Point Me to First Class with Devon Gimbel MD | Is Points Travel Still Worth It? With Traci Siegel

51. Is Points Travel Still Worth It? With Traci Siegel

Feb 19, 2024

Today is a sad day for points travel. Some recent negative changes to award booking programs and credit card eligibility rules are making it harder for us as travel hackers and points travelers. So is it still worth learning how to earn and use points now, or are all the best opportunities already gone? I have the perfect guest on today’s show to answer this question.

My guest this week is points expert Traci Siegel, a non-practicing attorney who has been using miles and points to travel around the US and the world with her family of four since 2011. She's been teaching friends how to hack their families' travel for years, and now she's teaching even more new friends how to expand their travel budgets through her Instagram.

Tune in this week to discover the recent announcements that are changing the face of points travel and learn whether earning points is still worth it. Traci and I are discussing how we plan to keep getting value from points and awards programs, even as the points landscape changes, sometimes dramatically, over the years.


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What You’ll Learn from this Episode: 

  • Some of the recent changes we’re seeing in the points travel landscape and how they’ll impact you.

  • How the points game has changed since Traci started in 2011.

  • Why some changes to the points landscape take opportunities away, and some changes create even better ones.

  • The opportunities that are available now in points travel that weren’t imaginable just 10 years ago.

  • How to find the positives in the changes we’re seeing in frequent flier programs and credit card eligibility.

  • Why strategy is more important than ever before to maximize the points you can earn and use.

  • Traci’s favorite awards programs, tools for staying organized, and tips for anyone getting started.


Listen to the Full Episode:


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Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to Point Me to First Class, the only show for employed professionals, entrepreneurs, and business owners who are looking to optimize their higher-than-average expenses to travel the world. I'm your host, Devon Gimbel, and I believe that your expenses are your greatest untapped asset if you know how to leverage them. Ready to dive into the world of credit card points and miles so you can travel more, travel better, and travel often? Let's get started.

Hello everybody, and welcome back to the podcast. Now, I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but today is a little bit of a sad day in the world of points travel because news has recently been released of several negative changes to award booking programs and credit card eligibility rules that you're going to hear a bit more about in a minute. Unfortunately, this is not entirely uncommon.

Every year airline frequent flyer programs, hotel loyalty programs, and the banks that issue our favorite points earning rewards credit cards, reevaluate and potentially change their rules or the opportunities that exist to earn and use points for award travel. More often than not, those changes are not amazing for us, the consumers of rewards credit card products and users of loyalty programs for booking award travel. 

Not uncommonly, when these changes occur, folks will wonder whether there is still value to be had in earning and using points. Particularly for people who are newer to this hobby and don't have as long an experience seeing how these things change dynamically over time. The question inevitably gets asked: is there any point to learning how to earn and use points now? Are all the best points opportunities already gone?

As someone who's been in this hobby for almost 10 years, I can tell you two things. First, the landscape of earning and using points for travel looks very different now than it did five or 10 years ago. Second, that's not necessarily all bad. In fact, there are points earning and redeeming opportunities available to us now that didn't exist just a few years ago or that seemed impossible. 

So whether you're a newcomer to the points travel world, or someone who's been around for a while, today's episode is for you. I've invited points expert Traci Siegel to join me to talk about the most recent changes in loyalty programs and credit card rules that we heard about this week. And how we think about continuing to get value from points and war programs, even as the points landscape changes, sometimes dramatically over the years. Let's dive in. 

Devon: Hi, Traci, welcome to the show. I'm so excited to have you here today.

Traci: Hi, I'm really excited to be here too.

Devon: Amazing. So can you first just introduce yourself a little bit? Can you tell everyone about where you're from, what you do, and how did you first get into earning points for award travel?

Traci: Okay, I am Traci Siegel, and I am an attorney but I don't practice. So I wanted to find the sort of sweet spot where I could do the academic type work, but not have to deal with clients. So I actually work for a legal publishing company. I get to do all the research and writing and fun part of the law, or what I think is the fun part of the law. So basically, I write legal books that explain the law to lawyers in Texas. 

The Texas part is we used to live in Houston, lived in Houston for almost 20 years. Then last summer, we moved to Washington State. So now we're sort of learning a new area of the country and exploring from a different airport as our home airport. I've got a husband and two kids that are 14. 

So we've been traveling with our kids since they were six months old but internationally since they were four. That was as old as they were when I felt like okay, I can handle this. I knew they could handle it, but like I couldn't handle it necessarily. A little bit of anxiety. How will they behave on the plane? Things like that. So we've been traveling with them overseas since they were four. They're 14 now. So it's been a while.

When we first got into miles and points, it was 2011. The landscape was very different then. In many ways it was better. In some ways it was worse. I'm sure we'll talk about all that. But it's been something that we've been able to keep up consistently throughout the kids’ childhoods, and that is giving us all these opportunities to travel with them and have all these great experiences. It's been amazing the whole time. 

Devon: Yeah, I love hearing that. I agree with you in terms of what you said about the landscape. I have been doing points and miles not quite as long as you, but probably back to around 2014 is where I first got into it. For me, it was not everything right away. Like I think that I started learning initially about award redemptions and earning points. 

I was kind of in that place for a number of years, and I didn't really start caring or learning about hotels until a couple years after that when it became much more relevant to then kind of what I was facing in terms of just my travel plans and having kids and then having to incorporate them into my travel plans. 

Like you mentioned, a lot has changed over the last 10 or 15 years. That's exactly what we're going to be talking about today, sharing some of our perspectives and experiences about what may have been a little bit better or easier 10 years ago, but also what are the opportunities that exist now that were not even a possibility 10 or 15 years ago? 

One of the reasons why we're talking about this now is because this week, at least this week in recording time, not maybe when you end up listening to this episode, but this week in recording time, there have been a couple of fairly significant pieces of news that have come out around different aspects of the award travel world. 

