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?