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).

  1. Rick said,

    Well, I’ll give you a +1 for yet another rational, well stated, non-inflammatory post.

  2. Rudy said,

    One quick anecdote, among dozens I could give, to show the silliness of Elliot’s piece:

    I recently signed up for a Chase United card which gave me 55,000 miles plus a $50 credit on sign-up. Total time invested? Maybe 20 minutes.

    I just booked a one-way flight from NYC to South America for 30,000 miles (I have an open-ended trip down there).

    Just for curiosity, I priced one-ways and the minimum I saw was about $1,200.

    So, let’s see: 20 minutes of my time to get paid $50 and get a free one-way to South America, with 20k miles left for another trip. Or, pay $1,200.

    Hmm, tough call to decide if the programs have any value…

    If this were the only time I ever took advantage of a frequent flyer program, it would have been a great investment. But I do stuff like this all the time.

    So really, other than trying to generate traffic via hate mail, I have no idea what Elliot was thinking. He really be-clowned himself on this one…

  3. greek2me said,

    I took the over so I’ll comment!
    Very sporting of you to do his job for him.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Uri said,

    A highly useful and thoughtful post. Keep up the good work, and we will follow.

  5. jeanne said,

    Thanks for this article and all the intelligent and timely advice you give so freely. I have benefited enormously from your advice and have had free flights and hotel stays during the last year I wouldn’t have had without it. I give Thanks to you!

  6. Alanea said,

    Happy Thanksgiving Gary! Great blog – I read it everyday.

  7. DaveS said,

    It’s the difference in readership. The people who need the advice you offer here aren’t reading your blog. The people who scoff that Elliott is way off base (including me)aren’t his target readership. As you note, he writes for the mass audience. The majority of Americans don’t even own passports. To many, a road trip two states over is a big deal, and getting on an airplane to go to New York is the trip of a lifetime. If you’re trying to sell a travel column to that audience you don’t assume much sophistication at all, and your advice reflects that. For many of his readers it is valid, though your adaptation is much better.

    Being good at getting and using miles and points takes some time and effort and willingness to learn. It’s fascinating and very profitable for many of us, but many just don’t have that inclination.

  8. Thanksgiving!… and Some Items of Note Around the Web said,

    [...] favorite blogger Gary Leff has an excellent post on the value of airline miles and points and how to approach the subject.  This builds upon my prior post on the broad value of such [...]

  9. Ed said,

    He obviously writes those articles hoping people like you will take the bait and increase his readership.

    You fell for it, again.

  10. MileageUpdate said,

    Great Read. And I have to say I like Elliot’s take on all things TSA so its hard for me to criticize him too much.

  11. BFrankley said,

    I have to comment here to support the triumph of your wise, rational advice over the inane ignorance of Elliott’s piece. To prove your superiority, yesterday I booked two first/business seats to Australia using Alaska Airlines miles. I found good availability – in large part because I read your previous posts stating that Cathay Pacific awards could be booked 355 days out instead of waiting for Alaska’s usual 330 days out. Without miles and points and knowledge, that amazing trip doesn’t happen. Thanks!

  12. Marshall Jackson said,

    Bravo!

  13. Food Wine and Miles said,

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  14. ZippyPam said,

    Chris has entered the realm of daily sour grapes. Perhaps it is due to his stated profession of consumer advocate for all things travel. There is an awful load of negativity in dealing with those issues day in and out. However, he is out of his area of expertise when he dings the FF programs. There are some people that will be discouraged from accessing free travel as a result. It is work but the benefits are huge. For $250 in taxes I just had 6 nights in 4 & 5 star hotels in London, flying over in biz and returning in first. So Chris, how can you possibly negate the value of that type of travel? How about my similar trip to Asia in February? Or my similar trip to Europe last December?

  15. Yuuichi said,

    Exactly!!
    Who needs miles and points to get business and first class at minimum cost and top hotel room for free? :P
    The person with no status who paid extra for seat selection to get an exit row seat must think it is such a good deal… The other one who is paying $800 per night for a hotel room with no lounge access on a busy night may be thinking its the best deal he can get.
    We should all thanks to Chris!! If it is not him, think how fast those seats and free nights will be gone…. And we all have to wait for a seat at the club lounge…. :P

  16. Dave said,

    Thanks to you and a few other who focus (dare I use obsessive) on the fine points of these programs I am able to fly premium class rather than coach!

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  17. Scott said,

    Well said Gary. I liken articles like Christopher Elliott’s about airline mile programs to the work that Dave Ramsey does. He starts with the assumption that EVERYONE is an idiot, and so his methods are skewed toward that insight. Rather than truly educating, they’ve both chosen to just take the paved road, rather than the road less-traveled. I had tuned into Ramsey accidentally one day, and he basically told a couple that they shouldn’t do a special trip for their 10th anniversary because they still had debt.

