If you are in the miles and points game for any period of time greater than, say, one month – eventually you’ll start to notice a lot of all caps and exclamation marks on Twitter or on blogs – “Hot deals! Act quickly! Won’t last! AMAZING!” But like big signs in retail stores – not all the advertised deals are truly that amazing (though some definitely are). To further confuse things, as any regular reader of the Saverocity family of blogs knows, sometimes these “deals” are advertised with conflicts of interest. I generally give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but when I have an affiliate link I’m always tempted to make it sound a little better than it is so I assume others are at the very least the same.
In the past week alone, there have been a couple of “deals” out there. AA released a bunch of award space on their new routes, while Aeroplan had a HUGE glitch where flights were pricing wrong – yikes for them. There was also a $1400 business class “deal” from LA to Europe. Now I put the word deal in quotes for all three of these because none of them were particularly well suited for my needs. I therefore skipped all three of these and didn’t bat an eyelash – but when I first got into this game I would have felt differently. The urgency with which these kinds of deals are presented can very easily lead one to feel like they missed out or to act hastily without carefully thinking things through. In a worst case scenario they can cause someone to lose money. I’m not immune to writing about them either.
The goal of this post is not to get you to ignore these deals – I jump on them all the time. For example, I booked the wife and myself into British Airways first class during that window of time when US Airways wasn’t charging fuel surcharges. What I’m hoping to accomplish in this post is to help you establish a framework for yourself through which you can view these deals. It’s about pulling the trigger on deals that best suit YOUR needs – not just acting due to FOMO. Here’s how I’d recommend approaching deals.
For starters, have an objective evaluation of your assets in your head at all times
I don’t think I can assess whether a given “deal” is good for me without an objective idea of my assets. I say assets because sometimes these deals that come around are award deals (miles as an asset), sometimes they are cash flights (cash as an asset), sometimes they are big discounts like Stop and Shop gas rewards (cash and time as an asset), while sometimes they are credit card sign up bonuses (cash, time, and miles opportunity cost).
So you need to know your assets, objectively, before you decide whether a deal is good for you or not. If you are really trying to travel for pennies due to budgetary constraints and/or a desire to be financially independent faster, $1400 business class flights to Europe or $1700 first class fares to Asia might not be the best deal for you. It’s an even worse deal if you’re going to end up in debt because of it.
If you can only put $1000/month on your credit cards and thus are generally only applying for one card at a time, then you want the BEST sign up bonuses out there. If snagging those flights on British Airways with no fuel surcharges depletes your entire US Air account – is that okay with you? And if you find a new manufactured spending deal, are you spending too much of your time doing it?
If you don’t know what your assets are and have an objective take on their worth you’re risking not making the best decisions when it comes to these deals.
A classic example is the good old “buy US Airways miles at 1.8 cents a piece”. Using myself as an example, here’s how I evaluated my assets for that deal (every single time it came up).
Do I have enough cash to purchase 100,000 miles at 1.8 cents a piece? If so, do I have enough miles for a business class flight overseas already? If yes, do I really need to buy more, giving me enough for two overseas trips? And if I buy miles so I have enough for two overseas trips, do I have enough time to take those trips in a timeframe that wouldn’t worry me about a devaluation? And, oh yeah, is it really worth it to me to pay $1800 to fly business class overseas; could that money be spent more wisely elsewhere?
For me, it’s important to ask these questions just to make sure I don’t get caught up in the hype of a “deal”. Everyone’s answers are going to come out differently (heck, everyone’s QUESTIONS should be different), but it’s the best way to avoid unnecessary waste.
Next, make sure you are clear about what your travel goals are
I’ve written about this as it pertains to signing up for credit cards, but it’s really important you know what your travel goals are. I have two goals for my family – to take at least one international trip a year (preferably two, one with child one without) and to take it in as much comfort as possible without breaking the bank. Goal 1 is more important to me than goal 2, we’d pay for coach if we had to. But if I can leverage miles and points to fly in a higher class of service, I’m always going to choose that. For me, 1 international business class trip is greater than 2 in coach. That’s just me.
