My Million Mile Secrets Interview

Million Mile Secrets interviews me. An excerpt:

It’s cliché to say that we shouldn’t take this all too seriously, but I disagree: I’m passionate about miles and points. I practice full contact loyalty. I love these programs.

I think they offer a tremendous value proposition, and for all of their success I think they’re still widely misunderstood (perhaps because they’re so complicated, though therein lies the true opportunity).

I do my best to honor those programs that work well – for the travel providers and for the consumer, and to criticize those that I think are missing the boat.

Properly understood, the relationship is win-win and for my part my entire worldview has been changed by these programs, I see the world as much smaller and more accessible and I experience the world in a way I never would have thought possible.

The first three commenters on the post wanted to hear more about ‘earning 15 million miles from stickers’. And funny thing, I believe the amount was actually 16 million. It’s even the opening to the story on page 62 (about me) in the September issue of Town & Country, sadly not online so I cannot link to it.

The US Airways 2009 Holiday Big Bonus shopping promotion offered a 250% bonus on points earned through their shopping portal provided you made transactions with at least 5 different merchants (and the bonus applied to no more than 10 transactions). Track-it-Back was offering 40 miles per dollar for purchases. With the bonus that made 140 miles per dollar, roughly 7/10ths of a penny per point. If you donated the product to charity for a tax deduction, that would reduce your cost basis to half a cent per mile.

Now, the miles weren’t all for me. But Christmas morning 2009 I lined up a stack of credit cards belonging to friends and colleagues. Several Amex black cards, but also a Starwood Amex, Alaska Airlines Visa, British Airways Visa… and proceeded to complete the promotion for each of them, donating $2 trees, buying $5 gift cards, basically ensuring that I would have at least four partners other than Track-it-Back posting to each account in order to be eligible for the full bonus, and doing so at the lowest cost possible. (although I did make a few extra purchases for each account just in case, can’t be too careful with so much money on the line).

All told I executed over $100,000 in Track-it-Back purchases. And I crashed their Amex merchant account. I suspect I’m the reason that they no longer accept American Express, who assumed that transactions of that volume were fraudulent (when their standard purchases were likely under $100). And go get Amex to re-open a merchant account on Christmas Day! Still, I understand that this was the biggest promotion that Track-It-Back could possibly ever have imagined. Talking to their President, I recall that he was planning to go on vacation with his family the week between Christmas and New Years. He cancelled the trip, this was just too big.

They previously had offered 20 miles per dollar in purchases, but decided to make a big push for the holidays and doubled the mileage they’d offer, getting featured as part of the US Airways holiday shopping offer. They really hadn’t done the math to realize that folks would be buying the product purely for the miles with no interest in the stickers whatsoever.

Now, given how overpriced the stickers are for what you get, I’ve always assumed that the basic business model was to be selling miles anyway — people who could buy the product and expense them to their businesses might want to pocket the miles for their own accounts. The miles/marketing cost to the company is quite significant, but all they’re really doing is printing stickers. The idea is that you affix the stickers to important items, if they’re lost the person who finds the item might call the number of the sticker and Track-it-Back helps arrange return fo the item. They even offer a reward, although you can top off the reward amount. They don’t tell you want the basic reward they offer is, though. Guess what? I understand it’s… wait for it… more stickers. Their costs here are pretty darned low.

The US Airways holiday shopping promo burned up pretty much all inventory, they contacted everyone to let them know not to worry — the items would be shipped eventually. But some merchants don’t post miles until the product shipped. The company understood why everyone made the purchases — they would post the miles right away, and ship the product later, which they did.

All in, I did transactions which earned over 16 million miles that day. And lots of folks have been enjoying a ton of premium cabin international travel ever since, thanks to US Airways and their 2009 holiday shopping bonus.

As they say, now you know ‘the rest of the story’.

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, 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. Wow, one would think one could have at least said “the product provides RELATIVELY good value”, but I was really only doing it for the miles. 🙂

  2. Thanks to your tip, I exchanged $3k for 400k US Airways miles on that same promo back in 2009. My wife gave me a weirdo look when she saw the stream of stickers showing up on our doorstep. The miles are still in my account waiting for the right opportunity to burn on international first class. 3k for ~10k in airfare (without too much work), seems like a good deal to me!

  3. Awesome. I would love to see an interview with the Track-it-Back president to hear his thoughts: Did they panic at the company? Did he ever consider backing out? Did they have to cover the whole cost of the miles or did US Air end up paying for some of it? How many miles did they issue in total? What did they have to pay in dollars per mile?

  4. Part 1:The new program kind sucks. I so wanted to buy my way to the top. Oh well!
    Part 2: What happened to the old layout? The other one was much more well spaced, attractive, and easier to read. Please talk to the people in charge about fixing it.

  5. When I got the email from US describing the 250% promo, I just thought it was ridiculously confusing. Then I stumbled onto your website, which explained the mechanics and helped me understand just what an insanely profitable promotion it was — buy trinkets for a few bucks from 4 other merchants and then plunk down $10k on TIB. I still have the stickers, and the family’s been flying first class since. Thanks a bunch!

  6. Great, great story Gary! Move over Pudding guy, this is how it’s done in the 21st Century!

    Does the recent events where shopping portals didn’t honor mistakes give you pause as to whether you would do it again should something similar become available?

    Nothing like this in the new USAIR promotion, did it?

  7. With the passage of time I can say that was a great promo. As a result of that 250% and TIB I went from ‘nothing’ with Dividend Miles to being a ‘millionaire’ multiple times over.

    I always knew the ‘value’ of a mile – but up until finding this ‘odd’ thread on the US Air section of FT I had little exposure to anything outside OneWorld.

    The world of *A is a wonderful thing. 27 carriers and practically not a place on earth you can’t find a flight to get you there. What’s not to like.

    Now if USAir would just move to one way awards – life would be good.

  8. I’m still sitting on my pile of stickers (~$7K worth). I never even took them out of the UPS box because it was never about the stickers. It was about the miles 😉

    If it were not for this blog, I never would have taken another look at the 2009 promo. Thank you Gary for all that you do.

  9. I’ve got two large boxes of stickers in my closet. I can’t for the life of me figure out what to do with them…

  10. I too, have a pile of stickers. What to do with them? Is there an organization that will take these as a donation?

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