  18. Murtuza said,

    So true Gary. If you understand the value of miles and how to use them, you will never turn away :). Thanks for this post, I was upset on Elliot’s article as it seemed not done with lot of insight details of FF programs.

  19. Taylor said,

    Well said, Gary. Yes, loyalty programs can be intimidating, but with time and good resources, it is possible to figure them out and put them to work for you. Kudos on another rational, well-phrased post.

  20. dhammer53 said,

    Yes. I agree with Chris. My 100,000 BA Avios points were total worthless… if you consider that was enough for:

    2 R/T layflat seats upfront JFK – South America on LAN.
    4 R/T seats intra S.A (those seats are very costly).

    So for 180,000 + 9000 x 4 = 36,000 miles, we can all tell Chris I got very little value from my miles.

  21. nsx at FlyerTalk said,

    As I said on the other post, it’s like Black Friday sales. They’re not for everyone. You need to be informed and diligent to benefit fully. If you proceed aimlessly, you might not get any value at all.

  22. Robert Hanson said,

    I think this is another example of political {non}correctness running amok in the MSM. By this reasoning, anything special is beyond the average person, who can only hate the greedy rich who are given undeserved privileges the little guys can never attain for themselves. All they can do is hate the evil corporations {banks, airlines, etc.} that keep them from having the nice things in life. And then look to a statist government to give them a tiny amount of what they believe they can never personally achieve.

    I’m not a Christian, but a Bible passage occurs to me, where Jesus denounces an elite class, saying something like “you not only won’t enter in the Kingdom yourselves, but you also shut the door that would let anyone else in”. Chris is clearly trying to shut the door, keeping the average person out of premium cabins, luxury hotel rooms, and aspirational vacations.

    But I’ve got to wonder if Chris himself follows his own advice, or if perhaps he secretly belongs to the miles and points programs he tells everyone else to ignore. Just as alGore condemns private jets and SUVs, then uses them himself on an almost daily basis. And as thousands of UN bureaucrats and Hollywood celebs fly private jets into resorts like Bali and Cancun every year to confer about stopping Climate Change {sic}, thereby each producing more Greenhouse Gases {sic} in one trip than a dozen average people do in a year.

    I think it’s time to stop ignoring the obvious fact that virtually all of the MSM uses a political agenda in deciding what to report, and how to slant it. And that slant will never be to empower individual achievement. I challenge anyone to find a newspaper carrying Chris’ column that also carries something like this:

    Lessons From A Capitalist Thanksgiving.

    http://www.forbes.com/2008/11/27/thanksgiving-economy-history-oped-cx_jb_1127bowyer.html

  23. rights for us said,

    this does apply for many european programs, and for that matter most programs outside of the usa. they are often nothing but tricks and traps or either poorly though out but with little due process or consumer rights. Even Canada has fewer consumer rights than the usa.

  24. Robert Hanson said,

    @rightsforus Yes, and not surprisingly, Europe as a whole has very little upward social and economic mobility. The entire game there is rigged against the ordinary person making any headway, whether in yearly income, or in airplane upgrades. Europeans are not angry about their lack of geniune miles and points programs, because nothing in their lives up to now tells them that they deserve them. If you try to explain how you flew to their country First Class, for free, you nearly always get a look of noncomprehension. As if you had said you flew there on a magic carpet, or jumped over the ocean; it seems nonsensical to them.

    As the article I linked to said:

    “Men in ivory towers, ivied halls, foundation-funded think tanks or bustling newsrooms dream up new forms of social organization. They write books, policy papers and five-year plans telling us all that is wrong with the way we live now and what could be done if we simply adhere to their analyses.”

    If this describes Christopher Elliot, and I think it does, how much more does the discussion of the “philosopher kings who, ignorantly and blithely, imposed on our forebears a system that led to malnutrition, pestilence and mass fatalities” at Plymouth Colony apply to the unelected EU bureaucracy.

  25. jackal said,

    @Robert Hanson: I would relish the chance to be a GA and have Chris Elliott board my flight. I’d be sure to tell him, “Mr. Elliott, as I’m sure you prefer it, I’ve taken the liberty of removing your frequent flyer number from your reservation and downgrading you to a middle seat in coach in row 33. Please be sure to board with Group 7. Oh, and here’s a tag for your bag, since you won’t be able to fit it on-board in your boarding group.” :)

  26. Robert Hanson said,

    @jackal rotfl !