First, we're going to touch on what those are. Then we're going to expand the conversation into, again, a broader sort of timeframe. One of the things that we heard this week, and it seemed like it came out of nowhere, which unfortunately, these things sometimes do, is a major change to one specific frequent flyer program. That is the Turkish Miles and Smiles program, the frequent flyer program of Turkish Airlines. 

This frequent flyer program, for years, has had some really amazing award opportunities in terms of redeeming points for travel. Not even just internationally, but even within the United States. Literally overnight, it seemed like reports were popping up that it looked like Turkish was either immediately or very soon going to change their program in a pretty significant way. 

So do you want to share with us just kind of what are your thoughts about what you heard about these changes? Put into context like how big a deal do you think it is that Turkish Miles and Smiles is changing their program in the way that they are right now?

Traci: Well, I think it is a big deal. My experience with Turkish Miles and Smiles is pretty limited. I've only redeemed one Turkish code award flight. It was amazing. So I'm like I was an instant fan. I need to do more of this. I had all these big plans to get my husband to go with me next time because I went on a solo girls trip for the first time I did it. Now I'm like oh, well, I guess that's kind of a momento. 

But it has some really good areas still, I think even after the devaluation. Like, for example, it's gone from, I think, 7,500 points to fly in economy within one country on a Star Alliance partner, right. So a lot of people like that sweet spot. For United to Hawaii was 7,500 Turkish Miles and Smiles. People use that a lot. 

Now it's going up to 10,000 points. Is that the end of the world? No, it's still a really good redemption. If I wanted to fly to Hawaii on Alaska from Seattle, it's still going to cost me 13,000 Avios if I were to fly that way. So there's still good value to be had in there. I think we were talking about just the other day. 

If I wanted to fly to Istanbul in business class, I'm still going to go with Turkish Miles and Smiles because if I have to pay 65,000 miles to go on that flight versus 80,000 to fly on United or something else, Turkish is a lot nicer. So I'm going to go on that. So there's still some areas where it could make sense. I think it does not make as much sense now if you're connecting in Istanbul to go elsewhere.

I think Turkish has such a big footprint too that that's a really big plus of their program. So if you want to go to East Africa, South Africa, Seychelles, and Maldives, Turkish is a really great option. I still think that there is some value to be had there. But it's more in line now with other airlines programs. There are some areas where it is overpriced now relatively speaking, but they're also some where it's still competitive. It's just not as great as it used to be. So I think it's good to keep that perspective in mind. There's still some good spots in there. 

Devon: Yeah, I agree with you completely. What we are now seeing as the changes that we can expect in Turkish Miles and Smiles, just to give everybody a little bit of background for people who might not be digging through award charts in their free time as their leisure activity like some of us do in this hobby. Is that for Turkish Miles and Smiles, this has been, I think, especially the last couple of years as we have seen other really large airline frequent flyer programs change their awards and change their award prices. Turkish Miles and Smiles hasn't really done that recently, at least in my memory. 

So what this meant is that as other airlines are making it more expensive in terms of the number of points required to travel certain distances. Like Traci, you were mentioning, to travel between the US and Europe or even the US and Istanbul and then beyond. This has been such an amazing sweet spot of this award program. 

To be able to fly from the US to Europe and then connect basically anywhere in Europe. So US to Istanbul and then go to Spain or US to Istanbul and then go up to France for as little as potentially 45,000 points one way. I really can't think of another sweet spot that was as readily available. We know of some sweet spots that are very good that might be fewer points, but only between two very specific areas. Right? 

Traci: Right.

Devon: And this is. 

Traci: Or it’s never actually available. 

Devon: Or it’s never available, right? So what's the point of it being there if no one can ever actually book it? But the Turkish Miles and Smiles saver level award at that 45,000 point level for one way business class flights, this was not a unicorn award, right? Like you could actually find this award, you could book it, it could be available for more than one person at a time. So this was what I consider to be an actual accessible award to the majority of people, which I think is a big deal. 

What we're seeing now is what we've heard from Turkish, not me personally. They don't know who I am, but via email that I have received from them is that these changes to their award chart are expected to go into place a couple of days from now, from when we're actually recording this episode. So anyone who ever hears this episode, the new award chart will be in place. 

To give you an idea of what some of the changes are, when frequent flyer program does what's called, I think they say it very obsequiously, very nicely. Oh, we're reevaluating our prices. Essentially, what they're always doing is increasing their prices. So what we say is they're devaluing their award prices. That can be by a little or it can be by a lot. 

I would say that this current reevaluation or devaluation of the Turkish Miles and Smiles program is actually fairly substantial. Because a lot of the awards we're seeing looks like they're probably going to about double in price. That is not an insignificant amount.

But I think to your point that it's one thing to look at a one way business class award increasing from 45,000 points up to 85,000 points one way, and any regular person is going to look at that and say wow, that's really unfortunate. Now, all of a sudden, my points, if that's how I wanted to use them, are going to be worth half as much. I do think that that part of it is true. But speaking to your point that if we take this not as just one isolated award chart, but we look at it in terms of well, what are all of the other options that are available in terms of using our points or miles, again, for similar routes? Getting from the US over to Europe or getting from the US over to some other areas of the world. 

Really what I think this is not, again. It’s not a great thing. I'm not excited about this. But this is bringing Turkish Airlines award chart kind of more in line with what we are seeing from other major international carriers. I think part of why this is so disappointing is because this is one award program that has not been following the trend that so many other airline programs have been following, especially the last one to five years. 

So this program started standing out more and more and more for really how affordable they were making some of these flights. So now we're just seeing them come more in line with what we're used to seeing from other major international carriers. I agree with you that I don't think these award changes mean that now this is a useless program. I still think there are a lot of great potential uses of this program. But it is disappointing at the same time when we start to lose some of these amazing deals. 

I think a lot of people get into award travel, there is sort of a segment of our community where we love great deals. We love flying nice airlines or we love being able to use our points to travel. But part of the enjoyment is when we can grab what is an extraordinary deal compared to a lot of other awards out there. 

