Thursday, December 27, 2012

An Introduction

 This post is intended to give the reader a cursory introduction to the world of points and miles.  It was originally an e-mail sent to a family friend who was a total "newbie".  Experienced readers, Flyertalkers, and the like probably know all of this already.

I.             Value of Points/Miles

As we talked about, one of the first steps is determining what miles/points are worth to you.  Value will often be referred to in shorthand as “cents per mile” (CPM) or “cents per point” (CPP) and expressed in decimal form, e.g. I value Priority Club points at 0.5 CPP and I value Delta Miles at 1.4 CPM.  The value that you assign to a particular program’s points or miles should guide your decision making process.  For example, I have a Priority Club credit card that earns 1 point per dollar (PPD) spent and a Delta card that earns 1 mile per dollar (MPD) spent, the Delta card gives me a better rate of return, i.e. effectively 1.4% rather than 0.5%.  By the same token, I’m making a purchase at Jos. A Bank’s online store today.  I know that I can earn 7% cashback for my purchase through or 2 MPD through  In that case, the cashback is worth more to me than the Delta miles (7% vs. effectively 2.8%).

II.            Web-based resources

                Here are a few websites that will help you get up to speed.

       –A blog by a fellow named Gary Leff from the DC area.  He routinely takes not of airline and hotel promotions, credit card offers, and general frequent flier information.  Like many other travel enthusiasts (myself included) he focuses on international premium cabin travel.  His site also has links to a number of other websites that are good sources of information.
       This is where I got started learning about points & miles.  It’s a web community that includes discussion boards devoted to each airline and hotel program.  There is a tremendous amount of information here.
       Another website that’s similar to flyertalk.  Both sites offer a valuable resource in the aggregate expertise of their members.  If there is a issue that you are trying to figure out regarding a particular program, you can often get help by posting a question in the relevant forum on either of these two sites.
       Awardwallet is a website that allows you to track your balances across multiple programs.  I am currently using it to track balances in about 35 different accounts held by my wife and I.  I could never keep up with them all otherwise!

III.           Credit Cards-

     If you have good credit and don't carry a month-to-month balance, then credit card "sign up bonuses" are a great way to earn free flights and hotel stays.  Credit card signup bonuses are unquestionably the quickest and easiest way to accumulate miles.  I distinguish the bonus from the miles earned from spending, because the average person probably doesn’t put enough spending on a credit card to accumulate a large number of miles.  

     A good starting place is the American Express Starwood card.  (Signup bonus is 25,000 miles (25K) if you spend $3,000 in first six months.  Annual fee ($85) would be waived 1st year. (I can send you a sign up link for that card, that would earn some points for me.)  If you meet the spending requirement (and there are some tricks that can help you do that) you’d earn a total of 28K Starwood points. (Starpoints can be transferred to Delta or many other airlines at a 1:1.25 ratio). Then, depending on what offers are available in three months, sign up for another card, and earn another sign up bonus.  Even if you averaged 25K miles per sign-up (and that’s a fairly low bonus, 50K is more common) you could easily earn over 100K miles in a year. After the first year, when your annual fees become due, you can simply cancel the cards, and start over with a different set of cards the next year.

  A full listing of current credit card offers can be found here:

         You may wonder how this would affect your credit score.  New credit card applications result in a temporary (6 month) decrease in your credit score.  Usually it’s less than 10 points.  Six months after the inquiry, your score will go back to normal.  Cancelling a card has no effect (in most cases) on your credit score.  That said, the length of your credit history does have an effect, so you never want to cancel your oldest card.

     A good starting hotel card is the IHG Select card from Chase:

This card earns 80K IHG points after spending $1,000 in the first three months.  IHG is Holiday Inn, Crown Plaza, Intercontinental, and a few other hotels.  My wife has this card, and despite the $49 annual fee, it’s well worth keeping.  Each year, starting with your second year, you earn a free night at any Priority Club property.  We redeemed our free night at the Intercontinental Le Grand in Paris.  Effectively, the $49 annual fee translated into a $500 hotel room.  Even if you use it at a $90 Holiday Inn Express, it’s a fantastic deal.  The card also confers Platinum Elite status in Priority Club's rewards program.

IV.          Status

                You probably also know that airline and hotel programs have different “status” levels, from general members to elite levels.  Status isn’t vital, but it can make travel more pleasant with perks like upgrades, free breakfast, etc..  There are also ways to get status without flying 25,000 miles or spending 50+ nights a year in hotels.  The benefits vary from program to program.

Amex HHonors Card:      complimentary silver status

Amex HHonors Surpass card:  complimentary gold status  (As with the Starwood card, I'd appreciate the opportunity to give you a referral for this card if you are interested in it). Diamond Status is awarded if you spend $40,000 in a year.

Priority Club Signature card: complimentary Platinum status

Sometimes the offers are pretty crazy.  Some time ago, I signed up for an Air China “Phoenix Miles” frequent flier account solely because they had a limited time offer to upgrade your Marriott status to Platinum.  I highly doubt that I’ll ever fly Air China, but I did get Marriott status that way.

