Opportunistic hoarding vs. earning and burning

Conventional wisdom in the points and miles game is to “earn and burn”.  The idea is to earn enough points for your next trip, spend the points, travel for nearly free, and repeat.  There are a few big advantages to this approach.  For one, you are almost guaranteed to get good value from your points.  Hopefully you’ll know up-front how many points you’ll need and you’ll have a good idea of how much money it will save to use points instead of cash.  Another advantage is that this approach protects you from devaluations.  Airline and hotel programs regularly change their award charts for the worse or, in the case of hotels, move their best properties up to the next award tier (meaning more points are required for a free night).  Changes like these cause a decrease in the value of your banked points since you can no longer get as much from those points.  By earning and burning, you can greatly decrease the chance of being left holding many devalued points.

Earning and burning has its virtues, but its not perfect.  Suppose, for example, that you need to book a last minute flight.  Airlines like to jack up last minute prices to extreme levels.  Meanwhile, they tend to open up saver level award space at the same time.  When given the choice of booking a $1100 last minute flight vs. a 25,000 mile award, you may wish you had kept some airline miles around, just in case.  A more common issue is with award availability.  Maybe, for example, you built up enough AA miles for a dream trip to Asia, but then can’t find saver level awards in both directions.  You may wish then that you had miles that could be used for Star Alliance or even SkyTeam flights to increase your chance of finding those awards.

Instead of earning and burning, another approach is to earn points, miles, and cash (AKA Penny Points), opportunistically.  100,000 AA miles for signing up for a credit card?  Yep, sign me up.  Over 20 points per dollar by shopping at Sears through the Southwest Rapid Rewards portal?  Cool, I’ll do my online shopping there.  3000 Club Carlson points for a 20 minute survey?  OK, why not?  3% cash back plus credit card rewards for buying Amex gift cards?  You bet.  5% cash back from buying gift cards at drug stores and grocery stores?  Absolutely.

I’m an opportunistic hoarder and I believe it serves me well.  When planning trips, I have the luxury of using whichever points are best for the situation at hand.  In one trip last year, for example, I had to fly out on an earlier flight than my wife and son.  For my outbound flight, I found a great option using AA miles.  For their outbound flight, there were great one-way paid options, so I used my Citi ThankYou points for a value of 1.25 cents per point (thanks to my Citi ThankYou Premier card) and they earned Delta Skymiles for that flight.  On the return, we traveled together using United miles.  We have had similar luck using our hotel points opportunistically.  When we have a destination in mind, I use AwardMapper to see which hotels are in the area and how much they cost in points.  I then use TripAdvisor to look at reviews.  And, finally, I go to the hotel’s website to look for award availability.  I always check paid prices too because sometimes my Penny Points give me more value than hotel points.  And, of course, there are many more great lodging options available when you’re willing to pay cash.

Another reason I like this approach is for opportunistic travel.  I travel regularly, but rarely do I plan way ahead.  This past winter was so bitterly cold, for example, that my family took several unplanned trips to warmer areas.  In these cases, I always have the luxury of using whichever points work best for the situation.  Sometimes I’ll use one type of points for outbound flights and another for the return.  Other times, I’ll find good award availability round-trip for one person and I’ll use Penny Points (or ThankYou points) for the others.

Opportunistic point hoarding is not perfect.  It does leave you exposed to devaluations.  And, the chance that orphaned points in miscellaneous programs will go forever unused is fairly high.  Keeping track of my points via Award Wallet helps a lot, but I’m sure I have points today that will never get used.  For example, I have no idea what to do with my 6050 Voila hotel rewards, nor do I remember how I got them.  To ameliorate this issue, I prefer to build up points in the most flexible points programs: Penny Points (cash), Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). 

I’m curious to hear from readers.  What is your point earning and burning strategy?  I don’t think that one is better than another in absolute terms.  Instead, I think that opportunistic point hoarding works best for me.  What about you?

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  1. I think when you reach a certain level you kindve can’t earn and burn in a real way (e.g. Little or no balances). I find that my strategy is a hybrid. I seldom stop earning, but I will go through times when I’ll burn 5-600k miles and points in a few week period (obviously planning travel, not flying all those awards so closely).

    Great insights though.. Having points means you have the flexibility to just go (like you did during the winter)

  2. I do some of both. We usually plan two big trips a year, but like to have a stash of points for weekend getaways, going to see family, last minute situations, etc.

