How to Decide Which Points to Earn: It Depends on What Points You Already Have

We can assign a value to miles and points, call a point worth 1.5 cents or 1.8 cents, but that’s only a small part of the story. That doesn’t actually say what miles are most valuable to you, at any given time. The value of a mile will change based on what you’re going to do with it, and also based on how much of a given currency you already have.

  1. Know your reward goals. It helps to know what you want to do with miles in deciding which miles are right for you. If you’re going to Australia, it’s hard to beat Delta miles (with their Virgin Australia partnership, plus Asian airline partnerships where you are allowed to transit and even stopover in Asia enroute). If you’re going to South America, American miles are great. For Asia, American and United (or other Star Alliance) miles. For Europe, Star Alliance (and especially in my opinion Avianca miles, if you live in a hub city).

  2. Earn enough points for an award ticket. Focus on a single program when you can until you have enough miles for an award in that program.

  3. Earn a different currency so you have more than one choice when it comes time to redeem. Diversity your earnings. Just because you fly an airline doesn’t mean you have to use the credit card of that airline, or credit car rental transactions to that airline, etc.

  4. Earn flexible points that transfer to a variety of frequent flyer programs. Chase, Starwood, and American Express points are especially valuable because they can be moved into several different airline programs – you get to decide later based on the award you want and even who is most likely to have availability for that award at the time you’re looking to travel.

  5. The value of points changes at the margin. On average, an American Airlines mile is much more valuable than a Delta mile. But if you have millions of American miles and only a handful of Delta miles, earning more Delta miles can make sense. If you have enough American miles for the awards you’re planning, and you’re close to enough with Delta, at the margin earning more Delta miles would be more valuable.

    • Once you have large quantities of a currency, the additional value of earning incremental miles is much lower.
    • When you’re close to having enough miles for an award, the additional value of earning incremental miles is much higher.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. An excellent post.

    But there is a nuance to be had here. There is a segment that is not a mile junkie. Steps 1 and 2 which you identify are great for them. These casual participants will get a miles earning CC once and get a decent sign up bonus, sign up for the programs, might sign up for dining for miles and be pleasantly surprised when a restaurant they are going to participates, and might be cajoled into scoring 100 miles here or 500 miles there by making purchases through shopping portals. Mileage running, buying coins from the mint, exploiting the track it back bonanza, vanilla reloads, etc., etc. are not priorities for them.

    I think these people likely should not diversify – they could end up spending way too much time monitoring orphan miles, seldom getting musc more than a free ticket to Kansas City.

    Diversification is great for those with so many miles that they can target them to sweet spots on charts (e.g. 50,000 Avios for BOS-DUB on EI C class, 90,000 DM miles to North Asia, 35,000 Miles and More miles for US-49 First Class)or apply them when availability on some carrier has generous availability (Like anomolies when SQ actually releases award space to *A partners or situations when premium availability spikes). Folks in this situation who diversify are positioned to use their miles for their highest and best purposes – it is a nice luxury.

    Just looking at my own social circles, there are far more casual participants than aggressive miles earners. Gary, do you have any particularized advice for them (other than to change their priorities, of course)?

  2. I’m starting to run into that problem as well, where I’m about at my max for 2 tickets anywhere in J or F for most of the US and British programs. I’m thinking of diversifying into international programs, perhaps like Miles and More, ANA, Krisflyer, Flying Blue or Aeroplan, though obviously earning slows down and fuel surcharges start to become more of a nuisance. Maybe SPG and AMEX are really the points of last resort.

    Any recommendations for lesser-known mileage currencies for someone who is starting to see a lot of low marginal value for additional miles? Gol looks interesting/dubious and it’s possible to get a credit card if you pick up a tax ID number while in Brazil

  3. Last year when Barclays offered the LH card with a 50K sign up bonus, we both got the card, and have enough miles for a one way FC ticket to Europe. But we aren’t stopping there with this card.

    I think it is safe to say that the CSP card is one of the betters ones to get you earn miles in multi programs. We are going to Europe this fall, LH to BCN, and US from DUB with AA miles.

    Having miles (enough miles) in multi programs is the best way to go, since fluke surprises happen from time to time and to be able to take advantage of these specials.

  4. Don’t overlook diversifying into hotel programs. Programs such as Starwood and Club Carlson offer some excellent redemption values, especially in expensive cities.

  5. I have to agree with UAPhil. When you have enough air miles to fly where you want to, then it’s time to concentrate on hotel programs. Check your future destinations and see which hotel chains are there, and concentrate on those points.

  6. It seems to me that the next level of true gamesmanship comes in understanding and avoiding fuel surcharges without sacrificing quality…..seems to me that is the international ninja level……..and I second and third the hotel diversification idea………and even add another category to reduce overall stay costs via the Barclay’s Arrival or another similar vehicle……….

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