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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Comments

  1. Gary-
    This is the number one reason to bank SOME miles. I had to rush back for my grandmothers funeral from HKG last year. I was able to get on the next flight and make it with time to spare. I am sorry for your loss, but I am happy that you were able to be there when it mattered.

    Reid

  2. Gary,

    What a lovely tribute to your grandfather. Thank you for sharing your experience and reminding us that life is short. I have tears in my eyes as I read your post.

    Wishing all of you comfort during this difficult time.

    Cheri

  3. So sorry for your family’s loss, Gary. Also so glad you were there for him, his wife, and yourself. Totally agree this is one of the beauty of miles…getting family members where they need to be when it matters most.

  4. My sincere sympathy goes to you and your family. I started banking points 15 years ago because family was across the continent, and in ill health
    I used my points for the late night run to a crisis a few times I always look at my points like money in the bank for a rainy day
    Thank you for all u do

  5. I assumed you were very close with your grandfather due to your regularly quoting him on “it’s better than a hole in the head”. So sorry for your loss, and how great that this hobby was able to enable you to send him off peacefully.

  6. @EggSS4 – as it happens, that was my other grandfather who passed away three years ago. But I was close to them both.

    @All -thank you for your thoughts

  7. Gary,
    As a long time reader of your blog, you should not second guess how you approached the travel planning for this very unfortunate event. I am sure your grandfather would have told you to do the same knowing his grandson is famous and considered an expert in this area.

    So sorry to hear about the loss of your grandfather and my sincere condolences. Take care.

  8. Gary,

    Sorry for your loss.

    Your blog and the math on the US Airways 250% promotion (aka the Trackit back deal) opened my eyes to this very thing: the freedom to be able to connect with family without concern about the cost. Two years ago, I was in Phoenix on a business trip and able to connect with some family that I hadn’t seen in years. Last year, I used some of those US Airways miles to fly my grandmother and aunt out to Phoenix to see that same family: my grandmother’s youngest brother that she hadn’t seen in 25 years. Both are in their 80s and would not have otherwise made the connection. Seeing the joy in their eyes and in their interactions: priceless. And, my grandma had never flown in first; the FAs totally dotted on her. Some say domestic F is a waste of miles. It was totally worth it! I’m a little ashamed that it would not have occurred to me to pay to fly her out there, though, at the same time, my family may not have accepted my paying for the flight, but they wouldn’t turn down a “free” flight.

    Glad you’re there both to support and get support from your family and glad you’re finding some mile producing distractions as well.

    You’re in my thoughts today.

  9. Condolences to you and your family on the loss of a husband, father, and grandfather.

    And congratulations to your late grandfather on leading such a long and meaningful life. The only real thing we leave behind is the lasting effect that we have on other people and it’s clear that your grandfather had just such a lasting effect on you (and people like that generally touch more than just one or two lives).

    May his memory be a blessing.

  10. Best wishes to you and your family. Having a grandparent that one loves is a great thing to have, and a difficult thing to lose.

  11. I am very sorry for your loss. I was able to visit my grandmother in Europe on award tickets. She died just one week after our visit. I am so grateful, she could meet my daughter. Thats what miles are for.

  12. Gary, sorry for the the loss, God Bless your Grand Pa soul.
    Thank you for sharing and love reading this blog.

  13. So sorry to hear of your grandfather’s passing. Our thoughts are with you and your family at this difficult time.

  14. Gary – sorry to hear your grandfather died. I am glad you are getting to hang out with your family. Good on you for helping them obtain travel aspirations they never would be able to without your help.

  15. More condolences to you and the family
    Wow 96 plus I’m envious
    I’ll take that in writing right now
    May he rest in peace and the good memories be with you forever as you celebrate his wonderful life.
    Hopefully there is some extra comfort that we are all thinking of you here

  16. My condolences.
    I have always told people to keep enough miles for an anytime ticket in your pocket for funerals. This summer my father-in-law passed away. We were able to use British Airways Avios on American flights to get the entire family to the funeral, as well as for a few visits beforehand when he was in the hospital. Note that the BA Avios seem only to be useful when American shows their MileSAAver redemptions, but we were able to get all of the last minute seats we needed and avoid some huge last minute coach fares.
    This column was spot on.

