Financial Fitness


Baffled by points and miles? Let the 80/20 rule guide you

Posted at 10:11 PM, Jun 24, 2019

Dealing with points and miles can be overwhelming. Asking a simple question like “How should I use my Delta miles?” can send you down a Google rabbit hole of points-maximization madness. Many would-be reward travelers simply give up in the face of this complexity.

Unfortunately, much of the information online emphasizes squeezing every fraction of a cent’s worth of value from your points. That might be a helpful strategy for dedicated travel nerds, but it’s TMI for the average traveler.

Most of the value from a given reward program can be reaped by simply understanding the basics. That’s the 80/20 rule in action.

What is the 80/20 rule?

The 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle, states that 80% of the effects in a given situation come from 20% of the causes. Originally developed by an Italian economist to describe wealth inequality, it has been expanded to other areas such as business and personal productivity.

Practically speaking, following the 80/20 rule means two things:

  1. Focus on the 20% of information that matters most.
  1. Ignore the 80% that doesn’t (i.e., don’t sweat the small stuff).

This applies to personal finance generally, where it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. But it’s especially important in the world of travel rewards, because many of us don’t even know where to start.

Find your 20%

Everyone has different points, miles and travel goals, so there’s no “one size fits all” advice for finding the universal 20% of information that yields 80% of the value.

That said, here are some principles for figuring out what matters most to you:
  • Pick one program to start. Already have a stash of miles with one airline? Or points from a travel credit card? Learn the basics of that program rather than trying to learn everything about every program all at once.
  • Learn a few good tricks. Familiarize yourself with a few “good redemptions” for that program to see what works (and doesn’t). For example, if you’re working with the Marriott Bonvoy program, find  examples of high-quality redemptions  to get a sense of what the pros are doing with their Bonvoy points.
  • Err on the side of redemption. The biggest mistake travelers make is simply not using their points and miles while they wait for the “perfect” redemption. This is like not buying lunch because you’re waiting for the “perfect’ deal.

Avoid the 80%

Don’t want to bother learning the difference between things like elite qualifying miles and elite qualifying dollars? Good news: The 80/20 rule encourages (strategic) laziness. The trick is figuring out what can be safely ignored.

Here are some starting places:
  • Avoid first- and business-class awards (to start). Showering at 35,000 feet for “free” on your points and miles might sound appealing, but booking these awards takes gobs of points, expertise and time. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to these more ambitious bookings. In the meantime, enjoy the land behind the curtain.
  • Don’t worry about hotel loyalty. Generally speaking, only business travelers stay in hotels enough to get much value from hotel loyalty programs.
  • Don’t buy points and miles. Even with splashy “double miles” promotions, it’s almost never worth it to buy points and miles directly without a specific redemption in mind.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Travel loyalty programs are designed to be confusing in order to keep you in analysis paralysis. Don’t let that stop you. Start applying the 80/20 rule with your reward travel plans today: Pick out a loyalty program you care about, learn the basics and make your first booking.

Simply using your points and miles instead of sitting on them will put you ahead of 80% of the pack.

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