My Take: Splitting Expenses When Redeeming Points

Filed Under: Advice

Twitter user @Howardisthebest points to an interesting question in the Social Q’s section of the New York Times, which tries to provide “lighthearted advice about awkward social situations.” The Twitter user asks for my take (and the take of some other bloggers). I find this question to be interesting, so wanted to address it in a post, and see how you guys feel.

Splitting Travel Expenses When Redeeming Points

Someone asks the following question:

Splitting Hairs Over Points

My brother travels for work, so he racks up hotel points. We are going on vacation together, and he wants to pay for our hotel rooms (using points), and he wants me to pay for the flights. But since he’s not using cash to pay the hotel, I feel like I’m being cheated in paying for his flights. He disagrees. What’s your take?

My initial take is that this sounds like a really awkward start to a trip?

Personally I think there’s a right and wrong answer here, but the problem is that I think this may more come down to perception than logic.

Points Are A Form Of Currency…

Points are a form of currency, plain and simple. Fortunately they’re not taxed if earned as a reward for something, but there’s almost always an opportunity cost to both earning and redeeming points.

I totally think it’s fair to look at the retail value of things, and for costs to be split. Her brother might earn those points through work, but that also means he’s rarely home, missing out on a lot of family and friends, and in some way this may even be factored into his overall compensation package.

…But Consumer Psychology Suggests Otherwise

While I absolutely think points are a currency and have value, the reality is that a vast majority of people don’t feel that way. They think of points as being “free” rewards. I think they’re wrong, but there’s no doubt that a vast majority of people feel that way, which is why this is a problem to begin with.

I have millions of points across programs, but I still often choose to pay cash rather than redeeming points, since I’ll only redeem if the value of a redemption exceeds my valuation of the points.

This is actually something I lie to my mom about all the time. When I travel with my mom I always pay for hotels and flights. But my mom feels so guilty if I’m paying cash for anything. So what I do is that I just lie to her and tell her that I booked something with points, because then she has no guilt.

How This Goes Both Ways

I think points are a currency, and I also think that goes both ways. In other words, if I’m traveling with friends and we’re splitting costs for a hotel room (paying cash), I don’t mind them paying less than half if I’m earning the elite qualifying nights, points, credit card rewards, etc.

Those have a significant value, and at most I want to split the cost fairly, and not have them subsidize my points addiction. That’s only fair.

Shouldn’t It Be Different For Family?

In addition to people generally thinking of points as being “free,” I think the other part that makes this awkward is that we’re talking about family here. While I do consider points to be a currency, I also feel like we all do nice things for family members sometimes.

My point is that while I believe all of the above, I also believe covering hotels with points is a gesture that is viewed differently than if you were paying cash.

Let me give an example — say you’re a professional who usually charges $100 per hour for some service or another. If a family member asked for help with something that is your expertise, you’re unlikely to bill them for it… because they’re family.

So I think a similar perception exists when redeeming points.

Careful Not To Violate Any Rules

Almost all airline and hotel loyalty programs have rules against buying, selling, or bartering points.

While this is unlikely to become an issue when traveling with friends or family, it does raise another point. Say you’re traveling with someone and you pay for the hotel with points and they pay for flights with cash, are you actually violating loyalty program rules?

  • I’d say technically you are violating the rules if you redeem points for a hotel and the person pays you cash for a portion of the room rate
  • It’s more of a grey area if you redeem points for a hotel and a friend or family member pays for flights

In most cases the rules aren’t defined that explicitly, but you are potentially flirting with some issues here, should you be caught.

Bottom Line

Coming at this from the perspective of a points expert, I absolutely think what the brother is suggesting is fair, assuming the costs (in cash) are comparable. Points have an opportunity cost, and even if he earned them mostly through business travel, he probably made a lot of sacrifices to earn them.

That being said, the reality is that most consumers view points as something that’s “free,” so I totally get why this is a point of contention.

I think the brother is being reasonable, and I would side with him. However, I also totally get why the sister feels the way she does, given the common perception out there about points.

Where do you stand on this?

  1. That’s considered bartering, and they can shut down your account for that. It doesn’t matter whether it’s trading expenses or exchanging cash, technically.

