A Pointed Reminder On The Value Of Flexible Points And Miles

People often ask me what are the best points or miles that they can collect.  Or, they’ll ask me to tell them the best way to redeem.  For me, these sorts of questions are akin to asking me who my favorite child is.  There’s really no perfect way to redeem points.  However, a recent trip I took wouldn’t have been possible for me without flexible points and miles.

What Are Flexible Points?

An example of flexible points and miles are Chase Ultimate Rewards, which you can earn with credit cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Ink Business credit cards.  American Express Membership Rewards is another program that offers tons of flexibility in how you can redeem.  These are instead of earning miles with popular programs like American Airlines, Hyatt, Marriott or United Airlines.  For those of you with retirement accounts such as 401Ks, you wouldn’t put your retirement all into one stock.  You diversify, and you should use the same strategy with your credit card earning.

I have a close friend who lives in New Zealand and needed some help.  My schedule was actually free enough be able to work from overseas for a few days.  I set about planning a trip to spend a few days with her helping out.  This is in the midst of the Coronavirus health crisis.  While that did reduce cash fares for airlines a bit, it created an incredible amount of uncertainty.  

Auckland, New Zealand

When I first set out to plan the trip, I thought about the different ways to get to New Zealand.  Air New Zealand has some of the most direct routes from the US for folks who live on the East Coast like me. But, I couldn’t find anything using my miles to do so.  Cash tickets were many thousands of dollars and also offered very little flexibility in planning.  I needed that flexibility for two reasons.  First, the situation in New Zealand was fluid.  Second, travel/quarantine rules were changing on literally a daily basis.  While I haven’t been terribly concerned with contracting Coronavirus myself, I am very afraid of getting stuck in a quarantine situation.

I’m lucky to have a decent amount of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and some Capital One Spark Miles, all flexible currencies to help me get the job done.  When I started the search (getting a healthy dose of assistance from some my fellow aviation geek friends), I was pretty certain I didn’t want to connect through Hong Kong given the crisis.  No worries there, as most flight options quickly disappeared with changes to the airline schedules.

South Korea was also high on my list of connection points to avoid.  The first ticket I booked actually connected in Japan, which felt reasonably safe at the time.  I booked that with United MileagePlus miles, some of which I transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account.  Over the course of a couple of days, the situation worsened in Japan.  Singapore became my next target.  To give my family comfort and reduce the chances that  I got stuck in a quarantine situation, I changed from Singapore as well.  

I found some award space to Australia, though that required a massive number of points.  Still, this was an important trip.  This goes back to my comment above about there being no perfect way to redeem your points or miles, unless it’s perfect for you.  I had virtually no date flexibility, so I would need to spend more points to hit the date range I wanted.  Throughout the process so far, I’d been using United because I have top-tier 1K status with them.  That meant I could waive change fees on the various awards as I continued to alter my itinerary to conform with CDC alerts and government warnings.  Even without elite status, if I had a cash ticket I risked being stuck on a specific carrier or potentially large change fees and differences in fares to make changes.  

Saving Money When Plans Change

With points or miles, you’re likely to have change fees that top out in the $100-$200 range to make a change.  And, in the case of a global health crisis, you’re also more likely to find an agent to waive a change fee on an award then sell you a last-minute ticket at half-price.

As I was almost ready to depart, my friend changed our itinerary.  We were now headed to Brisbane for a short period of time. This required another surgical reconstruction of my flights.  Again, flexible points and miles helped me.  I started looking at itineraries I could book on British Airways, another partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.  I considered a few American Express Membership Rewards partners as well, such as Air Canada. But, many of those options lead me through parts of Asia where I didn’t want to risk quarantine on my return trip.

Ultimately, a friend found me a seat on Qantas at the last-minute using a saver award through American Airlines.  The routing was a bit crazy (you mean everyone doesn’t go from DC to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Melbourne to Brisbane?) but it got me where I needed to go.

As I was packing my suitcase the night before I left, another aviation geek friend e-mailed me a travel alert from French Polynesia.  Apparently, to take my flight home from New Zealand to the US via Tahiti, I would now need a clean bill of health from a medical professional dated no more than 5 days prior to my arrival in Tahiti for my 2-hour connection.

This set off another mad scramble to find my way home.  If I had purchased my ticket directly with Air Tahiti Nui I would have needed to work with them to find other means of travel home (or find a doctor in New Zealand). Instead, I had the flexibility to find another flight home on American Airlines.

When our plans changed to head to Brisbane before Auckland, that meant changing up my hotel reservations. I had used Marriott Bonvoy points for a hotel in Auckland.  That turned into something of a disaster, which we’ll discuss in a future post.  However, with our change in plans I would now be staying at a hotel that was part of the Accor program.  Good news, they just joined up as a transfer partner of the Capital One.  Another opportunity to preserve my cash and use flexible points at the last-minute.

The Final Two Pennies

As the dust settles on this trip, I’ve ended up mostly with “saver awards” for airlines and reasonable prices on my hotel awards.  However, the flexibility the points I earned from these credit cards gave me the choice to redeem for awards that more tightly fit my schedule if need be.  Between the credit cards I hold in my wallet, I had literally more than a dozen choices for how to fly across the globe to be with a friend when she needed someone most.  If I didn’t have those points and that flexibility, my ability to help would have been through a phone call or e-mail.  While I’m sure she would have appreciated either one, the value in being there can’t be measured.

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5 Comments

  1. Can you please comment on the Business Insider article as you are a TPG employee and/or contributor? Can you at least address the claims regarding the work culture and sexual harassment, especially since you’ve effectively stopped posting here to write for them? Thanks.

    1. Hey, Daniel. Thanks for commenting. If you look at my TPG author page, you’ll see I haven’t been doing much writing for them at all lately. Work and some personal matters have been quite overwhelming from a time perspective. My blog and podcast are not my “day job”, though I do enjoy immensely recording my podcast and writing. I hope to do much more of both when the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. I am not an employee of TPG, just a contributor. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been in the TPG offices, so I’m not sure I’m a good source of information about the work culture there.

  2. Can you please comment on the claims from today’s Business Insider article on TPG (work culture, sexual harassment, etc.) given that you’ve abandoned this blog to write for him? Thanks.

  3. Agree Ed, I love my flexible points! Thanks for your article – it’s a timely reminder to have options and think laterally.

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