    I get point/miles with specific trips in mind + take advantage of deals when they come along if I think I can use the points/miles.

    The big trips are usually planned far in advance to get seats on flights that I want. I start working on replenishing as soon as the bucket is diminished.

  3. Right now things are a bit crazy because of the MR phenomenon, but my general goal is to have around 250K available on a carrier in each alliance, e.g. 250DL, 250AA, 250UA. I also try to keep around the same amount in a transferrable currency, ideally *wood. Since most of my leisure travel is TATL, that leaves me pretty flexible when looking for awards.

  4. Tend to keep a few million in inventory across 57 programs. Also play with Flexperks, Arrival and various cashback cards. For any immediate (for the next month) program spend needs we use credit cards to buy discounted gift cards at 17-21% off and use them later at 15-20% off store sales.

    Having inventory gives you options to mix and match airlines and hotels depending on the trip.

  5. I’m a hoarder who uses points for 2 to 3 trips per year. I don’t agree with most bloggers who advocate earn and burn to avoid devaluation. To me, frequent trips would “devalue” the enjoyment of the experience. I would rather suffer a 20% devaluation for a great trip two years from now than take an unnecessary trip today.

  6. If you acquire the points cheap enough it’s fairly safe to hoard. You may not get what you could have got, but you’ll still come out ahead. If you acquire points just below value and hoard, you may be worse off if a devaluation comes around.

  7. I’m with you. Can’t have enough because who knows when the gravy train will end?
    And who is so lucky to plan exactly as many points they need far in advance anyway? What if you change destinations or availability isn’t there? You’re SOL. Most have a job and vacation time is their most precious commodity, not points. So having multiple options is your best bet to ensure you can find availability.
    SO and I have about 7MM across ~40 programs. Burn about 2MM per year. Ideally, I’d like to be around 10MM so if the game ends or gets a lot more difficult, have several years of reserves.

  8. I’ll admit that I’m a hoarder right now. Sitting on 4M miles/points across 3 people and many programs. We are, however, burning a lot as well. Burning over 1M within a year thanks to United’s devaluation, and looking to burn another 500-600k for next year too. Not to mention the amount of cashback with Amex BC and Discover too! To me there is a HUGE advantage of being able to pick from many programs when trying to go to a specific destination where awards are not always available on one program. Also, I continue to sign up for cards because you never know when that product will disappear and you can get the next version as well. If you put it off, then things like the Ink MC’s are gone. If I hadn’t gotten as many MC’s as I did at the time, it wouldn’t be as easy to get the Visa’s now.

  9. I concur with Paul and Curtis. As long as Miles/Points can be earned at a profit the cost of hoarding is limited to the time invested (IMHO). Like the above I have a large balance right now of just over 6M with another 1.5M encumbered for upcoming travel. The current opportunities to earn miles and be paid for it can’t last and I would rather build huge balances now and suffer through a few devaluations then be in a position of having to pay for miles in the future to use at a devalued rate. In addition I concur with the flexibility it gives you. I literally have access to dozens of alternatives for travel and if it costs me a little more in miles to get something when I want who cares. A great example is World Cup. I just put two Biz Class tickets on-hold just in case. This was unplanned. If I hadn’t had substantial balances across numerous programs couldn’t have done this. I also had some family emergencies earlier in the year that required same day travel domestically($1200 x 2 tickets). Miles across multiple programs kept the cash in my pocket. I am currently putting away 300-400 miles/month and will continue until the gravey train ends.

  10. Hoarder here too, sitting on 1.3M according Awardwallet. Of which about 560K is SkyPesos. Hoping that the Skymiles 2015 award chart will give me MORE options with the 5-level award chart. So right now every time I look at something it tends to price out at HIGH, perhaps I’ll be able to land at least one step below that and be able to cover open-jaw to Europe in First/BE for the whole family of 4. Maybe ATL-FCO+LHR-ATL, or even ATL-FCO+KEF-ATL. Do much of the trip on points as I can. Suppose I’ll have to pay for the Iceland flight though.

