a seat in a plane
Etihad Business Studio

Ahhh, points. They’re wonderful.

Unlocking experiences once only dreamed about is incredibly satisfying — and that satisfaction is addicting.

People take their love of points and miles to crazy levels of spreadsheets, equations, multiple “players” and more, all in search of the next great score. But what is a “great” score?

For people taking “points and miles masterclass” type things online, it’s usually exotic first class flights dangled as the bait. And there’s a common equation offered up which is useful, but like many datapoints, fails to account for an entire picture of value.

Making matters worse that equation has created arrogance, obsession and even condescension, all of which are totally unnecessary in what should be a friendly hobby. Believe it or not, not everyone earns points to travel in luxury, and that’s totally fine.

etihad 787 business

Cents Per Point Value

When people get sucked into the world of points and miles, it’s impossible not to come across resources discussing “cents per point” to establish value. It’s a good thought and an important point of basic understanding. Learn it, if you haven’t!

When people use their points for things like magazines, or iPads, there’s typically not very good value per point offered. You’re not getting as much return on your spending as you could be.

A $1000 Apple iPad would likely cost 100,000 points or more. Assuming it cost 100,000 points, that’s one cent per point of value. Historically, the easiest redemptions carried the worst value, so that $1000 iPad might even cost 150,000 points in some programs.

Yes, people totally can — and often should — do better.

To illustrate the power of points, people counter that sub-par example with what a first class flight could give, in points value. A first class flight costing $15,000 might only cost 100,000 points too — so do you want $15,000 of value for your points, or $1000 for the iPad?

It’s a compelling hook and trust me, first class is really fun (!), but this simplistic view of what you could and should get is slightly flawed.

The new ‘Retreat Suite’ on the Virgin Atlantic A330neo bridges the gap between first and business.

Utility Of Points

Points are really about what they can do for you when you need them They’re also about what you “don’t” want to do. Sometimes it’s more about plugging a big part of a trip expense than just bragging.

Not everyone cares about luxury travel and not everyone wants to spend all their points, just to fly one way to Bangkok in first class. You’ve still gotta get back, right? For many people who don’t earn unlimited amounts of points, a great use of points is any chance not to use cash. Savings are savings. Travel is better than no travel.

Getting 5 nights of “free” hotel for a family might be a lot more useful than just one flight for one person. Same points cost, entirely more “value” to the mission, even if the “cents per point” value comes out oddly inferior to one person flying first class in that “cents per point” equation mentioned above.

Moving four people for free, versus not going at all, might be a lot more useful.

The point is that every single person has different needs and as long as people are operating with open eyes and a knowledge of the opportunity costs of their rewards — aka what they “could” be getting, there’s nothing wrong with any points redemption.

The only thing that’s not ok is not knowing what’s possible, and only finding out when it’s too late, after you’ve burned the mother load of points blindly. That’s just silly.

It’s good to know what “cents per point” possibilities exist — and to understand the concept — but only redeeming points when you can create a brag worthy example is just equally trite. I’ve done both and been equally happy with both.

Far less “sexy” redemptions, like premium economy round trip on the perfect dates might lend a lot more use than finding the odd date where a first class seat is available, and then needing to scramble to put together a ticket home, or need extra time off.

That’s even more true when it comes to travel on dates with no flexibility. Points are wonderful, but getting dates to line up perfectly is rarely a breeze during peak times.

What’s The Point?

The point is that knowledge is great, but there’s a far bigger equation than cents per point that makes all the difference. That equation is one only you can answer.

If money is tight, stretching points to cover more and more experiences, or enable experiences at all can be more optimal than a one off “brag” flight. Travel is cathartic and wonderful. If you only measure the value of your points in the cents per point redeeming them, you might’ve missed the entire point of earning them.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Gilbert – agree completely. Personally I wouldn’t use points for gift cards or merchandise but not slamming others that do since you don’t know their situation. Personally I have used points and miles for business class international and US first class travel but also value a really cheap saver award in coach to get away. Same w hotels. Stayed at some 5 star international properties but used more for Fairfield inn, Marriott Courtyard or Holiday Inn Express to stretch points and enjoy a free getaway w the 5th night free (4th w IHG) option.

    BTW maybe just me but no desire to go to the Maldives. Seems a bucket list item for many but costly (both points/miles and cash) and I would have the same pleasure at numerous other beach locations. The concept of only using points/miles for “aspirational travel” may work for some but they are a very small minority

  2. Great article Gilbert.

    With 10ish years(ish) of playing the points and miles game. I’m not brand new but certainly aren’t as “old hat” as a lot of folks. I’m also absolutely one of those who play the game for luxury over and above utility!