  2. If he’s offering to book the room on points, and get her to pay for his out of pocket expenses, he’s effectively trying to sell his points to her. They only have one use, and that’s a redemption. If redeeming to benefit his sister comes with a quid pro quo expectation, he should save those points to redeem for himself and/or immediately family. Otherwise, he should demand nothing in return, though his sister would do well to pick up a dinner tab or two to show her appreciation (though not enough to cover what would otherwise be her out of pocket costs, 10% – 50%+ depending on their relative means and income).

  3. I dont mind splitting the bill or reimbursing my friend for using miles on a flight/hotel.

    However, where I get frustrated is if we wind up on a more expensive or less desirable flight/hotel because it helps him with his mileage habit. Then i push back.

    If there’s a suitable hotel for $200 a night then i’ll happily pay $100 a night for my lodging. If he wants to stay at a $250/night hotel so he can earn points or if he wants to use $300 worth of points on a hotel, thats fine. But i’m still paying $100.

  4. It really depends on the relationship of the 2 siblings. If that happened to me, I’d negotiate further that dinners/drinks at the hotel will be on him. lol. It also depends if the cost of the flights are roughly the same as the hotel rooms.
    I guess to avoid disagreement, they’re better off just paying for their own airfare and hotel separately.

  5. You write “I don’t mind them paying less than half if I’m earning the elite qualifying nights, points, credit card rewards, etc. Those have a non-significant value, ….” I think you must mean “Those [the nights, points, etc.] have a significant value” or “Those have a not insignificant value.” As written, if they have a non-significant value–if their value is not significant–why would the other person pay less than half?

  6. I’m only willing to use points for people very close to me, and I force myself to be good eating the full points cost of using those points (meaning I expect to get nothing in return for them). And typically that means that I’m redeeming for my immediate family, my parents, or someone in need of a ticket but that can’t afford it. My immediate family, I expect nothing in return from. My parents typically force cash on me for about 1/2 the cash cost of the tickets/rooms. And if I offer to use points to help someone then I never get anything in return.

    I find that if I’m generous then I tend to do well no matter what.

  7. Put it another way. Don’t look at points *AT ALL* initially.

    If hotel costs $500 for two and flights cost $500 for two, then it totally makes sense for one to cover hotel and another to cover flights (that way you get the same room, seats next to each other, etc).

    If someone has points to cover the hotel or the room, then it totally makes sense for them to do that.

    If someone has $500 of cash back rewards, It’s illogical to say “your money is from cash back so it doesn’t count as my $500 of earned money”.

    Why can’t they also use the points they earned from traveling or signup bonuses to pay for their part of the shared expenses?

    Where this is not acceptable is if the brother chooses to stay in a more expensive hotel or out-of-the-way or something to use points. That’s not fair. But if it’s the hotel or flight they would have stayed in anyway, it doesn’t matter how they paid for it, just that they are paying for it (via $$, points, cert, whatever).

  8. It’s unfortunately a tricky situation. I think if the hotel and flights were the same price, then if you had used points for both, it’d work out the same. This is the main reason I only use points for flights when traveling with others as we can just book separately and select seats together.

  9. If I’m using points to benefit somebody (friends or family) than it is a gift, period. I don’t expect anything back from them in any way. Yes, the points have value. Yes, I’ve put effort and money into earning them, but they’re supposed to act as a happiness multiplier for me and my friends and if leveraging the points is what makes an experience possible versus not possible, then I’m going to use them.

  10. Good article. Hope your mom doesn’t read your blog daily, or else you may get into trouble (about the lie).

    Hope she’s feeling better.

  11. I get this all the time. My family/friends sees me flying for (almost) free and staying at hotels for free. They wonder why I can’t just give them free flights/hotels if I get the miles/points for free. My response: “if the miles and points were free, why don’t you have any?”

  12. Well, if the brother DIDNT use points, they’d be paying cash for the hotel and splitting everything evenly. Points is just a payment method.

    It also depends on the hotel. I would feel cheated if the flight total for was $2k for two pax and the hotel the brother booked was 5 nights at a cheap airport Holiday Inn, and decided that it’s an even exchange. However, what if the hotel he booked was a high end hotel that would otherwise cost more than $2k?

    What I do is find the cash total for the stay that I’m booking with points and using that total as the cost to split, because that’d otherwise be my out of pocket cost if I didnt use points.

