S3, E3: Loyalty Programs

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, points and miles expert Paul Rubio guides us through the best airline and hotel loyalty programs for 2024.

The world of travel loyalty programs is . . . complicated. But it’s still worth joining them. On this week’s episode of Unpacked we explore the best programs, recent changes, and how to maximize each and every point.


Aislyn: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. Let me tell you, we have an episode for you today. We are talking about travel loyalty programs. You know, airline miles and hotel points and, yes, credit cards. But you do not have to be an Excel-tracking points obsessive to make some strides in this world.

Because you can leave all that obsessing to our guest, Paul Rubio. He’s a points and rewards pro. He writes about these topics as well as many other things for afar.com. And he joins us today to talk about the state of the industry, which programs are best at this moment in time, and how to navigate it all without spending your entire life reading points blogs.

Fair warning, it is going to get technical. So if your head is swimming by the end, never fear. I’ll link to a bunch of resources in the show notes. So grab a glass of wine, sit down, and get ready for your loyalty programs masterclass.

Aislyn: Paul, welcome back to Unpacked. It’s so nice to have you here today.

Paul: Thank you. I’m very excited to be back.

Aislyn: And you have, let’s just talk for a moment about your background because I’m seeing your suitcase and, I think, a map and this is feeling very travel appropriate.

Paul: I, I kind of set it up a little bit for, for the occasion, so you wouldn’t see into my kitchen. But yes, I have a lot of suitcases, big and small, and one of the many wonderful things that I do for AFAR is review suitcases. So these behind me are more like props. They’re not ones that I’ve reviewed, but—to shamelessly plug some of my suitcase reviews on the website—you can, um, read very detailed reviews about my Rimowa, my Tumi, and a few other ones to come.

Aislyn: Amazing. I also have my suitcase in my background, but it’s covered up by a, like, a dust protector.

Paul: Oh, nice.

Aislyn: Look at us, two travel people. Someday, maybe we’ll talk about suitcases together, but today we’re actually here to talk about travel loyalty programs, which—such a big, complex, crazy topic.

Paul: Yes, big and complex.

Aislyn: What’s your backstory? Can you tell us, uh, a little bit about how you got into this and what your expertise is?

Paul: I mean similar to credit cards—I pretty much have every credit card—

Aislyn: Which we talked about last season.

Paul: —I am a member to nearly every major airline and hotel loyalty program out there, both domestic and internationally, and have been since college. So not only that I have most of my family members enrolled in the key programs. I do this ’cause you have to remember, it costs nothing to join these programs. All frequent flier programs or, uh, loyalty programs are free to join. So you have nothing to lose, everything to gain. And points and miles, like since COVID, a lot of, uh, programs have changed their policies, and points of miles no longer expire.

So you can, like, you know, bank these miles in 2024 and forget you have them. And then 2027, you’re just on the second time you’ve ever flown a random airline. And voila, you already have some points, and then maybe you’ll have enough points to get something out of it. So, um, so they’re not gonna rot if you leave them in your account for years.

I know that I’ve had success with loyalty programs because I am type A, and I keep a spreadsheet of all of my loyalty program numbers and passwords. For people who are not spreadsheet inclined, there’s a website, um, an app called AwardWallet where you just enter in all your information and it keeps track of all of them for you.

Aislyn: That’s amazing. What a good idea.

Paul: So when I give, and it sounds overwhelming, like, “Oh, hey, join 10 different loyalty programs.” But you can manage it all in one place. So that makes it, that makes it simple.

Aislyn: That’s great. And like you said, if they’re free, there’s no charge. It’s not like getting a credit card where you might wanna, you know, pick and choose. Like you could join them all and—

Paul: Right. Like you’re not gonna be slapped with an annual fee next year and be like, “Oh God, what did I do?”

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. Just don’t click “subscribe to the newsletter,” right?

Paul: Right. Actually, except for ours. Yes, I will say, just make sure that you are, um, opted out of marketing material so you don’t get about 10 emails a week.

Aislyn: Yes. Yes. OK. Well, at the very beginning, you mentioned the complexity of these programs and it just feels to me like so much has shifted in this world. So where are we? Where do they stand in 2024? Like, have they improved? Are we in a good place?

Paul: OK. So I mean, the question of have loyalty programs improved is a huge question, but I’m gonna try to, like, start short and sweet. So, overall loyalty programs in 2024 are worse than they were in years back. But it’s been a downward trend for years. It’s just that—it’s nothing new—everyone just happens to be talking about it this year because I think with travel revenge, everyone out in the skies, um, chaos at airports, people trying to get into lounges.

