In Wednesday's post about passing on the current IHG Rewards point sale, I mentioned that it's not enough to get good absolute value from a points redemption if you're not also getting good value relative to other redemption options. I think a lot of people understand this idea intuitively, but since it's central to my travel hacking practice, I want to spell it out in more detail.
Absolute value matters if you don't have choices
If you're constrained in your choice of hotels, airlines, or routes, then you are perfectly justified in thinking about the absolute redemption value of your points. A classic example would be a wedding or conference where you're expected to stay in a particular hotel. If the conference rate is $300 per night, and you're able to book it for 30,000 points instead, you know for a fact you're getting 1 cent per point in value.
You still have to make a choice though: is 1 cent per point a good redemption value or a bad redemption value? If you're redeeming a currency that's otherwise redeemable for cash at one cent each, like Ultimate Rewards points, then it's a bad value, since the paid rate will earn a larger rebate than the redemption. If you're redeeming a currency you paid much less than one per point for, then it might be a good value, since you're realizing a discount off a stay you'd otherwise have to pay cash for.
Relative value matters if you get to choose
In Madison, Wisconsin, there are there chain hotels more or less equidistant from the Capitol:
- Hilton Madison Monona Terrace
- Hyatt Place Madison/Downtown
- AC Hotel Madison Downtown
On a random upcoming Wednesday night, the lowest available rates are quite close:
- Hilton: $144.53
- Hyatt: $148.01
- AC Hotel: $162.86
If you were paying cash, you'd book the Hilton and call it a life. Meanwhile, the cost in points is all over the place (as you'd expect since they're different currencies). Here are those costs, and the redemption value compared to our fallback option of paying $144.53 at the Hilton:
- Hilton: 36,000, 0.4 cents per point
- Hyatt: 8,000, 1.8 cents per point
- AC Hotel (Marriott): 25,000, 0.58 cents per point
These are all well within the normal range of redemption values for these currencies. But in order to determine the highest relative value, we need another piece of information: the cost we paid for the currency in question.
If you earn Hilton Honors points through grocery store manufactured spend, you earn 6 points per dollar spent, instead of 2 US Bank Flexpoints (worth 3 cents towards travel redemptions) with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card or 2 Membership Rewards points with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card. Meanwhile, if your best method of earning Hyatt and Marriott points is transfers from a flexible Ultimate Rewards account like the Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Plus or Ink Preferred, then you're effectively paying one cent each for those points — the value of Ultimate Rewards points when redeemed for cash.
The best relative value is therefore the Hyatt redemption: paying the equivalent of $80 for $144.53 in value is better than paying $180 (Hilton) or $250 (Marriott).
Alternative: availability-weighted relative value
The above methodology is appropriate for someone with access to plentiful manufactured spend and plentiful travel, which is sometimes treated as the "default" mode for travel hackers.
But of course that describes relatively few people in the real world. Far more common are business travelers who passively accrue points balances on their employer's dime, and casual travelers who discover they've accidentally accumulated a substantial balance in one or more loyalty accounts.
In those cases, I think the relative value calculations I described are almost useless, and it's better to use what you might call "availability-weighted" relative value: if Marriott Rewards points are the points you happen to have because your workplace has a contract with Marriott, you should redeem them more aggressively than a strict relative value calculation would suggest.
This is equally true of travel hackers who refuse to redeem points for anything less than their "optimal" value. If you have a large Hilton balance and a low Ultimate Rewards balance, it makes perfect sense to make a weak redemption at the Hilton instead of a good redemption at the Hyatt. That's what I mean by "availability-weighting" relative value.
If this is your strategy, remember you'll also want to normalize your balances for your typical redemption size. If you have 300,000 Hilton Honors points, 300,000 Hyatt points, and 300,000 Marriott points, which currency do you have "more" of? The obvious answer is Hyatt, where redemptions top out at 30,000 points, then Marriott (70,000), then Hilton (95,000+). However, those answers might be flipped if you have particular properties, and particular values, you typically redeem each currency at.
There is so much fuzzy thinking about the value of different loyalty currencies that I usually ignore people trying to nail down the precise value of this or that program, although I liked the Wandering Aramean Hotel Hustle "average point values" feature back when it was functional, mainly because it confirmed my intuitions.
Instead, I find it simpler to work forward from cost rather than backward from value. I know how much I pay for the loyalty currencies I earn, so for a given trip, I try to find the redemptions that cost the least in foregone value, while also taking into account which currencies I have the most of and therefore are most in need of redemption.
Just remember: your least valuable point will always be the one you don't redeem.