Getting ready for spring break? Many families are heading out this weekend for a holiday as schools take their annual April vacation. I remember a year ago, after a long spate of sitting at my desk way too much, I was in dire need of a getaway but feeling conscious of a strict budget because we had some fun summer plans that took higher priority for the family funds.
In trolling around for deals, I realized that a credit card that I had been using exclusively for business expenses had racked up enough points for a week’s accommodations in Florida. With a quick click, we were on our way.
It was such a nice surprise to be able to take that trip without breaking my bank. Apparently I’m not the only one who tends to let those balances accumulate without paying much attention. Almost three in four Americans have forgotten about frequent flier miles or credit card rewards points that they’ve earned.
“For people who don’t take advantage of points, you’re leaving money on the table,” said Brian Kelly, author of “ThePointsGuy.com,” a website dedicated to teaching the ins and outs of maximizing the use of points for travel and other benefits.
Kelly worked with Princeton Survey Research Associates to find out how many people are actually taking advantage of points programs and how many are letting them expire. “I was amazed when I would go into a Starbucks how many people would use debit cards or cash,” he said in an interview. To Kelly, who is able to travel business class internationally because of his prolific use of points and spent just $2.50 on a ticket to Brazil last week, not taking advantage of a rewards program for even the smallest purchases is puzzling. Even if you don’t want to travel, Kelly reasons, “you should at least be getting cash back.”
What Kelly found in his survey of 1,000+ individuals is that while two in three Americans collect rewards points/miles through various programs, only 41 percent of them actually understand how they work. As a result, 27 percent have let some or all of their miles expire at some point.
Most surprising to Kelly was that young people, ages 18-29, are the least likely to keep track of their miles, even in this age of easy access to digital tools to help.
“There are so many apps and ways to track online, and they’re supposed to be the tech-savvy generation,” Kelly mused. “Perhaps in the recession there are not as many 20-something travel consultants, and young people are just trying to save money wherever they can. . . But you can still get the miles,” he said.
Kelly’s findings are similar to a broader study conducted two years ago by Colloquy, a global provider of “loyalty publications,” education and research, and Swift Exchange, a marketing technology company. In a white paper that they published in April 2011, the industry groups found that out of about $48 billion of “perceived value” in rewards points and miles issued by U.S. companies, at least one-third goes unredeemed. Broken down by household, it means consumers were failing to redeem points valued at the equivalent of an airplane ticket, a week’s worth of groceries or even a smartphone.
The average household, that study found, had signed up for 18.4 programs, yet were only actively participating in 8.4.
Kelly says that it helps to use apps that consolidate points accounts in one location for easy tracking. One app he suggests is “Awardwallet,” which tracks a variety of loyalty programs in one account. He combines that with “TripIt,” an online organizer that lets people put all trip details into one master itinerary, even if arrangements are booked at multiple travel sites.
“I think it’s good to manage these things in one place. You often have more points than you think,” he said.
In terms of rewards programs, Kelly said that this year he’s noticed credit card companies increasing the number of bonus offers to consumers who have good credit. “They want consumers who are paying off their bills every month. There’s a battle to get the premium customers with good credit offers,” he said. Credit card companies will reward these customers with large miles incentives in return for meeting certain spending requirements. British Airways, for example, had a 100,000-mile offer for spending $20,000 in a calendar year with their card, Kelly said. “That’s not a fit for all families, but if you’re running a business, it’s not hard to do.”
In general, Kelly suggests finding programs that offer points that are transferable across different airlines or hotels. American Express Membership Rewards, for example, allow you to use points across different categories of items, including a variety of airlines. Chase has a similar program with its Ultimate Rewards. Kelly also recommends the American Express card through the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Even though that’s a hotel-based program, users can transfer points for airline use as well, he said.
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