It’s fairly popular advice these days for you to sign up for a bunch of credit cards with sign up bonuses so that you can use them to travel. As long as you’re not paying a lot upfront to get that bonus, it’s effectively free money, so the value of the points aren’t that important. But what about when you’re not looking for a sign up bonus and just spending on your cards?
For that, you really want to know what a point is actually worth and how many you get per dollar spent. Simple, right? After all, there are folks that regularly publish numbers for what points are supposed to be worth, such as The Points Guy. But if you spend some time actually looking into the criteria for those point values, it’s a bit nonsensical, such as removing an airline partner without considering what you can still do with the point.
So what’s a point actually worth? The short answer is that it’s entirely dependent on what you want to do with the points. If you’re planning on doing anything except for flying internationally, mostly in business or a better cabin, it’s probably not a good deal.
For example, let’s say you want to visit London from Seattle flying in Business. That’s something like 100,000 miles on Alaska Airlines, depending on the partner. If we look at what it would actually cost out of pocket to fly one of those flights on a decent carrier using a tool like ITA Matrix, then we might be looking at around $8,871 for that ticket. That gives us a redemption value of 8.8 cpm, which is pretty fantastic.
On the other hand, let’s say you want to visit Los Angeles from Seattle flying in Coach. That’s something like 25,000 miles. If I paid something like $441 for that ticket (which is on the high side, but maybe it’s last minute), then that’s only 1.7 cpm, which isn’t really all that great.
So do you plan on taking those international trips in the fancy cabins? If not, you’re probably not getting the best rewards from your credit cards. If you live on the west coast, you could probably do worse than one of the 3% cashback cards offered by JCB. If you want a Visa card that’s going to be accepted most places, you could do a lot worse than a 2% cashback card, such as the Citi Double Cash.
This also assumes that you’ll hit the minimum number of points to get some value out of the program before those points expire. If that’s the case, it’s really hard to beat cashback as far as loyalty programs go. As a bonus, if you’re saving up for a specific trip, you can even put that cashback into an interest bearing account.