One fun thing about writing a blog is that reader feedback gives you a chance to see how different ideas interact and collide. Last Friday when I wrote "While I'm willing to take unlimited risk in my investment portfolio, I'm willing to take virtually no risk in my travel hacking portfolio," reader Danny commented:
"This seems like an interesting sentiment. I'd be far more concerned with keeping my investments sound than my points balance."
Then on Monday I wrote with respect to my findings on Hilton all-inclusive award pricing that:
"If points costs will fall to match low revenue rates, it is easier to justify earning large quantities of Hilton points knowing that you'll almost always get close to, or above, their imputed redemption value."
I've been thinking about these two ideas, risk and reliability, and how they interact in my travel hacking practice.
Devaluations are the big, unknown risk
For several years, the US Bank Club Carlson credit card offered the last night free on all award stays. Now, this benefit was never quite as good as it was cracked up to be since Club Carlson properties, even or perhaps especially high-end Club Carlson properties, are dumps (true story: months after the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel Philadelphia finished their renovations to not be a dump any longer they left the program).
Many people, expecting that benefit to continue indefinitely, earned hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Club Carlson Gold Points (trust me — many of them are readers of this blog).
Then the last-night-free benefit ended, and those points could only be redeemed at still-crappy Club Carlson properties. The same spend that earned those millions of points could have been used to earn 2% cash back, unbonused Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points, or another rewards currency.
That's the kind of risk that I do my best to avoid in my travel hacking practice, by earning the rewards I redeem and redeeming the rewards I earn.
Reliability is the certainty of being able to redeem rewards for the trips you want to take
Reliability is something slightly different than risk. A reliable program offers consistent redemption values, whether or not that value is high or low, attractive or repulsive.
For example, according to Hotel Hustle, the IHG Rewards Club offers quite remarkable consistency, with a median value of 0.58 cents per point, with 75% of award searches above 0.44 cents per point and 75% of awards below 0.68 cents per point. That doesn't make it attractive to manufacture IHG Rewards points, but it gives you a clear view of the value of any points you might earn in one of their periodic sweepstakes or promotions.
My top ten loyalty programs, by reliability
Whether a particular rewards currency is "worth earning" depends on both your cost of acquisition and your particular travel plans, so this is not a list of the top ten most valuable loyalty programs. It's only a list of the top ten rewards programs sorted by my view of their reliability.
- Cash. Cash has the great benefit of maintaining its dollar redemption value no matter what happens. It is, in that way, the most reliable rewards currency. Into this category also falls the fixed-value redemption of currencies like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and other rewards programs with fixed values, like Delta SkyMiles Pay with Points redemptions. Their reliability is unimpeachable.
- IHG Rewards anniversary free night certificates. In the several years I've been travel hacking, I've never seen an IHG property that I would be willing to transfer points, buy points, or manufacture points in order to book. But they really do have a Chase IHG Rewards credit card that gives you an annual award night at any IHG Rewards property in the world! I've never seen a report of the certificate not being honored for any reason, except the chain's preposterously loose rules on award availability. As far as I can tell the thing is completely reliable. Compare that to Marriott's anniversary night certificates, which have become almost unredeemable as properties continually migrate up out of Category 4.
- Flexible Ultimate Rewards. Chase Ultimate Rewards points held in a Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus account are more valuable than cash but slightly less reliable, since their value depends in part on the value of transferred points. One component of the value of a flexible Ultimate Rewards point is the value of one United Mileage Plus mile, but the value of a United Mileage Plus mile is highly volatile, so that portion of the value of an Ultimate Rewards point is also volatile. Nonetheless, Chase strongly supports the 1:1 transfer ratio of Ultimate Rewards points to their partners, so the reliability of the program overall is raised by the relative constancy of programs like World of Hyatt and Southwest Rapid Rewards.