Status Matches:

                Airline status is generally hard to get, but hotel status is easier.  Many hotel credit cards grant you automatic elite status, and occasionally, hotel promotions offering free status can be found.  For an example, see here:

                Airline status is harder to get.  Some credit cards will give you elite qualifying miles (EQMs) that count toward status, but I don’t know of any that will outright give you status.  Occasionally there may be a promotion that makes it relatively easy to get status.  For example, a year or so ago, Delta would give you gold elite status if you transferred 50K American Express Membership Rewards points into Delta Skymiles.  When those types of promotions come along, you’ll generally find them discussed on the websites I linked to above.

V.  Online shopping and surveys:

       Evreward is a database of shopping sites that allow you to earn points, miles, or cashback for online shopping.  You may know this already, but each airline and hotel program has a “web mall” that will give you points or miles for shopping at a store’s website  (e.g.,, Delta’s “mall”, will give you 4 miles per dollar (“mpd”) for shopping at  At Evreward, you simply type in the name of the website where you are planning on making a purchase, and it will tell you what offers are available.  In my experience, however, the portals such as will pay cashback that exceeds the value of the miles I could earn.   
      This is a website that gives you frequent flier miles for viewing ads.  US Airways is one of the partners, as is Delta, Hilton, and Priority Club (Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, etc.).  Signing up for an account and filling out an interests questionnaire earns something like 300 miles.  A similar website is, though it is by invitation only.  If you have an e-mail listed in your US Airways Dividend Miles account, you'll likely get an invite from E-rewards.  It pays miles for completing surveys.

VI.     Redeeming Miles

                You already have some experience with this, so I'll keep it short.  When it comes time to redeem your miles, remember that you have options other than just the airline that you earned the miles with.  Every airline is also part of an "alliance."  Delta is part of Skyteam, US is part of the Star Alliance, and American is part of Oneworld.  What that means is that you can ask the award department to check for "partner flights".  For example, Delta Skymiles can be used on Air France flights, US Airways miles can be used for Lufthansa, etc.  Oftentimes that opens up possibillities that you might not have considered at first.  Usually "partner" flights are only available by calling your airline's frequent flier program.  Web-based award booking may not tell you the full story.

                Award flights are also a great way to visit multiple cities inexpensively.  When my wife and I went to Paris, we technically were on a flight that terminated in Munich.  Our 4 day stay in Paris was what's called a "stopover."  We then flew from Paris to Munich, stayed there a day, and flew back to Montgomery.  So a trip from MGM-ATL-CDG-MUC-ATL-MGM, business class all the way, cost us only 100K miles each.  Another rather esoteric technique is the "open jaw".  That allows you to get an award flight to one city, with the return flight from another city.  It's particularly good for when your vacation involves a cruise from one port to another or when you want to travel by train.  I could go on (and on, and on, and on) but this is already too long of an e-mail, so I'll stop there.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Free Money (TANSTAAFL)

One of the great things about American Express is the rate at which they give "free money" to their cardmembers.  For the past two years they've had "Small Business Saturday" in November which allowed cardmembers to spend $25 on each of their Amex cards at a small business.  Amex then rebated $25 to the cardmember.  Mrs. Pointsninja and I spend a total of $225 at a local small business and it didn't cost us a dime!

Amex is also well know among the points and miles community for running their "Sync" program.  That allows you to link your Amex card to your Twitter or Facebook account and sign up for rebates offered by Amex.

For instance, Amex has a Twitter Sync deal with Sony right now that gives $25 off a $100 purchase, including gift cards.  Each of your Amex cards (including authorized users) is eligible, if it is synced to a separate Twitter account.  Here's the way I've played it. 

1.  Sync card to Twitter @
2.  Tweet ". Spend w/ synced Card & receive credit."
3.  Click-thru to earn 6% back on Sony purchases (including physical gift cards but not e-gift cards)
4.  Purchase $100 Sony gift card, pay with Synced Amex ($25 will post 1-2 days after transaction posts)
5.  Once GC arrives, sell to for $78 after click-thru from Topcashback (earning 2.5% on the sale)

Total Take $110.95 for a profit of $10.95 per card.  You can do this once per card, provided each card is synced to a separate Twitter account.  Plus you earn the points for spending $100 on each of your Amex cards!

Of course, as Heinlein observed "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."  TANSTAAFL stands for the principle that nothing is ever truly free.  If you carry a balance on your credit cards, deals like this probably don't pay off.  Also, even if you don't end up losing any money on the deal, there is always the opportunity cost of spending your time chasing the deal.  For me it's a hobby and sneaking up on the deal is its own reward.


Update:  I see that is not offering a free $20 e-gift card for each $100 e-gift card purchased.  That would eliminate the $6 dollars that you can earn through Ebates, but, if you actually want to purchase something from Sony, it could make the deal more lucrative.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Points, Miles, or Cash: An Earner's Dilemma

So, now you're aware of the options for earning "kickbacks" for your online shopping.  That brings up a dilemma that I frequently face: If I can earn X% cashback, X miles per dollar, or X points per dollar for shopping at a website, how do I choose?  Well, there's a simple answer and a more complex answer.

