Frequent Travelers Debate the Value and Future of Miles

I was interviewed in the June issue of Inside Flyer along with a handful of others: Carol (SanDiego1K on Flyertalk), Steve Belkin (the famous ‘beaubo’), and Seth Miller (Wandering Aramean blog).

A good discussion, I express my overall preference for United Mileage Plus and Hyatt Gold Passport (with an honorable mention to Starwood Preferred Guest). I admit to letting my AAdvantage miles expire in the early 90’s. And I express the controversial view (contrary to the position taken by the other three on the group) that miles have gotten more valuable rather than less valuable — despite award chart inflation, where programs continually increase the number of miles required to redeem an award.

Programs are definitely more valuable than they were 10 years ago, though they may not be as valuable as they were two years ago.

At the depths of the Great Recession, bonuses were flying out of programs like never before, and since international premium cabins weren’t selling, securing awards was really easy. I doubt we’ll see anything like 2009 again any time soon.

But it’s hard to say that the era of great value is over when there are more opportunities than ever to redeem your miles, and in better ways. When I redeemed United miles to go to Australia in business back in 2000, the Mileage Plus agents offered me the chance to fly Air New Zealand and then I could fly United in coach to California to catch that flight “as a courtesy.” Now I redeem my Mileage Plus miles for awards that include Lufthansa, Thai Airways, All Nippon, and Asiana–all on one award–and my United segments are in first class, too! The partnerships are expanding and becoming better integrated, improving the award experience all around.

Sure, mileage charts have become more expensive. That Australia trip I took is a lot more miles now. But earning miles is easier, too.

I think this is an important point, that the good old days really weren’t as good as we think, I much prefer using my United miles to fly first class on Lufthansa, Thai, All Nippon, and Asiana than to use them to fly… United!

While miles have gotten more valuable, I still advise folks to spend their miles not to hoard them — earn and burn in the same period, to avoid the effects of award chart inflation. Use the miles to achieve world-class travel, expand your horizons, and experience things you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see. Miles and points have certainly changed my life, for sure.

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. I remember the days prior to alliances. Back then, you could only cash in for United.

  2. Your point about partnerships and alliances is valid, but it seems to apply mostly to international travel. How would you assess the question for domestic travelers?

  3. Gary, as a fan of Mileage Plus, are you planning to convert MR points to Continental OnePass before the opportunity expires in September? I am undecided on whether it is better to have them in the bank for Aeroplan/BA/Delta or to move them while I still can to United (where most of my activity is).

  4. @Rob I want my flexibility and I have a plenty big balance between UA and CO. The right answer depends on your award plans and your current balance..

  5. Don’t forget to include ticket prices as a variable. Two years ago, while bonuses were more plentiful, prices were substantially lower. Domestically, 25K miles that got you a $300 ticket then might get you a $450 one now.

  6. An interesting point of view, Gary, though I generally disagree with the conclusions you draw. Yes, the alliances are a net positive for folks traveling on points, but there are many other net negatives that suggest to me that the overall trend in point values is a stagnant to negative one. I’m still accumulating and burning them as fast as I can, but I’m also not holding out hope that a pile of miles will be worth more in 5 years than they are right now.

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