Why I insist on pedantically comparing award redemptions to cash

In the comments to last Wednesday's post, reader Paul Wellington made a great comment, which read in part:

"this sort of redemption nerd logic makes me chuckle and misses the forest for the trees. You have zero interest in paying for it. So who cares what promotion they're running that nominally reduces the value of your redemption? Absolutely irrelevant. Your focus should be on 1) free 2) quality of amenity/experience. What do you care if the cash payers are getting a small break if you're still getting the same package of goods with points? Obviously, this is an elastic concept - at a certain price point, you'll happily pay cash instead of give up valuable points, but it's nowhere near that sweet spot."

I responded to Paul there, but I think he makes a couple very interesting points I want to address in slightly more depth.

There are (at least) three "costs" that matter when evaluating a redemption

There are two different ways to judge a redemption — and they may produce conflicting results:

  • How much did the points cost to acquire? If you manufacture spend, you can add up all the fees you paid to earn the earn the required number of points, and end up will a total out-of-pocket cost. For example, if you buy $300 Visa gift cards from Staples, you may pay 0.59 cents per Ultimate Rewards point, so a 30,000-point Hyatt Gold Passport stay will cost $177 in out-of-pocket fees (although the correct point of comparison is the $300 in cash you could redeem the same 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points for).
  • How much could you have earned manufacturing the same spend on a cashback-earning credit card? This value is what I call the "imputed redemption value" or opportunity cost of a redemption. If you buy PIN-enabled Visa gift cards at an unbonused merchant with a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card, a 50,000-point redemption will cost you the $1,000 you could have earned manufacturing the same spend on a 2% cash back credit card.

Once you know those two costs, you can compare them to the retail cost of the award redemption or (my preferred metric) the cost of the hotel you'd stay in or ticket you'd buy if you didn't have access to loyalty currencies.

There are logically three places that price may fall:

  • The hotel may be cheaper than the price you paid for the required points. A 50,000-point Marriott room night might be selling for $250. If you transferred in 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points, you're paying $250 more than you would if you just redeemed your Ultimate Rewards points for cash and booked a paid stay!
  • The hotel may be more expensive than the price you pay for the required points, but cheaper than the imputed redemption value. Since I buy my HHonors points for about 0.22 cents each, but they have an imputed redemption value of 0.35 cents each, hotel redemptions falling in that range save me money compared to paying cash, but cost me money compared to manufacturing spend on a cashback-earning credit card instead of on my American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card.
  • The hotel may be more expensive than the imputed redemption value. This is what you should generally think of as a "good" redemption: you're earning more value manufacturing spend on your co-branded credit card than you would have putting the same spend on a cashback-earning credit card.

Direct your spend to the cards that generate the most consistent value

Now, Paul is exactly correct that I have zero interest in paying cash for my stays. Since the least valuable point is always the one you don't redeem, I'll happily, eagerly, ecstatically redeem points at a mediocre or bad value rather than pay cash.

But if, over time, one loyalty currency affords me less and less value compared to earning cash instead, I'll shift my earning away from that currency towards cash or another, more consistently-valuable one.

But it's only possible to make those longterm strategic calculations if you also make sure to conscientiously track the value you get when redeeming your miles and points! That can seem pedantic, but only because the conventional wisdom about the value of manufacturing spend on hotel co-branded credit cards is roughly correct (Starwood, Hilton, and Wyndham are pretty good, the others are very bad).

If hotel occupancy rates stay high, and programs continue to devalue, their currencies will edge closer and closer to the breakeven point, and even programs like Hyatt Gold Passport will stop generating consistently outsized value. If you don't know how to calculate the value you're getting from your points, you're at risk of being left behind as those shifts take place.