Everyone’s kind of really wanted to get in on the loyalty program game this year, and so they’re becoming more aware of, like, what it is to be part of some of these programs. But yes, we’ve seen this downward trend over the years. So from 2023 to 2024, it’s not actually that bad. Uh, there have been some negative changes. Some are status quo, some are slightly positive. We’ll go over those hopefully more in detail later. But yes, if we look back five years ago, it costs more points to redeem for flights. It’s harder to get elite status. But there are still opportunities. So don’t give up hope.

Aislyn: OK. So still sign up for all of them.

Paul: Still do it.

Aislyn: Get the app.

Paul: Still do it. Still do it.

Aislyn: Still do it. Why, why would you say that, you know, for someone who’s like, “Oh, this seems like a lot to manage.”

Paul: Because sometimes you can get free flights and free hotel stays easier than you think. It might not be over the holiday break or, um, over summer break when—that’s the time that most people want them—but there are other opportunities. And for example, I’m going to, um, Mexico with my cousin in a few weeks.

She was not enrolled in the American Airlines program. We’re flying American, and I had her enroll, then got her credit retroactively for a flight she had taken to months prior. And then now after our Mexico flights, she’ll probably have about 9,000 American Airlines advantage points in her account, which can often get you a domestic one-way ticket. So who doesn’t want a free ticket? And like, and all it took was to just sign up, which [took] 30 seconds and then put her number in. That’s it. So it is, it is worth it. It is worth it, and the landscape is constantly changing. So you, you, there are good deals. They’re still there.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. And if you’re still traveling anyway, why not get the rewards for it, right? Like, why not get something, even if it takes you longer to get a free flight.

Paul: Yes.

Aislyn: Well, for people who aren’t as familiar or maybe are newer to this, what are the kind of broad categories of loyalty programs?

Paul: The big loyalty programs are with hotels and airlines, but your point programs through credit card companies are also considered loyalty programs. So the credit card ones are the most straightforward. You are part of the loyalty program just by having the card. The easiest example or the foremost examples would be American Express, Chase, and Capital One.

They have rewards programs and you earn based on your spending, you get bonus points for more spending. And these are for their general travel cards, like the Platinum and Gold cards from American Express to Capital One Venture X for Capital One, and then the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve. These credit cards, like their reward programs, are A) you’re earning the points. And then B) you can redeem your points by transferring them to partner loyalty programs with hotels and airlines.

But they also have VIP offerings as cardholders, which makes it feel like you are being rewarded as a customer. So last month I attended Art Basel in Miami Beach, one of the biggest art fairs in the world every year, and I had access to some incredible events just for being a cardholder to some of these cards, as part of their loyalty program.

So, uh, I went and had a private dinner with José Andrés, like the José Andrés, for $125 as a Capital One Venture X rewards cardholder. Um, in a gorgeous high-design setting, and unlimited glasses of Laurent-Perrier champagne, a three-course dinner with the chef himself. And then I also went to the Miguel and Becky G concerts, which was through Chase, that was 20,000 points to get a ticket to. The concerts, again, included all food and drink.

Some people don’t realize that you’re—these top credit cards kind of have, like, loyalty embedded in them. It’s not just the signup bonus, it’s not just the lounge access, but they have that, plus they also have their own hotel programs. So for American Express, this is Fine Hotels and Resorts. And for Capital One, it’s the Premier Collection. And when you book through their portals, you get, like, a $100—like for the Premier Collection from Capital One—you get $100 experience credit and you also get late checkout. Now if you do the programs through the credit cards, you can’t also collect miles on the actual loyalty programs of those hotels.

But that’s the credit, that’s the credit card, like, quick spiel. You know I’m, like, crazy about my credit cards.

Aislyn: And we will link to the episode you did on the credit cards and all of your—so in the show notes, all the resources will be there.

Paul: OK, perfect. OK, so for listeners also new to this world, for actual hotel and airline loyalty programs, like they’re gonna vary from program to program. I mean, that goes without saying, but we’re looking at, like, which programs to be loyal to in 2024.

You need to note that elite status qualification years vary by program. So for hotels, they’re by calendar years. Same thing for Southwest and United. They do their elite status qualifying year from January 1st to December 31st. But then Delta does it from February 1st to January 31st, and American does it from March 1st to February 28th. Um, so I know it’s really hard and the way—but in general, if you earn elite status in a qualifying year, you end up having it for the rest of that qualifying year and then the next qualifying year.

