How to Convince People that Frequent Flyer Programs Are Worth It

This piece does a ‘He Said, She Said’ on the value of frequent flyer programs.

The proponent of the programs says they’re like free money on the sidewalk, pick it up for things you’re doing anyway. The argument against is that you may not get what you want, and it takes effort to pay attention. Shockingly, coming from where I’m coming from, I think the proponent has the better end of the debate, in each case he lays out a reasonable answer — you may not fly a lot but can get miles from all sorts of things besides flying, the miles aren’t hard to track when you use a free online tool like Award Wallet, the seats you want may not be available on the airline attached to your mileage program but the seats may still be available on one of their partners.

But those answers do all underscore that the fundamental point against is: you have to pay attention. And some people can’t or won’t internalize that it’s actually worth paying attention. Now, my own guess is that most folks’ leisure time isn’t worth as much as they think it is and it’s far less complicated and time-consuming to pay attention than folks think it is. But it’s still a hurdle to overcome. And many people believe that ‘the game’ is a whole lot harder than it is, or more frequently even that it’s ‘for someone else’ and not really for them.

Years ago when I started flying mostly first class (i.e. understanding how upgrades work), and taking what to most folks seem like exotic and unattainable vacations, I would evangelize amongst my co-workers but there was very little uptake. The best I can figure, looking backwards, is that they all saw it as this crazy thing that Gary can do but not something that ‘the rest of us’ can leverage to our advantage. And from the outside it seems hard.

Michael Polanyi argued that you first had to have some felt unease or sense of breakdown in your premises before you’re willing to learn a new language that will help you understand the world in a different way (ok, that’s a complete bastardization of Polanyi, especially ironic given his critiques of reductionism). It wasn’t until I broke through with a couple of colleagues, they had built up stashes of miles and simply convinced them not to use them for weekend trips to Florida in the summertime and instead let me book first class awards to Asia for them that others saw people “more like them” taking advantage of these same sorts of trips that I was doing. And then the floodgates opened. Everyone wanted to know what credit cards we were using, how signup bonuses worked, what programs to credit their points to. Sure, the occasional mistake fare helped along the way but mostly it was seeing people that they could identify with reaping the benefits of the programs before they were willing to take the plunge themselves. And now we all travel the world in international first class despite the fact that most work for really quite modest pay.

Which is why despite the fact that the proponent gets the better of the argument here, I think, most people that read the piece won’t be spurred to action.

I also think that framing the discussion as “25,000 miles will get you a free domestic coach ticket maybe” doesn’t do enough to motivate. The real value proposition is in the aspirational award. It makes sense to do a calculation, “is it really worth my paying attention to all of this to maybe get a ticket that I could buy for $350? Sure seems like a lot of work!” Which is why the more pedestrian programs plod along, but the real profitability accrues to those which capture the imagination of their members. The promise isn’t a flight to Des Moines, it’s “a better life” and things you couldn’t achieve on your own. Of course those things have to be realistic as well, they have to be within reach, so 10 million miles to go into space won’t cut it since it’s too much of a stretch for nearly all members. Instead, “90,000 miles for business class to Hong Kong” (US Airways pricing) seems to capture excitement when I talk to people about it. That’s less than the miles for four trips to Florida, and it gets them past the curtain into a forward cabin of the plane to an exotic destination. Aspirational yet still realistic.

And then I show them how many miles they get from their credit card signup and from credit card spend within a year. And that their spouse or significant other can do the same thing. Then there’s at least a non-zero success rate in getting people engaged.

Some commenters here will argue with me, right? If you’re reading this post you’re probably already engaged. And you don’t want the competition for seats!

(How) do you try to convince people that programs are worth it? And do they listen?

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. […] Originally Posted by peajc I would definitely do this if I was alone or with my boyfriend but the friends I'm traveling with would almost certainly not want to do this. In fact, when we were booking the trip they balked at the price of airfare and I asked them if they had any miles they could use. One makes regular flights to japan and the other had just taken a trip to Turkey. They both said they didn't do miles programs which made me They don't think like we do! Thank you for the suggestion though! Per Gary:…-are-worth-it/ […]


  1. I’ve given up with my co-workers. You are right on the money — they seem to think that this is something that “crazy Gene” can do and not them. Their loss…

  2. Oddly enough I was having this exact same conversation with a staff member yesterday. Needless to say I was unable to convince him of the benefits of “making the credit card work for you” and got the usual blank stare. Everyone spends, and travels diffrently, what makes perfect sense to us doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.

