us could afford to fly home for Thanksgiving.
Paying $150 for a $600 plane ticket you'd otherwise pay cash for is a savings of $450.
Spending $2,500 for a trip someone else paid $15,000 for is an expense of $2,500.
I've heard that the Maldives are lovely, and I'm sure I'd enjoy visiting. But speculatively accumulating huge balances at random as signup bonuses change and cards are launched or discontinued, instead of targeting programs that save you money on the trips you want to take is a way of spending money, not saving it!
Again, this says nothing about the merits, or lack thereof, of the Maldives, of your favorite Park Hyatt, or of Emirates First Class. I'm sure they're lovely. But being talked into taking someone else's idea of the perfect trip is an expensive mistake — travel hacking just makes it less expensive.
Conclusion: my fantastic AAdvantage redemption
All of that brings me to my 30,000-mile, $290 one-way American Airlines ticket. If you believe that the goal of travel hacking is to get the highest dollar value from each redeemed mile, this is a preposterous redemption — less than a penny per point!
But I had a different problem: an unredeemed American Airlines balance. I'd earned the miles cheaply, through Barclaycard US Airways anniversary miles, a negative-interest-rate loan I took out, and some experiments I'd been running through the American Airlines shopping portal, so I was certainly saving money on the ticket compared to paying cash.
But even more importantly, I judged ridiculous the idea of paying $200 (the cash value of the 20,000 US Bank Flexpoints I'd need to redeem) or $232 (the cash value of the 23,200 Ultimate Rewards points I'd need to redeem) when I had more than enough AAdvantage miles sitting in my account unredeemed. I didn't have a plan for the miles because I had earned them more or less accidentally: I had overdiversified into AAdvantage miles, and was sitting on a balance of miles that were, unredeemed, worthless to me.
The point of travel hacking is to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take. I wanted to take a $290 flight and $5.60 in taxes and fees was as little as I could pay for it. Mission: accomplished.