Last week I joined Joe Cheung for a recording of the Saverocity Observation Deck [edit: now available for listening!] and among the many subjects we touched on was the idea of the "most valuable" loyalty currency. I pointed out that affiliate bloggers are forced by their business model to argue that Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints are worth at least 2 cents each because Starpoints can only be earned in any volume through the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards, which earn 1 Starpoint per dollar spent.
If Starpoints were worth any less than 2 cents each, it would be impossible to promote the card to unsuspecting customers, since there are no-annual-fee cards that offer 2% cash back on all purchases.
A few illustrative examples of this Starpoint value game:
- Bankrate Employee Brian Kelly: 2.5 cents
- Rich Weirdo Ben Schlappig: 2.2 cents
- Thought Leader from Behind Gary Leff: 2.3 cents
If you're curious, Hotel Hustle pegs the median value of Starpoints redeemed for hotel stays at 1.849 cents each.
The fact is, the impulse to identify a "single best" or "most valuable" rewards currency is fundamentally misguided: the most valuable rewards currency may not be the single best rewards currency — and vice versa!
Three "single best" rewards currencies
Knowing everything you know about loyalty programs and travel hacking, what credit card would you sign up for if it you had to pick just one? I think these are three reasonable choices (feel free to suggest others in the comments):
- If you have access to unlimited grocery store or gas station manufactured spend, the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa earns "up to" 4% on airfare and up to 3% on hotel stays, and charitable spend earns "up to" 6% and 4.5%.
- If you have access to unlimited unbonused manufactured spend, the Amex EveryDay Preferred offers 1.5 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere.
- And if you have access to unlimited unbonused manufactured spend, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards earn 1 Starpoint per dollar spent everywhere.
The Flexperks Travel Rewards card has obvious advantages: a high earning rate and the ability to redeem your points on any flight and at any hotel means you're unlikely to experience orphaned points or be unexpectedly forced to pay cash for travel.
The Amex EveryDay Preferred isn't of much use when redeeming for paid flights or hotels, since Membership Rewards points can be redeemed for just one cent each towards those reservations. On the other hand, British Airways Avios transfers (1000 Membership Rewards point for 800 Avios, for an earning rate of 1.2 Avios per dollar spend everywhere) give access to high-value American Airlines and oneworld reservations, and both Delta SkyMiles (Skyteam) and Air Canada Aeroplan (Star Alliance) are Membership Rewards transfer partners at a 1000:1000 transfer ratio. Even transfers to Hilton HHonors would be worthwhile at redemption values above 0.44 cents, after taxes, thanks to the 1000:1500 transfer ratio, since at that rate you'll be better off booking with transferred Hilton points than directly with Membership Rewards points.
The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express cards allow you to earn Starpoints, which can be valuable for hotel stays if you frequently stay in cities with Starwood Preferred Guest properties. They also give you access to American Airlines AAdvantage miles, Air Canada Aeroplan miles, and Delta SkyMiles at a 1:1.25 transfer ratio when you transfer Starpoints in multiples of 20,000. Finally, the SPG Flights award allows you to book paid flights at valuations of between 1 and 1.4 cents per Starpoint.
"Single" is doing all the work in this analysis
At this point the game I'm playing should be clear: no travel hacker should have just one of the three cards described above, because having just one credit card makes travel hacking nearly impossible!
- A Starwood Preferred Guest credit card is great for Starwood stays, but it's a lousy way to pay for flights, leaving you to pay cash for all of your non-award flights and all of your non-Starwood hotel stays.
- An Amex EveryDay Preferred card is great for earning 27,000 Membership Rewards points per calendar year at grocery stores, but it's a lousy way to build up the balances you need to book a whole year's worth of travel with unbonused spend.
- A Flexperks Travel Rewards card is great for booking paid domestic flights, but lousy for booking premium-cabin international flights or expensive hotel stays.
Earn the "best" currency for the job
In the above analysis I completely excluded my favorite travel hacking tool, the Chase Ink Plus. Why? Because it's almost useless without access to other, complementary tools. It's true that it helps you purchase Ultimate Rewards points at 0.59 cents each, and allows you to redeem them for 1.25 cents each, or a 52.4% discount off retail.
But a 2% cash back card, used to manufacture unbonused spend, generates virtually the same discount off retail, and gives you the flexibility to spend your rebate on things besides travel, as well.
Meanwhile, the vaunted transferability of Ultimate Rewards points means you can book Hyatt stays with ease, but under virtually no circumstances are Marriott Rewards or IHG Rewards points worth 1.25 cents each, leaving you to book full-price stays without even earning rewards or triggering hotel promotions. Long-haul premium-cabin United awards may cost less with Ultimate Rewards transfers, but you'll give it all back booking full-price domestic economy awards.
Putting together a travel hacking strategy should be as holistic a process as possible, and trying to decide in advance which rewards currencies is "most valuable" is likely to sabotage that process. Over the course of a year you may need to take into account all sorts of conditions:
- if you're trying to qualify or requalify for Hyatt Diamond status, you might want to book Points + Cash awards, which may require a flexible Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card for the points portion, plus a co-payment with cash or a Hyatt gift card;
- if you have access to grocery store manufactured spend, you may be able to pay for your hotel stays more cheaply with a Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express card than with a Flexperks Travel Rewards card (the Hotel Hustle median value of HHonors points is 0.448 cents each);
- if you book deeply-discounted or weekend leisure travel, you may not be able to qualify for airline elite status without triggering an elite-qualifying dollar waiver using a co-branded credit card.
Never lose sight of the ultimate purpose of travel hacking: to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take. The "most valuable" currency you earn isn't the "best" currency unless it helps you pay for those trips more cheaply than you could otherwise.
A real travel hacking strategy can be mostly indifferent to the supposedly objective "value" of any given currency. Ultimate Rewards points are "worth" 1.25 cents each when redeemed for paid flights with an Ink Plus or Sapphire Preferred, and 1.5 cents each with a Sapphire Reserve, but can be worth two or three times that when redeemed for Hyatt stays, Southwest flights with a companion pass, or United or Flying Blue award tickets. Delta SkyMiles are "worth" 1 cent each when redeemed for "Pay with Miles" tickets, but far more when deployed strategically for high-value redemptions.
When you are just getting started in the game, it really does make sense to pick one card to focus on — a 2% cash back card! That's not because 2% cash back is the most you can hope to earn in this game, but because until you thoroughly understand the parameters of the game, any "single best" credit card is virtually guaranteed to leave you worse off than that 2% cash back card will.