  3. I’ve tried so many times to convince my family and friends and I’ve gotten only 2 successes. I send them emails, explain to them what to do, show them pictures of where I’ve been, but only 2 folks tried it out!

    I even had a friend tell me that she knows that she could travel more luxuriously and more often, but she just doesn’t have the patience to track everything. It is not worth her time to do this. She would like it a lot better if it was easy for her to do, and I suspect that the problem is that we have different definitions of “easy.”

    I love tracking, collecting, and analyzing, and I suspect that a lot of us in this hobby like tracking and collecting and doesn’t see it as too big of a bother.

    But there are others who are completely turned-off by the idea of having to constantly track, collect, and evaluate.

  4. Working very hard on/for my other half who does a fair amount of travelling on business. By and large she’ll do what I need her to do to claim the miles but quite often she’ll simply forget.

    The issue, I think, is not so much that people don’t want to do it or don’t see the theoretical value. Rather, it’s complicated (eg she was trying to claim miles from Virgin Atlantic using a Continental number linked to her United number) and often it’s another thing which needs to be done at the airport – a stressful place at the best of times. If you are essentially not that interested, then having to do complicated things in times of stress means that many people will just give it a pass.

  5. I should add that it’s probably good that more people don’t do this. If everyone maxed out the value, then the cost to the airlines of the program would soar. A devaluation of the benefits would then be inevitable.

  6. +1 Gene! Every Monday starts with, “where did you fly to this weekend?” People don’t understand it’s not a big deal to go to Zurich in C for 2 days for my birthday. Those that don’t understand or are willing to my ‘sales pitch’ on why you want to get involved would see those 2 days to ZRH as amazing.

  7. I think I have about a 3% success rate in “proselytizing” about frequent flyer programs — and even then most of my conversions are half-hearted.

    Let’s face it: most people aren’t that interested in traveling. Especially Americans. They’re happy with their one trip a year to Orlando. And many of the folks who do have some interest just don’t “get” this whole thing about signing up for credit card bonuses, etc. They’d rather buy their $800 off-season tickets to Europe.

    The ones who do get interested tend to have specific needs — which they then meet, but don’t get more ambitious. Like I have a family member who likes to take cruises out of the Caribbean. He signs up for enough credit cards to get himself free first class tickets to San Juan, but doesn’t take it further and start flying to, say, Europe.

    The ones who get most interested usually have specific needs. Like they’re from China and want to visit their families regularly. They see that they can sign up for lots of credit cards and reduce the cost of a family trip for 4 to China from, say, $6000 to a couple hundred in taxes. But, again, they don’t start travelling around the world.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that the number of “crazy” people who really love to travel, and are eager to go anywhere — as long as there’s a deal — is small. They’re the readers of this blog, of course, but it’s a tiny percentage of the overall population.

  8. My co-workers have been more receptive than most, but I suppose it matters that I work in a shop full of math geeks and software developers.

    My folks have been the hardest to sway. They don’t have much desire for international travel, so that has something to do with it. When the AA/Citi promos came out last year, I told dad that 100,000 AA miles really were worth getting even if you had no idea what you would do with them, but I would concede that if he planned to use them for domestic saver awards, it could be better to just buy the tickets outright.

    Anyway, dad passed. We looked at taking a cruise out of New York together for later next year, but dad said the airfare+cruise was going to be too expensive. Well, those 100,000 AA miles would have gotten him two any-time awards (got the airfare covered!) and he could have gotten the Capital One match-my-miles offer and picked up $1000+ to use towards the cruise. Add the Chase Sapphire promotion, and I think he could have done it.

