The Reality of the Credit Card Rewards Game

The Reality of the Credit Card Rewards Game

For those of you who have been following the blog or are already familiar with the points game, this won’t be new to you. But lately, I’ve noticed that so many people are naive to award travel and come in with unrealistic expectations thinking that all these great redemptions they see on social media are easy to pull off.

I admit that I was once like this too. Back then I mistakenly thought that I could score 4 Cathay Pacific business class award seats on a single long haul flight lol. But since then I’ve learned to curb expectations and be more realistic in how award travel really works. So now after having been in the game for a couple of years now, I want to clear up any misconceptions for those who might be new to the hobby.

The Points Game Is Hard


With so many bloggers and points enthusiasts in the world today posting about how they took a $15,000 first class flight for free on social media, it’s easy to get an inflated idea of what really went into making that redemption possible.

Singapore Airlines First Class Suites are bookable with points and can cost upwards of $15000 in cash!
Singapore Airlines First Class Suites Can Cost Upwards of $12,000!

The reality is that to even make such a great redemption possible, you have to take in and consider so many factors. For example, some of the things you have to know are

This is just scratching the surface of the hobby and not even considering some of the more advanced techniques. So in short, yeah the points game is hard.

All of this information is available online nowadays but it will take a lot of time to actually start understanding the best strategies and ways to book well. But if you stick around, I’ll hopefully make it a lot easier for you guys to pull off!

You Have To Do A Lot Of Planning In Advance


The biggest mistake I see people making is simply looking too late for an award. I see far too many people online asking “I’m looking to fly in 2 months time, why can’t I find any good point redemptions?” and my answer is always “you’re too late”.

Too many people online are asking finding award seats when they're searching too late
Example of People Looking Too Late and the Sarcastic (but accurate) Answer

The points game is different from normal bookings in that you HAVE to look early. The normal process of booking a flight 2-4 months before departure will not cut it so you’ll have to start planning for that flight much earlier than you’re used to. This is especially true for the super competitive redemptions like ANA business class for 45k one way, where you have to start looking 1 year out in advance just to get a shot at booking it.

The flip side of this is that you can also be “too early” looking for an award seat. The two best times to look for a premium award seat are 1 year in advance or 2 weeks from the date of departure (T-14). So if you find yourself looking too late then all hope is not lost as you still have this 2 week stretch before departure to find something.

This T-14 availability pattern is common among airlines like Lufthansa, Swiss Air, United, and Qantas to name a few. But counting on this availability is definitely very risky and not recommended without a backup plan.

You can find last minute award availability at T-14
Qantas Business Class Availability Found at T-14

In addition to planning your search, it’s recommended that you familiarize yourself with the airline’s release patterns. If you’re trying to book something right at the end of the availability calendar, you should start looking at what availability looks like about 2 weeks before your actual desired departure date becomes bookable. This is to see trends on how many seats are released, what time they’re released, and how fast those seats get booked out which is an indication of competition levels for those seats.

In my newsletter, I usually ramble on about how I’m researching certain airlines and routes months before I even plan on flying them. You probably don’t have to go as in depth as I do but I highly recommend getting used to doing award planning way before you even plan on flying. Understanding these release patterns will set you up for success when the actual time comes to book your award and you (hopefully) won’t be hit with any surprises

You’re Probably Going To Make Mistakes When You Start


When you’re first starting out it’s expected that you won’t make “perfect”, optimal redemptions. Common mistakes are using a more expensive program to book and not taking advantage of free stopovers.

But don’t worry I was guilty of this too. My first ever redemption was actually 2 business class tickets from LA to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (SQ). I booked through SQ’s own program for 2 round trip tickets at 250,000 Kris Flyer miles each. It actually hurt typing that out…

You probably won't make optimal redemptions in the points game when you first start
Singapore Airlines Business Class For 107,000 / 128,500 Points

If I could go back in time, I would have booked through Aeroplan instead and could have gotten the same exact itinerary for 350,000 miles and saved 150,000 points.

Same Exact Singapore Airlines Flight For Only 87,500 Points!

But hey it was still a good redemption that provided a great experience so I won’t lose sleep over it but it’s a good reminder that not every booking is going to be perfect starting out.

The important thing is to keep learning and get more experienced so that you can make some really great, optimal redemptions in the future!

Finding More Than 2 Seats On The Same Flight Is Super Hard


If you’re hoping to fly international long haul first class or business class with a party of more than 2 people, it’s super unlikely that you will find this space on a single flight. Most airlines only release 1 or 2 premium cabin seats at a time for a given route. You might find more seats released within 2 weeks of departure (T-14) but you shouldn’t count on it.

This is not a hard and fast rule though. As mentioned earlier, some airlines like Lufthansa are known for releasing lots of seats at T-14. I’ve seen up to 7 business class seats on a single flight available through Air Canada Aeroplan for Lufthansa. I’ve also seen up to 5 business class seats for Singapore Airlines 1 year out from departure. However, this SQ availability is more of an exception rather than the norm. I wouldn’t count on it always being there.

United offers T-14 availability
6 Seats in United Airlines Business Found At T-14

You Won’t Always Get Your Ideal Itinerary


At the end of the day, availability will dictate your travel plans in the credit card points game. You can do everything perfectly by having all the points ready and knowing the exact time/route you want to book but when it comes time to actually book it, you find that there’s no award space.

A prime example of this is what is happening right now with Qatar Airways. Starting a couple of weeks ago, Qatar unexpectedly zeroed out all saver level business class award space between the US and Doha with no prior warning. There are a few seats available here and there but nowhere near what it was a few months ago. Back then, Qatar was reliably releasing 2 business class seats every day right at the end of the calendar and it wasn’t super hard to find seats for most routes involving the US.

Qatar has no saver level business class availability even 1 year out
Zero Qatar Business Class Availability Even 1 Year Out

But now, you’ll be lucky to even find a single seat around your desired departure date. At times like these, you just have to work with what you’ve got. Flexibility is still your best friend in this game so you might have to get creative with routings or dates to work around any potential issues. You can either fly to a different airport that has availability and then connect to your final destination or book via a different, more expensive program that may have the desired availability.

Conclusion


The points game is a super rewarding, but also super difficult hobby to get into. There are tons of different factors that you have to account for to even make your desired redemption a reality. However, with enough planning, flexibility, and patience you should be able to make some really great redemptions with your points. Let me know about any other pain points or truths about the points game that I may have missed!

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