So I personally, my top status is with American Airlines. So, um, I’ve earned status already for this qualifying year, so I now have status until February 28th, 2025.

Aislyn: So it, really, it really extends.

Paul: It really extends. So it’s the full qualifying year in which you earn it, plus the entire 365 days afterwards. And then once you actually have that status, it often is easier to get status again because you have these bonus percentages for every stay or flight that you do, which makes it faster to earn the actual qualifying points that will get you elite status for the next year.

We’ve just gone from zero to a hundred, so we’re like—

Aislyn: Yeah, no, no.

Paul: —If you’re like, “ahhh,” I will say, I have written several articles about everything that we are discussing and which breaks it down in a very simplistic manner. So it just will take a little bit of reading and homework. So like, this is like the general overview, from, you know, the 101 to the PhD-level course, but you can then go back to all of the individual courses.

Aislyn: This is your masterclass. Can we start with hotels? So if you either, you know, have the credit cards settled or you’re not doing the credit cards and you want to participate in a hotel loyalty program, which one or ones would you recommend? Especially for 2024.

Paul: OK, so I’m gonna start with good news, which is that hotel programs haven’t been decimated the same way that airline loyalty programs have. There have, there have been some devaluations, uh, with like how many, how valuable the points are for redeeming free nights, especially with Marriott Bonvoy, but it’s not the doom and gloom that, like, we hear about the airline industry. So we have the four big hotel loyalty programs, which are Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, and IHG One Rewards. Marriott Bonvoy is the biggest and the one that everyone hears about the most, but it’s definitely not the best in my opinion, especially if you’re starting.

Aislyn: Why is that?

Paul: So if you achieve top status with them, um, which requires so many nights and spending so much money, you will have an amazing Marriott experience. But to get to that point, you almost have to be someone who lives in a hotel, or—

Aislyn: A true business traveler.

Paul: A true business traveler, or you’re just frequenting hotels more than even, like, your average business traveler.

Aislyn: Wow.

Paul: So for people who’ve only been at this for a few years, I would definitely say, consider World of Hyatt or Hilton Honors. World of Hyatt, not as big as the others, but it’s my favorite hotel loyalty program, hands down. To get the highest status with Hyatt requires 60 nights, comparatively with Marriott, it’s 100 nights, so that, that’s a huge difference. But with Hyatt, the perks of elite status are arguably the greatest and their points are the most valuable of any hotel or airline loyalty program out there.

For example, I want to cash in some World of Hyatt points for a night at the Park Hyatt Vendome in Paris. I just, like, looked this up this morning. In June, I want to go for a night. It’s 1,900 euros for a night if I want to pay cash or, like, $2,100, but I can get it with 45,000 World of Hyatt points. If I want to get an equivalent hotel that is part of Marriott Bonvoy, it would require probably, like, closer to 1 cent per point value. So it’d be more like 200,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.

Aislyn: Wow.

Paul: So, you know, going back to people who are new at this, and we’ll also reiterate this as we go on, every program is different, but every program has its own points or miles that need to be viewed as their own currencies. So the dollar and the peso and the euro are all not equal.

The other thing I love about the World of Hyatt, uh, program is that now in 2024, they have milestone rewards, so you’re not just, like, getting elite status and having all of these great benefits as you climb the elite ladder, you’re getting rewarded along the way. So that, that’s really nice. And, um, they’ve had the milestone rewards, like, for a while, but they just revamped the entire program and, um, these rewards come in the form of, like, a free night stay, bonus points, suite upgrades.

There are a lot of rewards to be had. And actually, as we were saying, we’re gonna link to some articles, I had a[n] article just come out called “Everything You Need to Know About Hyatt’s Loyalty Program Changes for 2024,” which came out a few weeks ago, so you can look at that.

Aislyn: And what, what are the perks once you hit elite status with Hyatt, and how do you accrue points? Is it only through staying?

Paul: So you can accrue points through stays, but also credit card spending. So for World of Hyatt, they have their own card. They have their own business and personal card. And with the cards, you actually get, like, a boost towards elite status. You get, like, five qualifying nights. And I think the current offer—I mean, offers vary over time, but the current offer, I believe is 60,000 points after spending, let’s say perhaps $5,000 or $6,000 in six months.

It’s something along those lines. The other way to get World of Hyatt points is—and my favorite way to do it—is through, uh, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve. So when you bank points through their program, which is Ultimate Rewards, you can then transfer ultimate rewards to other loyalty programs, one of which is World of Hyatt.

