A couple of days ago I offered an old-school Fisking of a Christopher Elliott piece where he suggested that frequent flyer miles are worthless, you should walk away from the programs, and even that “[a]irline loyalty programs as they currently exist should be banned and the accomplices who pushed points on an unsuspecting public should be arrested and put on trial.”
It was a silly, over-the-top piece and frankly almost too easy to mock.
But Elliott, writing for a mass audience highly unlikely to be paying close enough attention to frequent flyer programs to benefit properly from them, could have taken his basic arguments and written a much better and more useful piece.
And I think I probably owe him the courtesy of responding not just to the piece he wrote, which was easily mocked, but to the piece he could have written. And indeed to sketch out that piece myself.
Frequent flyer programs are incredibly rich and lucrative if you pay attention to them. They are complicated, and that complication scares some folks off (they’re seemingly impenetrable) but that complication also creates tremendous opportunity for outsized benefits. I’ve been fortunate to travel in a style and with a frequency that I never thought would be possible. The programs have genuinely changed my life.
But most people aren’t paying such close attention. They go about their lives, somewhat aware of the programs, hearing tales of first class or free trips to Hawaii, and don’t understand that they can’t just go to the airline’s website and request the flight they want and expect the non-stop to their destination to always be available.
And many people don’t do enough to earn sufficient points for the award they want; they’d like to fly 12,000 miles to Europe and back so the 12,000 frequent flyer miles in their account should be enough for that, right?
It’s not enough to say just pay more attention because not everyone will. It’s not enough to say save your points for premium class international awards because many families just aren’t going to take the kids abroad, or leave the kids behind, so the kinds of trips I write about aren’t something realistically on the horizon.
As a result their prospects for taking greatest advantage of the programs are limited, and the likelihood they’ll pay close enough attention to do so is low as well.
For those folks — the people to whom Elliott was writing — the best advice isn’t to walk away from the programs but to put them in their proper context.
- Miles earn from flying. You should definitely accept those miles, why turn them down? Give your frequent flyer account number, accumulate the miles. Even join AwardWallet.com or a similar website to track your points so you don’t need to remember your account numbers. You may not get something right away, but should get something eventually.
- If you have anything more than a few thousand miles, do the minimum necessary to keep them from expiring. Any activity in an account is generally enough for this, every year and a half. Sometimes it’s transferring in a single mile via Points.com, or making one purchase through a shopping portal, or crediting one car rental to a program.
- Maybe Get an Airline Credit Card — But Don’t Use It. If you’re a frequent but not elite flyer, perhaps you travel half a dozen times a year, it may make sense to get your primary airline’s credit card. It can be worth the annual fee for the travel benefits, which often approximate the lowest tier elite level — something like priority boarding (so you don’t have to wind up gate checking your bags) and a free checked bag. The benefits can more than pay for the annual fee, especially for cards that throw in a lounge pass or two. But just because you have the card doesn’t mean you need to put spending on it.
- Consider a Cash Back Credit Card<. If you aren’t going to redeem for awards where the flights would normally cost thousands of dollars, then you’re likely to do better with a 2% cash back card like the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express. Take the cash, you can even buy airline tickets with that cash, and you don’t have to worry about capacity controls. This is a reasonable strategy if your likely airline redemptions are for domestic economy travel.
- Use Shopping Portals. Again, there’s free money lying around. You might as well take points or cash back for the online shopping you’ll do anyway. You shouldn’t ignore the money and leave it in the retailers’ hands. Don’t spend more or buy from merchants you wouldn’t otherwise buy from, just to earn the miles. But behave as you would anyway, accepting the free stuff along that way that’s offered to you.
- Be Patient. Just let the miles add up over the years and eventually you’ll have enough, don’t cash out for the cheapest reward just for some gratification. Your miles can do more than just get you magazines (even if The Economist can be a valuable redemption).
In other words, unless you’re going to pay really close attention to the programs, don’t go overboard, but it’s still worth collecting the points for activities you’re going to undertake anyway. Don’t walk away from free, that would just be silly.
And some people will catch the bug, for those people know that there’s a world of possibility out there, read up on blogs like this one and participate in forums like Milepoint.com, and if it all seems fun and exciting to you then you’re probably one of the people that should do more with your points than Elliott’s alternate-universe article suggests.
Sadly an article like this one would never be ‘trending’ or ‘most-shared’ let alone generate controversy and clicks. Indeed, writing this article is unlikely to generate the number of comments even than my takedown of Elliott’s original article did (it generated scores, I suspect the over-under on this one is about 10 though y’all can prove me wrong).