Unfortunately, I do think with this specific program, we're going to be able to lose, or we're going to be losing some of that ability. But, again, I think if we're not comparing what Turkish Miles and Smiles is going to be compared to what we're used to it being but we compare it to how much is it going to cost to fly on United instead or through, like you said, a different Star Alliance partner, then this is really not all that out of the ordinary. I think this is.

Traci: Right. It could have been much worse. They could have gone to a distance based chart. They could have added on more fuel surcharges. They could have made it a dynamic award chart. I don't want to do that. Nobody wants the Delta models for this, right. So it could be a lot worse. 

It's still comparable to Singapore is a great product that I would put in on the same level as Turkish business class, right. If you're flying Singapore from the US to Europe, that's 81,000 it for the saver business from Houston to Manchester. 81,000, that's still about what Turkish is offering. So it's not crazy. It's just the sad loss of this little sweet spot that we were all very fond of. 

But I think the program still has value. I think they are making improvements as they go too. The website booking online is much easier now than it used to be. It used to be a nightmare. I think you still have to call if you're booking more than one person, but eventually I think they'll work on that and make it possible to do that. So they give and they take, and at least it's not as bad as Delta. 

Devon: Yes. If that is going to be the bar for which we evaluate every future change against is how is this now compared to what Delta is doing? I mean, there's still a lot of value to be had in a lot of these programs. But hearing about one very significant devaluation is usually depressing enough for a lot of us in this hobby, but I felt the hits just kept coming this week. 

So we hear about this change in the award chart for Turkish Miles and Smiles. Then in a completely different program, moving away from airline programs and into the world of hotel awards, we also heard this announcement that something significant is changing in the Hyatt program. So tell us a little bit.

Traci: I'm so sad about this one.

Devon: About what is happening and what you think the impact of this change is? 

Traci: Yeah, I mean, okay. So the World of Hyatt is ending its partnership with the Small Luxury Hotels of the world group. Actually, it might be vice versa. It sounds the Small Luxury Hotels are ending their partnership with Hyatt, and they're moving to Hilton. 

The reason why that is a huge bummer, for me personally, is because the Small Luxury Hotels have been such a nice little sweet spot of the Hyatt program. I was looking to make sure I had the numbers, right. I think there's 1,300/1,400 Hyatt properties in the world total. There's probably 300-ish of the Small Luxury Hotel properties that participated in the World of Hyatt program. So it's not a huge percentage, but it is a significant percentage of their portfolio. 

The great thing about the Small Luxury Hotels was that you could use your Hyatt points to book them. You can earn the qualifying nights if you're going to Globalist status with those stays. Then even if you didn't have Globalist, which I don't. So you could also get free breakfast for the two people staying in your room. You get a free upgrade, if it's available. It was just really nice. It felt kind of a Globalist lite just to stay at those properties. 

We have one actually booked for two weeks from now when we're going to be in Rome. So they're still honoring it, which is great. I think, my sense that I get is they're still going to honor all of these existing bookings. But it's a real bummer because now that option isn't there anymore, or it's not going to be there. So if you have any last minute Small Luxury Hotel redemptions you want to book, I would do that now or yesterday, very quickly before that opportunity goes away. 

But the upside is, I guess there, Hyatt is working on this Mr. And Mrs. Smith partnership. That's also a sort of loose umbrella group that lots of different independently owned boutique hotels belong to. Theoretically, it could operate pretty similarly to how the Small Luxury Hotel system works within Hyatt. I hope that it does. We don't know yet. But they have a lot of properties, probably not all of them are going to participate in the World of Hyatt program, just like not all of the Small Luxury Hotel properties participate in World of Hyatt.

But to the extent that there are some available and they're in good locations, they could end up kind of being six of one, half dozen of the other when it's all said and done. I hope that it ends up that. I was a little bit concerned because in my mind I sort of thought of that Mr. and Mrs. Smith brand as adults only-ish. Like, I don't know if that's really the case. But I was looking at their website. They do have a lot of properties that they highlight as being great for families. So for me, I'm like okay, that sounds good. 

They have a lot of really pretty properties in great places. So I think there are going to be certain areas where the Hyatt footprint is going to be significantly reduced. In Italy, France, the Caribbean, Central America, there's a lot of those Small Luxury Hotel properties that are no longer going to be bookable with your Hyatt points. But once we see the Mr. and Mrs. Smith properties come online, there's a potential, I think, that it could maybe be a minimal change for us on the end, I hope.

Devon: Yeah. I think that's my hope too. I think it is disappointing whenever a program fundamentally changes options that are available to its members. Especially because a lot of us when we're thinking about things award travel, sure some people are booking award travel very close in or very last minute. But there's also a significant number of us who are planning award travel for 10, 11, 12 months in the future.

I think we all have some kind of wish list properties or wish list destinations as we hear about how other people are using points that we might be thinking well, I don't have a plan to go to this type of property in the next year, but I would love to head there in maybe the next five years. It can be a little bit disappointing then when we hear about program changes like this where then fundamentally entire segment of hotels and a hotel program are no longer going to be available. 

But I agree with you that, and I think this is really honestly one of the themes of today's episodes. Just the changes that do happen in award travel is that, number one, changes happen. Nothing in this landscape or in this hobby is static. It's not going to stay static. So don't be surprised when there are changes. 

But number two, oftentimes we still can find opportunities or new opportunities present themselves even when things do change. As you mentioned with the world of higher program, the loss of the SLH properties I think is going to be disappointing for a lot of people either for their current or their future travel plans.

But hopefully this new partnership between Hyatt and the Mr. And Mrs. Smith properties are going to open up new and different opportunities. So not the same exact properties and not the same exact experiences that maybe some of us had planned around SLH properties, but still being able to identify within programs when they do make changes. Okay, maybe there is a loss. But is there also now a new opportunity or a new gain that we can look forward to?

I wish that I was that optimistic about this next change that we're going to discuss, and maybe you can inject some optimism for me. I'm having a hard time finding it. Because, again, this week, I don't know what it is. Something is happening within the world of credit card points and miles that it just seems this must be the time that all of these companies and programs decide to announce changes to their programs. 

