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The airline mileage game is not what it used to be.
In 2015, Delta removed their award charts so that they could change what they charge on a whim and use dynamic pricing to take away outsized values that could be had with miles.
It took a few years to copy, but United killed their award charts in 2019 and their partner award charts in 2020. To United’s credit, they continue to offer saver awards based on their hidden award chart. When awards price at or less than the regular saver rate, United still calls them saver awards and makes them available to partner airlines.
And now American is looking to ditch their award charts. That started that process when they ditched their excellent old award search functionality for their awful new award search platform. Their web special pricing doesn’t allow changes, only cancellations. And their web special priced awards aren’t available for partner airlines. Expect award rates to fluctuate even more than before when the award charts are killed.
That’s not to say you can’t get some amazing values from airline miles. But it’s become increasingly difficult.
There is little reason to spend money on airline or hotel cards as you lock yourself into a currency that can be devalued at will. Those cards are fine to open for a generous signup bonus or for benefits like free bags and the like, but be wary of spending on them to accumulate miles.
“Hybrid” cards that offer the trifecta of the ability to cash out points at a valuable level, the ability to redeem points for travel at a valuable level, and the ability to transfer points to miles are where you want to focus your earning. That way if mileage options are lucrative, you can transfer points into miles. If mileage options aren’t lucrative you can always cash out and use that cash to pay for a trip, or you can book a trip directly with the card.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Preferred, and Sapphire Reserve each give the ability to do all of those things. You can cash out your points by paying yourself back for select purchases at a rate of 1.25-1.5 cents per point. You can use points for paid travel at a rate of 1.25-1.5 cents per point. And when it’s worthwhile (see this post for examples) you can transfer points on demand to airline miles or hotel points. You can also take advantage of a Quinfecta strategy to earn between 1.5-5 points per dollar everywhere, which means you can get 2.25%-10% back on all of your purchases. Played expertly, it’s tough to beat the Chase ecosystem, though arguments can be made not to put all your eggs in one basket. And incredible signup bonuses, like 100,000 points for spending $4,000 on Sapphire Preferred, are just the icing on the cake.
Other banks also have killer combos, though they’re not quite as well rounded as Chase is with redemption options, cash out options, and valuable transfer partners.
The Citi Double Cash Card allows you to earn 2 points per dollar which can be cashed out for 2% cash back. But it’s better than other 2% cash back cards as it has the hybrid ability to transfer points to airline miles if you also have a Citi Premier card, effectively earning at least 2 miles per dollar spent. If you also have a Citi Rewards+ Card you’ll get 10% of your points rebated back to you. If you have all 3 cards you can cash out points to get 2.2% cash back. You can throw in a Citi Custom Cash Card to earn 5 points per dollar on the categories where you spend the most each month.
The Capital One Venture Card allows you to earn 2 miles per dollar spent and you don’t need multiple cards to make its points valuable. You can redeem points against travel for 2% cash back or you can transfer on demand to airline miles, effectively earning 2 miles per dollar spent. Plus you can currently earn 100,000 points with the card.
The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express earns 2 points per dollar spent and can transfer points into miles. If you also have The Business Platinum Card® from American Express you can redeem points for 1.54 cents each towards paid airfare on the airline of your choice in coach or on any airline in business or first class, for an effective 3.08% back on everything towards paid travel. Plus you can have cards like the American Express® Gold Card that offers 4 points per dollar on dining and groceries or The Platinum Card® from American Express which offers 5 points per dollar on airfare.
Airlines devalue miles at their own peril and risk killing the golden goose. What made the miles game work so well was airlines giving aspirational awards for bargain rates on seats that they projected would go unsold. But as they get rid of award charts and outsized values, people will learn to stop investing in their programs. Airlines earn billions from people spending on their credit cards. However as people move to use cards that can be used for miles on demand or for paid travel or cash redemptions, they won’t be held hostage to the airline devaluation of the day.
More flexibility and more value? Added benefits instead of devaluations? What’s not to love about cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, and other cards that put consumers back in the driver’s seat?
What card combos do you find yourself using to get the most out of your spending?