  13. What if they stayed in separate rooms and each paid there own way. Would the cash paying brother pay significantly more?

    If yes, then they are both saving. If not, then only one is saving with the proposal.

  14. What if I pay for a family member’s Emirates 1st class flight that would normally be $20,000? Can I say they have to pay for every hotel, meal, drink, taxi, tour, museum, train ticket, souvenir, (safari), etc for the next 2 weeks?

  15. I look it as the room cost is the same for two as just traveling alone, so I don’t expect a 50/50 split on value. Of course some treated dinners, or whatever, is appreciated.

  16. My take is this, if we’re traveling together and decide to split the expenses 1:1 then it makes no difference how it’s paid for as long as it’s paid. I’m in no way obligated to tell anyone how I choose to cover the expense. If they stipulate up front, you may not use your points/miles, then I guess we’ll be on separate itineraries where I’ll cover mine, you cover yours and never the two receipts should meet. It really is that simple.

  17. Points have tangible value. If the brother feels so strongly about this to write a newspaper, I would propose not using any points for the trip and then just split the cash cost. It’s really not that easy to accumulate enough hotel points for multiple nights for the trip. I would feel annoyed if my siblings feel entitled to my points that I’ve invested a lot of time and effort to accumulate.

  18. Ha, a good friend and I stopped speaking for a while many years ago because of this. He redeemed points for a hotel we were splitting and expected half the posted room rate in cash back to him as my “share”.

  19. @Webby half the posted room rate? That’s crazy. If anything, it should be the paid rate for that particular stay, looked up ahead of time and agreed upon to split before booking/staying.

  20. I simply have the recipient of the redemption pay me back the points used via Manufactured Spend. It still costs them nothing (except the taxes), and they earn me back ~5x on their regular bills. Eventually, the (my) balance is restored and it’s no skin off their back. Problem solved.

  21. I book family with points all the time. I typically use the ones in programs that I do not have status since the points tend to sit in those programs. I just booked my bro in law and his gf to LHR from LAX with my Delta points. I haven’t redeemed on Delta before and wouldn’t have enough to fly in business. They paid me back for the taxes (I put it on my Amex Plat) and I used my miles. When they got back they were so grateful and brought me some Scottish whisky.

    I would never ask for anything in return when trying to do something nice. Otherwise it’s called a favor. And if they travel for work all the time surprised he doesn’t want to control the air travel.

  22. I think of this as one sibling covering the cost of the hotel and the other covering the cost of the flight. How either does it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is if they would have paid cash for the hotel. Lets say they use points for an expensive hotel that they wouldn’t have paid for if they paid in cash. You shouldn’t say, “Well the hotel cost X so you should cover the flights that also cost X”. If you are staying at a $500 hotel on points but would have stayed at an AirBnB for $100 a night if not using points than the value of your contribution is $100 a night.

    This really depends on the context though. Does the sibling have so many points that they could never use them all? Then the first sibling could be seen as being be a bit greedy.

  23. If the hotel and airfare are similar, then there’s no problem. Points are a currency and are not “free”. It takes a lot to accumulate points whether through business travel, leisure travel, credit card use/sign ups. If the one sibling doesn’t like the arrangement because they don’t have any points then I say pay your way for everything. I’ll use points where I can and you can use cash. Not my fault you’re not in the game and have no points to offset the cost. And no one is owed anything, even family.

  24. I think a 50-50 split is fine; however if I can purchase points and thereby replenish my account at a rate cheaper than half the cost of the room then that’s all I would charge my friend (half the cost of purchasing points equal to amount needed for room) since I would be whole again. That way friend is still saving something.

  25. It all comes down to what the total cost of the hotel would be (if booking a paid rate) in comparison to the flight cost. If the brother is covering 2 nights at what would be $100 per night, but expecting her to cover his $600 flight, I would say no too!

  26. Agree with @James and @David W. Don’t even consider points at all. Don’t consider where they came from, how they’re earned, or whatever opportunity cost was expended to obtain them. Look strictly at the non-points (cash) cost of the hotel/flights. Not the value, the cost. Then make sure it’s equitable or fair or whatever term you want when you divvy up the cost of the trip.