But we heard something new from American Express this week. This is something that, I think, is a continuation of a trend that already started, and I think a lot of us were just wondering how much is this going to expand? I still don't know the ultimate answer to that, but it seems it is continuing to expand. 

That is kind of what we're referring to as just family rules around certain American Express cards. For people who are familiar with American Express, you'll know that there are sort of a menu of personal credit cards that you can get from American Express. Then they also have business credit cards.

One of, I think, the bigger changes that we heard about and have experienced earlier, within the last six months I think it has been, is that for the first time ever American Express started instituting these family rules around their personal credit cards. So it used to be that, especially for the membership rewards points earning cards like the American Express Personal Green card, the Amex Personal Gold card, the Amex Personal Platinum card, that you, as an individual, could apply for one of them, or two of them, or all three of them. You were eligible to earn the welcome bonuses on these cards, and then have these cards in your credit card portfolio. 

What American Express has done in the last year is they first came in with the, I think, the beginning of this family rule where it came out that if you are a holder of the American Express Platinum Card, from that point on, you would no longer be eligible to earn the welcome bonus on the Amex Gold card. 

There are many people who start in the American Express credit card family with the Platinum card, right. You can start wherever you want to start. For a lot of reasons, I think a lot of people have favored getting an American Express Personal Platinum card with the expectation, or at least the anticipation that if they wanted to at some point, they would still be eligible to pick up these other American Express points earning cards. 

Well, we all learned in the last year that was not going to be the case moving forward. I think at that point people who talk about these things and really think about these things a lot, I think it was a very natural next question of is this the start of a bigger trend? What can we expect next? 

I think with this announcement this week is really the next answer to that question of what can we expect from the Amex family rules where now what we have found out is that Amex is just marching along. Where if originally you held the Personal Platinum card, you would no longer be eligible to earn the welcome bonus on the Gold card. Now, those rules have expanded to include the American Express Green card. 

So we're really seeing some more limitations around what cards people can hold or the order in which they can hold them. I'm really curious to hear from you, Traci, just what are your thoughts about these family rules? How do you think people should incorporate this family rule into their personal strategy, and how they want to go about getting American Express cards? If that is a points currency they want to get into.

Traci: Yeah, I mean, it's not great news. My husband is actually one of the people who started with the Platinum. Now is like oh, I guess I'm not getting the Gold after. So we're living that dream. It doesn't bode well, but also, it's only been sort of limited to the Amex ecosystem, which I'm grateful for so far. I'm hoping that that continues. It seems some of the other banks do have their own sort of internal rules to sort of get at the same point. So I'm hoping that maybe it's not just going to be a we mimic what they're doing situation. 

I think, overall, it's hard to tell where this is going, right? I don't, are they going to have rules about the Gold next? Probably, right. We don't know what the rules are going to be. Is it going to be forever that you can't get it? Is it going to be this seven years or no lifetime language kind of situation? 

I think it's going to end up with people slowing down their Amex role. I think when you find targeted offers that don't have the language, that could be an option for people. The language that limits you to what you're allowed to get. But I think it's still worth getting the points. I think you should get whatever cards you can fit into your household expenses, whatever cards you can fit into your timing, whatever works for your family. 

But yeah, it might end up being fewer Amex cards, which is a real bummer. I think it's good that there are so many that exist already. I feel they have a pretty wide variety of products to choose from to start with, with all the business and the personal. So, it's not you can't earn Amex points anymore. You're going to have to be more strategic about how you do it.

Devon: Yeah, I agree with you. I think one of the things that I love about those of us who are based in the US or have access to the US issued cards is that I don't feel like we suffer from a lack of options. There are so many different rewards cards that are available to us. Certainly there are ones that get a lot of attention or that seem like they have a broad applicability to a lot of people that I think are some of the most favored cards on the market. 

But I really don't think any one card or access to any one card is going to make or break someone's points earning or points redeeming ability. I do think that one of the things that I have kind of seen with this trend, and that I've been thinking about is that I think it's more important now than it was when I first got into this game.

I'm curious to hear kind of your impression because you've been doing this a little bit longer than I have, is that I think one of the differences that I see between how points and miles worked 10 years ago to how it works now is I personally think that strategy is more important now than it was before. I feel like when I first got into points and miles, at least to me, it felt a free for all. It felt like there are all these cards. You can get whatever you want, whenever you want, and there's really no repercussion of if you get cards in one particular order versus another order. 

I feel that's not the case now, both within this specific example of the Amex family rules. We can certainly talk about broader rules like Chase 5/24 and how that then impacts thinking about non-Chase cards and all of these things. But I do think that it is more important now for people to have a little bit of a better understanding about what are some of these main rules, and what are the impacts of them. Then being able to incorporate that into creating for themselves at least a loose strategy to begin with.

I don't think people need to sit down and plot out four years’ worth of what credit cards they want in what order before they can go and apply for any single credit card. But I do think it matters more now to have an understanding of which actions around cards are then going to have implications for what you may or may not be able to do in the future. But what are your thoughts about that? 

Traci: Yeah, I completely agree. Actually, it's really sad. But as you were sitting there, explaining that I was thinking man, this sounds an LSAT logic puzzle. Joe wants to apply for cards to get his family to Australia. You can't have more than five cards from this bank. This bank, if you get this card, you can't get the other card. It honestly kind of plays out that. 

You definitely have to be aware of which cards will preclude you from getting others. You have to understand the timing. You have to understand how often you can apply for all the different cards. I mean, there's a lot to process with all that. I think it is really important now to at least have a general idea of how all that works. You don't have to know every specific rule about each particular card because that would be overwhelming, especially if you're just beginning. 

But there are certain no brainer start with this card, or there are some options that you can sort of do while you're starting. I don't want people to feel so overwhelmed with how complicated it has to become that they don't start. I think that's a very real problem. A lot of people get sort of overwhelmed with all of this talk about all the different rules. 

