Are loyalty programs worth belonging to?

It’s time to question one of the most basic tenets of travel: Everyone should participate in an airline loyalty program.

A tectonic shift in the world of travel rewards is forcing passengers to reconsider their allegiances — or whether it’s worth being loyal at all. Given the already hopelessly convoluted nature of these programs, I’m surprised it took so long.

Frequent fliers have been hardest hit. In recent months, both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines revised their programs so that only the biggest spenders get the best perks. Soon, flying often won’t be enough to reach an airline’s coveted elite status. Expect more companies to follow.

Experienced travelers are taking a hard look at their loyalty portfolios. They don’t always like what they see.

David Deehl, an attorney who lives in Miami, says he feels betrayed by recent loyalty program changes. As an elite-level traveler, he expects preferred treatment from his preferred carrier, Delta Air Lines. But when he missed a recent flight from Miami to London, he discovered his Silver Medallion status didn’t mean much: The airline asked him to pay an extra $3,400 to fly.

Delta’s revamped program, which, starting next year, awards elite status based on the amount of money spent and miles flown, makes it significantly harder to maintain Deehl’s Medallion status. It represented the final straw, he says. He’s burning the 400,000 leftover SkyMiles in his account and vows to buy future tickets based on price and convenience, not whether he can maintain his elite status or score a “free” award ticket.

“No more loyalty for me,” he says.

His decision, and that of others like him, may have dramatic repercussions. For years, loyalty programs flourished, thanks to a conventional wisdom that everyone should carry a rewards card. The programs grew at a cancerous rate, fed by an unskeptical mainstream media and a small army of bloggers who were generously compensated for endorsing the loyalty lifestyle. They hawked a handful of bank-issued affinity credit cards with excessive point-bonus awards for which they received a generous commission check whenever a reader signed up.

These program apologists will trot out their same tired reasons why you should always be loyal. The programs are free, they’ll say, and look at what I got by being faithful to my airline: a “free” ticket to Hawaii, or a “free” upgrade to business class.

These arguments are too easily debunked. Loyalty programs aren’t free. At a minimum, members fork over their valuable personal data and spending history, which is shared with a company’s marketing partners. Worst-case scenario? You spend more — maybe a lot more — on travel in a wrongheaded effort to reach elite status or score a “free” ticket. If you use one of those pricey affinity cards, you’re also paying an annual fee to collect points that, as a matter of fact, don’t even belong to you.

Here’s what is true: A few people are benefiting from loyalty programs, including top-tier frequent fliers, usually traveling on their company’s dime, and hobbyists who spend their free time figuring out a way to game the system.

Banks, which sell cards that award a mile for every dollar spent, and the cheerleading bloggers who promote them, are doing very well, too. But no one benefits more than the travel company. Loyalty programs seduce travelers into spending more. And for what? In exchange for your money and loyalty, for example, an airline doesn’t have to treat you much better than the average economy-class passenger in 1975 and doesn’t have to give you anything more than a seat that would have flown empty anyway.

Best of all, most companies can change their loyalty program rules at any time, for any reason. Not only are the points their property, but they can disappear out of your account overnight and with them, any future award ticket bookings.

I call that a scam.

For some, it’s probably too late to leave. Consider Eric Brown, who owns a trading company in New York. After years of flying on Continental Airlines — now United Airlines — he’s earned lifetime gold status and is on the verge of becoming a lifetime platinum-level elite, thanks to its Million Miler program. He’s all-in with United, using a United Club Visa card, which offers 50% bonus miles on all purchases, double miles on his United tickets and airport club access.

Yet, Brown says he’s disillusioned with the airline’s recent program changes. Securing upgrades on flights between the Newark and Beijing using his miles has become increasingly difficult and expensive. He says he’d like to sever ties with United, but he can’t. He’s in too deep. Besides, he doesn’t have much of a choice.

“Where am I going?” he asks.

Frequent travelers such as Brown often tell me that if they had to do it all over again, they wouldn’t participate in the loyalty racket. They wonder why no one warned them of the risks.

Well, that’s what I’m doing. To be clear: Everyone should not participate in a rewards program. Question your loyalties now, before you’re too invested. And unless you’re prepared to offer a travel company even more money for the same limited and elusive perks, get ready to board your flight with the rest of us in Zone 5, and take your seat in the back of the plane — next to me.