  17. Gary, just take a rest. I don’t think it is a good timing to discuss miles&points at this moment. Even if you want to stop the blog for a while, it is understandable.

  18. No one needs to tell you the privilege you had in your relationship with your grandfather — you described in very poignantly in your post. But lots of us can tell you, from our own varying experiences, how much we would have valued what you had. It can’t reduce your loss, but your recollections of your time with your grandfather will be special for the rest of your life — as will be the knowledge that you were able to be with him at the end of his.
    Know (which you can by reading all the comments) that you and your family are on the receiving end of many thoughts and prayers from across multiple time zones.

  19. Gary,

    Sorry for your loss. In April, I will finally be able to travel with my dad on an overseas trip thanks to miles and points. We will be spending two weeks in Korea and Japan. Dad (finally) tells me that he has always wanted to see Japan. Thanks to miles and points, the only real expenses are going to be food and entertainment. This trip could not have happened otherwise. I’m not sure if this opportunity will arise again, but I will cherish it while it lasts.

  20. My condolences for your loss. 97 years is impressive. I think we’d all be grateful to do as well.

    Not everyone knows that for the next year or so, as long as the AirTran brand remains alive, you can send 19200 Southwest Rapid Rewards points to AirTran and back to Southwest to generate a capacity-controlled round trip Standard Award. These are ideal for last-minute US domestic travel for family emergencies. I wish Southwest would retain this undocumented feature of their program.

  21. My sincere condolences Gary.
    Having had to book paid flights last minute for such unfortunate and sad events, I can totally relate to banking miles for such emergencies and now always keep a stash for that purpose, be it for me or friends in need.

  22. Gary,

    So sorry to hear about your Grandfather. I can also relate to the horror of those $1000 last minute fares, and how miles can bring people together, even for one last moment. Glad you were able to make it to his bedside and have that memory. All the best in this trying time.

  23. Gary,

    Very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing the sentiment, and I do hope that sharing is helpful for you, too.

  24. I’m sorry you lost your grandfather, Gary. It’s wonderful that you were able to be with him at the end.

    I was very close to one of my grandmothers. Though she lived to a ripe old age and though it’s been more than 5 years since I lost her — I’m still sad that she’s gone and I still miss her. I think of her every day, and she’ll always be a big part of who I am. Having that kind of relationship with a grandparent is truly priceless.

  25. Gary, I, too, send my family’s condolences, and we want to thank you for spending time with us and allowing us to help you through this period. We are here for you, so please feel free to lean on us as needed.

    As for the crux of this post, using miles and points to get family around is Summer’s realm, and it is truly the best use of this currency. being able to help family and friends move around where they are needed with no regard to cost is the true value of this game. I’m glad you posted about it, as it may bring this point forward for those who don’t often visit MommyPoints’ blog.

    If I may share, I had a similar moment yesterday. My brother, who lives in Ohio, text me to ask if I could come for a visit in the very near future. He’s had a few health issues, and misses his brother. While thinking of a trip, the question was WHEN instead of IF. Any concern over cost evaporated due to an accumulation of miles (UA, US, AS and DL) and points Hilton. My wife even asked about price, and I dismissed the argument quickly by stating I could fly with points. What freedom!

    In closing, I want to thank you again, Gary, for all of your time and energy on this blog. The information you provide to us makes live easier for us and makes it possible for us to visit family and friends (or have them visit us) in times of need. We grateful for your presence in our lives. Please tell your grandma that we are here for you, so you can be there for them.

    – Chris

    P.S. Your spelling is great, this time! However, other posts in the past… 🙂

  26. Gary,
    My heartfelt condolence for your loss.

    My spouse and I were able to use our miles to fly halfway round the world for my both my in-laws funeral last year and 6 years back. Cant agree with you more on how these miles earned made it possible for us to be with our family at such difficult times without worrying abt the high cost of last minute tickets.

    Take care!

    Ket

  27. Gary,

    I’m really sorry to hear of your loss. They talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, but they (whoever THEY are), don’t tell you that the tunnel is very long. They also don’t tell you that a few cracks of light will (eventaully) come through. Hang in there.

    Dan

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