Even for, I've been doing this for a long time. It's all processing up in your brain. But you have to double check, right, because there's just a lot of news all the time, changes all the time. I think that's really important to just be able to adapt with change. I don't think any one of us could sit down and write out an effective four year plan for applying for cards because guess what? They're going to change stuff, and your plan is going to go out the window, right? 

I mean I remember the Capital One Venture X did not exist. When it came out, I was really mad because I was about to buy a new house. I was like oh, I can't get this right now. I don't want to have an inquiry on my mortgage application. So I'm going to have to wait. I was really mad. But you move on. eventually you get it and you're happy and everything's fine. 

So you learn to adapt. You learn to sort of roll with it. But don't let it overwhelm you to the point where you don't do anything. Even if you don't do it perfectly, and you don't maximize every possible card that's out there when it's at its peak high elevated offer, that's okay. You're still applying for cards. It's important to be consistent. It's important to have the habit. It's important to just keep going and just be aware of the pitfalls, but don't let them ruin your life.

Devon: Yeah, I agree with you. I think there's so many great things about what you just said. I think it is important to acknowledge that perfection is not required, by any means necessary. You don't have to sit down and try to figure out all of these different bank rules to the granular detail before you can apply for a single card. 

I think there are some major bank rules that it's not that difficult to learn if you're going to do a basic Google search, or if you're involved in any points communities where you can just ask people like what are the two biggest rules I need to know about before I apply for my first card? I think 90% of us would probably give the same answer. So I do think that information is so easily accessible now that people can use in order to make decisions. 

I agree with you that just not getting started at all is going to have, for the person who is interested in earning points and miles and using them for travel, that's going to have a much greater impact and negative impact than deciding to apply for a new card and then continuing to learn about some of these rules or how some of these cards play well or don't play well with each other, which you can build that fund of knowledge over time. 

I think that's one of the biggest things that I have noticed in terms of being in this hobby for as long as I have is that it's an accumulation of knowledge and skill. This is not like, I love how you referenced the LSAT tests. I have these not very fond traumatic memories of studying for my various board exams in medical school in this very real sense of I literally can remember the dining room table that I sat at for three months, 20 hours a day, just trying to memorize every single thing in the world of basic medicine. 

Having this real sense of like, I've got to cram all of this into my brain before I sit down to take my actual board exam. Then I have that one eight hour period for everything that I've tried to learn or everything I've tried to synthesize to come out. The great news is that point and miles are not like that, okay? It is not like that.

Traci: The stakes are much lower to start with. 

Devon: They're so much lower. It is not like studying for a board exam or studying sitting for your LSAT. We really can learn these things at our own pace. We can build our own fund of knowledge. I think most of us get into this because we do have inherent enjoyment of that learning process and then learning but then applying what we've learned and getting a new card and earning those points, or the first award redemption that you make. So I agree with you. Not to let sort of the idea of the information that is out there kind of paralyze us so much that we don't do any single thing with it. 

You and I have talked about some kind of specific differences of the landscape of points and miles between kind of where we are currently versus when we each started. But I'm curious to hear more from you about kind of what are your memories or your general impressions of what points and miles were when you first got into this hobby. If you had to do a compare and contrast, how would you describe then versus now?

Traci: Well, I mean, I've only been doing this for 13 years. I know that there are probably some people listening who have been doing this way longer and would just kind of scoff at how young we are doing this, which I'll take it. Someone can call me young. That's great. But when I started, it felt sort of the end of the Wild West days where people were still like buying coins from the mint with their credit cards to meet their spending. Then they were taking them to the bank. That was still happening. 

When I started I was not involved in that because I was terrified of that. I saw Punch-Drunk Love. I saw the guy doing the coupons with the pudding. If you haven't seen that movie and you like miles and points, it's a funny movie. Adam Sandler's character redeems a bunch of Healthy Choice pudding cup UPC symbols and gets a million miles or something. Anyway, digression. 

But you could get multiple cards from the same issuer. There were no big spending requirements like there are now. If they had any, it was low. You didn't have a 5/24 rule so you could have whatever you wanted from all the banks. There wasn't as much of this lifetime language with the Amex limitations. So it was basically sort of still a free for all.

I was very cautious going into it. Lawyers are very risk averse. So I didn't go all out, whole hog right away. But there were some things that I got that I can't get now. There was a US Air card. There were multiple different versions of the American cards that’s only the same now. There was a lot of stuff going on. I will say the bonuses were lower, right. The bonuses used to be a lot lower. There was the spending requirement wasn't as high but you also didn't get as much from it. 

The award charts were usually better back then. But the hard product wasn't as good. I would much rather fly on United Polaris now than the pre-Polaris United product, right? The lounge access that comes with the cards now I think is a great benefit that I've really grown comfortable with because it makes travel fun. It makes it more enjoyable. It makes it less of a slog. 

So I think now there are a lot of things to sort of be cautious about. I think there are some negative changes that have happened in different programs over the years. But on the upside, there's a lot of cards still available. I have not run out of cards yet. 

I know people are always like, “Oh, I'm going to run out of cards. What do you do when you run out of cards?” I'm like I haven't done that yet. There's still cards I have never gotten. Not just that I'm getting them for the second or third time. But there are cards that, I've never had an Alaska Airlines card. I still need to get one, especially since they're merging with Hawaiian, and there's new opportunities there for new products once they merge. I'm sure the card products will change. So it's just always changing. You've kind of just got to roll with it. Right?

Devon: Yeah, I agree with you. When I think about kind of how I personally would characterize the experience of being in points and miles 10 years ago versus if someone was coming in right now to just the current landscape. I think that for sure there are more rules now. I don't think any of us can argue that there are a lot more rules and more restrictive rules. 

But there's actually a lot of ways in which I think there are more opportunities now than there were five, 10 years ago. I mean, certainly not entirely across the board. We don't anymore have that opportunity to sign up for a new Alaska credit card every single month if we wanted to and earn the welcome bonus, but there are so many more opportunities. 