So, if you get the Chase Sapphire Reserve and that signup bonus is—on one of the specials of 80,000 or the, the regular offer of 60,000—once you bank those points, you can then transfer that full amount at a one to one ratio to World of Hyatt. And then also, once you have the elite perks, one of, like my favorite with Hyatt is the g—almost guaranteed late checkout.

Aislyn: Oh, nice.

Paul: I have, uh, lucky me, I have Globalist status and as a Globalist I get suite upgrades if available. So if there’s any suite in the hotel that is not occupied, I’m getting it, which is amazing, even if I’ve paid or booked on miles with—at the lowest rate, I will get that upgrade to the top room then.

Aislyn: And Globalist is the top—

Paul: Globalist is after, is after 60 nights. And with the card, the World of Hyatt card, if you get that, you get their first rung, uh, automatically as well. Besides the five qualifying nights, you actually get Explorer status. The other thing I wanted to mention about hotel programs is—so if you’re going to go all in and you are going to spend several nights or let’s say tens of nights throughout the year—go for World of Hyatt.

If you don’t have, like, tons of travel plans, but you wanna have, like, the perks of, like, being a top elite, then I would say consider going for Hilton Honors because they are unique in that with their credit card, you automatically get, can get top status just by having the card. So the Hilton Aspire card, uh, which is one of Hilton’s cobranded cards, comes with Diamond status, which is the top, top, and you can get those big upgrades. You will get a $50 a night credit per person at the Waldorf, at any Waldorf Hotel and Conrad when you stay. Uh, so that’s $100, which is incredible. And then you can get late checkout sometimes—it depends on the property, but you will have all those benefits just by being a cardholder.

Now, of course, that card is expensive, and it’s like around $500. Uh, if you don’t want to spend that kind of money to get elite status, you can go for the Surpass card, which is—the Hilton Surpass is their other cobranded card. It’s $150 a year. It comes with all kinds of benefits and credits, uh, which defray the cost. But you get automatic Gold status, which has its own lineup of perks. And finally, the Platinum card for American Express, which is one of our favorite cards here at AFAR. As part of being a cardholder, [it] gives you automatic Gold status with both Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors once you enroll.

So that’s, like, you can automatically get hotel status just by being a Platinum cardholder in both those big programs.

Aislyn: Are there any other ways that you would say that travelers should try to maximize these programs in 2024 if they already belong? I mean, I have accounts with both World of Hyatt and Marriott and I just accrue points randomly, like I’m not trying to hit status, but I have been able to use my Hyatt points quite frequently, which has been great.

I somehow, I ended up with a bunch and I was able to book a night up in Sacramento recently and anyway, they’ve been really useful.

Paul: Yeah. Um, I would say look at—OK, you don’t wanna sign up for every marketing email, but you wanna get some—if, if you are, um, investing into the loyalty program. Because, um, I just got 3,000 bonus points from Hyatt because I registered for a promotion for quarter four. Like, if you stay three nights, even with points you’ll, we’re gonna give you 3,000 bonus points. So those little promotions do help. Also you can look out for transfer bonuses, uh, going back to the credit cards and their programs and the ability to transfer from credit card points to loyalty programs in, um, hotels.

American Express often has a promotion with Hilton, where you can get like 2.8 Hilton points for every American Express point. And so then that kind of adds up very quickly. So be on the lookout for those promotions for sure.

Aislyn: OK. That’s good to know. To not totally unsubscribe.

Paul: No, no, no. Don’t totally unsubscribe.

Aislyn: . . . to life. OK, now I feel like we need to talk about airlines. Hotels seem a little bit more positive, more straightforward. Airlines have had a rocky year.

Paul: Yes. Yeah.

Aislyn: So where, where are we at with airlines in 2024?

Paul: Where are we at? All right, so, um, airline programs, they keep trying to make ’em simpler, so they say, but they’ve just become more and more complicated and they all follow a completely different system. So for this year, the big four U.S. airlines, which are American, Southwest, Delta, and United, which account for 74, 70 percent of U.S. airline seats.

We have some positive news for Southwest. We have negative news for Delta, as everybody knows, and we have like very, very weak sauce, positive news for United. So in terms of trying to, you know, figure out, like, what is the good, the bad, and the ugly here, and where you stand and how to approach this.

OK. So I say if you live near a hub for a specific airline or an alliance, um, that clearly, like, could make the most sense for you because they have a large presence, you can get—it’s the easiest way to move up the ladder in terms of elite status because you’re going to need to fly that airline quickly. On the other end, sometimes I like to choose an airline that has, like, the second largest presence in an airport, because if you’re flying Delta out of Atlanta, for example. There are so many people flying Delta out of Atlanta, so their top elites are all flying out of Atlanta. They’re always going to get priority for the complimentary upgrades, which is like what we covet in elite status.

