My youngest son is about to fly the coop and start college, joining his older brother in the fall at San Diego State. This means that my wife and I are about to become empty nesters, giving us the chance to fly the coop ourselves and travel more.
With this looming rebirth of freedom, I am beginning to look into the wonderful (and complicated!) game of acquiring points as a means of knocking down the costs of airfare, lodging, restaurants, and other travel expenses. Although I’m a rank newbie in this regard, one thing I’ve realized already: It is a game. That is part of the fun and challenge of it—seeing if you can game the system in such a way that you come up a winner.
Understanding the Game
Another thing I’ve learned is that you earn your points; they don’t give them to you. Banks, credit card issuers, airlines, hotel chains—they’re not in the charity business. There is no free lunch in the skyport lounge. If over time you manage to bag an outrageous travel discount or bargain or “giveaway” through a rewards program, you’ve paid for it one way or another. You’ve kicked in money and been an active player in the game.
Credit cards are a lucrative business. That’s why there are so many of them out there, competing against one another. The banks win on every credit card transaction we make. We’re not going to outsmart them or beat them at their game. But that’s not the point of the points game. The trick is to figure out how much you need to spend, what you need to do, to obtain the travel perks you’re looking for. The banks can make their piles of money, that’s fine. We’re just looking for a little piece of the action.
If you’re not interested in doing that—trying to calculate all the mind-boggling calculations, reading the fine print for all these various incentive offers, spending oodles of time, devoting serious mind share to it—then the points game isn’t for you.
Pleasures and Pitfalls
Personally, at this early stage I’m enjoying the heck out of it. I revel in all the stories of people flying to Lima or Singapore or Johannesburg or wherever for 65,000 points while what they paid for their airfare is only the spare change they found in the lint of their pants pocket. I want to do that! I want to be like them!
So how do you do that? Playing the points game is one way. It incentivizes the imagination.
Of course, it’s possible to be hurt playing this game. I can see that. One axiom is that you must pay off your credit card balance(s) in full each month. If you don’t you will get stung with interest payments on the debt that will then negate any benefits you’ve racked up from using the card. And if you’re juggling lots of different airline and bank cards, as many serious points players do in order to maximize their advantages, and you neglect to pay off the balances you can dig a crater-sized financial hole for yourself.
Rewards programs are a form of travel boosterism. They are designed to entice you, the consumer, into using the goods and services being offered. As a way to increase my point totals I have begun using airline shopping portals. Order something online through the portal from a designated store, and you’ll earn points. But I have to ask myself, Did I really need to buy that spiffy new DeWalt drill from Home Depot, or did I do it partly to pad my account at Alaska Air?
Living (Again!) the Dream
What I like about the points game is that it’s encouraging me to dream about going places again. Climb a Fourteener in the Rockies? Visit that fabulous World War II museum in New Orleans? Retrace my steps in Montpelier, where I stayed with a French family for a few glorious days when I was younger well before the idea of marriage and kids ever entered my head?
All these delicious scenarios (and so many more) are back in play, in part thanks to the points game. But is it only a trick? A brilliant con designed to lure me into taking out more credit cards than I need, buying a bunch of stuff I can’t afford, and running up soul-crushing amounts of debt?
Maybe. We’ll see. Nonetheless, sign me up for now. I’m once more dreaming the seductively beautiful dreams of travel.