I’m Quitting All Frequent Flyer Programs and Cutting Up My Cards

… because Christopher Elliott is just so darned compelling.

Oh, wait, he’s played the ‘quit your program, miles are worthless’ card before. I rebutted him then. And he’s still wrong. Brazenly, shockingly wrong.

Frequent flyer miles offer an amazing value for those that are paying attention to how to make the most of them.

For those who are casual consumers, they are $20 bills on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up at little to no incremental cost and for activities you’ll undertake anyway.

Sure, folks can make errors in judgment about their value. But the prescription for that is to provide better information, not misinformation designed to encourage people not to bother.

Instead, though, Elliott says:

My advice? Don’t just say “no,” but, as an old coach I knew at the Naval Academy would put it, say “hell no!”

In fact, I’d recommend you to take it one step further. You can do this right now. Remove all the frequent flier cards from your pocket. Grab a pair of scissors, cut the plastic into tiny little pieces and toss it in the trash.

Stay away from mileage schemes, my friends. They’re nothing but trouble.

Elliott goes on to say that anyone with elite status is just hurt and confused. So I guess my actual arguments should just be ignored in favor of his hyperbole.

Frequent flier programs are like pyramid schemes in at least two important ways: First, only a few people at the top of the scam benefit in any meaningful way. You see these elite-level cardmembers perched in their first-class seats, sipping their mimosas, while the rest of us do the perp walk to the back of the plane, where we wedge ourselves into those ridiculously small economy class seats.

See, here he confuses elite status programs that reward travelers who fly a certain amount on an airline (by giving them upgrades and other privileges) with the frequent flyer program where you earn and burn your miles for rewards.

Sure there are crossover issues between the two, such as programs giving incrementally more mileage award seats to their elite members (sometimes only in coach, and almost never on their airline partners).

But on the whole this just brings a bit of good ‘ol fashioned Romney-style class envy to the debate; a way to get non-elites jealous at their counterparts who get upgrades, feeling left out. When the best advice for them would be entirely opposite what Elliott offers.

And second, many of those elite program apologists will do anything to defend the system that has rewarded them, the chosen few who excel at the mileage game. They argue incorrectly that loyalty programs are good for anyone. When that line of reasoning fails, they backtrack and claim that if you’re a frequent traveler, you’ll benefit by belonging to their little club (also almost always wrong). Finally, when they’re cornered, they resort to ad hominem attacks against anyone who criticizes their beloved frequent flier programs.

I say: bring it.

Consider it brought’n!

See, once again, any argument that frequent flyer miles are good for consumers (or at least that it’s better to accept miles than to fly without a mileage number and forego what’s being offered to you at no additional charge) is based on self-interest (‘defend the system that rewarded them’) when most frequent flyers would just assume ‘kettles’ not collect miles and thus not compete for award seats or use their miles to compete for upgrades! An elite frequent flyer member arguing in favor of others’ using miles is an argument against interests.

But how does the ‘line of reasoning fail’ when all that’s happened so far is a bit of class envy without argument? Elliott suggests critics are even wrong that a frequent traveler ‘benefit[s] by belonging to their little club (also almost always wrong).’

Wait… I thought it was only the frequent traveler who benefited from the ‘pyramid scheme’? Elliott never even tells us why it’s wrong that frequent flyers beenfit?

And then any argument against him is simply an ad hominem attack. Because that category includes things like ‘reason’ and ‘logic’.

So what are his arguments?

  1. “Reward programs promise you a “free” flight after just a few trips or by signing up for a scammy credit card filled with hidden fees. …Even if you stumble across a “free” seat, airlines forget to mention that you might have to pay extra fees for the privilege of redeeming the miles.”

    Except that Department of Transportation guidelines require airlines to disclose those fees and they generally do. And the rewards, redeemed through domestic US frequent flyer programs, that customers look for most only incur government security taxes (with the airline even picking up the cost of other taxes). At least if you book online, otherwise there’s usually a telephone booking fee.

    And US programs generally offer the option of spending more miles to buy out of capacity controls.

    Besides, the ‘scammy credit card’ will usually come with perks like early boarding (no need to gate check bags) and free checked bags (real savings for a traveling family) that improve the overall travel experience.

  2. “It completely short-circuits your common sense as a consumer.”

    Sure, if you posit irrational consumers then the behavior of those consumers will be irrational. And they certainly do exist, as somebody must be buying the overpriced miles that are offered while checking in for a flight. (Though even those can sometimes be an amazing deal.)

    Elliott’s argument doesn’t apply at all to consumers with a reasonable sense of what miles are worth. Or to consumers who don’t chase the miles, but just collect them when they’re being offered for activities they’d undertake anyway. Thus here he begs the question by assuming away rationality.

  3. “You get nothing in return — literally.” He says airlines own the miles and can change the rules. And that’s literally true (although some court decisions have suggested otherwise at times). But it puts form over substance. And the implication isn’t that you shouldn’t collect miles, just that you should discount the value of those miles (as you should adjust anything which will be consumed in the future based on probabilities, risk, and time).

    Earn and burn in the same period, don’t collect miles for some far off future. Your miles are generally worth more in the present than in the future. But if you redeem your miles and enjoy them, collect more later and then redeem those, you come out way ahead.

And that’s the sum total of his argument.

He even acknowledges that people get value out of the programs, but he thinks those people should be stoned. Or something.

Some of you will say, “Hang on. I’m just a silver-level flier, but I get plenty of benefits without giving the airline all of my business. You want me to turn my back on that?”