That’s never gonna happen for you, most likely, um, if you are flying out of that hub. The other thing is, when we start breaking down some of the programs themselves, um, United and Delta, their metric for elite status is how much you spend on the airline, whether it’s, like, flights with their alliances, seat upgrades, and so you’re not going to achieve, like, top status unless you spend a ton of money, like tens of thousands. So that will work out really well for people in business that have, like, company cards that, you know, doesn’t matter. Like they have, like, no spending cap date. They’re just gonna go with, like, what works for them.

But if you’re going on your own dime, which is what I do, um, that’s why I go with American Airlines, they have a different program, which is it’s called Loyalty Points, another complicated program. But the bottom line for Loyalty Points is that you can achieve many points towards elite status without actually ever flying.

So I do fly American a lot, but like if, if I was basing my elite status on flights alone, I would only have Gold status. But because American has this bit more well-rounded program, the Loyalty Points program, I have Executive Platinum, which is top status. How so? Because one, of course, I have their credit card, which gives status boosts.

Um, like, uh, once you hit 50,000 points, you get a 10,000 point boost. Once you hit 90,000 points, you get another 10,000 point boost. But you can earn points with them through advantages, shopping portal through a program called Simply Miles that they have, and then through their dining program, which—again, [you’re like] “Oh my God, [I have] to sign up for more things?” Yeah, you do. Like, you want the, you want those free business classes, you do gotta sign up for those things.

So recently, there were networks of rewards within—bundled under loyalty programs. Like, for example, this Simply Miles program, Simply Miles basically works with any MasterCard. Um, you register your MasterCard and then you get points deposited in your American Airlines account for doing certain transactions. Just recently, uh, they had a promotion, which if you give a $50 donation to Conservation International, you get 1,750 loyalty points. Which is a lot like, that’s like the equivalent with other airlines of spending a lot of money.

So $50 and you could do it three times. So through that I got over 5,000 points and I love Conservation International, I wanted to give a donation anyway, so it worked out. And now I banked tons of points. I did a lot of my holiday shopping through their portal. I ended up getting 9,000 points, through the shopping portal because they’d sometimes give like 10 points per dollar spent and all these little things they add up and I’m—so, I bank far more miles through American’s affiliate network than I do actually by flying American. So for someone who is trying to do this on their own dime and doesn’t have a company paying or, like, is not prepared to spend $50,000 on flights, the American Airlines program is of the big ones, the best one.

Aislyn: OK.

Paul: As far as Southwest goes, they are making elite status easier in 2024. So that’s, like, really exciting news. They’ve knocked down the number of qualifying segments that you need to get elite status, but Southwest, which we love because everyone’s equal, right? But, like, then you don’t really like—elite status doesn’t really do much for you, right? You already have, you’re not gonna get business class ’cause it doesn’t exist. You’re not gonna get free bags, you already get them. So elite status with Southwest is a little bit of a non-event. What you will get is, like, if you’re A-List Preferred, you’ll get two drinks per flight. And if you’re—as A-List, you get free, free same-day standby. A-List Preferred also gets free Wi-Fi, but it’s kind of small and we have to remember that

Aislyn: I see. Yeah.

Paul: Southwest A-List, which is their elite program, is not the same as Companion Pass, which is their BOGO program. Like you earn points towards both when you fly, but the Companion Pass—funny enough—is easier to get because you can do credit card promotions and if you sign up for, like, two of their cards, like a business and a personal, you can get enough points.

Since those welcome points count towards Companion status but not towards elite status, you can actually get a Companion Pass very quickly. But then earning elite status might take more time. So there’s positive news coming outta Southwest, but kind of a non-event.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah, I see it. Maybe not the one to prioritize, unless for some reason it’s the only airline that you can fly.

Paul: But we, but I do love, I, I continue to love Southwest for what they do offer their passengers.

Aislyn: Last year there was some news you, you alluded to it earlier, some news on the Delta front. They outlined some changes to their program, and then they swiftly backpedaled.

Paul: Yes.

Aislyn: Why do you think that they did that? Why do you think they undid some of those changes?

Paul: OK. Well, so they got crazy customer backlash. But the truth of the matter is the other programs did so many similar things, but like years, in years past. For Delta, it was just really poor timing. Like I told you, this year, everyone’s really become their own expert and, and, and, and loyalty programs and airport lounges and they think they know everything about it.