When deals come along, I force myself to question whether that deal helps me meet my travel goals or not. Did I want to jump on the AA deal earlier today? Certainly, I have the miles and it’d get us to Europe. But getting in on that deal would also have broken my “as much comfort as possible” rule. I don’t mind an extra connection with Little M if it’s gonna get me in a higher class of service, but Boston to Los Angeles to London is going way beyond that. So I let that one go with absolutely no reservations.
I do the same thing when great credit card bonuses come along. I’ve always thought the Southwest Companion Pass would be a great thing to have – but we don’t travel enough to make it useful. I’m starting to rethink my travel goals in general since Little M might force us to travel more domestically, but every time I’d have been able to get it via credit card sign ups it didn’t make sense with my travel goals at the time. And forget about earning via reselling – time is the asset I have the least of. You go though, Big Habitat.
A corollary to evaluating your travel goals is evaluating your earning streams – if you’re a big MSer or reseller deals are going to look better/worse to you than they would to me, but that’s a whole other post in and of itself. Hopefully you get the concept.
Equip yourself with as much knowledge of the miles and points game as possible
This one’s important. It’s impossible to know what a great deal is if you don’t know what the good ones are. Take a look at Matt’s list of the Top 10 best credit card offers historically. It’s important to know what has been offered in the past and more importantly, have a feeling for whether it will be offered in the future or not. For example, I have absolutely no proof but my guess is we’ll see another 75K Amex PRG offer again. That means a 50K offer might not be the best deal, no matter how many exclamation marks you see (no guarantees of course). Worse situations are when you see a lot of exclamation marks around cards like the US Airways Mastercard – 40K after first purchase is great – if you have miles in US Air. Otherwise, they could quite possibly be totally useless to you.
Another thing to make sure you have a good handle of is how much awards cost regularly, what airlines charge fuel surcharges, how much award space various airlines release, etc. etc. That’s how you find “sweet spots”, recognize when something is a big deal (like avoiding fuel surcharges on BA), or realize that an award space glitch is a major deal (like Lufthansa releasing first class space more than two weeks out). The only way to learn these things is through practice, reading, and more practice. No one knows the ins and outs of everything, but there are a lot of guides out there like at Travel is Free or my own DIY Guide (which releases at the rate of one article per year at this point :P).
Ultimately, it’s about opportunity costs
Hot deals are great, but while they seem cheap, you’re always giving up something to get them. Understanding your assets, clarifying your travel goals, and equipping yourself with knowledge of the game should help you answer the single most important question when a deal comes up: What am I giving up if I pull the trigger? Or, to put it another way, is getting in on this deal going to prevent me from getting in on another one that fits myself and/or my family better? You can’t really answer that question without an understanding of the three things above.
Everyone is going to highlight a deal with some level of bias. I sometimes point out good value fares to Europe because I love Europe. Just because I think something is a great deal doesn’t mean it’s a great deal for you. I really would consider shelling out $1500 for a business class flight to Europe (assuming I haven’t blown too much money on my travels elsewhere) – but if you aren’t even sure if you LIKE Europe, why should you? That sounds silly but it’s really not – if you read blogs enough you kind of start hearing very similar views and opinions about things. You’ll hear counterpoints, but they can be rare.
You might be less susceptible to peer pressure than me, but generally, if you hear that “Bali is amazing” a million times you might just put it on your list of places to go. Then if an amazing fare to Bali drops, you might pull the trigger. That’s not a bad thing by the way, add me to the chorus of people who think Bali is amazing – just make sure you know what you’re giving up to get there.
Apologies for the super long post – I haven’t posted for awhile and have just had all these thoughts in my head for awhile. The reality is, I’m sure many of you think about these things already. But writing helps me clarify my thoughts, and this is a good reminder to me that if I miss a big deal that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m missing out. One of the best things about the miles and points game is great deals are always there to be had. It’s like whack-a-mole: they always pop up! Unlike whack-a-mole, you only need to nail one to win. Sure, you’ll sometimes miss a deal that you might regret, but that’s better than regretting wasting assets on a deal! I’d love to hear people’s thought processes about this topic, so feel free to leave equally loquacious comments!