Why Miles Really Matter… and to me, more than ever before

My grandfather was a huge influence on my life, but in a Mr. Miyagi kind of way. He taught me lessons growing up without telling me that was what he was doing. He taught me division using M&Ms when I was three or four, with his help I bid on stamp auctions when I was 11 or 12. I owe a great deal about how I think about the world to my time with him when I was young.

Last week I learned that his heart had failed. He was in a rehabilitation facility and was scheduled to return home. He was just a couple of weeks from turning 97.

After a brief stop at the hospital he was transferred to a hospice, and I was told he had days or hours to live.

I collect miles because I love to travel the world, and especially to do so in a level of comfort that I couldn’t otherwise afford.

But more generally miles make it possible to be unconstrained in travel. I was able to fly down to Florida right away. Bereavement fares aren’t nearly as helpful as they once were, last minute travel can be expensive, but I simply didn’t need to worry about it.

Often the best award availability is at the last minute as seats that are likely to go unsold are made available on points. I had plenty of options to choose from using a variety of miles if i wished.

Now, I didn’t use points for my hotel nights because the nicest close-by hotel was going for just $67 per night. And I earned miles worth more than the hotel points foregone by booking with PointsHound. I’m a maximizer, but most importantly being able to focus on travel helps to get me through and to protect myself emotionally. If I could think about how to book my hotel, I wouldn’t need to think about things that are much harder.

(The rate on PointsHound was $9 and better than 10% less than the best available offer — and for the same room — as found on the Marriott website. I was focusing on travel but wasn’t clear headed enough to think through or bother with a Marriott ‘Look No Further’ guarantee claim.)

When I first made arrangements to fly I booked a roundtrip. I didn’t know how urgent things were, and it turned out they were worse than I had been told.

Sunday morning, sitting beside my grandfather, he took his last breath.

I spent the afternoon helping with funeral arrangements, and I took the original Sunday evening return flight home that I had booked. But while I was at the airport I made a booking to fly back the next night. And I pushed forward a business trip. And I managed to connect them all together with an award ticket.

My miles may be for premium cabin travel, but not even worrying if I can get a flight, or what it will cost, meant that I could be there for my family. And it wasn’t just that I could afford to fly when flights were expensive — it also meant I was able to meet the obligations at my job so that they didn’t become obstacles to being with my family. I could take pretty much any non-sold out flight I wished, because I had points.

As I said I had lots of ‘saver’ award options to choose from. But I’ve always valued “standard” or “rule-buster” style awards just for the peace of mind of knowing I could always have a flight.

Those aren’t as useful as they once were. Other than American’s AAdvantage program, which retains double miles pricing for nearly all of those awards, airlines have jacked up pricing to buy out of capacity controls. Often such awards cost triple. And some airlines like United restrict the availability of those awards to elites or co-branded cardholders. I’ve predicted that an American-US Airways merger would spell the end of the ‘double miles’ award for good.

Sometimes this hobby is a game. How smart can I be? What sort of arbitrage opportunities can I figure out (or learn from others playing the same game)?

Sometimes this hobby can be trivial. I do enjoy a complimentary massage at the Thai first class spa, a Mercedes or Porsche drive across the tarmac in Frankfurt flying Lufthansa first, and the smirk of a Singapore Airlines flight attendant offering me Dom Perignon or Krug when I ask for champagne.

But sometimes it is also meaningful. And to me, more meaningful than ever. Because I had the opportunity to be by my grandfather’s side as he died, the opportunity to be strong for my grandmother who survives him, and the opportunity to arrange my own affairs such that I could spend more time with my family both supporting them and being supported.

Oh, I will still visit here even though the funeral is today. I need the distraction. I handle these things by keeping myself busy. And I get by with a sense of humor that might even border on the inappropriate. Is it wrong that I’ve taken solace in all of the points I’ve earned helping family make their hotel bookings, or being thrilled that I’m getting to pay for the catering?

Miles, points, and the techniques of travel that mean so much to me, but that can sometimes seem to trivial in importance, have taken on a new even more special meaning in my life. And I’m very grateful for that, for them, and for all of the support that I’ve received.

I don’t often review my posts before publishing them. I assume that today there are more typos than usual. I can’t re-read what I’ve written, and my eyes well up too much to edit my thoughts. Nonetheless sharing them helps. And it will get easier every day.