And I will say Delta did devalue SkyMiles, like their, the worth of them, especially for international tickets, a few years back. A lot of people were upset about that, but kind of no one said anything. [So] when they came out with this news, it was like, like a double whammy. So they were first changing the elite status qualifications but then also changing lounge access.

So I think they thought, “All right, let’s just kind of, like, rip off the Band-Aid and just tell them everything that’s happening.” And the elite status changes were for 2024. The lounge policies weren’t even gonna be until 2025, but they were just like, “We’re just gonna tell them all at once. Like, we’re just gonna let them know.”

And so people got upset. However, in one of my articles that came out in early December when United announced a few changes to, um, its program. United has not made any negative changes this year, however. The current United program makes it harder to achieve first rung Silver status than Delta’s new program. So everyone’s so mad at Delta, but Delta is still easier to get status on than United.

Aislyn: Interesting. So it was more just like a PR misstep.

Paul: It was a PR misstep. And I, again, timing because everyone’s paying attention right now. People were not paying so much attention two years ago ’cause so many points had been accrued during COVID. People hadn’t used them. And everyone had, it’s almost like everyone had, like, the equivalent of funny money and points. Like, they were like, “Oh yeah, I can spend these points. I don’t care. It’s fine, it’s fine.” But now everyone’s kind of tightening, you know, inflation has hit, has hit the points world and they’re like, “Wait, wait, I don’t wanna use those points.” You know, “I want my elite status.”

Aislyn: “Those are my precious points. Where’s my lounge access?”

Paul: I know. So, um I think that Delta took the heat for everything that everyone’s been doing in the industry. And it was frustrating when they announced it ’cause it was a lot at once. But I will say they were smart and that they backpedaled quickly and they made some significant changes and it’s definitely much easier, or it’s going to be better now than what the original plans were for the overhaul of the program.

Aislyn: And are they still taking place in ’24 and 2025?

Paul: So in 2024, Delta will move to a single metric, which is the medallion qualifying dollars. But you’ll get a boost towards status if you have, like, a Delta Reserve card, I think once you spend about, I think it’s $3,500 on Delta or $20—I have to, I have to check $3,500 or $4,000—you, you’ll have your status because of the boost.

The other thing is, um, I mentioned that United came out with this news of, like, they’re making no changes to elite status, but like some positive changes in, in how you can earn elite status. Again, a non-event, but it was well-timed. Like while Delta was just kind of, like, down on the floor, like, they just kind of, like, punched right in and kicked them and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re, you know, we’re gonna show you.”

But they’re giving, more, more qualifying points to people who spend on their cobranded cards. But even with this, these new figures of, like, how many points you’ll get towards elite status for spending, I think it’s something like you have to spend $100,000 dollars to get it through spending alone, which is crazy. But anyway, again, it was a good PR move.

Aislyn: How do you see Alaska fitting into all of this?

Paul: There’s, there are quite a few changes happening with Alaska. I’m not sure. I’m waiting to see if the merger with Hawaiian or, like, the takeover of Hawaiian actually happens. Alaska is changing their mileage redemption levels in 2024, the miles will not be as valuable.

However, now that they became part of oneworld Alliance last year, there’s just so many synergies between American and Alaska and then soon hopefully Hawaiian that, if you live in that market, like, it makes sense to, to be part of. But I love Alaska Airlines, but I can never—like, I, I get a buy one, get one free certificate from them every year for having their credit card ’cause again, I have every credit card, um, but I never use it because it just, living on the East Coast, I just don’t have the opportunity to, to really use it. But yes, they do have a solid program. They still treat their customers well. But it’s changing rapidly now that they’re part of oneworld and then it will change.

I, this one is bound to change significantly depending on what happens with Hawaiian because Hawaiian’s program is definitely inferior to Alaska’s. So which one they will adopt and how this will work remains to be seen. That’ll probably be like the big story going into 2025.

Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I, living on the West Coast, I fly Alaska a lot and my mom was a flight attendant with Horizon, which, you know, is their subsidiary. And so I’m really curious to know how that’s gonna play out. So hopefully they stick with the Alaska program ’cause it’s good. It’s pretty good.

Paul: I know. And they also serve those amazing local beers, or not local, beers like the, the Seattle beers. The Portland beers. The Alaska beer is so good.

Aislyn: I know, and they’re little, they have a little Stowaway [cocktail]—they have this really great Old Fashioned that, that is like on every flight. That is my, that’s my drink.