The simple answer is: Take the Money.  For the average person the best cashback percentage is usually worth more than the best miles offer.  If you want to keep things as simple as possible while maximizing your actual financial benefit, then always pick the best cashback percentage you find on

The more complex answer is... more complex.  It depends primarily on how you value your points and on how you plan to use them.  Value will often be referred to in shorthand as “cents per mile” (CPM) or “cents per point” (CPP) and expressed in decimal form, e.g. I value Priority Club points at 0.5 CPP and I value Delta Miles at 1.2 CPM.  The value that you assign to a particular program’s points or miles should guide your decision making process.   In order to determine how you value points, you should consider how you plan to redeem them.

Take Delta Skymiles, for instance.  I generally redeem Skymiles for Transatlantic (TATL) Business Class tickets.  A round-trip TATL ticket costs 125,000 Skymiles at the "low" award level.  By contrast, the cash price for such a ticket is routinely $3,000 or moreBut that doesn't mean that 125,000 miles are worth $3,000 to me, because I'd never pay that much for a ticket.  Consequently, the miles are only worth what I would pay for the ticket.  I'd pay $1,400 dollars for a TATL ticket in business class.  Dividing $1,500 by 125,000 tells me that each Skymile is worth 1.2 cents to me.  

The same logic applies to any other points "currency."  If I redeem 20,000 hotel points for a stay that I would otherwise pay $100 for, then each point is worth .5 cents to me.  I recommend coming up with a baseline figure for what you think your points are worth and letting that guide your decision on which shopping portal to use.  While there are ways to maximize the value of your points through strategic redemptions, its best to be conservative when placing a cash value on them.

Don't Leave "Money on the Table"

Earlier I mentioned that many people "leave money on the table" when it comes to their spending and travel habits.  The most basic example is traveling on an airline or staying in a hotel without being a member of the hotel's frequent flier program or the hotel's frequent guest program.  If you're here and reading this, that's probably not you.

However, a more common form of "leaving money on the table" is when consumers are unaware that many, if not most, companies will give them some form of "kickback" for shopping with them.  This can come in the form of points, miles, or cashback, and is particularly common for online shopping.  The way this works is that online companies will pay a referral commission to websites (commonly referred to as "shopping portals") for sending shoppers to the company.  Many of these portals will, in turn, pay you for going through them to the website where you want to shop.

For instance, you may have seen ads for Ebates, a website that pays cashback for online shopping.  Ebates is a great site and probably the one with the most exposure and market penetration.  I've used Ebates a lot, but they are not always the best deal.  In fact, they're usually not.

There are numerous competitors, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.  In the cashback realm, there's Mr. Rebates, Topcashback, and Big Crumbs.  These websites offer cashback (typically paid in 4-8 weeks after your purchase) for online shopping. 

Then there are points and miles earning portals.  Nearly every airline, and many hotel chains has their own shopping portal that will give you points for shopping.  Confused yet?

Seriously, it is this abundance of choice that puts many people off.  A person who's not inclined to spend time figuring out which website will give him the highest percentage of cashback at Jos. A. Bank, may decided not to fool with it at all.  But, the market has produced some excellent tools for sorting all this information.  One of the best is Evreward.  Another is I never make an online purchase without checking there to see if I can earn cash, points, or miles.  As a bonus, they will often list coupon codes that can save you more money.

By using these tools you can avoid leaving "money (or points) on the table."  Each time you earn miles or cashback for shopping at your favorite website, you're one step closer to sipping champagne in the front of the plane!

(Full disclosure:  Many of the links on this page are "referral links".  If you sign up with a website through one of my links, I may derive a benefit from it.  In many cases you will benefit as well, but I will never post a referral link if I know of any link that will get you a better deal.)

It all starts here...

Okay, for everyone reading this (Ed.: No one!), I've started this blog in order to have one place that I can point people to when they ask me, "How do I learn about miles and points?"  Previously, I've directed them to,, View from the Wing, etc.  Now I can direct people here.

Here at The Points Ninja (Ed.: Thanks for the name suggestion, Ben!) I'll be covering what I consider to be the best deals in travel and cashback offers.  I intend to make this site a resource for people who would like to maximize their travel with the minimum impact on their budget.  This will involve making the best use of your credit, taking advantage of airline and shopping promotions, and making the best use of the miles and points that you accumulate.  I'm frequently amazed at the amount of money "left on the table" by consumers who don't take advantage of the various programs out there.

I likely won't be blogging a lot because the folks I'll be linking to cover most developments pretty well.  However, I'll try to keep this blog updated with links to current discussions of the best deals out there.  Of course, I'll post any ideas that I come up with on my own here as well.  I'll be covering basic ideas (like keeping track of your points and miles and using shopping portals) to "advanced" (Ed.: Byzantine!) strategies like "generating spend" with prepaid cards. 

For me, the points and miles game is an entertaining and lucrative hobby.  In the past few years this hobby has allowed Mrs. Points Ninja (Ed.: Ninjetta!) and I to travel to Germany, England, Canada, and France.  We fly business class and stay in nice hotels, and generally pay for little more than dining and taxes.  The point is that you can do it too.  My job here is to help you get to that point.  So, here we go!