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. this is more true of many european programs, even mainline service, which are full of tricks and traps in often poorly translated english. Or of course the worst programs of the low cost airlines in the usa like spirit.

  2. Don’t get me wrong Gary but are you going after other bloggers now? What does this have to with individual news about miles, points & travel?

    He might be wrong with his opinion (and other blogs as well for that matter) but I didn’t know it’s the purpose of one blog to comment or criticize the other.

  3. Why do you even waste your energy trying to make a case against Elliott? He’s outdone himself with this one.

    I sometimes wonder whether Chris Elliott takes his column seriously or whether it is intended to be one huge troll against the travel community and he’s sitting back laughing at everyone getting indignant about it.

  4. Sebastian:

    >>>>>>>I didn’t know it’s the purpose of one blog to comment or criticize the other.

    At new blog “Travel Blogger Buzz” this is ALL we do, it is ingrained in our mission statement (have not had time to do one yet, too busy wasting time reviewing other blogs). We thank other bloggers and Chris Elliott for keeping in business (minus $32 & countless hours so far…and we are not quitting because we are masochists deep down)

    All I ever wanted now is to see Chris hand the Best Blog award to Ben. The pic of that will always live in infamy LOL

  5. @Sean N. After hearing him say on a chat paid for by Club Carlson that hotel loyalty programs have no value I’m beginning to believe you! Worst. Advice. Ever.

  6. While I agree with your POV, his reasoning is not completely off track. Just because anyone can redeem FF points for high value doesn’t mean everyone can do so. We do indeed need the Mommy Points readers to use points to fly the clan to Disney at 25k a pop so that there will be availability when we want to redeem for that J ticket to Bali. Not a pyramid scheme per se, but it is the masses who redeem in Y or for toasters or let their miles expire that make it all sustainable for us.

  7. I think it’s great that you make these posts to counter ignorant misinformation. While to most of your readers (myself included), this post is “preaching to the choir,” there are plenty of people who would probably read that article and take it at face value. It’s not about one blog criticizing another, and there’s plenty of posts where you disagree with another blogger/writer out there.

  8. I don’t know who Christopher Elliott is, nor do I want to click on his site to up his readership statistics, but thank you for another example of how modern communications gives kooks a chance to be heard.

  9. I assume Elliott occasionally writes something useful, but I’m afraid that this sort of rabid frothing (arrest & try Gary! He’s touting the fraudulent FF programs!) makes it extremely hard to take anything he writes seriously.

  10. I think Christopher Elliott is winning this battle with you and Lucky. I never heard of the guy until I started reading BoardingArea. If he’s so obviously wrong, why give him free publicity?

  11. Mileage runs are retarded. You could go to the fanciest lounge in the world and it would feel good, but it would be temporary because it’s not HOME.

    What a waste of time & energy to fly somewhere to earn miles just so you could redeem them on another flight in a better class some place else?

    Besides, how many blogs actually mention the WAYS you can earn miles besides credit card churning?

    You mention an exotic location hotel, first class flight all using miles and points. Please tell me the total number of miles and points you used and how you earned them? Just a simple breakdown. I want to see how many average or non-average people have the time or the capacity to do that.

    the breakdown please?

    Some of the tips are good and promotions are definitely good, but the concept is similar to buy 2 get 1 free. Its never a wise idea to buy 2 products to get 1 free when all you needed was 1. Now you overspent to sort of enjoy that 1 freebie.

    If you are going to take a trip, sure make sure your miles get recorded and possibly you can redeem them for something, but taking a trip solely for the purpose of taking another trip is just ridiculous.

  12. i find it hard to believe he doesn’t benefit from loyalty programs. i sincerely hope nobody takes his advice seriously.

  13. Next summer I’m flying IAD-YUL-CDG-MRU-CDG-IAD, with sidetrips to Nice/Monaco and Brussels. I’m staying at the Hyatt Montreal, Park Hyatt Paris, Radisson Blu Opera, Conrad Brussels, and Intercontinental Mauritius. I used 10k United miles and 120k Delta miles.

    I’m a public school teacher. And I’m going to Montreal, Paris, Brussels, Nice, Monaco, and Mauritius. Mr. Elliott, please explain how I have been scammed.

  14. FF programs are simply what you make of them. My parents aren’t deep in the miles and points game, but they’ve been accruing miles reliably for a few years, and those points have enabled them to make some last-minute travel trips (shockingly enough, using SkyPesos!)

    You don’t need to do irrational things to gain miles, and hardly need to be incredibly invested in the game to draw benefit from it.

  15. Actually he has some valid points.

    Star Alliance, its suppose to be a group of air carriers where you can switch between them and be respected as an elite. Thats how it is sold. However, if you are an United member and an elite you can earn miles on US Airways flights. However you have no chance at getting free upgrades on USAirways. [Even if FC has 4 people, with 12 seats].