Are loyalty programs worth belonging to?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Alex

    Is this article for real? Some of the statements made are highly questionable: “Loyalty programs aren’t free. At a minimum, members fork over their
    valuable personal data and spending history, which is shared with a
    company’s marketing partners.”

    Last I checked, you have to provide your name and address in order to buy a plane ticket. So, the airline is going to have your personal data whether you are a member of their frequent flyer program or not.

    Also, the example used to make Delta look bad has nothing to do with their loyalty program. None of the tiers for the Skymiles program allows a traveler to be a no-show without penalty. Frequent flyer tier levels do not alter the fare rules on a ticket. Without question, a smart airline will make an exception for their best customers. However, anyone with Silver Medallion status (the lowest level) isn’t a top customer.

    As for that guy: If he does have 400,000 miles and is only Silver, that means he’s been collecting miles for over 8 years. (That’s based on earning the highest Silver of 49,999 miles each year. As that’s unlikely, he’s probably been collecting miles for well over a decade.) If he hasn’t figured out the rules after a decade, he’s probably not the best person to use as an example.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Chris has a nearly religious disdain of loyalty programs.

    Me: I do the math and they work very well for me. My best one is my car rental program. As a bigger guy I always rent a premium or better car. I can rent a full size car and get premium one at no extra charge. Plus, for every $600 dollars I spent, I can get a one day free rental, which runs about $120 on the weekday. That’s a 20% ROI.

    I occasionally check out the prices of premium cars at other lots. Its way more than the cost of a full size at Hertz.

    Simple dollars and cents.

  • BillCCC

    As long as you don’t overspend chasing points I think that these programs are worth it.

  • sirwired

    Come on, the programs are free. Period. Full stop. (They can extract marketing data with or without an FF number, so that makes no difference) Sure, they’d like you to spend extra to fly their airline because you want miles there, but if you don’t play that game, they are a free little benefit. I’ve “purchased” scattered free upgrades and free tickets now and then through the years, and it cost me nothing to do this. Sounds like a good deal to me! If flyers would stop acting like entitled jerks (expecting a low-level flyer to receive the red carpet (and the airline to give up $3,400 in revenue) after missing his flight?) and just view the programs as a little Thank You gift, they’d be much better off. What exactly are they expecting for something with a wholesale cost of a penny per mile?

    Ranting about the horrible deals for your FREE points and the constantly shifting sands is like complaining that the bank started giving out hard candy instead of lollipops when you went to the teller window. Perhaps the airlines would be better off by NOT disclosing the rules at all to cut down on all the whining when the rules change…

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I see these programs a little differently. From my perspective, they represent the travel provider trying to convince me to spend my travel dollars at their business instead of another.

    My travel dollars are an investment and the question for me is what is the return on my investment. Much like any other investment, it bears monitoring, and if the return is insufficient than a realignment is necessary.

    For example, I maintained Platinum status with Marriott since 2004. Last year, Marriott made some changes to the program that greatly devalued it for me. Specifically, they removed the second weekend night free elite benefit. One of my favorite hotels, the Renaissance in Hollywood costs about $250 per night. With that benefit it’s effectively $125 a night if you stay two nights. That aligned with my travel habits as many of my trips are two day weekend trips.

    With that benefit removed, along with the rebranding of the Renaissance Hollywood and the Marriott in Downtown Los Angeles, Marriott was less attractive and a shifted to Starwood was required.

    There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. It’s a simple business transaction. If the OP didn’t like it or found the rules onerous, he should find a program more to his liking.

  • TheLightningKing

    Loyalty programs are great as long as you give only as much loyalty to the airlines as they give to you.

    Think of it this way: 25,000 miles will get you a free $250 ticket. So an airline mile is worth about a penny. If you’re booking a cross-country 3,000 mile flight, the miles from it are worth $30. So, for that flight, I will book with my “chosen” airline *IF* their flight is within $30 of the lowest competitor. Otherwise, I’ll book the cheapest.

    I use $0.01 per mile, but you can come up with your own number to include the value of perks, if you want.

    The problem is when people spend $300 extra to be with their loyalty airline, which they do all the time. There is no way an airline mile is worth ten cents! The airlines, of course, want you to do that, but it’s up to us to be smart about it! So just be disciplined, and give only as much loyalty as the airlines give YOU!

    If you do that, loyalty programs will mostly benefit you and rarely hurt you.

