Christopher Elliott Plays Fast and Loose with Some Facts, Leads to Bad Advice for Travelers

Christopher Elliott is one of those great enigmas in travel, I actually like some of the things he has to say and so I think he can get a bad rap from frequent flyers at times. Though in his Travel Troubleshooter columns I think he often sides with customers and against travel providers even when the travel providers are in the right, a bit too much ‘sympathy for the little guy’ rather than a focus on justice but he frequently lets his readers vote on whether to intercede so I suppose his readers are as much at fault!

Where he really misses the mark, and sometimes even goes totally off the rails, is in his criticisms of frequent flyer programs. This new piece from the January/February National Geographic Traveler is a perfect case in point, Chris is just out of his depth on the facts and that leads him to erroneous conclusions and bad advice.

He begins by harkening back to a ‘golden age’ of travel points rewards, when you earned points just for travel and it was easy to redeem those points, when the truth is in many ways the exact opposite.

t used to be so simple.

If you belonged to a loyalty program, you’d get a point for every mile flown. Collect enough of ’em and you’d qualify for a round-trip ticket. The same formula worked for hotels and rental cars.

But today you can score miles without darkening the door of an aircraft, hotel, or rental car. Buy a box of cereal? Ka-ching! Talk on a cell phone? More miles. Get a mortgage? Even more! Unfortunately, the “free” ticket comes with a bundle of restrictions, including blackout and expiration dates, and extra charges or higher minimums to fly on more desirable dates.

…It didn’t start out this way: When American Airlines offered the first mileage-based rewards program in 1981, it wanted to reward its frequent customers and generate loyalty to the company—a mutually beneficial compact. Back then, airlines attracted customers the old-fashioned way: with good service and competitive prices.

Within a few weeks of AAdvantage’s launch, United unveiled its own frequent flier program, followed by TWA and Delta. Plans in those early years were simple and straightforward: On many airlines you could get a coach ticket for 20,000 miles with no expiration dates.

First of all, when American and other programs launched their frequent flyer programs, you could not get a coach ticket for 20,000 miles roundtrip.

United Airlines introduced ‘saver awards’ at that price point in 1988, a full seven years after the introduction of the modern frequent flyer program. And when those 20,000 mile rewards were introduced, they came with capacity controls. There was never a time when the median frequent flyer program offered 20,000 mile rewards without capacity controls. It simply never existed.

The original rewards, without capacity controls, were offered at 40,000 miles roundtrip. And when airlines introduced half off awards that booked into seats the airlines didn’t expect to sell, they still offered double mileage awards without capacity controls.

To a large extent they still do. Sure, those 20,000 mile awards are now usually 25,000 miles. And double miles awards are now 50,000 miles. Delta offers last seat availability for 60,000 miles and United will begin offering those 50,000 mile rewards with true last seat availability to their co-branded credit card holders next year. But those are certainly exceptions.

The point is that the world Chris described simply never existed, his facts are wrong. And that doesn’t even get into the matter of partner and alliance awards, the ability to use your points across a wide array of airline partners and even combine those partners into a single award ticket, something that didn’t exist in the first twenty years of frequent flyer programs.

Furthermore, Chris’ claim that it ‘used to be that way’ for the ease of redemptions in hotel programs too? Quite the contrary. Most hotel rewards until very recently came with capacity controls. When the Starwood Preferred Guest program was introduced, its unique selling proposition was the lack of capacity controls — you could have any standard room that was available for sale with your points. In the past few years Hyatt, Hilton, and to large extent Marriott have matched this. It is now easier to redeem your hotel points than it has ever been in the past.

But the debut of rewards programs coincided with the deregulation of the airline industry, which led to a shift away from service as a selling point. Cheap fares moved most of the tickets.

Wow, how many canards can you cram into two sentences?

Deregulation preceded the introduction of frequent flyer programs by four years. It’s certainly true that when the government no longer enforced monopolies on domestic routes, and no longer set prices, airlines had to compete. And one way that they competed was on the basis of value provided to consumers through their frequent flyer programs.

But Chris Elliott says above that he liked the good old days of those programs, up through the 80’s in fact, so surely he can’t place his complaints now at the feet of deregulation, without a theory of why it took at least 10 years from deregulation for him to become unhappy with the course of events?

Furthermore, yesterday Dan Webb posted a really useful chart on historical airfares. Even with the big spike in airfares over the past two years, with oil prices at historic highs and planes full, prices are still about 15% below where they were in 1995 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Somehow the consumer advocate Elliott thinks this is bad for consumers?

The airlines have perfected the art of manipulation, crafting ever more complicated incentives to stimulate our worst hoarding instincts. And as the points-earning opportunities mushroom, the real rewards are being contained behind growing walls of elite and super-elite status, available to only a chosen few.

Cue evil laugh! What Elliott calls the art of manipulation, one might also just as easily call “offering a value proposition that appeals to consumers.”

And here I think he conflates two very different things — elite status and redeemable miles.

There is very little difference in redeeming miles for general members versus elite members. Take United, their 50,000 mile flyers do not receive any better award availability at all than the general member. A 100,000 mile flyer will have access to additional coach reward seats, on United only. No additional reward seats for a premium cabin, no additional award seats for partners like Lufthansa or Thai.

