What revealed preferences have taught me about valuing miles and points

One fascination of the miles and points community is "valuing" their loyalty currencies. This should be, in principle, one of the most important aspects of an earning strategy: earn more valuable points before less valuable points is a mantra as obvious as it is useless.

But determining the value of points is vigorously disputed terrain.

Hotel Hustle can tell you the value other people are getting for their hotel points

I love Hotel Hustle, and write about it relatively often. It has two relevant features here: you can plug in your own points valuation and search by "Hustle Hotness:" what percentage of your assigned value you're getting at each property in your search destination.

But additionally, Hotel Hustle will show you the range of values other people using Hotel Hustle have found on their own, real-world searches.

For these purposes I've always like the median value, which has 50% of search results giving more value, and 50% of searches giving less value. So across all the tabulated Hotel Hustle search results, you can see that Hilton HHonors points are worth a median of 0.44 cents each.

That doesn't mean you'll get 0.44 cents per point, but it's a benchmark you can use to evaluate your earning and burning decisions, and it's based on real-world award search results.

Affiliate bloggers make up values depending on which way the wind is blowing

Bankrate.com employee Brian Kelly will tell you each month what cards have the biggest affiliate payouts.

Likewise Thought Leader from Behind Gary Leff will periodically post his updated points valuations.

And of course Rich Weirdo Ben Schlappig has a whole page devoted to valuing miles and points.

Here are the values revealed preferences show for the miles and points I earn

The concept of "revealed preferences" is a powerful one in behavioral economics. Rather than attempting to establish the value of goods in the abstract, or by measuring quanta of pleasure, revealed preferences allow you to determine a good's value to the consumer by the price they're actually willing to pay for it. Revolutionary, right?

So here are the values I actually put on my miles and points, determined strictly by what I do, in fact, pay for them each month:

  • 1.4 SkyMiles are worth about 2 cents. When buying cheap, PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards at unbonused merchants, I split my purchases between my American Express Delta SkyMiles Platinum Business card and my 2% and 2.105% cash back cards. My indifference between earning 1.4 SkyMiles and 2% cash back means I value SkyMiles at about 1.43 cents each.
  • 6 Hilton HHonors points are worth up to 4 cents in airfare. I only have a single local grocery store that sells PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards, and I can choose between using my American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card or my US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card. I use my Surpass card, valuing each HHonors point at up to 0.67 cents in paid airfare.
  • 2 Ultimate Rewards points are worth slightly less than up to 4 cents in airfare. As above, I have a single local merchant that codes as a gas station and sells PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards. I could use either my Chase Ink Plus or my US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card for purchases there, but lean towards the Flexperks card, valuing an Ultimate Rewards point at slightly less than up to 2 cents in paid airfare.

Conclusion: my values aren't yours

My situation is unique, as is yours. I travel all the time, and am dedicated to keeping my rewards balances as low as possible, meaning I'm not stockpiling millions of any one currency. Instead, I'm redeeming miles and points roughly as quickly as I redeem them, giving me lots of "gut-check" opportunities to see whether I'm getting enough value from my rewards currencies to justify earning more of them.

For example, in January I had decided to cancel my American Express Delta SkyMiles Business Platinum card, when a health emergency in the family caused me to redeem most of my SkyMiles balance at a value of over 5 cents per SkyMile. With an empty SkyMiles account, and the possibility of future urgent travel, I decided it made more sense to keep the card and pay 1.43 cents per SkyMile again this year.

Likewise, just this week I redeemed 20,000 US Bank Flexpoints for a first class flight that otherwise would have cost $343. Alternatively, I could have redeemed 27,440 Ultimate Rewards points (at 1.25 cents each), making me feel fantastic about earning 2 Flexpoints per dollar instead of 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar at my local gas station.