I haven't written about this lately, so hopefully my long-time readers will indulge me as I dive back into what I find is one of the most under-appreciated risks of travel hacking: the risk of unredeemed points.
Plenty of attention is paid to devaluation risk, which is what you encounter when it takes you too long to earn the points you need for the trip you want to take, and the amount you earn in anticipation of a redemption ends up not being sufficient. This risk does not concern me in the least. Earning more points is the natural condition of the travel hacker, so who cares if every few years you need to pack on a few tens of thousands of points in order to secure the redemption of your dreams?
No, the real risk faced by travel hackers every day isn't earning too few points — it's earning too many points, and finding them unredeemable or redeemable only at much lower value than the redemption they were earned in anticipation of.
It turns out flying to Munich is very cheap
The occasion for me thinking about this subject is my partner's planned intercontinental family reunion in Germany this year, which I figured was the perfect opportunity to prove the value of all those trips to Walmart: with all the transatlantic Star Alliance traffic, it should be a piece of cake to find some premium cabin award space so we can travel there in style and comfort. Since I've got way more Ultimate Rewards points than I'm comfortable with, a quick transfer to United would yield a high-value redemption and take a weight off my mind.
Unfortunately, flying to Munich is very cheap. We can fly there and back, nonstop, on the day of our choosing for $775. That's handily under the $800 US Bank Flexperks redemption threshold, so I can book a nonstop ticket for $400 in Flexpoints.
Meanwhile, two roundtrip award tickets in Lufthansa's business class would cost 280,000 Mileage Plus miles and $212 in taxes and fees, or $1,506 per ticket valuing Ultimate Rewards points at their cash value of 1 cent each.
$1,106 is a lot of money, and $2,212 is even more money, so I'm not going to pay that much to upgrade us to business class on a couple of 8-10 hour flights.
What do you do when this happens over and over again?
There are two potentially competing forces at work here: the drive to earn the most valuable points possible and the drive to redeem the right points for each individual redemption. I say "potentially" competing because in many — hopefully most — cases you'll find they are not: if you primarily travel to cities with Hyatt locations that meet your needs, you'll almost invariably find that cheaply-earned Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Hyatt are one of the best values available.
For example (just because I like examples), in Seattle a night at the Hyatt at Olive 8 costs 15,000 World of Hyatt points ($3,000 in office supply store spend with a Chase Ink Plus) while the Hilton Seattle may cost 70,000 Honors points ($11,667 in bonused spend on a Surpass American Express).
But what happens when "high-value" redemptions like the Lufthansa business award I described above are ruled out over and over again by far cheaper paid tickets booked using fixed-value currencies like Flexpoints?
I stay at a lot of Hyatt properties, and I book them for friends and family every chance I get, and I still have enough World of Hyatt and Ultimate Rewards points for 10 nights at a Category 7 property, or 64(!) nights at a Category 1 property. Having too many points to redeem doesn't feel as acutely painful as having too few points to redeem, but both situations send the same signal: that my system is out of of balance.
I think you should redeem your points for cash, but you won't (and neither will I)
The funniest thing I see on Twitter and in the miles and points blogosphere is people bragging about their points balances, as if having a high balance was a point of pride, rather than an admission of failure.
To state what should be obvious, the best number of miles and points to have in all your accounts is zero: the perfect calibration of your earning and burning activity would leave all of your accounts empty virtually all the time, with all of your earning activity purposefully directed towards particular planned redemptions.
That's impossible, both because the world isn't so tidy and because humans are blessed with foresight: odd numbers of points accumulate here and there as various promotions are triggered, and points are earned in small amounts in anticipation of large future redemptions. Such is life.
But the necessity of living in the world as it actually confronts us is sometimes converted into the false belief that high balances are good in their own right, because they give you "flexibility" for future redemptions or "insurance" against a particular deal or earning opportunity dying.
I understand that one subset of travel hackers is wealthy people who use miles and points as a kind of stunt to save money on the kinds of luxury vacations they'd still take if the game didn't exist.
Above I compared a business class award flight on Lufthansa to a paid economy class flight on United. However, if your alternative to each redemption were payment in cash, the comparison would look very different: the $775 United flight gets you about two cents per point on a Flexperks redemption, while the $1,506 Lufthansa flight gets you over 4 cents per point (for a ticket that would otherwise cost $6,143). There you'd be comparing a "good," or even "great," Ultimate Rewards redemption against a "standard" Flexperks redemption, and you wouldn't be wasting $1,106, but rather saving $4,637 per ticket!
That is, needless to say, not my perspective.