- US Bank Flexpoints. Long-time readers know I love the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa because of its generous bonused earning categories, but the process of redeeming Flexpoints introduces some unreliability into the system. Flights will sometimes be shown with odd fare differences which push them into a higher redemption band, for example. Nonetheless, the ability to redeem Flexpoints for between 1.33 and 2 cents per Flexpoint makes them one of the most reliable currencies around.
- Flexible Membership Rewards. Here the problem of transfer partner volatility is magnified by the eclectic range of partners Membership Rewards has. For example, in 2015 the transfer ratio to British Airways Avios dropped 20%, from 1000:1000 to 1000:800. Then in 2016 British Airways created a special exception to their distance-based award chart in order to charge between 33% (off-peak) and 60% (peak) more for business class flights between Boston and Dublin on Aer Lingus. Today, you may need to transfer 75,000 Membership Rewards points to Avios to pay for a flight that would have cost 37,500 Membership Rewards points before the two devaluations. This doesn't mean that Membership Rewards points themselves have radically decreased in value (how often do you fly between Boston and Dublin?), but the example illustrates the way in which their reliance on transfer partners for value introduces a lot of volatility into the value of their rewards currency, since they don't control their partners' award redemption rates.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards. Unlike a true fixed-value currency, Southwest Rapid Rewards points have fixed values only within each fare bucket: Wanna Get Away (between 1.4 and 1.6 cents), Anytime (about 1.1 cents), and Business Select (about 0.9 cents). That means that while you know you'll get one of those three values, which one you get depends on availability, reducing in my view the overall reliability of the program. Southwest enthusiasts avoid this problem by carefully watching the schedule and snapping up Wanna Get Away fares as soon as they become available, increasing the overall reliability of the program for them, at least for flights booked far enough in advance.
- World of Hyatt. According to the Hotel Hustle database of search results, the lowest value redemption at Hyatt properties is 0.91 cents per point (the median is 1.78 cents). If my Chase accounts were abruptly closed and I had to speculative transfer my entire Ultimate Rewards balance, I would choose World of Hyatt in a heartbeat. Hyatt doesn't have properties everywhere in the world, which makes it hard to rely on as a first-string hotel rewards program, but if there's a Hyatt in your destination you're exceedingly likely to get a good redemption value.
- Starwood Preferred Guest. Starwood has three different sources of value: their points can be redeemed for hotel stays at Starwood and Marriott, they can be transferred to airlines partners (either directly or through a Marriott Hotel + Air package), or they can be redeemed for revenue flights. That makes it almost impossible to get a bad value for your Starpoints, although it also causes the much more serious and common problem of hoarding Starpoints and being unwilling to redeem them for anything but the perfect redemption!
- Hilton Honors. As I've been discussing lately, the biggest effect of the recent changes to Hilton Honors is that they've apparently deliberately increased the reliability of the program. While there will always be sub-par redemptions in any non-fixed-value loyalty program, Hilton appears to have increased the number of properties where points redemptions make sense compared to paying cash rates.
- Legacy airline programs. I got into travel hacking at the very tail end of the period when, with flexibility and planning, it was still possible to fairly reliably book low-level domestic award tickets. Those days are over. Virtually all of my domestic travel today, in both economy and first class, are revenue tickets, not because revenue tickets have become cheaper but because award tickets have become completely unreliable as a means of booking domestic travel. International travel, especially on partners, hasn't seen quite as bad a gutting, and flexibility and planning still go a long way to booking flights overseas. Having access to legacy airline currencies through Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Starpoints is still a reasonable tactic in case you happen to find award availability, but I don't think it can be the cornerstone of a strategy any longer.
There you have it, my completely subjective top ten ranking of rewards programs by reliability. This is certainly not the only ranking possible: those whose travel regularly brings them to expensive cities with Starwood properties will find they're able to get consistent value from Starwood Preferred Guest, and those who live in cities with many international partner airlines will likely get more consistent value from legacy airline programs than I do. But today, a combination of cash back, Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards, and one or two strong hotel programs seems most likely to help you pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.