    Leftouthansa: To redeem miles for a US-DE trip it costs 55k miles, and you have to pay around ~$600. [They claim its for Taxes, fuel surcharges, etc] On a good day you can nearly pay that much for a RT trip. With United the cost is much much less with your miles.

  16. The Fed has the power to arbitrarily influence the value of my money without notice. Should I cease collecting dollars as well, Elliot?

  17. FF programs are a scam in the same way that Black Friday sales are a scam: Your results vary tremendously depending on how much effort you make to play the game well. If you play mindlessly you might get no value at all.

  18. @VG — forget “modern communications”, some major Sunday newspapers includes his column in the travel section

  19. I do feel in general that most airline credit cards are a bad deal for the average person. Note I mention the average person. Once you get past the initial sign up bonus (depending how large that is) most people will have spend 25K simply for a domestic ticket. While paying annual card fees and then finding out that the airline wants more than 25K miles for that domestic flight. With airlines charging for bags, the free bag perk might make some sense depending on the flight pattern of the customer. A small minority like those here can capitalize on these programs. How much does Chase promote 2X points on gas or whatever. Big deal so I get an entra 20 points on a fillup. The reason for that is to egt you to charge everything gas, mcdonlads, whatever to your card. They hope that at some point you come up short and have to carry a balance at 15% or some high rate. Thats the reason for those bonus deals etc. While his article is geared to attract attention keep in mind we are a small minority. They keep making things harder and more costly for us as well. NSX has a great comment. The reality is most people dont know or cannot capitalize on these programs. There are billions of unused miles out there. Some people see the commercial and think they will easily find tickets to Hawaii or Australia with no capacity controls. It can take some a lifetime to even get enough miles for certain trips and by that time the costs both cash and fees can be much higher.

  20. His article is, obviously, pretty sensationalist. However, in general the value of miles and points is greatly inflated as it doesn’t consider many factors, including:

    *Time spent accumulating/researching/tracking miles. This is much bigger than you think. You’ll see comments like “I read this blog daily” – ok let’s say 5 mins/day – which is over 30 hours per year! Obviously putting a price tag on your time is highly subjective, but 30 hours could easily equate to $1,000/year of lost time.

    *Lack of flexibility. Sure you can fly from SFO to SIN “for free”. But most of the time this means sitting in LHR for 6 hours and having to take all of Wednesday off of work instead of being able to leave Wednesday night and saving the vacation day.

    *Liquid value vs Retail value. Sure you can get an $800/night hotel room in downtown London “for free”. But is that room really 4 times as good as a $200/night one?
    Similarly, sure your status will give you a free breakfast at the Hilton “valued at $50”. Can I have the $50 cash instead please and have breakfast for a week somewhere else? Obviously not…

    *Accumulating miles/keeping them from expiring. Whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, most people will convince themselves to spend just that little bit extra on the card. “Honey, I don’t feel like cooking tonight – why don’t we just go out for dinner, I get 5x rewards on my card”. Alternatively, to keep miles from expiring you’ll buy an order of massively overpriced flowers from FTD “because you were going to send your Mom something anyway”.

    *Ironically what is also never factored in to the value of the miles is the fact that when using your miles for a free flight you are effectively losing the potential miles which you would have earned for the distance travelled and the credit card rewards if you had paid for a regular fare.

    *Finally, there is the time spent reading this post 🙂

  21. These days artciles with some sort of controversy get alot of hits and readers. That is the way thigngs are. I have scored First class to Japan, UK (many times, Australia (Quantas) 1500 Sq Foot Suite At Hyatt in Tokyo and many other top things. So for me I have done pretty well. Its a tricky game no doubt. For me getitng 100K American miles works for me. I can use those miles (much easier than my Delta miles btw) In a face to face showdown Elliott vs Gary if they did this at the meetup in LA, Gary would appear to win. Simply he could log on and show many top uses for 100K or so miles in a few mins. The point is whether someone who doesnt know abotu this stuff, how will they do?

  22. For the last 15 years my family has flown to Europe, Israel, Canada, U.S. on frequent flier miles. We do not have status and could care less. However, most of these precious experiences would not have been possible without the frequent flier programs/credit card churns. Talk about someone who is out of touch…

  23. This jagaloon is clearly trolling for page views.

    Chris, if you’re reading this, while you sat around bemoaning programs, I earned enough to fly my family — in first class — to Europe for Thanksgiving without ever having stepped foot on a United plane. $50k in airfare…but totally not worth it. You’re right.

    (massive eye roll)

    (face palm)


  24. Whatever Christopher Elliott says, if you do the exact opposite, you’ll be right more often than not.

  25. Good post, gary. I agree with all of your points.

    My only critique would be to please keep politics out of your arguments.

