When it comes to setting your travel rewards strategy for the year ahead, things can be difficult. Where do you start? Which elite status should you chase? How many airline programs should you be a member of and spend the time and effort to get to know the program details?
The same can also apply to hotels, car hire, credit cards, and much more. Like many complex projects, the hardest thing to know is where you start from. So, how do you set your travel rewards strategy for the year ahead, and how do you consider unexpected variables?
Start With What You Know
The first step in working out your travel rewards strategy is to inventory your known plans. First, make a list of all the upcoming events that will require you to travel in the next year. Aside from business trips, these can be things like upcoming weddings, or you have to head back for your parents’ milestone birthdays/ wedding anniversaries. You would be surprised how many small trips we get up to during the year. Don’t forget to include some of your bigger planned vacations since you can often use points and miles earned from smaller trips during your bigger ones.
List your Future Travel Requirements
Not every trip needs to have a flight, hotel, and car hire. If you are visiting your home town, you may be staying with family or friends, and they will lend you a car, so hotel and car hire are unnecessary. On the other hand, you may be heading on a road trip with some friends, so car hire and hotels along the way are essential, but flights are not.
Once you have parsed out the requirements for each trip, you will have a good idea of the minimum flights, hotel stays, and car hires you will need in the upcoming year.
Realism is Key
One thing to keep front and center when making this list is that you need to be realistic about your plans. Try as hard as possible not to over or underestimate your needs for the upcoming year. The cure for over-estimation is a quick dose of realism and asking yourself if you are genuinely going to take this trip. Underestimation can be significantly harder to detect.
A great way of getting an idea if you have underestimated your plans is to compare them with the years before. If you have taken around 25 trips every year, but this year you only came up with 10, ask yourself why. Have your circumstances changed that much, or have you missed some trips? It is also likely that you have taken some spontaneous trips that were not planned that far ahead. While not written in stone, knowing you will take some extra trips makes planning easier since you can include them in your calculations.
It is Easier To Start With Hotels
While it may initially seem intuitive to start with flights and so forth, the simplest way to get started is with accommodation, specifically hotels. Hotels have more choices and are less variable than airlines, especially if you look at award bookings.
Look at the cities and towns you will visit this year, and quickly research your available hotel options. Next, try to decide on one or two hotel brands that will be your go-to brands for the year. They should have properties at most of your destinations, with a good program and many options to earn points.
Cash Vs. Points Stays
Once you have selected hotel brands, try and figure out which stays will be cash and which will be award bookings. The objective here is to get the maximum value for your points and dollars. The easiest way to do this is by directly comparing the cash price to the points price and working out a value. So, let us look at a small example.
Euro Disney this Summer
Say you are planning a four-day trip to Euro Disney this summer. Along with other trips, you will be staying at an IHG property for this trip. The most convenient one is the Holiday Inn Express: Marne-la-Vallée Val d’Europe.
Four nights in June will set you back €133/~$145 per night for a total of ~$580.
If you look at the points value of this stay, you would end up paying an average of 23,750 points per night for the trip for a total of 95,000 points.
Now, you have to look at the value of your points; if you were paying $580 for 95,000 points, this would yield a value of ₵0.61 per point. So if you can acquire those points for anything less than ₵0.61, you would be on to a winner.
How to Get Hotel Points
If you are wondering how to acquire hotel points without stays, the answer is simple. You either buy them or get them via credit card spending. So, let’s look at both.
You can purchase IHG points any time you want at a price of ₵1.0 per point. However, considering the above values, doing so would not be a good idea. You would be better off paying cash for your stays instead of trying to buy 95,000 points for $950.
While that is disappointing, you must remember that virtually nobody ever buys IHG points at that price. IHG runs regular promotions that give you a bonus when purchasing points; this can substantially reduce the price and turn a bad deal into a good deal.
Consider that a 100% bonus is common. Therefore, purchasing points at that price would yield a cost of ₵0.5 per point, which is a substantial saving. To purchase the 95,000 points needed for your stay, you would only need to spend $475. While that is still a lot of money, it is a substantial saving of over $100 for your stay. So, in this case, you may opt to purchase some IHG points with a bonus in the coming months. Bear in mind that these promotions are extremely common.
Take It To the Next Level With Credit Cards
Although $100 seems like a nice saving, you can do so much better with the clever use of credit cards. Co-brand credit cards can provide a very useful set of perks and benefits. Take, for instance, The IHG Premier Card.
Let us assume that you are already a cardholder and have spent your welcome bonus. One of the card’s best features when it comes to award bookings is the fourth-night free perk. This works for every award of 4 nights more; you will receive the fourth night free. In reality, the way this is applied is that you are given the cheapest of your four nights for free, not the last one. Taking the above example, let’s assume all four nights are priced the same at 23,750 points.
Using the perk will set you back 71,250 points for your stays. Getting $580 (the cash booking price) of value for your points works out at a value of ₵0.81 per point, which is better than ever for IHG points. On the other hand, if you need to purchase your points at ₵0.5 per point, you would need to spend $356.25 to purchase the required 71,250 points.
Compared to the cash price of the booking, that is a saving of 38.5%, which is an excellent return on holding a credit card with a $99 annual fee and purchasing points at ₵0.5 per point.
Set Your Points Purchase Goals
Once you have a rough idea about how many points you need for your stays. Remembering to include how many points you would roughly expect to earn for your cash stays, you can set your points purchase target for the year.
One thing to remember when purchasing points is finding the right balance. If you have too many points, you end up with a glut and risk some of your points expiring before you use them. On the other hand, too few points, and you risk occasionally paying inflated hotel prices for your stays. Depending on how confident you are with your plans, aiming for around 15% more points than needed is a good estimate. This covers any incidentals or jumps in price due to dynamic award pricing.
Remember: Travel Rewards is Not about Free Travel
The biggest mindset shift travel rewards fans have is that they accept that travel rewards are not about free travel. If offered a free trip to someplace you hate, you would politely decline. Travel rewards are the inverse; it is about traveling to places you would want to go to for the least amount of money possible! It is virtually never free!
The goal is to receive X dollars worth of travel (airfare, hotel stays, car hire, and more) for the least hard cash. Once you accept that you have to spend some cash (on points and miles, for instance), it is much easier then to focus on crunching the number and working out how to get to where you want to for the least amount of cash possible.
So far, we have looked at how you plan your travel goals for the year when it comes to accommodation. While simple, it can still be complicated and requires you to put in the effort to research and plan your travel. Sadly, like many things in life, there is no free lunch when it comes to travel rewards. And sometimes you just have to pay cash and pocket the points for various reasons! Next, we will look at how to plan for your air travel for the coming year.