    For the sister, he could be using those points strictly for himself on that same trip then she’d be SOL and would have to pay anyway. And given that points as a currency don’t have a traditionally fixed value, how much she’s paying after all is said and done can’t really be equated anyway. Or will be equated vastly differently based on who’s doing the equating.

  27. I think this is a bit of a gray area. Points have a cost, but when earned through work, the cost belongs to the company, even if he did make sacrifices. The sacrifices are intangible and it’s hard to weigh their value. Personally, I would pay for the flight only if the other person’s cost is equal to what I would pay for the hotel if they didn’t get it through points. Otherwise, I would suggest that we just pay cash for this one trip and call it a day.

  28. None of my siblings are into miles and points and do not have jobs where they travel with their employers paying their expenses while they accumulate status and miles/points. So if I were to plan a trip with one of my brothers, I would gift the room and split the airfare since it would be an easy thing to do and someday I may need a favor from one of them, their time, effort and care for me potentially being much more valuable than points and miles will ever be, given that I earn most in the course of my work which is not a sacrifice I make, financial or otherwise. The way one handles this situation depends a lot on how one values family relationships and how one “earns” those points. For me, gifting is an easy thing to do and I’m happy to do it. I realize that not everyone can afford to gift.

  29. Points are Currency. It’s no different than using your cash back from a cash back credit card to pay for the hotel. You would still expect the other person to pay their fair share.

  30. Whatever the lowest cost of the hotel rate is for the entire year, offer to pay half that rate.

  31. When it’s family, I try to find a decent way to ensure we both win. On a recent booking I made for the EQNs, I had family member insist on paying me something for the points (yes, against T&C’s).

    I was torn, do I charge you for the cost of my points (almost zero), the price difference between the cheapest hotel (which I would have used for a mattress run and the hotel I booked for them), 50% of BAR or the value of my points.

    Her logic was that she would have spent more than what I wanted to charge her anyways if she needed to book a hotel. For that reason, I tend to go with the value of the points against BAR but consider what I would have booked without using points.

  32. @staradmiral, thanks for stating the obvious answer and your brevity. It amazes me how much “real estate” has been expended on this “problem”.

  33. The brother could use his points another time when he will instead be paying with cash. So, yeah, if the flight and hotel costs are equal, I think that’s fair.

  34. If a friend and I are traveling together and one of us redeems points the other will contribute to the shared costs in some other way we agree is equitable. If we can’t come to an agreement on what is fair considering the totality of the circumstances, why are we even traveling together?

    I’ve had a friend take me along on an impromptu trip when I couldn’t afford it using his miles and staying in a hotel be paid cash for. I brought a significant gift to say thank you, but it was nowhere near half the cost. But we had a mutual understanding because we are friends. On another trip with a different friend where we were planning on splitting costs more evenly, I paid for meals, drinks, activities, transportation when he used his hotel points.

  35. The brother should have said “I’ll cover hotel, you cover flights.” And left it at that.

  36. Mine is a different story. My gf’s friend once wanted to visit her for a girl’s weekend. Cash prices for flight cost close to $600. I used my miles to book her with a fair market value of $300 per TPG’s valuations. I procured the miles at $240. So I charged her the mean of those 2 values so $270 (plus taxes). She was very grateful.

  37. I agree with @CarlWV entirely.
    Of course if there are 2 separate rooms involved then there may be some horse-trading involved. Depends on the family dynamics, and whether the poster has bucket-loads of points to burn, or highly coverts them.

  38. I use my points when traveling with friends all the time. If a total trip will cost $5000 and I’m able to bring down the cost to $1000 using miles and points, my friend and I will split the cash portion. That being said, they’d better be a damn good friend because I don’t want people taking advantage of me. My best friend knows he’s getting a deal and always insists on picking up the tab for a nice dinner even though I don’t consider it necessary.

  39. Just my take – if I use points for a free room and a friend wants to crash for a night (on a casino trip for example) I have no problem with it since I was using the points (or casino comps) my self and him staying doesn’t cost any more. Likewise if I have benefits due to my airline/hotel/casino status like lounge access and can take a friend I have no problem sharing that at no cost since it really isn’t hurting me (now buying me a drink or dinner would be a nice gesture).