    Statements like, “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.”, alienate a portion of your readership (myself included), and seem snipe-ish and misinformed, as class differences is a primary argument of the Democratic agenda, not Republicans. Maybe I misinterpreted the comment, and if so I apologize.

    On the whole, I completely agree with your points and support them (which is why I read this blog regularly and support it when I can). No reason not to collect points for activities (flying, buying gas, etc) that I would do anyway without points. After a period of time I may earn a free (or subsidized via points & cash) stay/flight and earn status which yields free bags/internet/breakfast/boarding zones.

    Thanks for informing us, Gary! 🙂

  26. There is some truth in Mr Elliott’s reasoning even if some of the thinking is highly flawed.
    I too have had my life changed for the better as a result of these programs.i cannot disagree with all of what he says
    I do see some of the programs like Delta a legalized Ponzi Scheme
    However not American for example
    Some folks do great with their programs others get eaten up alive
    Let the buyer beware
    I know a number of folks who do nothing but buy on Priceline and have dumped all or mosr loyalty programs
    Of course they are happy in coach and some still get suite upgrades in slow hotels.Those who desire aspirational travel will have to choose their programs wisely and be highly flexible with their schedules
    When one redeems one can be highly rewarded if all goes well
    I like that Mr Elliott challenges the system both right and wrong at the same time

  27. Gary, please keep giving your great advice, but please do not give this fool anymore publicity. The number of comments posted on his page probably has him giddy with ignorant joy. People will miss so many great opportunities if they succumb to his advice.

  28. I agree with both of you.

    Problem is there has been a trend to decrease award seats and increase the “fees” to redeem. We are at the mercy of the airlines. We need to be realistic about availability and true costs.

    Case in point – LHR-PHX on BA August – October lots of blogs about excellent availability in first and business. However there REALLY is only half a dozen flights available. Alaska Air transcon June-September NEVER – THEY DO NOT RELEASE first availability. I could go on-and on. People more and more need to use services like yours to book free flights as you need to know the trick routes to actually redeem your miles.

    I believe the future it will get even worse.

    COSTS – it costs lots of money to get the miles. Credit card sign ups, booking flights etc to get miles. Then when you redeem (an error in your second to last paragraph – I flew here on First using points) should also add PLUS cash to redeem the points PLUS cash to get the points and possibly even PLUS cash to position to flights that can take me to my departure airports.

    Thanks for this post I agree with you both.

  29. The sad part is, this went out to a few hundred thousand people through Linkedin’s ‘Top news today’ newsletter 🙁

  30. Why do you keep posting stuff about Chris Elliott? He doesn’t understand the travel industry in the slightest and shouldn’t be given more publicity.

  31. The great thing about this article is that it keeps people from ever figuring this whole thing out…less competition for us 🙂

  32. @Chas I am laughing so hard on your comment, brilliant!

    At the end of last year I found out that my credit card from my home country that I had been using had a ballance that would allow my wife and I fly round trip business to Europe on Air France (with no fuel surcharge) and with some planning ahead of time we were able to get on a decent time and date. And this for spend that we would incurr anyways!

    Now that I am in the credit card game, I have miles enough for more than 4 RT to asia and lots of free nights in 5* hotels thanks to you Gary and other fantastic bloggers that help us.

    Either one knows to play the game or one whines. I know in which side CE is. And I agree with a lot of people here Gary, you are giving him free publicity.

  33. does this mean i should throw away my two first class tickets from vancouver to stockholm that cost me about $800 each? i just knew those miles were a scam! 😉

  34. It all depends, I think sometimes hotel loyalty programs can be a bit Scammish. Even though I use Hilton Axon rewards, redeeming for one or two nights is just not worth it. Hilton inflates their points so much that people think its the best program because you get so many points. While SPG, the points have so much value but people think SPG is not a good deal because they offer so few points. Also, sometimes its just better to use cash than get ripped off with points. For example, in Florence I could have spent 20k SPG at various hotels, but I found an airbnb hotel for $100 that was perfect.

  35. @Chris B yes you did take my comment about class envy the wrong way. I wasn’t making a political point, but a sociological one, the recent election certainly did pander to class envy against the Republican candidate.

  36. I suspect Chris Elliot is actually a shill for Lucky and Gary’s blogs;-) Isn’t it great to have someone who does his best to make sure no one else benefits from FF programs, thereby ensuring more award and upgrade space for the rest of us? I say support Chris Elliot as much as possible! Woohoo! 🙂

  37. I suggest a Gary vs Christopher matchup at the LA meet? What do you think Gary? I think Christopher will be there?


  38. It’s OK, let people like that go away it just makes it easier for the rest of us. There are only so many first class seats and mimosa’s to go around.

  39. If Chris Elliott tells me to stop something it only makes me want to do it more and more. He obviously is doing something wrong if he can’t extract nice value from miles. I think he should spend more time here and on other Boarding Area blogs.

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