    So, instead, the wife and I are going to Europe for 2-3 weeks later next year. Free airfare thanks to some CO/UA sign-up bonuses, $500+ in credits from Chase Sapphire, $2300 in travel credits from Capital One miles matching, (and the matches were strictly from other sign-up bonuses, no earned miles), and a free hotel stay in Munich for a week during Oktoberfest thanks to my SPG miles.

  9. I agree with Gary that most folks over-estimate how valuable their time is, and it’s a poor excuse to not exercise some brain cells to collect some miles. After all, they’ll likely use the time they “save” in order to watch a 5th episode of Housewives of Atlanta. My significant other is in this camp.

    Ironically, I think most mileage addicts under-estimate how valuable their time is. Most mileage hounds are smart, detail-oriented folks. Many have successful, high-paying careers. I bet that if the time spent scrounging around for miles and reading fine print on deals was spent working harder at their jobs or fine-tuning their savings portfolio, they might see monetary returns that dwarf the value of the miles they accumulate. Unfortunately, it really is an addiction, and many of us can’t stop spending time on miles even though we know this is true!

    Besides this mis-valuing of time, I think the other main reason that the average person doesn’t collect miles is that the human brain isn’t naturally wired to save for the future. We’ll pull the slot machine wheel if there is a chance of an immediate payout, but it’s much harder to convince someone to do x, y and z now in order to potentially get something a year or two from now. I think the reason that people don’t save miles is the same reason most people don’t save money in general.

  10. Agree with all, it’s very hard to get friends or family to embrace this, even after all the personal success stories I share.
    I have found a main roadblock with credit card bonus opportunities to be Americans’ general fear and ignorance about having “too many” credit cards, “not being able to manage them,” an insistence to never ever pay an annual fee on a card, and not knowing at all what goes in to their credit score.
    On top of that, when I do get someone interested and asking more about these hot credit cards, the conversation often dies when I note that you probably need a good credit score to get approved for this card, and it’s important to pay your card balance off in full each month to avoid interest, and really benefit from these bonus miles.
    Since the average American household has like $8,000+ in debt, I’ve found that I am in the minority amongst my peers when it comes to managing my credit well and avoiding having to pay interest.

  11. In the early 90’s, I was looking for another job. I got put on mainly DL & UA flights at the time. I was already a member of UA FF & I joined DL. At least twice, DL & UA (others too) had a segment based promo if one flies the following segments within a certain timeframe (a few months if I recall), one got free tickets up to 3. The required segments were the following (first promo) for the free tickets. (both UA & DL)

    1 free ticket 8 segments
    2 free tickets 14 segments
    3 free tickets 20 segments.

    I bought extra tickets with 6 segments (back then, one had to book by phone or ticket office) that cost me approx $125. Examples: LAX-SLC-DFW-AUS & LAX-SLC-DFW-SAT, etc. DL would allow me not to book more than 3 segments each way but allow a stopover. I went to places I could not afford if I had to purchase the tickets.

    For one of the free tickets, I flew FAT-LAX-ATL (23 hr layover)-SJU-MCO (stopover)-ATL-LAX-FAT. At the time, fares out of FAT were expensive!!!! I needed to go to MCO so that worked out great!

    Bottom line: As a kettle years ago, if I flew an airline, I joined their FF program. I joined CO back in 1981 and UA in 1982. Well worth the minute or two to fill out each FF application. 🙂

  12. My husband and I, and by that I mean my husband, do the coin churn to meet spending on our mileage cards. We try to explain the process to family and friends. You can just watch them grow uncomfortable. They all think we’re about to be arrested for money laundering.

    The best way we have been able to inspire people is to take trips for little or no money. We got a mistake fair to Vegas for $0.24 in December and everyone was envious, and we’re taking a ten day trip to Hawaii for $20 in October. Those two trips alone, we have had a few cousins signed up for the Citi cards, and his dad is considering it. My mom is afraid of credit cards for identity purposes. And others are afraid they won’t be able to control their spending.

    We have even offered to take care of all the hard work if they will just sign up and people still say no. That is just craziness.