  • AJPeabody

    “Loyalty” is the wrong word. If my loyalty to an airline is not reciprocated, I give but I don’t get, so then the correct word is “fealty.” My attitude is to use the programs for freebies when available, but make my travel choices based on the value of the travel alone, and grab a freebie as an add on if available. At worst, I can get an occasional magazine subscription.

  • Nigel Appleby

    We don’t fly enough to make it worth belongingto anairline loyalty program, but we do belong to some where we shop anyway and get benefits there. My attitude is if I am going to spend money there, if the loyalty program has no membership fee and if I will receive some benefit, then I will join. I have a supermarket card, a gas station card and even a no fee mastercard which gives me cash refund based on a percentage of what I put on the card. So I’m happy with those.
    In my opinion those type of loyalty cards are fine but ones which have membership fees or cause a larger payment are a no-no.

  • mytimetotravel

    Really Chris, aren’t you tired of beating this dead horse? “Loyalty” programs may or may not be a good deal, depending on how you use them. Everyone needs to make that evaluation for themselves, there’s no one answer.

    AA’s program has been an excellent value for me. I have flown round the world three times, IN BUSINESS CLASS, on FF miles, and am getting ready to do it again. I rarely actually fly American (even on the award – Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, JAL, BA etc.), but if I’m going to have a credit card anyway, why not an affinity card? (I usually get the fee waived, if not I cancel and reapply.)

  • backprop

    Like some others, I really don’t get the negative attitude toward loyalty programs. Signing up for a loyalty program doesn’t force you to use the airline, hotel, or rental outfit. It doesn’t even skew the economics unless you go out of your way to let it.

    I’m not loyal to any provider, and I’m sure I’ve had points in loyalty program expire completely unused. But other times I found that my hotel night was free, or that I could get a free ticket thanks to several years of occasional patronage of the airline. And beyond that, I’ve gotten perks just for being in the loyalty program.

    There’s really nothing to see in this argument, IMO. Don’t let it skew your decision making and there’s nothing wrong with loyalty programs.

  • bodega3

    Yawn. Just a repeat of other articles on the same topic. Excuse me while I pack for my next trip that the airline tickets were free with our miles and we are traveling in business class to our destination and first class home.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I love some of the delusional comments on this post. Keep telling yourselves this is all “free.” The airlines are laughing all the way to the bank. I’ll keep tilting at this windmill until people start listening, which, based on the poll, it looks like many have.

  • James

    2006 I flew my father EWR-BKK/PEK-EWR on CO FF miles, 90,000 miles for a first class ticket. (He’s worth it.)

    Last year, United wanted 100,000 miles for a business round trip SFO-EWR, plus cash, 10+ months in advance.

    I had flown Continental for over two decades. Once the last miles are burned, it is Virgin America for me.

  • LFH0

    For a self-employed person, I think you’ve looking at the right attributes. But it gets more complicated for persons employed by others. Who should make that decision as to whether or not a program benefit is worth the price?

    It is arguable that the message of the airlines (and let’s include Amtrak too) is for the employee to spend the employer’s money with them, and in return the airlines will kick back a portion of the employer’s money to the employee with some type of benefit. Many (and I would hope most) employees are honorable and act in the best interest of their employers, but not all.

  • LFH0

    I choose my travel on the basis of carrier reputation, mode, destination, schedule, comfort, and value. After making a decision I might then claim loyalty points if offered, but such points have no influence on my decision-making. The value of the points is so low, the hurdles so high to use them, and the risk of devaluation so great, that there is to me little difference between travel loyalty points and the prize in a box of Cracker Jack.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Are you sure? According to Chris you might be delusional ;-)

  • dave3029

    I am a Delta Skymiles member. I’ve only flown for business (when my company was footing the bill, and THEY chose Delta) back in the late 90’s, and I don’t chase miles. I DO avail myself of things like Skymiles Shopping (where I can go through their portal to places like Home Depot or WalMart websites and buy stuff I was going to get anyway, and my local stores will pull the items and they’re waiting for me when I get there – – saving me both time and aggravation, plus earning miles) and the Skymiles Dining program (where it seems more and more of the places I already eat are now earning me miles for doing what I do anyway). I don’t own ANY credit cards linked with an airline and would never apply for a credit card with ANY annual fee.