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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. Sorry to hear about your loss…
    My family and friends make fun of me because of this hobby but I can’t help it 🙂 .Although I may be missing alot because of travel but sometimes I feel it is still worth it

  2. Gary – I’m so sorry for your loss.

    When my partner’s father passed away unexpectedly, we went through the same exercise. While bereavement fare offers more flexibility (no change fees on AA), it was not available because V class was not available. As such, we opted for AA discounted first class because the only economy fare available was higher, and AA offered better routing. No miles option because most of our miles are on UA, which requires a connection on either UA or US.

  3. My sincere condolences on the passing of your grandfather. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

  4. So sorry for the death of your grandfather. I am sure he was very proud of you. . May your memories provide comfort in the days ahead.

  5. Gary
    Take comfort in the knowledge that you have one more angel watching over you. May your granddad’s soul rest in perfect peace.

  6. Sorry for your loss, Gary.

    I had a similar incident with my grandfather, but he was in South Africa. My wife and I made our first trip down there to see him and my grandmother over Christmas a few years ago. We were a bit tired from traveling as we had our 10 day honeymoon a few months before.

    My grandma kept asking for us to come down so we agreed. I also asked my mom to come with us but she was going to wait until a few months later when the fares were lower. We saw them but my grandfather wasn’t doing well. He was already in an assisted living center. He was almost deaf and when we saw him, he had lost his appetite. My grandma noted that he looked much skinnier. A few weeks after we left, he passed away.

    Luckily my brother had also visited them just a few weeks before we did with his wife (he got engaged on the trip) and my mom goes once a year so she saw him about 10 months before he passed away. I am still very thankful we spent the money and made the time to go see him.

  7. Gary,

    So sorry to hear about the loss of your grandfather. Your post eloquently and truly from the heart points out what miles and points are all about.

  8. Our thoughts are with you. It’s good that you will retain and share so many fine memories of your grandfather.

    Mrs. Fredd and I are at the point in our lives of being the best grandparents we can be. Your comments about your grandfather are an inspiration to us.

    On a practical note, we have used our points for similar purposes when an elderly parent some distance (two flights) away experienced serious health problems over a period of years. It was comforting for her and for us to know we could be there within 24-48 hours when needed using banked miles, trips that in total would have otherwise virtually bankrupted us.

    Again, best wishes to you and your family.

  9. sorry for your loss gary…. this reminds me of the time my granddad passed the day before a big final i had to take and only had a few hours to study since I had to help my family with the funeral, etc. My dad told me to study for the test and give it the best I could since my granddad always supported my education and would no have wanted me to miss it because of his passing.

    i’m sure your granddad is up there smiling at you as he sees you engaging in your passion and sharing the valuable tips for those who may one day have to make a last minute trip like this one. sending you a warm virtual hug and strength to you and your family to help you guys through this.

  10. Sorry for your loss. A loved one can never be replaced, but is also never far from us.
    Traveling is about connections. Points help us to make those connections.

  11. Sincere condolences to you/your family for the loss of your loving Grandfather. You extraordinarily moving VFTW post reflects the exceptional legacy his unconditional love left with you. Thank you for sharing–in the spirit of your Grandfather’s life lessons–gently teaching us a tip-top reason for for collecting miles and points.

  12. I will send you prayers. When my mother died in February this year I flew my son in from Madrid to Texas and I met him from NJ to Del Rio so we could say good by to my mother. I understand and I hear you. So sorry for your loss.

  13. Beautifully written and a poignant reminder of the true value of miles, the peace of mind of being with family when needed.

  14. I am so sorry for your loss Gary. What a wonderful way of putting our hobby into perspective by saying it has helped you be with your grandfather when you needed to, and be supported by your family when you are in need. I will never collect enough miles to have quite the ease of travel you have had even for such an emergency. But you have combined my two loves – those people I care about and travel – in your post in your time of pain. You have touched my heart by saying that this hobby can mean something, and can relate to people I love and care about.

  15. Gary,

    My deepest sympathy for your loss. May he rest in peace.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad amidst sorrows and pains, losing your grandfather, you found distraction & comfort in writing. And in doing so, was able to point to your readers the value of having miles & points.

  16. Gary, sorry for the loss of your Grandad – he sounds like a wonderful man! My thoughts & prayers are with you and your family at this time of loss.

  17. I often tell people the best use of my miles was to send my wife and father-in-law to his brother’s funeral in Florida on F saver awards. It is ironic, no, that we rarely find advance saver award inventory for vacations to Mexico but no trouble finding last minute seats to funerals?

    Sorry for your loss.

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