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The Miles and Points Roller Coaster

Frequent Flyer Miles News You Can Use in 2015For the past 4+ years, I’ve been very involved in the travel hacking world – earning and burning frequent flyer miles and other travel loyalty points to help my family travel on the cheap.

I’ve said before that I’m purposefully and happily a bit of an intermediate at this game.  There are several reasons for that.  First, with two little ones and, up until a few weeks ago, a full time job, I’ve never had the time to chase all the deals that others do.  More importantly, however, I draw a bit of a stricter moral line than some travel hackers, so that limits me even more.

The hobby has been very rewarding.  It has also been exhausting.  For the past several months, I’ve been totally burned out.  In fact, as I originally drafted this post over the past several days, it was originally titled “Miles and Points Burnout.”  That has been my mental mindset for many months.

A big part of the hobby of miles and points acquisition is applying for credit cards and maximizing credit card signup bonuses to pad your loyalty accounts.  Then you try to make the most of your miles when it comes time to book a trip.  It all sometimes feels like beating your head against a brick wall: apply for credit card, call reconsideration line, engage in awkward conversation in which you usually (but not always) get what you want.  Call to cancel credit card, ask for retention deal, maybe get it or maybe don’t.  Search for miles award ticket, find out you have to make 3 connections in random airports with a toddler in tow to fly on the dates you want, curse miles, decide to pay for ticket.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

I’ve been so burned out that I’ve only applied for 2 travel loyalty cards in the past 9 months.  I’ve chased only a small handful of really easy miles promotions.  I’ve used exactly ZERO miles and points for the travel my family actually has taken.  It has been a new low for me, to be sure.

The past 48 hours, however, has changed my outlook.  It has reminded me how much “the hobby” is truly a roller coaster.  Only the toughest hang on for the ride but the payoff can be big.  I think it may have even gotten me reinvigorated again.

What changed my perspective?  Simply being reminded what my miles open up.  My husband has a business meeting in Panama City (the one in Panama – not Florida) later this fall, and the timing of the meeting works perfectly around my daughter’s school schedule to allow us to tag along.  I dove in to the search, armed with a huge bank of Chase Ultimate Rewards points (which, most valuably, transfer to United miles), full Delta and American accounts, and a stash of SPG and Marriott points.  I spent this past weekend looking in every travel nook and cranny for the perfect Central American vacation.

As of last night, we are booked for several days in Panama as well as several days in Cancun.  We ended up paying cash for our plane tickets because participating in the hobby has also taught me the value of a mile.  Sometimes, when cash fares are really cheap, it is infinitely smarter to pay in cash for certain trips to save the miles for a higher value use.  The airline we are flying for 2 of the 3 legs of our trip (Copa) offers child fares, so the cash price of the tickets went down even further due to this bonus.

Of course, you have to know how to find those really cheap cash tickets on complex itineraries, just like you have to know how to find the steals and deals on miles awards.  Thanks to years of practice, I probably can pull off some searching tricks that the average flyer can’t.  I searched for the tickets we needed about thousand different ways.  Finally, I found tickets that get my family from San Francisco to Panama City to Cancun and back to SFO (over Thanksgiving week to boot) for a mere $650, all on non-stop flights at ideal times.  I could get mileage tickets for as low as 35,000 miles but the dates and times were not ideal.  Getting the tickets we ultimately booked on miles would have been triple that amount.  We’ll be using hotel loyalty points for some pretty sweet hotels on the Mayan Riveria to keep our costs low in other ways.

It feels like a victory.  And it reminded me to reflect as to why many of us play this crazy game.  I think a lot of us do precisely for the highs and lows.  It is exhilarating to find a good deal, feeling as if you have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.  Beating the airlines at their own game couldn’t be more fun.  For the moment, at least, I have.

I’m sure the coming months will be filled with plenty of new burnout and miles and points lows.  But for now, I’m relishing this win.  The miles and points roller coaster is an amazing ride.

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