  27. Dan said,

    @Robert Hanson

    Your take on the Europeans and free first class was interesting. My wife and I were at the Bali Hyatt for six nights on a month-long trip through SE Asia. We were in a suite (on points, natch) and flew CX F.

    At the Bali Hyatt, my wife and I became friends with a British couple — bumped into them in the lounge for brekkie and canapes pretty much every day. They were a delightful couple, and the gentelman owns a very successful tax firm back in the UK. He hold me they were there for three weeks.

    On the second day, I asked him if he was signed up for the HGP program. He told me no, that he thought they were a waste, but his kid’s girlfriend would nag him about it. I looked at him and said, “My wife and I are staying in a suite.” He says: “So are we.” I said: “But I’m not paying a bloody nickel for mine.” I let him chew on that for a bit and said: “And I got free first class tickets on Cathay Pacific from British Airways miles.” He told me that he’s flown in private jets but never in first class.

    By the end of the week, I got him to sign up for Hyatt Gold Passport ;) I also told him to listen to his kid more…

  28. Robert Hanson said,

    @ Dan I had been under the misunderstanding that most of the better rewards programs were only available to US residents. Partly because of comments I’ve read on travel blogs, and partly because of my interactions with Europeans when traveling there, who seemed virtually unaware that such programs even existed. But after reading your commment, I checked Hyatt and a half dozen other hotel and airline programs, and all of them are at least now open to everyone everywhere. Whether this is a recent change, or was always this way I have no way of knowing.

    However, as readers of any US based travel blog know, the main source of miles and points is credit card bonuses. The UK based Virgin Atlantic card has a sign up bonus of 6000 miles after minimum spend. I recently go 45K from Chase for their VA card. Again, I recently got 100K Avios from Chase for their BA card. There are two BA cards in the UK, one of which gives you a mere 6,000 Avios as a sign up bonus. The other one does give you 25,000 Avios. But the interest rate on that one is over 51%. That was not a typo. :>( And still only 25K, vs the current 50K bonus in the US.

    The UK Hyatt card seems to be the same as the US one. However if you live in the EU and want an Air France credit card, there are 3 options. A mere 2,500 bonus miles with a 75 Euro annual fee. 10K bonus miles with a 140 Euro annual fee. Or 20,000 miles, an offer we wouldn’t even bother to apply for in the US, with an annual fee of 570 Euros. That’s around $735 dollars, and no, there is no lounge access included. Not even waived baggage fees.

    Anyway, I think even these current paltry credit card offers are a recent development. So no wonder most Europeans aren’t yet into the miles and points game. I’m sure as more and more Europeans hear of what we have in the US, there will be increased pressure to offer them deals closer to what we routinely expect here.

  29. Haloastro said,

    Chris now seems just as cynical and anti-airline as Charlie has been with his consistent rehash of his same arguments about ancillary revenue. I stopped reading both of their posts a long time when they started becoming less balanced, and more about how evil airlines are for not spoon feeding everything to customers.

  30. Brian L. said,

    @Robert Hanson – Chase doesn’t issue Virgin Atlantic credit cards in the US, Bank of America does.

  31. Robert Hanson said,

    @Brian L You are right of course, both of my VA cards are from B of A. Thank you B of A for those 90,000 VA miles. Because Chase would only have given me one card, while B of A gave me a second one 3 months later. Both of which, since they are AMEX cards, will get me a statement credit for $25 at my local wine shop tomorrow for Small Business Saturday.

    Due to VA fuel surcharges, those 90K miles will be shortly turning into 180K Hilton points. That’s good for 4 nights at a category 7 Hilton, using the AXON discount. With 35K Hilton points left towards my next award. “Good Stuff” as the CSRs in the UK would say…

  32. Telnar said,

    Let me try an alternate argument he might have made: Frequent Flyer programs are part of a class of policies where businesses find ways to price discriminate in favor of those who are more price sensitive and willing to spend energy learning and implementing the details of the available discounts. For the average occasional flyer, a system more akin to Wal-Mart’s “Everyday low prices” model would appear to be an improvement at first glance.

    The real question is why differentiated pricing is so much more common in travel than in consumer goods. I don’t pretend to to understand that question, but if the cause is stable, then the occasional passengers might well benefit indirectly from these programs through the willingness of business travelers to pay much higher ticket prices even if they never make a frequent flyer redemption.

    Does anyone have an intuition for whether occasional flyers are benefitted or harmed by the complexity of the system? Another way to phrase this is: Are occasional flyers paying more or less than the average cost of providing their seats?

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  34. An open letter to @elliotdotorg, or why miles programs benefit even infrequent travelers | The Deal Mommy said,

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