“Think on the end before you start.” – Fortune Cookie
In my presentation at FT4RL, a good portion of my talk was dedicated to hammering home the point that it is important to have clear goals in this game and to be focusing your time on meeting those goals – especially if you have limited time.
Goals look different at different stages of life of course: realistic goals change after you get a dog, or a spouse, or start taking care of a kid(s). That’s why I find it important to review and revise our family’s travel goals from time to time.
Shawn from milestomemories related a sad (to me) fact at the conference: he’ll get way more hits on a post about saving literally a dollar or two than any of his trip reports (or awesome videos). Now I get it, people don’t really enjoy reading trip reports about the same places over and over again, but sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re in this game to travel, and trip reports can inspire us to do so even if travel hacking is 99% just about bragging rights.
(OK, maybe not everyone is in the game to travel, some people are just making money hand over fist. But I’d like to believe a lot of people are doing this in order to get to places beyond Walmart).
Let me offer a few suggestions about how to ensure you are meeting your goals. None are perfect, nor do I practice them all, but I think the important thing is to be thinking about whether the miles and points you are earning are purposeful enough for your needs or not. Remember, the value of an unredeemed point is 0 cents.
Determine your travel hacking goals
Everything starts here. As I said in my presentation, despite what Matt would have you believe, traveling for freee (™ by Saverocity) is mostly a myth. If you’re single and have lots of free time, then you probably can fly around the world in first class every month. And that’s awesome and I’m genuinely envious.
But there are lots of different motivations for travel hacking, subsidizing the cost of travel, moving up one cabin, etc. Make sure you determine your goals before going about earning miles. If you are unclear about your goals you are going to end up earning miles that you don’t know what to do with.
It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the currencies you will be earning – where can your miles take you? How much will it cost? What does availability look like? If you’re new to this, don’t assume you’re just going to earn miles and freee™ travel will suddenly happen, it usually takes work and experience (and a degree of failure) to truly start optimizing your travel hacking.
Create a demand schedule to determine your travel goals
Way back in 2013 Milenomics wrote about demand schedules and using them to target earnings. Basically, it is a working planner for all of your flights divided into one way segments. He has a working document that you can copy and edit as you see fit, but essentially it includes dates, classes of service, and costs (in miles or points). I have a simplified version that takes into account lodging as well; we used it as a worksheet at the conference so you could fill it out in 5-10 minutes if you want something simpler.
As my time has become squeezed more and more and my margins have become tighter and tighter, the demand schedule has become more and more important to me. I need to know where I want to go in order to earn in the right programs; gone are the days where I can blindly chase the sign up bonus for the Hawaiian Airlines card without any use in mind.
Even if you don’t completely fill out a demand schedule, I highly recommend reading Milenomics’ posts and then thinking about your travel goals. Then make sure the miles you are trying to earn match up with those goals, otherwise you’re just leaving money on the table. There’s no point in buying discounted Southwest gift cards if you have no reason to fly Southwest.
Take an honest look at whether you are meeting your budget goals
While this post was in draft I saw an interesting pair of posts over at ‘dem flyers. In it Daniel outlines how he tried to calculate the amount he spent on travel last year and then a reevaluation of his initial evaluation. I found it interesting to see how people keep track of their travel budget, especially as someone who isn’t too detailed in budgeting myself.
Whether you do something similar to what he did, or whether you look at every purchase/MS/resale/flight/hotel blow by blow (not my personal recommendation but to each his or her own) – at least get a general idea of whether you are saving money or spending more money on travel with all your hacking. Then you can make sure that idea squares with your overall goals and motivations determined above.
For example, I personally am happy paying for travel, but I like to use miles and points to make my travel more comfortable and luxurious (or as Matt would say, I travel to passive aggressively tell “family and friends how inferior their lifestyle is”). I’m currently considering whether to make a run at requalifying for Hyatt Diamond status for next year.
This is where I need to be brutally honest to myself about my budget goals. With my current travel plans for the year, the number of mattress runs I’ll need to requalify goes beyond my budgetary goals – I’d end up spending more money than diamond status is probably worth for my 2017 travel needs. So if I end up making the run, I need to at least be honest with myself that I am paying extra for luxury.
However you make your own evaluations, make sure you are honest about whether you are under, meeting, or exceeding your budgetary goals.
Evaluate whether your travel and budgetary goals are meeting your overall family/spouse/pet hedgehog goals
I went to this more in depth at the conference, but your family goals are going to dictate your overall travel and budgetary goals. Make sure they evolve as your life situation evolves; the less time you have the more efficient you have to be.
Get rid of points that have no value
I joked about the Hawaiian card above, but that is borne out of a true story. I signed up for the card and planned on converting those miles plus a bunch of miles I transferred from AMEX to book some AXON awards right before they were about to be devalued. But it turned out I couldn’t transfer the Hawaiian miles that were originally AMEX points to Hilton! (it’s against the terms and conditions to convert sign up bonus points). The result? A bunch of Hawaiian airlines miles I had absolutely no use for.
Pro unclutterers have a rule of thumb: if you haven’t worn an article of clothing for a year it’s time to throw it out or donate it. Lots of airlines have a decluttering rule already built in: your miles expire in 12-18 months.
I’d suggest getting rid of any of this points clutter (and making sure you only earn miles that fit your demand schedule in the future). Freequent Flyer has a lot of great ideas for how to get rid of them. None of them really approach the “1 cent per point” value people are always talking about, but they are better than the zero cents per point you would get by not getting rid of the points at all or letting them expire.
Remember – regardless of how you earned your points, that cost is sunk. You’re not saving anything by redeeming at a bad rate, you’re just unloading product, to borrow a reselling term (or a term I assume resellers use at least).
Seriously consider ditching those points you’ve been holding on with no real plan for – you’re just not that into them.
Think on the end before you start. Figure out what your goals are – travel-wise, budget wise, family wise – and make sure the time you’re spending accurately reflects those goals. The above are just suggestions and ideas, throw them out if you’d like but at least spend the time to think about what you’re doing (I’m talking to myself here). Boasting about 2 million point balances might feel great, but if deep down you know you’re only redeeming 20% of them…why did you spend so much time earning the other 80%?
I referenced a lot of posts that have been very valuable to me in my thinking about this miles and points game. They’re all linked in the post but I feel like they’re all worth reading so I’ve put then down here for reference as well. Consider this an academic paper 🙂
What Travel is Really About – milestomemories (a must watch for any family traveler)
Introducing the world’s most amazing advice columnist – PF Digest (OK this is just a classic)
Love and Hate in the Land of Travel Blogging – Saverocity (not completely relevant to this post but one of the first posts with freee™ in it)