You mentioned some of them. I think about rewards cards that are available now that did not exist even a few years ago. A lot of us talk about the Chase 5/24 rule, but we forget way back when there was no Chase Sapphire Reserve. That did not exist, and especially.

Traci: That’s a fun callback because when the news came out, I literally walked from my office to the bank next door to my office building to get that card in person because I was like 100,000 points, let's go.

Devon: No, and exactly, and the 100,000 point welcome bonus. I think you are right that the welcome bonuses that we see now, I'm sorry. No one can tell me that those are worse than they used to be. I'm thinking about American Express. Sometimes these are targeted offers. So they're not just ones that you can pull down from anywhere, but routinely seeing credit card welcome bonus offers that are 100 or 150,000 points for the minimum spend or even more.

10 years ago, if a card had 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 points as a welcome bonus, that was an amazing welcome bonus. I've seen offers, again, these are not necessarily always public offers, but I've seen offers for 250,000 points on American Express Business Platinum Card. We're seeing right now the Capital One Venture X Business card, which another card that didn't exist a year ago. Not for public application. Certainly didn't exist 10 years ago. There's an amazing welcome bonus on that card right now. It’s really solid points earning for all of your business spend. 

I think that it's very easy sometimes to concentrate on kind of what we were talking about the beginning of the episode. How are things changing when it does seem a lot of the changes are for the negative? That award prices are going up or programs are contracting in terms of what we can get out of them as consumers. 

But I think it's really, really important to also use our retrospect-a-scope to see wait a minute, what is better now than it was a long, long time ago? We have more rewards cards available to us than we ever did. We're seeing much higher welcome bonuses than we ever did before. I think we're also just seeing new opportunities to earn points that were not available five, 10 years ago. 

I'm thinking specifically about the Bilt card. For however many years for people who were renters where if you are a renter, that's probably one of your largest expenses. There was just no easy way to earn points for that expense. Now you can grab a Bilt MasterCard and earn points on your rent. I think that's an enormous benefit for so many people. 

I do think, I'm not someone. I would not describe myself as an optimist by any means. I'm not someone who's like this is the perfect time in points and miles. It's only good things, and it's only gotten better. But I do think it is human nature when we hear about negative changes to programs to think it's only getting worse, right? There are no more opportunities available. I just don't think that that is true.

I think we do have opportunities that are either available that never were or that have gotten better. I do think earning points is easier than it ever has been in terms of the number of cards available to us, the number of cards with really great bonus categories, and the number of cards that allow us to earn points for expenses that may not have been available a couple of years ago. But that's all specific to points earning. 

Let's talk a little bit about how points redeeming has changed. Traci, what do you think when you compare kind of what we can do with our points now in order to get travel? How does that compare to what you remember about the value of points or the ease of redeeming points five, 10 years ago?

Traci: I mean, obviously, there's been points inflation right. Award lights cost more now than they did 10 years ago. That's the flip side of the higher bonuses, right? It's just inflation. The bonuses go up but also the cost to get an award flights goes up. So it kind of evens out. I mean not exactly but roughly. I think it's easier to search for award flights now. You don't have to call people as much. 

I mean, I don't think that it's that bad. There's a lot of opportunities. There's so much sharing of knowledge now that if people do figure out a sweet spot, there's always sweet spots that you can figure out in different award charts. So when people figure those out, one of the best Google searches I ever do in any given week is sweet spot US to wherever. That gives you a lot of information. You don't have to necessarily pour through each airlines award chart to get that because maybe someone else has already discovered something. So the shared knowledge is really helpful. 

There's tons of options out there. There's new routes all the time. Like, I think that's a real boon. Because when new routes are announced, you can usually hop on those award seats. That's a good opportunity right there. So I think that there's still a lot of great opportunity. 

I think the overall important thing to keep in mind is okay, let's say this whole idea of redeeming points and miles for award flights, let's say it ended in five years. Should you just stop earning those now? Or should you keep going until the five years is up and get five years of free travel? Well, I think I'll stick with it. Like, I still want to go places. 

So even if you're a pessimist, and you think it's dwindling. It's not as great as it used to be. Oh everything, the sky is falling. It hasn't fallen yet. So keep going until it does, right. I think there are always surprises. Sometimes award charts or opportunities do change, and you figure out something that does work better for you and your family. 

Or the other thing that happens while all these changes are happening in the industry, your personal life may be changing. You may not have kids and then have kids, or you may have kids and then your kids are gone. Now you actually care about what airlines offer two seats in business class rather than four. Because, in my mind, all the airlines where it’s only two seats on a flight, I don't really care about those because I've got four people I'm flying with. So once my kids go to college, guess what I'm interested in again? Your situation changes that everything's changing. Keep going ride the wave as long as you can.

Devon: Yeah, absolutely. I'm curious to hear from you kind of what are some of your current favorites in terms of either award programs that you get a ton of value out of or awards that you've either booked or have your eye on booking because you think they're just good opportunities for what is available out there right now.

Traci: It's interesting because it's really changed. Since we used to live in Houston, as I said, and so I was very into United. I loved the Singapore flight to Manchester because that Fifth Freedom flight is awesome. So I was a United girlie. That was before United did their devaluation, which happened a couple of years ago. So that made a lot of sense for us. 

So I grew up in this ecosystem of Southwest flights for $5.60, United flights for $5.60, Singapore flights for $5.60. So in my mind, that was our really great sweet spot for those three airlines being in Houston. Now, I've come to get used to the fact that all of the taxes and fees that come with Air France where it's $80 a person. Or Turkish, the taxes and fees on the business class flight are $220 a person. So I have gotten used to that change, I have to have different airline options being in the Seattle area now. 

So we have been using Air France, the Flying Blue program, way more. I had never flown Air France until we moved to Seattle. Because in Houston, it didn't make sense for me when I had United as an option. Now, it makes a lot more sense for me. So that's an area where we've sort of adjusted. I still really like the Singapore program. 