Award tickets are hardly available ‘only to a chosen few’ (unless that chosen few numbers in the millions, those with enough miles in their accounts to redeem!). Instead, the same international first class seats are available to every single member of the program with enough miles in their account — except for United’s “Global Services” members who can effectively book awards into upgrade buckets on United metal only, though this is very much the exception that proves the rule.

While Elliott cites blogs on BoardingArea (like this one!) as “evidence of our collective delusion” I think he really misses the point. In fact, he gets unhinged when he claims that “miles have negative value.”

Instead, I’d argue that this column of his has negative value, to the extent it convinces some readers not to participate in loyalty programs. The programs are free. You add your account number, track your points at AwardWallet, make sure they don’t expire with just a little bit of activity every few years, and eventually you get something for almost zero effort. You maybe won’t find five seats to Hawaii at the last minute over Presidents weekend. But you’ll certainly do better than ‘negative value’ and if you pay a little bit of attention you’ll even have opportunities to see the world in a style you couldn’t possibly afford on your own for just the price of taxes and maybe a fuel surcharge.

Elliott might even say he doesn’t disagree, just don’t spend more for your tickets to get miles. But he concludes the article saying “[Y]ou have to regulate your own behavior. So, kick the habit, now.”

When in reality, you shouldn’t “cut up the frequent flier affinity credit card.”

You should

  • Get the card that is best for you.

  • Look at total trip cost — if you’re going to make elite status with an airline, it may be a lower cost solution overall to stick to a single airline or single alliance, based on savings from checked bags or extra legroom coach seats or better chance of re-accomodation during irregular operations.

  • Check for the best mileage and cash back deals from your online shopping.

  • And consider cost, location, and overall treatment (including elite status treatment and promotions) when reserving a room.

For the super elite, it can really make sense to focus on a single airline or hotel chain. For everyone else, pay attention to miles and collect miles and save up, eventually you may have enough for what you want. And it costs very little to stay active and engaged.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Your facts aren’t even 100% correct Gary. AA’s program began in 1981-82 by offering a % off flights for certain mileage levels as follows:

    12,000 miles – one first class upgrade from a coach ticket

    20,000 miles – 25 percent off a roundtrip ticket

    30,000 miles – 50 percent off a roundtrip ticket

    40,000 miles – 75 percent off a roundtrip ticket

    At 50,000 miles, the traveler would earn a free first class ticket to Hawaii and a companion could be upgraded to first class after purchasing a coach ticket. AAdvantage miles also expired within a year of accrual.

    UA’s Mileage Plus began with a “fly six trips get one free” policy.

  2. I subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler, and Elliott’s article made me want to throw the issue into the bin: what he writes is rubbish. Elliott has no credibility as a writer, and he fails to understand and even properly detail and describe the benefits of loyalty programs. Look at current or past loyalty program offers which were free like Hyatt’s Diamond trial offer or Hilton’s free Gold offer.

    Does it dawn on Elliott what the benefits of a free room upgrade, breakfast, and internet access might be? And then he has the audacity to criticize the Boarding area blogs and Flyertalk. I wonder why is he is even given time in the media?

  3. I agree with Gary about Elliott (and disregard the ‘errors’) I’ve had great success in getting free 1st class tickets both domestic and internationally with UA, AA, & BA. I play the cards and yes there is some expense, but very little to buying a F fare. Also like the Hilton HHonors, but laugh at it’s value when pricing upgraded rooms when it says I need to buy x amount of points for 5X the actual price of the room – and dislike the devaluation of the gold status I work hard for (thru AmEx HHonors $20K spend/year)

  4. look at it the other way, his article helps people not to collect miles; hence airlines can give higher elite bonus 🙂

  5. Elliott should stick to “ombudsman” and leave the journalism/opining for those who know what they are talking about.

    If you engage him on certain issues (miles and points are one, mistake fares are another) he clearly has an agenda. The worst part is that he rarely acknowledges that those with opposing view points have at least some merit.

    Let’s take mistake fares, my favorite topic. He pretty much calls out FT’ers as thieves, swindlers, and hustlers, while giving the “common man” a pass. But here’s the rub: The legal standard for contract mistakes is what the “common man” would think. If a normal person thinks “that’s a great fare!” but an expert FTer digs and realizes that there’s a mistake in the fare basis, well, he wastes no time painting FTers in a bad light for trying to take advantage of the system. And, with that, I have a huge problem.

    I’ve used points to my advantage on numerous occasions. If he wants to discourage people from booking seats/rooms that I might want, well, more power to him.

