You should make your money work for you. Part of this is to make sure you have a credit card, you pay the balance every month, and that your credit card gives you some sort of perk (this is what I refer to as responsible credit card use–living within your means). Of course if you overspend, then stick with cash–that is preferable than paying someone interest and being in debt. However if you can get something free for just spending your money, why not?
In the past I had an Alaska Airlines credit card. Living in Seattle it made a lot of sense, Alaska had a major hub at the Seattle airport, I wanted to travel more, and for the $75 annual fee you got a $50 companion ticket. I have had this card for about 4 years. I managed to use the companion ticket for all the years (although 2 of the 4 years I had to “plan a trip to use it up”). One thing about the companion ticket is that you still pay the fees, so it usually about $75 for the companion to fly (not $50). And with the annual fee you are paying $150 for that ticket. Maybe still worth the card–plus you get the miles. Well what are the miles really worth?
Well based on my math (and availability levels) it seems like a ticket that is $300 can be redeemed for about 30,000 miles, a ticket that is $700 is about 70,000 miles give or take a little. Doing research online for mile value you see something between $0.007-$0.014. Assuming that you use the card primarily for ordinary expenses and not tickets on the airline, then you get 1 mile per every $1 spent. This means you about 0.7% – 1.4% return on your money. Many other cards (take Amazon’s card or Nordstrom’s card) give you 2% back.
So besides the fact the return is less on your miles there is also the problem of redemption. Airlines are notorious for not having availability on the days you want to fly. While this hasn’t been a problem for me with Alaska, it has been a big issues trying to leverage their partner airlines. In addition, I am currently very bitter about the fact that airlines change their mileage programs before you have the chance to redeem them. For example, when I signed up they had a partner that flew to Fiji, this year that partnership ended and therefore that is no longer an option as a destination for my miles. And there is this, now they have changed their policy such that if you want to redeem those same miles on one of their partners (a reason why their program appealed to me in the frist place) they now charge a $25 fee.
In my opinion you are better off with a cash back card that gives you money back on purchases. Then you get the money right away, can contribute it to things you are already spending and there is no risk to program changes or not being able to utilize your rewards. Moreover when you do travel you can actually pick the best price, best airline, and best schedule to meet your needs (without the limitations of the mileage plan). Either way, take a good look at your card and do some research and make sure your money is working hard enough for you 🙂