There are some changes that have happened to British Airways now where we're actually flying British Airways again, and I didn't see that coming. But they have reduced the fuel surcharges on some of their saver flights. So when I saw that I was like oh well, I should add that back into my list of things to check when I'm checking because I had just sort of written them off. 

So we're looking at going to Japan in the next couple of years. I'm looking at JAL. I'm looking at ANA. Being in Seattle, we've got three different airlines that will take me to Tokyo. So I've got some options. Do they all have four seats in business class on the same plane? No. So we're going to have to figure that out. That's one of those things that happens when you're traveling with family. But there's tons of different options out there that are great. We've been really happy with. 

Devon: Yeah, I think you make so many great points. In terms of using points and things that I have seen change over the years, I think in terms of the negative changes, it is so easy to concentrate on award devaluations. Programs that are just making certain awards more expensive, I think that just gets a lot of attention anyway. 

But I really love your perspective on this that these things are not happening in a vacuum, right? That these are sort of compensatory changes. That, like you said, it's now easier to earn really high welcome bonuses on cards. It wouldn't make sense to be able to earn three times as many points for a given level of spend and for award prices on actually using those points to stay static and never, ever, ever change. 

So I think when we can see this larger context of points earning and points redeeming and see how they interact with one another, again, it does make sense that every once in a while these programs are going to really evaluate, and it's not the end of the world because we do have different points earning opportunities than we did a number of years ago. 

When I think about using points and actually booking travel with them and what that experience was like for me 10 years ago when I was first starting to play around with booking international flights using my points versus what's available now. I think in terms of the biggest positive change, and you touched on this by saying information is so much more accessible.

I think so many more things are more accessible than they ever have been in terms of using your points and getting great value from them. I think the regular person has so many more opportunities to get amazing value out of their points than they did 10 or 15 years ago. I think just information sharing where it's so much easier now for us to be able to learn about things sweet spots. Like where are some good places that we can use our points?

But you also mentioned this. Just the ease of actually being able to find and book these awards. I feel like 20 or 30, or I don't know, maybe even 40 years ago when you think about what would you have had to do at that time period to be able to book these awards. I mean certainly pre-internet, I don't even know if people were booking awards or what that looked like. 

But I think there was a period of time where it was so difficult to actually find award flights online. You had to have such high, honestly, computer skills to be able to do this because you could not just go to United and pull up a 30 day award chart, right. 

I think finding these actual awards was so much more challenging and so much more limited 10 or 15 years ago that that's just not the case anymore. You don't need to have a computer science degree to be able to go to Air France's website and find a business class award. Now 90% of the time, Air France's website is being glitchy, and you're going to have to pull it up on your phone or do something else to get it to work. 

But the point is that regular people can figure this out. I really think the accessibility of points expanding is such a positive thing for so many people. I really don't think that this hobby should only be available to a very, very small group of people because I think so many people can benefit from this. 

In terms of that expanded accessibility, it's not just the increased ease, I think, of finding and being able to book awards. Like you said, the number of awards that you can book just straight from your computer now. You don't have to pick up a phone, right? You don't have to go through some big multi step process. You can literally just run a computer search, transfer points if you need to, and then book a flight for yourself or for other people.

I think is so much more streamlined than it's ever been. But I think that there are also, again, just more opportunities than there used to be. I think what we're seeing, or at least what I feel I'm seeing in terms of airlines, is that partnerships are expanding. This is a good thing in terms of how we can use our points. Now we have access to more airlines as these partnerships expand. 

I'm thinking specifically of when Qatar joined the Avios currency. For a while Qatar, and especially Qatar QSuites, this was such an aspirational product for so many of us to book, but it wasn't so easy to book it. The best way, traditionally, to book the Qatar QSuites had been through American Airlines. But if you didn't have American Airlines miles, that was just kind of not available to you. 

When Qatar joined the Avios currency, and all of a sudden if you had any points that could transfer over to British Airways, you all of a sudden have this direct pipeline into booking Qatar flights. I think that was a huge improvement for so many people in terms of accessibility to a really aspirational kind of product. 

Even beyond that, beyond having more airlines and partnerships so that we can just book more award flights or have the access to more award flights. I also think award searching itself is becoming easier and faster, both from the sharing of knowledge.

I feel especially in the last year or so finally starting to see some of these award search aggregated platforms pop up. Where I feel for so many years, this was the main barrier and main obstacle for people in doing award searches was just I don't know where to start, or it's so tedious. I have to go to every single different airline and run all of these different award searches from scratch.

To be able now to see some of these platforms pop up. Again, I don't think they're perfect. I think that there are some limitations to the award search platforms. But in terms of increasing accessibility and making it easier for people to start running award searches. I think those are all really, really positive changes. 

One of the things that I hear as a concern, and I have a perspective on it. I'm curious if your perspective is really different is I feel what I hear from a lot of people is, but isn't this accessibility a bad thing? Right? If more people are earning points or if more people understand how to use their points, heaven forbid people finally start understanding how to use their points for amazing value, this is ultimately bad. 

I always hear this from a perspective of the person saying it thinks that they are personally somehow going to be deprived of the award trip of their dream because more people understand how to search for awards, or there's more, quote unquote, competition for award seats. 

I'm curious to hear from you if you think that more people understanding how to earn miles, more people understanding how to use miles, having more resources available to us to use those miles well. Do you see that as a bad thing in terms of your projected ability to be able to book the awards that you want to book for yourself and your family? 

Traci: Okay. Well, my selfish take on that is that I'm a far out booker. I book as soon as the schedule opens. So for me, I'm not threatened by those people who think that they can use their points because chances are, they're not as type A as I am. So even if they know how to use the points, they're going to wait too long, right? So it's not my problem. I'm just joking. That's kind of the silly answer to that. 

But I don't think it's that big of an issue. I haven't seen it happen yet. I mean, having a long perspective on this, I haven't noticed any huge difference in what's available for me to book personally, the more and more people that have become aware of how to do bookings. I haven't seen it play out that. 