Paul: I hope, I hope they don’t get rid of it.

Aislyn: Well, OK, so we’ve talked a lot about programs and how to maximize them. Do you ever think it’s worth buying points or miles? ’Cause like right now I’m getting all these offers, like 50 percent off. You know, there’s these great email deals, but it just never seems like it’s worth it from my perspective, but—

Paul: So I think, like, if you’re a neophyte, then kind of stay away. But I’m a big fan of buying points and miles at the right time with the right programs. Again, we have two articles on this. I have an article on buying airline points and an article on buying hotel points. I think it’s less risky to buy hotel points specifically for IHG One Rewards and Hilton because when they put them on sale, they sell ’em for 50 cents a point and almost always you can cash out those points for more than 50 cents a point. So you’re typically, like, looking at a cost-beneficial purchase.

The other reason I like to buy points in both of those programs if I haven’t earned enough myself, is that they have amazing offers, where if—so with Hilton, if you’re a member and have elite status, even like the lowest elite status, or if you have the elite status through having the Platinum card from Capital One or whatever, they, they have an offer where if you get five nights, the fifth one is free. So it’s called like five for four. So you’re getting five nights at the price of four. So if, uh, with Hilton points, if the hotel is 90,000 points a night, then you’re paying 360,000 points for five nights instead of 450,000, which is incredible. And then if you’re buying those points, um, 360,000 points at 50 cents a point is $1,800.

Uh, also when you book with points, you’re not paying resort fees. So I have used this like where I have purchased a sum of points and spent $1,800 for a five-nights stay. That would’ve cost $6,000 or $7,000. But again, you have to just make sure that the dates are available with points and that it is a cost beneficial thing.

So it’s a little bit more of an advanced thing to do. I, I don’t recommend buying most airline points because typically they sell them, like, way above what market value is. Maybe if you, like, need to have a few extra points to get that ticket, consider it, but sometimes I personally buy American points because they are partners with Qatar Airways, my favorite, and they have the Q Suite, which is my favorite.

And I recently got a round trip to Johannesburg from Miami for 140,000 points.

Aislyn: Wow.

Paul: Which yes, by buying the points cost me about $2,700. But had I purchased that ticket, it would’ve been $10,000. So, and I would’ve never purchased it, right?

Aislyn: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

Paul: Economy ticket was gonna be like $1,500. Then I’m like, “Well, I could buy points and get it for $2,700 in business. I’m gonna do that.” So, yeah. So sometimes it’s worth it, but we have both the articles that kind of break it all down.

Aislyn: And how do you calculate the value of a point?

Paul: I mean, I do it, I do it myself. Um, but yes, it, it is out there. Like if you, if [you] just Google, like, how different blogs value points at a different amount. Sometimes they’re fixed amounts. Typically like a Jet Blue point is pegged to the dollar. Southwest is pegged to the dollar. It there, it doesn’t vary wildly, but with some of the other programs, yes, the, the value changes, but there are general trends. So that I had mentioned earlier that World of Hyatt has the most valuable current points currency. And that’s again, if you look at it, that Park Hyatt Vendome, 45,000 points or $2,100, that shows that, like, you’re getting over 4 cents per point. But then with Marriott, like an equivalent hotel’s 200,000 points, you’re getting 1 cent per point. So you can do the math yourself, but there’s so many, there’s so much information out there of, like, what the value of the different programs are that don’t bother doing the math yourself.

Aislyn: Just gotta keep your head from exploding somehow. What do you think that people often get wrong about loyalty programs, or, like, what are your no-nos when it comes to these things?

Paul: OK, so, like, what I just said, all points and miles aren’t created equal. They’re their own currencies. So don’t think, like, that just because you spend 10,000 points on, on—in one program to get something that you’re gonna get an equivalent for 10,000 points in another. It just doesn’t always work like that.

People also think they can’t belong to multiple loyalty programs, and they can. And they should. And I was saying, I belong to all of them. You know, control the spam, unless like you really, you wanna get those good promotions. People also think they can only belong to domestic programs, but there are so many international loyalty programs that are incredible.

For example, Air France, KLM, Flying Blue, that’s, like, my favorite international program. I love them because they are partners with so many of the credit card loyalty programs. So I can transfer from Chase, Capital One, or Amex into Air France Flying Blue. They often have promotions for transfers like a 25 percent bonus.

So transfer one American Airlines point and get 1.25 flying Blue points. They often have flights from Miami to Paris in business class, 70,000 miles each way. Which let’s say if you try to book that through Delta, they would probably charge you 300,000 or 400,000 points. But if you do it through Air France, KLM, Flying Blue, 70,000 points.

