Starting from scratch: airline tickets

Travel hacking is an iterative game: the options you have available today are restricted by the decisions you made in the past. That's one reason I avoid giving advice whenever possible: your situation is different from mine, not just depending on the merchants you have available geographically, but also depending on which banks you have relationships with, which products you've already had or lost, and the amount of time you have available to dedicate to the game.

Having said that, I do sometimes think about how I would design a travel hacking strategy from scratch: with a blank slate, what approach would I take to the loyalty ecosystem to get the most value for my travel hacking dollar?

Today's post is about how I would approach booking airline tickets if I were starting from scratch. Tomorrow's will be about hotel stays.

Revenue versus award

Starting from scratch, there's a basic decision you have to make about how to pay for the flights you're responsible for securing each year: will you book revenue tickets or award tickets? Once you're deeply involved in the game you may have large balances across a range of programs you can deploy for their optimal uses. But when you're just getting started, it's much easier to focus on this stark choice.

When booking revenue tickets, you'll usually get a fixed return on your travel hacking dollar, or one that falls in a relatively narrow band: US Bank Flexpoints are worth 1.33 to 2 cents each, Chase Ultimate Rewards points in a premium (Ink Plus or Sapphire Preferred) account are worth a fixed 1.25 cents each, and Citi ThankYou points are worth between 1.25 cents and 1.6 cents depending on whether you have a Premier or Prestige card, and the airline marketing the flight.

When booking award tickets, there's no such band of values: points can range in value from a fraction of a penny up to 10 cents or so depending both on the cash price of the flight and the number of miles required to book it.

Note that neither of these options is any more or less "free" than the other. Since you should be manufacturing spend furiously, you're paying acquisition and liquidation fees for whichever currency you happen to choose. The only question is which strategy will bring the cost of your travel down the most.

Revenue tickets are cheap

On the revenue side, there are lots of good options depending on your situation:

  • Citi ThankYou Premier. A fixed 3.75 cents in airfare per dollar spent at gas stations. At $5.75 in "all-in" cost for $505 in spend, a 69.6% discount off retail.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Up to 4 cents in airfare per dollar spent at grocery stores or gas stations (wherever you spend more each month). At $6.30 in "all-in" cost for $506 in spend, an "up to" 68.9% discount off retail.
  • BankAmericard Travel Rewards. For those with $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and MerrillEdge, a fixed 2.625 cents in airfare per dollar spent everywhere. At $4.30 in "all-in" cost for $504 in spend, a 67.5% discount off retail.
  • Chase Ink Plus. For small business owners, a fixed 6.25 cents in airfare per dollar spent at office supply stores (and 2.5 cents per dollar spent at gas stations). At $9.18 in "all-in" cost for $309 in office supply spend, a 52.5% discount off retail.

When I say "depending on your situation," I mean to draw attention to the fact that you when starting from scratch, you shouldn't pursue all four options! If you don't have access to gas station manufactured spend, the Citi ThankYou Premier won't work for you. If you don't have access to grocery store manufactured spend, the Flexperks Travel Rewards card isn't for you. If you don't have access to $100,000, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card won't give you the same value it will someone who does. And if you don't own a small business, Chase probably won't give you an Ink Plus.

Award tickets are cheap and (can be) hedged

On the award side, the picture looks radically different. Three of the four major domestic airlines offer some form of "last-seat" availability on their own flights: Delta, American, and Alaska will sell almost any seat on almost any date for some number of miles, while United reserves last-seat "standard" availability to their co-branded Chase credit cardholders. Thus there are three pots airline rewards currencies fall into:

  • Delta. When starting from scratch, there are two main ways into the Delta ecosystem: their own co-branded credit cards, and American Express Membership Rewards co-branded credit cards. Unfortunately, neither of them is cheap. The American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards offer 1.4 (Platinum) and 1.5 (Reserve) SkyMiles per dollar spent everywhere when you spend exactly $25,000 (Platinum) and $30,000 (Reserve) and $50,000 (Platinum) and $60,000 (Reserve) each calendar year. But the Delta Platinum card costs $195 per year and the Reserve $450 per year! Meanwhile, the American Express Premier Rewards Gold costs $175 per year and earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations and supermarkets. Those points can then be transferred to Delta on a 1-to-1 basis. Moreover, Membership Rewards points let you hedge your downside risk: if a particular Delta award redemption gives you less than 1 cent per Membership Rewards point, you can book it as a revenue ticket. If it gives you more than 1 cent per point, you can book it as an award ticket.
  • Alaska and American. Advanced travel hackers muck about with applying for Alaska and American co-branded credit cards over and over again at various intervals. But when starting from scratch, there's a simple way into both ecosystems at the same time: with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. When transferred to either Alaska or American, the card earns 1.25 miles per dollar spent everywhere, which is higher than the amount you can earn directly with either airline's co-branded credit card. Like Membership Rewards points, Starwood Preferred Guest also offers a hedged downside risk, since you can redeem their points for between 1 and 1.43 cents per point for revenue tickets using "SPG Flights."
  • United. If you're able to make United your main airline, then you'll never do better than with a Chase Ink Plus small business credit card, because of its bonused earning rate at office supply stores and 1-to-1 transfer ratio to United MileagePlus. But if you can't get a small business credit card, then you have some hard decisions to make. You could get a Chase Freedom Unlimited, which earns 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points everywhere, and a Chase Sapphire Preferred, which enables the transfer of Ultimate Rewards points to United, but that combination comes with a $95 annual fee. Alternatively, a Chase United MileagePlus Club card earns 1.5 United miles on all purchases but has a $450 annual fee. That's the kind of up-front expense that's not precisely crazy, but needs to be well-justified before taking it on.

Your situation should drive your decision between revenue and award tickets

As I mentioned, I try not to give advice.

Your situation is different from mine: your award availability, typical revenue flight prices, and airline service have nothing to do with mine.

But in my experience, for many people, much of the time, a focus on revenue tickets will generate bigger savings than a focus on award tickets, and if I were starting from scratch, that's where I'd start.

Fortunately, you don't need to take my word for it: all the numbers are above. Look at your own travel needs and it should quickly become obvious whether revenue flights or award flights will generate more value for your travel hacking dollar.

Tomorrow, I'll take the same approach to hotels: starting from scratch, are award nights really cheaper than just paying for your hotel stays?