I think as long as the airlines are making money from their loyalty programs, they're probably not going, I mean I think they make a lot of money from these programs. So they're not going to kill the cash cow. Right? So I haven't seen any evidence yet that that's actually happening. I get that it sounds. I mean, it makes logical sense in theory. If there's more people vying for the same number of seats, that means fewer seats. But I'm not convinced that it's actually a problem yet. I don't know. 

Devon: You know, I feel exactly the same way. That was probably an entirely leading question I asked you. But I really do fundamentally believe that increased accessibility is only a good thing. I think sometimes we lose sight over the fact that I mean, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of airline flights going to thousands and thousands and thousands of places all the time. We're not all traveling to the same exact place at the same exact time.

Like you mentioned, your travel patterns and the awards that are available to you relocating from one part of the country to another. This has opened up, for you, awards that you never really would have thought about booking before. I see it the same exact way. I have the enormous luxury of living my home airport, 20 minutes away, is a huge international hubs. So I can see people saying yeah, and all of the other people who fly in and out or through Chicago, you're competing with them for all the same flights. 

But we also have the enormous benefit of having such a higher number of international and even domestic flights the transit through O'Hare than if I were to be living in a different area of the country. So yeah, are there more people and more people who maybe are looking for certain routes that might be really popular from certain airports? Yeah, that may be true, but we also have the benefit of just more available to us. 

So, again, maybe I'm being just very uncharacteristically optimistic here, but I feel I've been booking these types of awards for a long enough time that I, at least personally, have not experienced some dramatic fall off or change in any one year period where I'm like oh my gosh, all the award seats now are gone. 

What I see more are trends. I think there are trends of airlines that for a year or two maybe much easier to book awards or, or they may just have a lot more availability. I'm thinking about Japan Airlines, right? They've gone through phases where it was not hard at all to book for business class seats on the same flight on Japan Airlines. Then there'll be phases, right, where that one particular airline, they may change their pattern of releasing award seats. 

So individual airlines may go through some of these phases. But when we're thinking about what are all the opportunities available to us, I don't feel there's ever been a year where just blanket all the award seats are gone, or all the good award flights are gone. That has just not been my experience as someone who books a lot of these flights to a lot of different places in the world and helps a lot of people do the same thing. 

So I am reassured that you share my perspective. I feel two of us walking around in the world feeling the sky is not falling on award points and miles makes me really, really happy. I just have appreciated so much this conversation, Traci. Before we wrap up, I just have one more question to get your opinion on. What are your top three tips for people who want to maximize award travel in terms of things that they should do to help them earn more points or use them better kind of knowing where we are in the current landscape of points and miles? 

Traci: I mean, one of the things that I would definitely recommend to pretty much anybody who's doing miles and points for award travel is the Travel Freely app. I love that app. It's free. They don't require any identifying information. It just helps you sort of stay on track. I think with miles and points, it's really important to set up just regular applications and keep going. 

There are times when I know in the past I've sort of like lost track of where, like, do I need to get a new card? How long has it been? I would go to my little trusty notepad and look at when did I last apply for a card? Oh, it's been six months? Oh, no. So that app reminds you like hey, you're eligible to get another card now. It's about time. 

So I find that personally super helpful. It also kind of recommends cards that you can get, and it gives you the pitfalls of different cards. So I cannot recommend that app highly enough. It's free. It's amazing. So I use that a lot. I think it's just important to just keep going. 

Don't get discouraged. Keep applying for the cards. You should pretty much always be working on a spend. We try to set it up so that we've always got the next spend in mine. If we have expenses coming up that we know are big, we're going to get a card for that. I knew that it was about time for my kids to need orthodontics. So guess what we opened? We opened a card that had a really big spending requirement because that just knocked it right out, right.

So just be strategic about your spending because your household spending is basically what earns you all this stuff, right? So don't find yourself in big lulls of time where you're just putting stuff on cards you already have. Keep working on those signup bonuses. 

I would say just like figure out for your home airport what your go to first searches should be. Not everybody wants to have to use one of the award search tools. I personally use one now just to save time, but I've vetted it against my own very rigorous searching to make sure that I agree with it and it doesn't miss stuff. It's good.

But I think you don't have to spend tons of time doing searches across multiple programs if you know like I'm never going to search Asiana as website for flights to Mexico, right? I know better than that. So I can just knock that out right there. 

If I'm going to Europe and I want to go to business class, I'm going to look at Aeroplan. I'm going to look at Flying Blue. I'm going to look at possibly British Airways. So just have some in mind so that it doesn't feel so overwhelming. Have some sort of your own personal sweet spots that you know about that you can just sort of go to so that you don't lose sight of the big picture. 

Devon: Yeah, I think that those are such great tips. Now for people who are interested in just learning more about you, following you on your adventures, learning more about your style of points and miles education. Where can people find you?

Traci: Well, on Instagram, I'm at Practical Points Travel, and my website’s also practicalpointstravel.com and Tik Tok. 

Devon: Everybody, check her out there. As always, we will link up all of those places where people can find you in the episode show notes and the episode description so it's easy for people to find you if they want to. Thank you so much, Traci, for joining me today. I've been looking forward to this conversation for a very, very long time. 

I really hope everybody who is listening today that one of the things that you hear from us is that for as much as programs are going to change and some opportunities that maybe you've taken advantage of or are looking forward to taking advantage of might go away that there always still amazing opportunities. New opportunities come along that never existed before to really leverage your points and miles. I would be very, very sad if this whole world did collapse in five years. I don't think that's going to happen. But for a lot of us who are in this for the long haul, just understanding that things are going to change but that's not necessarily negative in and of itself. I think it'd be really, really helpful to keep in mind. 

So thank you all for joining us today on the podcast. Traci, thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom, your expertise. It has been such a blast talking to you. 

Traci: Yeah, it's always fun talking to you.

Thank you for joining me for this week's episode of Point Me to First Class. If you want more tips on turning your expenses into travel, visit pointmetofirstclass.com to learn more. See you next week.

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