    All too regularly I just find myself rolling my eyes and sighing at the constant stream of “it aint what it used to be” declarations of “I used to be able to fly to NYC once and have earned enough miles to fly my family of 7 from London to Sydney in FIRST CLASS” or “I’m only getting 0.59p of value on this redemption, I should be aiming for 0.64p” or “only a fool would use their points in this way”!

    And who knows, maybe I am a fool and maybe I don’t pay enough attention, but…. for me, the points and miles game is still an amazing game/benefit. Could I eek out just that little bit more value from my points… yes undoubtedly. Am I interested in getting next level anal about this stuff… not even one little bit!

    The way I see it, with little thought or planning I’ve saved myself an absolute TON of money, I’ve flown on flights I would (or could) never have paid book price for. I’ve spent weeks in hotel suites only a Sheikh would pay real money for. All as an easy by-product from using a credit card, flying on a certain airline or staying in a certain hotel chain.

    …of course, it does of course help to follow and read blogs like God Save the points to pick up tips, tricks and hacks so thank you, keep doing what you’re doing.

    1. I agree with your comment…however now that Chase gives a solid 1.5 cents towards travel….I ditched my Amex. At least I’m locking in that value. Again, unless one is looking for a $3k discount on a $12k flight the points system still works. However I’d rather get 2% Cashback on $20k of spend to use on ANY flight I can get on Expedia for $400 vs an equivalent flight that’s 60k miles on a 2 stop flight that departs around 9pm on a Tuesday, I booked 9 months in advance.

      2022 has not good for point spending. Period. It’s why Amex has basically given back your AF in random credits like Uber, doordash and some hotels. The points/mile system value is hard to justify when you can have that in cash then go book the same flight cheaper.

  3. It depends on what you can afford most at the time. For example I’m going to spend two nights in Jerusalem in about a month. Cash price for hotel is about £250 while with avios it’s just under 50k. However, at this time I’m fairly flush with avios and pretty broke with cash. So for me the avios option is the way to go.

    Likewise with European flights from UK. While a straightforward points-cash conversion might mean you overspend on an avios flight, if you can afford the 9-15k avios and are struggling to afford a £100 cash ticket, avios is really worth it.

  4. Great, article and totally agree with you Gilbert! I am someone who plans F and J trips around awards and it works great for me since I have flexibility in when I take time off. People often ask how I was able to book two ANA F suite flights, Qatar F on A380, or Etihad First Class, and I have to tell them I booked 330 days in advance and it was only available on a random Tuesday or Saturday evening. For most people, this doesn’t work. I think everyone needs to figure out their own needs and there is no truly wrong way to use points. If people ask, I’m always willing to honestly say… “that’s not an optimal redemption” or it’s “a solid but not amazing redemption” or ” great redemption, I would do that same thing”. It does get frustrating when people on forums or Facebook slam people for mediocre redemptions. What matters at the end of the day is if you’re happy with how you used your points.

  5. Great article and I completely agree – I personally don’t use them for gift cards or merchandise, but I’ve always said that the right redemption is the one that suits/works for you.

  6. Been reading, learning, gathering points for years, best use was Italy 2 round-trip 60,000 miles w/United, 2015. Now Amex hotels uses what, about 25% more points than cash, not so good.. guess using for flights or I’ve read better, moving to avianca, etc…. Not airlines where we’re generally going, so doesn’t help.
    Just trying to get the most out of retirement & finally using these points, Amex, United, & Venture. Totally agree, it’s a game per individual situation, one that needs a decent amount of research.

  7. It’s always good to re-read this post. I long ago gave up on the idea of cents per point, since it was fairly useless. Far more useful for me has been looking at how much it will cost me to achieve a certain point threshhold. Using this measure, it’s easier to take into account 4th or 5th night free benefits that some programs offer and others don’t. In fact, doing so for higher-tier hotels in expensive cities like London, Paris, Sydney, or Tokyo, often reveals that the conventional wisdom of Hyatt being best is simply not true – often to the tune of several thousands of dollars in spend required to achieve the points level necessary.

  8. In optimization, there’s a concept of duality that I think is useful here. Instead of trying to maximize CPP over some choice of travel options, I would rather try to minimize the cost of some desired travel, subject to valuing the points at some reasonable value. This way you avoid (implicitly) buying points for X and then redeeming for only 0.5X, but you also avoid solving for something that isn’t really worth it to you.

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