  13. I did finally convince my extended family to get on the BA – 100,000mile bandwagon and other cards, as well as, credit card spending. However, with my coworkers it has been quite tough.
    People get uncomfortable when the topic of credit cards come up. Also, I sometimes question the financial discipline of people I tell about this and think, as you put it in your post, they have to pay attention! At work it’s what a lot of people have mentioned on here – I’m crazy Patrick going to Argentina, Austria, Hawaii, Japan, etc.. for free. I keep telling them that they can as well but the will isn’t there. Miles are expiring left and right and I personally feel upset about it.

    I am grateful I got into this “hobby” as early as I did by coming across Rick’s blog and the frugaltravelguy blog by chance. It opened up the whole wide world of credit card sign-up bonus potential for me and my wife. We are in our early 30s so we are planning on enjoying the fruits of our labor for years to come. Hopefully we can, in a couple of years establish the same flying lifestyle as many of you – first & business class. Right now we are still kinda stuck in free seats in economy since we don’t want to burn a 100000 mile balance in an account on 1 flight alone.

    I think that’s also a reason for people to not get engaged. They are fine with dishing out $400 or $600 dollars for an economy seat to Europe but once you talk numbers like 55000 and 60000 miles – the eyes glaze over and it sounds unobtainable to them – add to that an inherent resistance to mess with credit cards and you got the perfect storm of award travel ignorance.

  14. I’ll throw in with bluto on this one — there are many “games” available where learning to play can have significant financial (or per Gary, aspriational)benefits. Most folks think it’s not worth the effort to get into such games. Some become fanatics and play regardless of cost (time or money). A third path is to allot some time to jump in and explore, then pare back to the essentials. While there are many blogs, IMHO, Gary(VftW), Rick (FTG), Ric(LT), and Brian (TPG) cover 95% of the methods, tools, and deals available. I also spend a few minutes scanning the FT and MP RSS forum feeds for the programs I’m most active in, but I don’t get past the title for most threads, as they are irrelevant for my needs.

    As far as family, friends, co-workers go, I answer if asked, and then give a very simplifed version: There are some big bonuses for getting a credit card. If you’re willing to do a little work and plan your trips in advance, the cost of the airline/hotel is nearly free. For the 1 in 50 that continue asking questions, THEN the conversation begins.

  15. I think the miles game appeal to optimizer personality types. Most people don’t even pick up the free money available in their 401k company match. I would start there before moving on to the much more difficult “miles harvesting” free money…

  16. There’s more money to be saved through coupon tactics (especially for families) than through travel I think, which is more of a luxury. How many of us spend our time doing guerilla coupon tactics which some moms have used to literally saved ten thousand dollars a year?

    I suspect hobby and interest is the main driver for all of us, not price/value.

  17. The mystery around credit scores and the impact of additional credit cards on the scores creates too much uncertainty for many. Also, a small percent of us can get an additional credit card without it changing our spending habits, but for many it is a real temptation that leads to debt trouble.

  18. In the end, we share what we know and enjoy teaching others, but I don’t know that it’s worthwhile to try too hard.
    The fewer people in the game, the more award seats available to those who take this seriously.

  19. A lot of people have subconscious beliefs that they are somehow damaging their credit by doing card deals, or they have a belief that getting something for nothing is immoral. They won’t come out and say it, but it does explain why a lot of people who want to travel just don’t get it.

    At some point, you have to just give up and let them figure it out for themselves.

  20. It really isn’t the competition for seats that greater exploitation of programs would bring it about. It’s the potential program devaluations by airlines that concerns me if more people collected miles and used them for something for more costly than a 25K domestic ticket only 500 miles away.

  21. While talking with people while playing poker I will often mention my website and say that the credit card companies are currently giving away business and first class tickets to most anywhere in the world. If I get a look of interest, I hand them my card for my website and get them to write on the back of it where on my website to find the 3 American and 5 Continetal airlines miles producing mega-bonuses,and where to find the brokerage bonuses. A few days later I often get lots of positive feedback, and within a year I often get good travel stories. Most gratifying. Keeps me going with my project.

  22. Im not going to try to convince them anymore…in fact, I will discourage them…which will mean less people will sign up and Ill have more availability for seats. Is it selfish? mmmmm to a point….But I am for one sick of attention whores who are going public and explaining golden goose techniques that have yielded ‘US’ a lot of points. I say “us” because we do this has a hobby and we have spent time and resources and value it differently than others.

