I couldn't help but notice as I recently skimmed my RSS subscriptions that Hilton HHonors is running a promotion offering an 80% bonus on purchased HHonors points until 11:59 pm, Eastern time, on February 8, 2016.
That means you can buy 80,000 HHonors points for the normal $800 purchase fee, while receiving an additional 64,000 bonus points (there doesn't seem to be an excise fee charged on these transactions, unlike airline mile purchases). That brings your total cost per point to 0.56 cents each.
There are two ways of looking at a purchase opportunity like this.
How much are HHonors points worth?
The first, and most conventional, way of judging a purchase opportunity like this is to judge the out-of-pocket cost of the points against their potential or actual redemption value. A randomly selected June night at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island costs 95,000 HHonors points or $883.80 after taxes and fees. Purchasing the same 95,000 HHonors points for $528.20 during this promotion is, strictly speaking, a 40% discount off the retail price of the property.
Taking advantage of the fifth-night-free benefit for HHonors elites amplifies the discount further: 5 random nights at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island in June cost 380,000 HHonors points, while the same 5 nights would cost $4,419 in cash. Getting 1.16 cents per point in value makes this purchase opportunity a full 52.2% discount off the retail cost of the same nights.
How much do HHonors points cost?
The problem with the elegant picture I've painted above is that it uses the price Hilton is willing to sell HHonors points at as a fixed input.
But in fact, HHonors points have a range of prices, and that range doesn't depend on Hilton at all — it depends on your own circumstances and the best alternatives you have to purchasing HHonors points outright.
That's because when you manufacture spend on a Hilton HHonors co-branded credit card, you're passing up the opportunity to manufacture the same spend on a cashback-earning credit card. If you pay more in foregone cash back than you would to Points.com directly, then you're overpaying for your stay. If Points.com is charging less than you would pay in foregone cash back, they're offering a true discount.
We have brothers and sisters out there who only have access to unbonused categories of manufactured spend. For those who don't have access to gas station or grocery store manufactured spend, a single HHonors point costs 0.66 or 0.7 cents each.
The logic here is simple: the best cash back credit cards for unbonused spend earn 2.105% or 2% in cash back, and Hilton HHonors co-branded credit cards earn just 3 HHonors points per dollar spent in unbonused spend categories. If the same dollar in manufactured spend can produce either 2.105 cents in cash or 3 HHonors points, you're paying 0.7 in foregone cents per HHonors point you manufacture.
If you have a high-value HHonors redemption in the works, and manufacturing spend on a HHonors co-branded credit card will cost you more than 0.56 cents per HHonors point, you'll be better off purchasing the points from Hilton during this promotion.
Of course there's scant reason anyone would manufacture HHonors points in unbonused spend categories, which means the true tradeoff is between earning 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores and earning another bonused rewards currency.
What we really want to know is whether we're better off earning cash back or cash equivalents – and simply buying the points we need – or earning the HHonors points we need for a redemption directly through a co-branded Hilton HHonors credit card.
Here's a rundown of 3 possible scenarios to illustrate the idea. Is it cheaper to manufacture cash and buy points, or manufacture points directly?
- 5% cash back (American Express "old" Blue Cash, capped at $50,000 in spend per cardmember year, or other time-limited promotional offers). Opportunity cost: 0.83 cents per HHonors point. Result: manufacture cash back and buy HHonors points.
- 4% cash back (US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, points worth "up to" 2 cents each when redeemed for paid airfare). Opportunity cost: 0.67 cents per HHonors point. Result: manufacture spend for airfare, use cash savings to buy HHonors points.
- 3% cash back (US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, points worth "up to" 1.5 cents each when redeemed for hotel stays). Opportunity cost: 0.5 cents per HHonors point. Result: manufacture HHonors points on co-branded credit card instead.
The inflection point between 3% and 4% cash back is the result of the fixed 0.56 cent per point price established by Hilton during the current promotion. Whenever manufacturing spend on a co-branded credit card costs you more than 0.56 cents per HHonors point, you should simply manufacture cash and buy the discounted points.
On the other hand, when the same dollar in manufactured spend could earn either 6 HHonors points or 3% cash back, you are buying HHonors points for just 0.5 cents each — even cheaper than Hilton is currently selling them.
The thrust of this post is simple: the price you should be willing to pay airline and hotel loyalty programs for their miles and points should not depend on their value. Instead, every purchase decision should depend on whether the total number of miles or points received is more cheaply earned through manufacturing cash back (used to purchase cheap miles or points) or through manufacturing those points directly.
The more lucrative your bonused gas station and grocery store manufactured spend is in cash back terms, the more willing you should be to simply buy miles and points where necessary, rather than forego lucrative cash back opportunities in favor of airline and hotel loyalty currencies.