The Deal Mommy

Travel is NOT Free: The Bonnie Rule

reality check

The first class seat on Lufthansa. The Park Hyatt Vendome. The amazing experiences you’ve had with your own family that would have not been remotely possible without miles or points. Ah, what a wonderful world we live in to be able to game the system and travel for free…according to the media anytime it covers miles and points at a mile high level.

Whenever you see a report about traveling for free, I want you to invoke the Bonnie rule. Let me explain. When I first started blogging I fell into the “points are free” trap until I had a reader, Bonnie, ask me point blank what I could have gotten had I used a cash back card instead. I realized she had a point.

From that day to today I value my miles and points (with exceptions such as IHG or Club Carlson) at a penny each: the value Chase, AMEX, or Citi would give me towards paying my bill or a Wal-Mart gift card. A 50,000 Ultimate Rewards sign up bonus? Worth $500. That “free night” with renewal? The cost of your renewal fee. Note I’m not even beginning to get into the time commitment, which is another animal altogether.

For instance: in my recent post about redeeming miles for 4 tickets to Asia I reported both the out of pocket cost of $469 AND the value of the miles + cash of $5,344. It’s simply dishonest to report it otherwise as I could have used those miles, collected on the right cards, to pay my mortgage.

No wonder so few people actually collect miles and points: the media is lying to them! People know when they’re being played, and it’s a fallacy that travel is free. I wish a more balanced picture were presented. How about something like “by strategic planning, careful budgeting, and leveraging promotions you can travel for less than half of what it would normally cost”?

Nah…who wants to read about that?


12 thoughts on “Travel is NOT Free: The Bonnie Rule

  1. Pizzaman

    We all have subjective values for our miles, but I think the Bonnie rule doesn’t take some important points into consideration.

    For starters, not all points/miles are easily turned into cash. Certainly, it wasn’t like you could sign up repeatedly for the recent 100K AAdvantage Citi card offer and just cash out easily for $1,000 at a time.

    And, I think you can really only say that an Ultimate Reward point should be considered for its cash value if you had no intention of ever traveling. If you did intend to travel, then that sign-up bonus, if used for that travel, actually defrays REAL costs you were going to incur.

    1. The Deal Mommy Post author

      Fair enough. It may be a bit simplistic, but there are bunches of cash back cards out there that will pay multiple hundreds for sign up bonuses, not to mention Discover’s bonus categories.

      I just want to make sure folks keep lost opportunity costs in mind when budgeting.

  2. Pizzaman

    Fair enough! BTW, I’ve noticed when I subscribe to receive notification of new comments from your posts that I don’t. I get them for all the other blogs. Just a heads up.

  3. Kenny

    I think it’s perfect if you change ‘could have gotten’ to ‘would have gotten’. If you apply the ‘could earn’ to everything you will lead a pretty miserable life. For us, we earn far more cashback (by learning to play the game for travel) than we ever would have without the travel angle. You don’t have to choose money or miles, both works just fine!

    1. The Deal Mommy Post author

      Thanks for chiming in. I’m an all of the above thinker in general too, but I think it’s easy to get off balance. The Bonnie Rule helps keep me in check.

  4. Leana@ Milesforfamily

    Interesting post! Not surprisingly, I feel very similarly about miles and points. I always calculate the opportunity cost. It’s an obsession. I do think it’s extremely important for those on a budget and limited supply of points, to think about those things.
    That being said, I am working on relaxing a bit and just not overthinking every stinking redemption. In fact, I almost redeemed 16,000 SPG points (plus 45 euros!) for one night in Westin Dublin. I used the word “almost”, because turns out, the room won’t fit 4. It was a bit of a relief, because I really agonized about it! But I am determined to just enjoy my miles and points, and not obsess so much. That’s the goal.
    I do agree that this hobby involves more than just credit card bonuses. It’s about changing your thinking and attitude and conserving in other areas, so you can afford travel.

    1. The Deal Mommy Post author

      That’s how I felt agonizing about buying biz class to Asia. An extra 240,000 miles was hard to spend! I finally priced out coach tickets in cash and when I realized biz in miles was cheaper than coach in cash, I let it go.

  5. Elaine

    Frankly, I think of my miles, points, cashback and MS efforts as a real part-time job, albeit one with flexible hours and the ability to work as much or as little as I want. After all, I must keep up to date on the latest info and strategies of earning and burning, plan for the future, carry out routine and well as less routine tasks, balance the books, and keep excellent records. And I should also always be on the lookout for better, more efficient and more elegant ways to get the job done. It takes effort, energy, time and smarts to do it properly. So while the hotels or airlines may not be charging me hard cash, I have spent some cash to get the points, as well as lots of time and effort to earn the “free” travel we now can do.

    Is it worth it? You bet.

    As for getting the most out of the points/miles, sometimes convenience and family should trump the best deal. When my adult son learned he could fly home at Xmas at the last minute, it was worth every mile it cost us to do it, even if that was twice as much as the best saver deal. And we don’t even celebrate Xmas! But seeing him was the priority. And when we needed to book a hotel night with little notice, it was a pleasure to just burn some points instead of looking for the very, very best, stackable deal. Sure, I could have transferred those SPG points to an airline, but the Sheraton that was available was exactly where we needed to be – down to the right street – and we just did it.

    I agree that the media and those who comment on miles/points stories don’t really get it. But I am also grateful when the “expert” interviewed does not give away all the tricks. If folks get interested, they can research further on their own, reading blogs or joining a forum. The info can be made clear, but expecting the media to do it fully in a short clip or article is an expectation that won’t be met.

    1. The Deal Mommy Post author

      Hi Elaine,
      It can be a job, that’s for sure! My beef, and it’s been my motivation since starting the blog, is that by presenting unrealistic outcomes (Maldives and Vendome) and outlays (free) 9 people out of 10 are scared out of even trying to start.

      I guess some would argue “good for me”, but I’m not talking about manufactured spend here. I’m talking about the Mom trying to get her college kid home from school. If we told her the truth- “with a reasonable amount of diligence you can get him home for 1/2 price “- as opposed to “we can get your family reunion in first class to the Seychelles for free with no effort”- who would it harm, really?

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