  23. My wife puts up very well with my miles obsession and she has no problem with me signing her up for credit cards that she may not really need. Where we differ is in redemptions. She would always prefer to use the miles to fly coach so that can have enough miles for the “next flight”. My point of view is to squeeze every bit of value out of every mile. For example, I would use 100k BA miles to fly to Asia on a ticket worth $8k rather than 50k to fly on a ticket worth $1k.

    In the long run she is probably right since we like to travel often and, surprisingly, don’t like paying for tickets. On the other hand, I’ve flown coach plenty of times but my award redemptions in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class and Cathay Business Class are special memories for me. I will also always remember sitting in a coach middle seat for 15 hours next to someone’s smelly socks with babies crying all around me but somehow it is just not the same.

    One aspect of this is placing a value on luxury. On my recent coach flight to the UK on Virgin I gladly paid $300 at the airport for a o/w upgrade to Premium Economy. My wife was not with me but I am sure she would not have agreed to the upgrade. For her, the flight is a way of getting from point A to point B. For me, the flight is a large part of the travel experience.

    How do you guys feel? Even if you consider the awards “aspirational,” is it the flight itself that is most important or is it the next free trip?

  24. My family and friends have just had to see it in action. As we take more and more trips and help use our miles for them to take more and more trips they are catching on. A few are now totally hooked. I think it just takes time and repeated exposure!

  25. I”ve had pretty low success rates, too, in convincing people. I tend to think iahphx hits on a main issue, that most Americans just aren’t all that interested in travel, or at least anything beyond Dayton Beach in the spring and maybe the Grand Canyon next summer. Co-workers and friends seem to like hearing about our trips but I”d say only a small percentage would go on similar ventures even if someone handed them a free ticket tomorrow.

    Then the remainder, who are interested but don’t bite on the deals, either have credit issues or over-value their supposed “time”. Or just don’t understand and being afraid of the unknown, don’t want to venture into the game.

    I also would’ve thought that the aspirational awards would be better motivators to most people (though as noted, hearing of my trips doesn’t seem to do the trick for people i Know so, go figure). I think some people can already afford the regular domestic trip they take each year so they don’t see the value in earning free flights, as they fail to see beyond “the usual”

  26. I think it’s narrow-mindedness at fault. eg I have 44yr old co-worker, bachelors and MBA from Notre Dame so he’s no rube. We had a corporate trip to Mexico and he was scrambling to get a passport, never in his life had he left the country and really had no desire. Whatever.

    So you’re either curious about the world or you’re not I guess. Luckily for me I married a woman who shares my passion for travel, and our lives would be completely different if we didn’t have some grand trip sitting on the horizon. With miles piled up in 4 different programs the only limitation on where to go is our imagination. It’s exhilarating to have that kind of freedom at our disposal, and these mileage/point programs make it all so easily attainable.

  27. I’m in a similar boat as Andrew Lock – wife is not yet fully convinced on the redemption value side of premium vs coach(of course, we haven’t yet redeemed other than some hotels – hopefully a solid first redemption will align attitudes), and we’re still in the “building a war chest” stage of “the game” – largely as a consequence of vacation scheduling/accrual issues that delay any significant travel to 2012, and any major redemption needs to be for a weeklong trip at this point.

  28. I think many people think it’s “something for nothing” and too good to be true. And some have tried, and without good organization they lose track of passwords, or don’t register in time, or misread the T&Cs, and don’t want to try again.

    Also, as noted, many don’t trust themselves or a spouse with thousands in credit. With good reason a lot of the time.

  29. So difficult to convince others that my “addiction” is not a “sickness.” Many would consider it “sick” that I’m even reading this blog.

    Yet, I’m in New York having been upgraded on my flight, staying in a $400 room that cost me “$60” to obtain via miles, and enjoying the “good life.