    However, is ANYONE (and I don’t care if they are family) asks me to get them a room or a airline ticket with MY points (unless my treat like for special family occasions) that is way over the line. The initial example of a guy using points for hotel and expecting someone else to pay his airfare in exchange it just play wrong. That is like cheapskates that have a “2 for 1” dinner coupon and would expect you to pay full price so they can get their’s free.

    Finally, I gamble a lot and have a friend (the one that crashes in my free hotel sometimes on casino trips) that sees my comp balance and starts asking me how “we” can spend that money. No Fing way – I earned and will use it for me or my family.

  40. This was a recent issue with my sister, whom I travel with frequently. Usually we handle expenses in cash, but she recently realized she had a ton of points on a credit union card that isn’t part of a major program but can still be redeemed for hotel and car rental (aside: her husband travels all the time for work, but they don’t maximize their points or strategies at all – to my great chagrin – so they have a boatload of points and spend them like total noobs). She booked our shared hotel room and car for a week with points and then was like, “ok, how do we split the expense?”

    I was stymied at first. We could look at the paid rate for our planned nights and I pay her half…except that she picked hotels/car based on the points redemption option not on best price or features. So if the room rate is $200/night at that hotel, but a different equally nice hotel could have been gotten for $120/night then that’s not really fair because we wouldn’t have picked that hotel at the cash price.

    I spent points on someone else for the first time a few months ago when I took my boyfriend to Bora Bora for a week at the Conrad. We split the cost to purchase top-up points, our airfare and all food and it never occurred to me to have him pay for “half” the room. Maybe because the cash price is so outsized at that location, but I just felt happy that we were able to share this vacation together, facilitated by my points.

    Inspired by that experience, I asked my sister if she felt an opportunity cost in using those points? Did she feel like it was a sacrifice to use the points? Not at all — in fact, she was just trying to use them before they expire. So I suggested that I pay for gas for the car, and an “appropriate” amount of meals on the trip and we both enjoy the fact that we’re able to go on this vacation together, facilitated by her points.

    Every family is different, and I think you have to figure out what feels right for you. If you can’t come to an agreement that makes both parties happy and able to enjoy the trip, then maybe it’s not a good time to use points…or you shouldn’t vacation with your family! 🙂

  41. I completely agree, and it kind of annoys me when people suggest I use points to subsidise others’ travel because it’s “free”. It’s not, I have to pay annual fees, credit card surcharges, etc., to accumulate them, at a bare minimum. Then there’s the cash cost of future flights/hotels I would have to pay for if I never replenished the points…the list goes on.

  42. It’s a tacky arrangement: the gratis hotel via points should be offered as a gift, and the flights split 50/50. Awful thing to try to shortchange a sibling. And of course the benefiting brother would chip in more for meals/expenses, I’m sure.

  43. I never ask friends and family to share costs when booking flights or accommodations.

    I get Mexico to pay for it.

  44. This totally depends on the relative cost of the hotel/flights. I wonder if this guy was first thinking of transferring hotel points to pay for his flight, but was hoping his sister would essentially let him do it at a better rate.

  45. When it comes to friends and family, either you pick up the tab or split it even, save the points for yourself or as a gift.

    If someone is trying to offload their points this way, I will sure need a huge discount below market.

    If I intend to stay at Motel6 but you want to offload Bonvoy points, you can either charge me Motel6 rates or give me for free, otherwise leave me alone. Now if you book me a club room at Ritz or St.Regis I would gladly give you 15% premium over Motel6. 🙂

  46. It might be easier to split both the hotel and the air. Points are just another currency. They are definitely not free. I have used cash to purchase some of my miles. The point value is published on this site and on many other sites.

    I recently transferred ThankYou Points to Turkish miles for a Hawaii trip. It cost 15,000 ThankYou Points for a round trip to Hawaii. So I charged him $255 for the flight, with ThankYou points evaluated at 1.7cpm.

  47. It’s not a technical violation because you are not selling or bartering. You are simply doing a private reimbursement transaction between yourselves. And furthermore, you will both be in the room so you would pay those points regardless if alone or double occupancy. In any case, how would the hotel even know?

    If you simply registered a guest for a room using points and you were not present, then that would be a violation of you then asked them to pay you cash.

  48. I never “charge” anyone for points bookings–whether directly or by asking that they pick up a larger share of other portions of the trip. Part of this hobby is being able to treat friends and family.