  6. I’ve given up reading Elliot’s online presence as he’s just making less and less sense. Today’s FF world is much better than even just 15 years ago. 15 years ago I was a clueless business flyer, devoting all my $$ to DL. After a short time of buying full fare, last minute tickets on the company’s dime I got the new Gold Skymiles AMEX so I’d get 2 miles per $ on my full fare purchases. Turned out that DL had only 5k miles required to upgrade from full fare to First class so I used my miles in F (that’s where my mistake came, I could have had some sweet trips on those miles but…what can you do?). Miles expired without account activity. Today miles don’t expire on DL, so the proposition is great for the casual flyer. With leisure only flying happening for me today I’ve managed to, with very little effort, build up to two RT coach tickets to Europe. I guess Chris has decided that me ‘playing’ this game to save about $2200 is just a ruse and I’ve been duped. Maybe I’ll toast him from Paris or Rome or wherever I end up deciding to go this year…just to help him realize how right he really is.

  7. Okay, this is what gets to me….

    If the writer for NG is horrible, why does he continue to write and get paid?

    After I read between the lines, Mr. Elliot took a potshot at “[t]he blogs on if you don’t believe me”. Maybe it would have been even better fuel for this blog “on”, if Chris personally said Gary’s name rather than Tim Winship’s, and “threads on Flyertalk”.

    Well, someday, fame Gary. Those 15 minutes are just too hard to find. But you know how to fly CX F for free and do take great pictures of the food and cabin, thus your commentary against National Geographic is really pointless.


  8. Gary is so right. While award availability is tighter and award levels have generally risen, using miles and bonus programs wisely has allowed many to travel in first and/or business for free or almost free. Upgrades, even for elite travelers, are harder to get, but still often available. I’m a believer.

  9. I don’t know about Elliott’s assertions. I just spent 102,500 miles total for 2 trips – one to FLL and one to ICN. Easy to book and pretty good value, imo.

  10. I’m going to go against the chorus here, and agree with Christopher Elliott on one point: the lure of miles can easily skew your decisions in ways that work against you. This won’t happen to a pro like Gary, who is very knowledgeable of the ins and outs of earning and burning, but to your average Joe who may not be able to make an accurate calculation of the value of miles as they pertain to their specific circumstances.

    Take my situation. I typically travel on my own for business and with the family (spouse + 3 kids) for leisure. For business it makes no sense to use miles (my employer foots the bill), and for leisure it’s very difficult to use miles, since our destinations and dates are fairly constrained and the kids are young enough that we don’t want to split up. We do collect miles and we have used them, but because the horizon of redemption is very long, it’s hard to put a dollar value on these miles at the time they are accrued. Lately, I have found it easiest to simply assign them a value of zero.

    Take for example a recent trip from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, for two adults, two children and a baby not occupying a paid seat. At the time of booking, there was a spread of about $2000 between the most convenient flight (non-stop on El Al) and the cheapest (two stops each way with an overnight in London on the way back), with many other options filling the spectrum on the convenience/price tradeoff. This is already a difficult decision. Now throw in status miles (useless for the family but may help me qualify) and redeemable miles (with great uncertainty about the prospects of redemption) and the problem becomes intractable. So we just took the miles out of the equation, and ended up very happy with the decision (though we did of course collect miles for the trip).

    Likewise for my other travels, I have found that ignoring the mileage earning side allows me to feel better about booking flights that go when and where I want. Not being constrained by the three mileage alliances is liberating. Over the past year I did sign up for TrueBlue and Elevate, even though I’m not sure I’ll ever get to use these points. I guess signing up for these programs means that I realize that the value of a mile for me is greater than zero, but since I can’t say how much, I find it best to treat it as zero when making a decision about purchasing flights.

    And I think this is what Elliott’s article is trying to get at: mileage considerations can be detrimental for people who make wrong valuations on the earning side. If you can make accurate valuations based on your realistic burning prospects, or if you have the discipline to not be swayed by overly optimistic valuations, then mileage programs are for you. If however the promise of a free flight brings you to make decisions based on unrealistic calculations, then you’re better off without a mileage program. Just like a credit card.

  11. Interesting that the first paragraph of Gary’s article states:

    “I think he can get a bad rap from frequent flyers at times.”

    Then Gary starts giving Chris a bad rap.

    Ed has a point. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris gets paid more than most of the Boarding Area bloggers do. He has to be doing something right to be listened to and paid for his knowledge.

    In any case, an interesting discussion.

  12. @John

    If getting paid a lot is all it takes to be considered “right”, then drug lords should be our sources for information on a daily basis.

  13. What I do get is that the world of miles, points and status is too complicated for the average Joe. My conversion rate of friends to mileage junkies is less than 1 out of 10. They fly to Africa without getting the miles and then listen in wonder to my tails of Lufthansa FC or Virgin Upper Class. Or maybe they will sign up for the miles account but then forget to enter it or let the miles expire.

  14. Chris just isn’t credible or knowledgeable on frequent flyer issues. He is sometimes credible as an ombudsman – I’m all for some of his campaigns there. But so what? I’ve taken or planned free trips to Europe, Asia, Mexico and South America over 2011-12, so Elliot’s opinions of frequent flyer programs are of no interest to me. I’ll keep making use of them to do things I couldn’t afford otherwise!

  15. @Gary

    My point was getting Chris Elliot to post to your blog and give you credit inside his published “for hire” story. Well, he at least posted here.


  16. Cut up your cards. Lack of interest in FF programs and associated rewards cards equals less referral income for FF bloggers 🙂

    Oh, and more award space for me.

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