Aislyn: So can you, before you actually transfer those points, can you go and kind of spec it out? Like you could go look on Air France. How much would this cost me if I wanted to use points versus Delta? And that’s part of how you make that decision?

Paul: Yes. So going back to, “what is a point worth,” the points that are in credit card programs, loyalty programs are always considered the most valuable because you have the option of choice. They’re not gonna go away as long as your card is open and you can transfer them as and when needed.

So, yes, I would recommend, if you have a destination in mind, definitely go on to the actual website of the frequent flier program or hotel loyalty program and make sure that what you’re looking for is available with points before you do any transfers whatsoever.

I mean, you can do that yourself. There are other services out there that do that. There’s something called Point.me, which is great if you have very specific dates in mind. It’ll tell you kind of like “Yay or nay, you can or can’t do this.” But you put in, for flights, um, you wanna fly from point A to point B, round trip, on specific dates, what class you want. And it’ll tell you, of every award program out there pretty much, which is the cheapest in points.

So it’ll give you the whole rundown from American Airlines to Air France, KLM to Air Canada, and it’ll tell you what is the best one to do.

Aislyn: Amazing.

Paul: I know.

Aislyn: Whew.

Paul: There’s another, we have an article on that too. I have an article on that too. And then there’s another, another—

Aislyn: —the show notes is gonna be packed—

Paul: —called, Going With Points, which is my favorite. And I just put on alerts for great, like points, deals on flights and when they open up and I get, I get notifications.

And so that is, that is how I got that Qatar Airways ticket to Africa, um, just a few weeks ago because there hadn’t been any Q Suite reward tickets in like a year. I got this notification from Going With Points, which I’m subscribed to, that, like, all these seats had opened up. I went, got miles right away, booked the tickets.

Aislyn: Well, what do you think the future holds for loyalty programs? Like where, where do you think this is all going?

Paul: Um, to go back where we started, like it’s been a downward trend. I feel 2023 to 2024, despite everyone kind of getting their panties in a bunch over Delta, like, has been mellow and mild. And I think that we’re just gonna see more things, like, chip away at the programs over the years, unfortunately.

Aislyn: Yeah.

Paul: But you just have to get to know your program and then figure out ways to adapt. I used to be loyal to US Airways before I was part of American. I thought like, “Oh my God, how am I gonna start working with American?” And then I figure that out and then American switches to the Loyalty Points program, and then I figure that out.

You just have to be adaptable and you have to kind of keep up with our articles on afar.com, because we report on all these amazing things all the time. And then listen to podcasts like these, um, to help guide you. And then you have all of the linked articles, so you can go take a deep dive to every subject we spoke about—

Aislyn: Earn your PhD.

Paul: Earn your PhD. But next year I do think the big news will be the Alaska, Hawaiian Air, and the changes that kind of come with that, and then how that impacts the oneworld Alliance, and then that will definitely impact American. So we shall see.

Aislyn: Trickle down.

Paul: We can’t predict the future. I would love to say that things are just gonna get better and better, but, uh, I don’t think so.

Aislyn: Maybe they will surprise us.

Paul: Yes. I hope so. I hope so.

Aislyn: Go Alaska. You can do it.

Paul: I know. Let’s, let’s hope. We all like to be rewarded for our loyalty in every capacity and facet of our lives. This is one way where you can actually get tangible benefits for being loyal, so it’s definitely worth it. And of course, as I always say, don’t be scared to get a credit card to boost your elite status or to kind of get ahead of the game. You know, it’s, it’s the easiest way to cheat and the most legal way.

Aislyn: OK. We won’t talk about the illegal ways on this podcast.

Paul: No, I don’t—no, no, no, no. We won’t do that.

Aislyn: And that folks was Paul Rubio. One quick note, we recorded this episode in late December, and at that time there were no updates to American Airlines’ loyalty program to report. Since then, however, a handful of positive changes have been announced. I’ll link to the story Paul wrote about that in the show notes. And as I mentioned at the top of the episode, we’ll link to stories about all of the topics mentioned today, as well as his social media handles in the show notes. So let’s grab another glass of wine and get to work.

Next week, we’ll be back with a London tour company that employs a very special type of guide.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We are @AFARmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing always makes that easy. And be sure to rate and review the show on your favorite podcast platforms. It helps other travelers find it. And if you ever want to ask a question or suggest a topic for coverage, you can reach out to us at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.