  49. Different to many here, I do NOT consider miles/points a currency. They are clearly inferior to currency. They can not be freely used and not be freely converted. They might also expire, and the value and possibility to use them at all is arbitrarily defined by a company, subject to change at any time. If you have a lot of points, it is actually difficult to put them to good use. So in this case, the brother sees an opportunity here to effectively sell some points at cash value, which is not usually possible or allowed. To me this would only be OK if the other party also comes out with a clearly better deal than in a cash-only scenario.

  50. If you’re doing this right, you’re manufacturing them rather than earning them. So it’s pretty easy to point to whatever you paid for them as your cost.

    None of this preclude you from giving them away for free, but you certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to.

  51. That the miles and points have some objective value, even though they’re not cash, is a verifiable fact.

    How generous you are with your traveling companions is subject to cultural differences and opinion, and sort of pointless to debate.

  52. @Claus

    I hate to break this to you. Zimbabwean dollar (ZWD), also a currency, but still fits your description.

    ZWD can not be freely used and not be freely converted. ZWD might also expire (they already did), and the value and possibility to use them at all is arbitrarily defined by a company (Zimbabwean government), subject to change at any time. If you have a lot of ZWD, it is actually difficult to put them to good use.

    Just because miles doesn’t come in paper bills or coins doesn’t mean it isn’t a currency. Same argument for Bitcoins or golds.

  53. I’m with these guys:
    @Nicholas: “[points are] supposed to act as a happiness multiplier for me and my friends and if leveraging the points is what makes an experience possible versus not possible, then I’m going to use them.”
    @Robert: “I find that if I’m generous then I tend to do well no matter what.”
    @Matt: “Part of this hobby is being able to treat friends and family.”

  54. I travel with friends and family all the time. The friends I travel with are typically in the miles & points crowd, although my family isn’t. We’ve settled on using TPG’s valuations as a benchmark (and have adjusted some of them slightly to fit our valuations). We treat the points as a currency and use those valuations to figure the “exchange rate” and consider whoever redeemed the points to have paid the equivalent dollar amount (for the purpose of putting the expense in Splitwise). Keeps things even and fair.

    Fortunately, the friend I travel most frequently with has a similar budget mindset as me, so we usually agree on shared expenses (hotels, rental cars, etc.). Occasionally I travel with friends who don’t share my travel style; if we share a room but they prefer to pay cash for a nicer property than I usually prefer to pay for, my contribution is whatever I would have paid at the cheaper property, and if they redeem a glob of points on a Conrad or something…well, for better or for worse, those friends typically subscribe to the “points are free” philosophy, so I just get to go along for the ride. (Not actually super fair to them, I know, but I’ve actually tried to help them by arguing that points are *not* free and should be treated as a currency, but they haven’t bought in to it. I like the idea of covering dinner or something for them, though. That’s a nice gesture.)

  55. I agree with both Claus and Eskimo although it looks like they don’t agree.

    I agree points have a value but it is definitely inferior to pure cash. Points are inflexible in that they can only be redeemed, they can expire or lose value as time goes by.

    People who accumulates millions of points generally do this as a hobby or sport. I am not a point collector and probably never will be. I once had hotel vouchers thru my work wellness points and that took not only cash to buy discount vouchers but also my blood, sweat and tears to exercise my ass off. I was glad to use them on me and my friends. I asked them only to pay for parking or a meal even when we were staying at the ritz carlton.

    I am also enjoying the points at the hotel and it cost me no extra to have an extra person there with me so I think hotel points are not worth half the rack rate. My friend whom I travel with is an avid point collector and when she uses the hotel points on me, I have to do mental gymnastics to figure out a fair way to pay her back. She is fine with me paying fora nice dinner or an activity which is usually what happens.

    when I had only a few points, I was glad to unload them. If I had millions of points, I guess I would see them as actual currency as they bring more possibilities of what I could do with them, i.e. travel first class, stay at the four seasons, etc.

    Points have a value, but it’s not the rack rate and anyone who wants to use their points to count as “$500” while their travel companion has to pay $500 for their other travel cost is treating that companion as one would treat a total stranger with a pure transaction and not “treating” them to any benefit of their points, which is totally their decision. No one is entitled to your points but how much do you enjoy them when you’re the only one on the flight, hotel, or island getaway? is companionship worth anything?

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