  11. I agree with most here, I do a bit of both but I am clearly a rookie in this game as I look at all of your point balances. I got into this about one year ago to the month and after my latest 60K UR points and 100K AA points post I will be at about 650K miles/points earned across a handful of programs. I have burned about 200K of those this year as I have earned them for a few trips. I do MS to meet min when I have to but I am clearly not spending enough time or missing out on something as the balances most of you carry stomp on my petty amounts. Give me something to shoot for I suppose!

    • I would caution against carrying high balances in UR if you are doing anything that could cause Chase to say your are abusing the program. For example if you are only spending money at Office Supply and Gas Stations and only buying GCs to cash out there is a risk to account closure. We all are doing the above, but I try to keep only the amount of points I would be comfortable losing in my UR (and other similar accounts). It does mean having to build balances in some programs before you have a plan, but I would rather do this then lose the majority of my points. That being said I probably have about the same amount of UR points (~600k) in 4 accounts (my wife and I), but I am comfortable with that level because it is <10% of my portfolio.

    • No Alex, you are doing great! 650K is nothing to sneeze at. Some of the posters above got into this game years ago and are serious about earning miles. They have (very) impressive amounts of points and maximize whatever opportunities are currently available. That level of participation is not for everybody. You have enough points for many r/t award flights…and the memories they will give you… keep up the good work!

  12. Right now I am a hoarder, but will be burning some miles in a couple of months. I don’t have nearly the points that others here have, but this is actually my first year collecting miles and points.

  13. We have two kids and another on the way, so I take advantage of opportunities when I can and when I have time to because it takes a lot longer to earn points than it does to plan and execute a trip.

  14. I started the year at 1.4mil and have gone on a FC Europe w 14 free Hyatt and Hilton nights and now stand at 2.1 mil mainly due to listening to you……if I listened better I would probably be at 3 mil by now……..my short term goal is 3mil and then maybe I will appreciate Earn and Burn a bit more once I am at that number……..Now I need to get penny points more as I want to open up my lodging options………

  15. Aloha, Curtis, Paul: the number of miles that you accumulate are in a different world from me. 6-figure income with 790 FICO What am I doing wrong??–it is worth money to find out

  16. Rob Black, you just have to diversify and get many games going at once. They will add up faster than you think! Just get into habits with your normal spending, sign up for cards ever 90-120 days rotating for you and wife/others, always use shopping portals, etc… It’s not really that hard. As many bloggers will tell you, USING your miles is much more difficult, especially efficiently. Don’t blow them all on AAnytime awards unless it’s impossible otherwise (but if you’re diversified enough you probably have points in another program and won’t need to complete a trip with AAnytime anyway!). Be flexible on everything you can and use your miles for places that have low level awards available at the time you’re looking to book a trip rather than picking a specific destination over a specific time. Calculate out values of miles and set your own rule as to what you will and won’t redeem at. Same goes for hotels with all of this.

  17. Seeing a pattern here, yeah me too. About 6-7 mill across everything. Burned 2 mill & still…but it’s great since u can do anything. I love the flexibility it affords me. It’s just a habit – how to earn so much. Pick your methods after testing. Combine several lucrative ones, save time. Low hanging fruit is good.

  18. Many thanks for the tip about the “Award Mapper.” Huge time saver…. I had no idea such a tool exists. (It’s also useful in locating hotels by chain — like Club Carlson — the tool on the CC web site is miserably unhelpful. I’d even avoided getting their CC because their own web site had given me woefully incomplete info on their hotels by category. This, so much better! thanks again.)

  19. This question reminds me a bit of how a lot of blogs advice newbies to “start with your travel goals” and work towards them, when doing CC apps etc. For my personality, that just doesn’t work. I have a huge list of travel goals, i.e. places I’d be interested in going. So, I tend to go after the unusually high signup bonuses and flexible currencies, and then let my balances guide me to a certain extent. I’m not enough of a planner to being with a goal and then earn points just to reach that destination.
    opportunistic hoarding for me

  20. +1 for hoarding. I always cringe when I read the “earn and burn” strategies. Why in the world would I not sign up for 100k credit card offers (with low out of pocket costs) just because I don’t have plans to fly on AA. I agree with the sentiment of mostly everyone here. IMO – the flexibility of have a couple million points vastly outweighs the devaluation proposition. I am fully aware that my points are worth less today than they were yesterday. I really don’t care and have never once stressed about it. In fact, the best way to beat devaluation is to keep looking for opportunities to acquire large chunks of points for minimal cost. It’s a game and I treat it like one.

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