A (weak) case against frequent flyer miles

There’s an interesting article from National Geographic Traveler encouraging consumers not to collect frequent flyer miles.  Gary at View From the Wing brought this to my attention, writing a strong (long, but worth reading) rebuttal of his own.

The gist of the National Geographic article is that people are spending way too much on miles, from buying more expensive airfares to going on mileage runs (disclosure: I’m guilty as charged :), having booked 9 round trip flights on AA for the month of January…and I still need to write that promised post), and making purchases just for miles.  On the flip side, these miles are unable to be redeemed for any flights, and airlines are creating a class separation amongst the elite, frequently flying, extreme mile collecting  and the regular travelers who pay increasingly more fees (e.g. baggage fees), and get less value.

I could see why someone could feel this way about miles programs.  Redeeming your miles for a flight now can cost anywhere from 12,500 miles to 100,000 miles just for coach tickets, and you often have to get creative to get where you want to go.  However, part of the deal of playing the miles game is that you must exercise flexibility and commitment.  You won’t be able to find mile saver fares during a major holiday on a direct flight to your destination…that’s just a fact of life.  However, if you’re willing to travel at non-peak times (even just slightly off peak), you can derive tremendous value.   Additionally, to always have options, you should be committed to collecting miles in as many programs as you can.  This doesn’t mean you need to fly every airline and get elite status, but you should be going to for any credit cards/promotions that are within reach for you.  This does require you to keep track not only of all your accounts, but also which promotions are happening when.

If you can do all this, you do have the means to travel places.  And contrary to the notion that airlines are segregating elites out of the majority, getting yourself into some of the exclusive lounges is becoming more accessible.  You can book yourself premium class tickets for a fairly reasonable amount of miles (100,000 miles might seem like a lot, but if you can generate 500k miles per year through credit cards plus whatever you spend/fly, booking yourself a first class trip is well within reach), and with that comes access to elite lounges, preferential service, etc.  You can sometimes even pay as low as $100 to upgrade your flights to first class (not necessarily worth it, but you could), and experience all the great benefits that come with that (waived baggage fees, priority check-in and boarding lines).  If anything, preferential service on airlines is becoming less exclusive/more accessible, especially if you play the miles game.

There was a somewhat relevant point made in this post over at Things in the Sky, showing average airfares over the last 15 years or so.  Despite recent fare increases, airfares are still historically relatively low.  I recommend checking out that post, as well as the View From The Wing article and the original National Geographic article.