Yes, I do. Because through your participation, you’re propping up a pyramid scheme that’s fundamentally unfair, unsustainable, and yes, fraudulent.

Airline 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.

Whoops, got to go, it’s the Christopher Elliott mileage police knocking. They’ve found me and come to take me away.

Or not. I’m off in an exotic destination. I flew here first class. My airfare and hotel are paid for on points, a vacation I could never have dreamt about taking if I had to come out of pocket with the cash.

And since Elliott decided to ditch his points, he didn’t have the opportunity to get an award ticket here. The witch hunters couldn’t find me. I’m safe for now.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Christopher Elliott is pretty knowledgeable and successful in dealing case by case with people getting ripped off. He’s a good ombudsman, and I read him for that. He does often come off as saving people from their own foolish blunders.

    He is completely off base, willfully ignorant in my opinion, when it comes to frequent flyer programs. He doesn’t understand them at all. I am a person of typical middle class income who takes several nearly free trips to different parts of the planet each year because I know how to make these programs work for me. Many others do the same. It’s true that some can’t do that, but usually because they have credit issues, generally of their own making; because they are indifferent to the possibilities; or don’t want to go to the trouble.

    I guess if people are foolish enough to follow Elliott on this one, he’s the one creating their blunder, not the one saving them.

  2. I write this as dawn breaks in Hong Kong – where I and my family of four are visiting (along with Shanghai and Tokyo) for Thanksgiving. We traveled Business Class on miles. Miles we got churning credit cards — following Gary’s advice on churning. Then there was the holiday to Fez, Marrakesh, Paris and London earlier this year, and last year’s journey through Turkey and Greece. ALL ON MILES. Hmmmmmmm.

  3. He’s got a point about negative value if you are spending more than you normally would to get those miles. Everybody is different, but I think to play to mileage game you need a bit of disposable income. But to some people those extra few dollars spent would be better used somewhere else.

    Also if you factor in the time cost to learning his point is stronger. Personally, it’s a hobby and Gary is preaching to the choir.

  4. I think CE wrote the column as a segue/setup into selling his recently published book, whose title I refuse to cite here as I don’t wish to assist him in his free publicity efforts.

  5. Wait, who gets mimosas in first?! I might switch airlines for that.

    (“You see these elite-level cardmembers perched in their first-class seats, sipping their mimosas, while the rest of us do the perp walk to the back of the plane, where we wedge ourselves into those ridiculously small economy class seats.”)

  6. You may have meant to make a sociological point, but it was clearly a political point. “Romney-style class envy” is, as indicated by Chris, incorrect. “Obama-style” would be correct.

    Regardless, I enjoy reading your site.

  7. @Gary I apologize for misinterpreting your comment, and I thank you for clarifying your meaning for me.

    While I am not a high miles and points user and am mainly in the game to reduce costs to/from Florida (from Portland, OR), I have mainly subscribed (and found lots of success with) your second reason for having a co-branded card: ongoing benefits. That said, I do get a lot of value out of the sign-up points, as well, whether it is offsetting a $250/night Hilton costs (using points & cash) or building the Delta miles to reduce the ticket costs. These uses are not the most lucrative, but they make a significant impact on our trip’s bottom line, allow us to travel more for a longer stay, and provide us benefits the general population never consider!

    I appreciate the information you share, Gary, as it does make a difference to the everyday family infrequent flyers!

  8. gary,

    it would appear that you are making a political point and then pushed it further in the comments section.
    even more laughable is that chris b complained your comments were not right wing enough.
    you could just have equally have argued romney thru his own comments was engaged in class warfare against half of the usa .people dont like romney because he pays hardly any taxes despite his wealth and hides in in the caymans .i for one do not like my mile running activity being compared to actions of a tax evader.
    other than that good blog though.chris elliott wont stop my milerunning.

  9. @adz – how did I compare your mileage running to being a tax evader? I admit to being a bit lost at that one. I am no fan of Mitt Romney, but to say ‘he pays hardly any taxes’ hardly seems accurate, he pays far more in taxes than I make. 😛

  10. US based airlines are stingy and poor compared to other airlines around the world.

    The price of your ticket includes costs for awarding airmiles. So if you don’t join the scheme you are losing out on what you’ve paid for already. As you Americans say “Go Figure”.

    If you join the schemes of airlines you use then you will gain some benefit. At best free flights and holidays, at worst some free luggage tags.

  11. why are you feeding the troll? I don’t get it.. Unless you do it to get eyeballs for your blog

  12. I think we can all agree that Elliott has an agenda that is counter to what most of us here (on your blog and on boarding area in general) are trying to accomplish. Let me ramble and we collect the miles 🙂

  13. “It completely short-circuits your common sense as a consumer. ”

    That *is* a valid point. Quite frankly if it wasn’t, these programs wouldn’t exist. It’s in the name: “Loyalty Program”. The whole idea is to pool your flights with a specific airline or alliance. Otherwise, unless you frequently fly the same route or spend most of your life in the air, you won’t collect a meaningful amount of rewards. It may not always be a black and white decision and have a stronger effect on some than on others, but it absolutely influences purchase decisions.

    Considering that the actual reward value is a couple of percent of the ticket fare and rather random in what you get and when you get it, it’s likely more economical to look for the best no-nonsense price, instead of wasting time, money and energy on navigating programs intentionally designed to be nontransparent.

    I mean, c’mon, do you really think a company the size of an airline wants to “reward” you? It’s about earning them as much money as possible from you, and that means discouraging you to fly with the competition.

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