    What I resent is the way I’m regularly mocked for my “four day trips to Shanghai” — yet I usually pay less than $1000 for airfare, use evips to upgrade to business and, in the process, a) get to experience a city I’d normally never have a chance to see; b)usually accumulate anlit of miles (I’m exec plat on AA) and c) usually gift miles to the same people who are mocking when they need to make anlast minute booking and the fares are too high or they are in 37b and want my help with an upgrade

  30. So I was curious about something. If I convinced my mom/dad/whoever to sign up for a CC bonus offer, could they add me an an authorized user so I receive a card in the mail so I can do the minimum spend for the bonus? Then just have them transfer the bonus miles to my rewards account?

    I don’t see any dates on comments so I have no idea how old this post is.

  31. @Ken you can be added as an authorized user and meet the minimum spend on someone’s account. Whether you can transfer the miles to your own account depends on the card/program. Generally yes with Amex, Chase Sapphire/Ultimate Rewards. Wtih British Airways you could create a family account and use others’ miles. Other programs just take their username/password and book tickets for yourself…

  32. I am one of those who have not taken advantage of redeeming flights through airline miles except once for an emergency trip to Wichita from Albuquerque. Just once I would like to fly first class. Reasons are: 1. Confusing to redeem miles. 2. The value of “miles” varies constantly. 3. Why do they call theM “miles”? They are not miles. They are tiny value units which vary in value and may be applied to purchases of airline tickets with certain conditions and restrictions.

  33. I think sites like these can be biased. You need to look at the typical average person.

    The thing is to get status or awards or upgrades for that matter, you need to travel as a corporate or self funded as much as a corporate. By corporate I don’t mean weekly, some travel quarter yearly as required or monthly.

    It might be true that you guys might find going overseas for a 4 day weekend awesome, but normal people find it a waste of time. They may have children, weekend commitments (socialising, volunteering, sport, church etc) and of course mortgage payments. Flying in a plane isn’t without stress. If normal people went overseas they may want at least a week and stay in a nice hotel etc … and going by average wages, it can get expensive. Even if some got the free flight – so what. I still need to spend money on it. And what if I had no intention of going. It is just more expense.

    If they planned on travelling, just a few times a year, they might do better just to fly what was the cheapest airline, get a free annual fee credit card etc.

    Maybe more prevalent outside North America, as you guys have it lucky. We don’t get points for discounted tickets.

  34. With many of these sort of things, people I know will say that is too much work. They want hot deals, free stuff whatever, but they dont want to lift a finge to do so. In some cases the idea sounds good to them but any work/time involved to get the points/miles/bookings is not their thing. Another point was made here about people saving points for a future flight. I agree with that. People want things instantly.

  35. As someone who doesn’t travel for business, there doesn’t seem to be many ways to earn miles other than by spending. I put every dollar I spend on a cc and sometimes I even get friends to give me cash to put their spending on my cc. They all think I am crazy. Most of my friends don’t want to travel. It’s just a different mind set. If they can help me get miles, they will do it. I read the blogs just hoping I will get information to get lots of miles if you don’t do much business travel.

  36. I love the comments above. I am glad I am not the only one seeking all the points for value and figuring the system out. I agree with everyone here and their respective views. One reason why people don’t get is that I have several credit cards that I plan on to hold on forever. Each have a role to play that contribute to the entire traveling goal that I have. I have two cards that help me be flexible via SPG and C Sapphire Pref. I use one airline internationally as exclusively as possible or the same alliance/team and one airline domestically as exclusively as possible. I use Freedom to use 5% to combine to Sapphire and a card specifically for supermarkets. All of these cards I use for work as well. So I can maximize the dollar value and travel experience despite paying the annual fee on two. I set up all the car rental, hotels, restaurants, utility bills, department stores that will give me points to the airline I will travel or hotel. It’s a system I will keep since it will maximize my entire goal. If I want to travel to Europe I use one airline that is the same team as the one I use for Asia. The signups are temporary so I don’t rely on it since I don’t want to be researching and wasting time on new cards rather than working on my business. So I research once and set a system then research for a new card if a new need comes up. I use cards for the stuff I already spend. Most people do not want to think independently and create a system that works for them because it takes hours in the beginning. But after you have what works you just accumulate points and use them for vacations those people dream of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *