Another day, another devaluation.
Yesterday American Airlines announced the changes they'll be making to the AAdvantage program next year. You've likely already read all about them, but in summary, they are:
- Revenue-based mileage earning (beginning in "the second half of 2016");
- Award chart devaluation (effective March 22, 2016);
- Elite status devaluation (effective for qualification after January 1, 2016).
Since I credit my paid American flights to Alaska, I don't care much about the first or third points. But the award chart devaluation is real and, for premium cabin redemptions, significant.
Premium cabin awards are not cheap or easy
With yesterday's announcement, American Airlines joined Delta and United in raising mileage prices for premium cabin awards, in some cases astronomically. For example, a first class award seat on a 3-cabin aircraft to Sydney from the continental United States will cost 110,000 AAdvantage miles starting March 22, 2016, up from the 72,500 miles it currently costs, a 52% increase.
Of course, that's purely academic. There are no first class award seats between the continental United States and Sydney.
Yes, if you're flexible, if you're searching far in advance, close-in, and on every single day in between, you might be able to find one or two seats during the Southern winter. But don't hold your breath.
Premium cabin seats are (not that) expensive
For a lot of people, "travel hacking" is synonymous with "loyalty program hacking." And indeed, historically the loyalty programs operated by hotels and airlines have been a great source of outsized value for people willing to dedicate the time and attention to maximizing the value of their miles and points.
But those airline award seats we hunt down so diligently are also available on the open market! Believe it or not, the airlines just sell them. Of course, in exchange for the flexibility buying revenue tickets grants, you're going to pay a little more.
Or a lot more. That 220,000-mile roundtrip first class award ticket American promised you might cost $10,000 or $15,000 if you choose the flexibility of a revenue ticket.
Well, it might cost someone $15,000. But it doesn't have to cost you $15,000, because you're a travel hacker.
The revenue premium may be smaller than you think
A $15,000 first class flight to Sydney will give about 6.8 cents per AAdvantage mile in value after the March 22 devaluation (if you could find first class award space).
Since the Citi Prestige card allows you to redeem ThankYou points for 1.6 cents each on American-marketed flights, you'd need about 938,000 ThankYou points to purchase your first class revenue ticket. That's a lot of points, but the ThankYou Premier card earns 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent at gas stations, so you'd only need to manufacture $312,666 in gas station spend to make your redemption. That's obviously not something you'll be able to do in a weekend, but it might be a reasonable goal if spread out over a year or two.
Since the Citi and Barclaycard AAdvantage co-branded credit cards earn just one mile per dollar spent everywhere, you'd need to manufacture $220,000 on those cards to make your first class award redemption. In other words, the revenue premium — the additional manufactured spend required to book any seat on any flight — in this case is about 42%.
The $15,000 flight has the additional advantage of earning an Executive Platinum 165,000 AAdvantage miles, enough for another roundtrip to Sydney (albeit in business class instead of first).
Most people aren't going to manufacture enough spend to pay what American is asking for a first class ticket to Australia. Those who do probably don't value a first class ticket to Australia at $15,000, and would rather redeem their fixed-value points for the domestic economy flights they'd book anyway. That's a perfectly reasonable point of view.
The point I want to make is that while I sometimes say that cash is a superior earning choice for manufactured spend unless you have a particular, high-value redemption in mind, it may be a superior earning choice even if you do have a particular, high-value redemption in mind!
In other words, it's not enough to say that an award redemption will get you more value per dollar in manufactured spend than earning a currency like Ultimate Rewards (1.25 cents per point), Flexpoints (up to 2 cents per point, redeemed in tiers), Membership Rewards (1.43 cents per point with the American Express Business Platinum), or ThankYou points. You also have to be willing to redeem your loyalty currencies exclusively on the dates, flights, and times that the airlines choose to make award seats available, and put the time into learning the intricacies of each alliance and each airline.
If you don't find that fun or interesting, you may well be better off saving your time and paying the revenue premium instead.