    Over the years, just doing those simple things that cost me nothing more than a few extra steps prior to buying what I was already going to pay for have added up to a free flight I needed from Cincinnati to Spokane, and it looks like I’ll have enough for the same trip I need next year. I had to pay $10 in fees the last time, not sure what it will be next year.

    So based on all that, is it worth it to me? I’d have to emphatically say “yes”.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t think so. Tens of thousands of people fly for work daily without issue. The relationship with the program is simple.

    If you are low level and don’t have any decision making power, there is no issue. You travel as the boss/travel policy dictates. If you have authority, then follow the simple rule. Would I make this expenditure, if I were spending my own money. That’s what I use when my client is paying my travel. By staying at the same hotels that I would stay at if I were using my own money, I know I’m avoiding the very real temptation for opportunistic behavior. For client’s who I don’t extend credit to, I’ve called to remind them about advance purchase windows.

    I had one idiot boss complain because I stayed at a $99 Embassy Suites. He thought I was being opportunistic. The travel policy was $85 for hotels. I pointed out to him that by staying at that particular hotel, I saved the $15 parking allotment, and the $10 breakfast allotment. I saved the company $11.

    I knew a scoundrel who would book a $300 room at a hotel when the same room could be gotten for $150, just to get extra points. But his employer is out $150. But he’s in jail now so its all good ;)

    As far as the message about employee spending money and the travel provider kicking it back to the employee, I’m not convinced. I think that its the same logic as personal travel.

    You have a trip to take, use my travel company and the trip will be a better trip. The travel provider is hoping the traveler, i.e. account holder, has authority to determine which travel provider to utilize.

    For many frequent travelers, the miles are just the icing.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I spent $300 in 2004 to do a mileage run to Chicago to become Executive Platinum with American. The result was free domestic upgrades to first ( then a $50 savings per 500 miles), plus 4 complimentary RT upgrades to Europe ($2500 each). The total benefit was 20k. Not bad for $300.

    But this was a very planned maneuver, where I took paper and pencil before making this expenditure.

  • Torok Balint

    Any reason for insulting people who have different experience, opinion as you have? Nothing is tiliting. Simply ppl gave up reading your site – not because they do not agree with you, but because you are recycling the same posts again and again with the same insults.

    Btw this moment more ppl say yes, than no, wihile your previous posts showed much more nay-sayers.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I hope you’re not offended when I point out that a 50/50 split is a tie. Oh, and thanks for reading.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I report. You decide.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Seriously? You really think you’ve flown around the wold for “free”? I don’t know what to say to that, other than that I have my work cut out for me. I will have to write about this subject again very soon. The horse isn’t dead.

    But I’m encouraged by the poll results today, which suggests that mostly, the loyalty program apologists are bothering to comment.

  • Alex

    When over half of the visitors to your site disagree with you (52% right now), perhaps it is time for you to try to understand why. You are making the false assumption that people will always choose one airline just because they have a frequent flyer account.

    Am I offended that you called me “delusional”? Absolutely. Clearly I’m not wanted, so I will not be returning to read your website.

  • mytimetotravel

    Well, I had to pay taxes, but I’d have to do that in any case. What makes you think it wasn’t free? I would have a credit card anyway, and as I said, i don’t pay annual fees for the card. I suppose I could have got 1% cash back on a Cap One card instead, but biz class round the world tickets are worth more than that, and I would still have had a credit card tracking my purchases. (I use the Cap One card when I’m abroad to avoid currency conversion fees.)

    Please explain exactly what you think those biz class tickets cost me, in contrast to what I would have had to pay in cash..

  • Christopher Elliott

    I didn’t call you delusional. I said some of the comments on today’s post are delusional. Pay attention!

  • Christopher Elliott

    Do you really need me to explain it to you? OK, one last time: If your tickets were “free” then you wouldn’t have had to do anything to get them — and indeed, anyone could have gotten them for the asking.

    But you did something for them. You gave the airline your business.

    It’s fine to call it an “award” ticket, but when you say it’s “free” — well, that’s deceptive marketing-speak, because it suggests you’re getting something for nothing. Which is simply untrue.

  • EdB

    Like “Buy One Get One Free”.

    Also, while you may not pay “extra” for that ticket, someone else has. As I found out not too long ago, merchants pay extra processing fees when you use those loyalty cards. So by using them, it costs the business more.

  • TheLightningKing

    There may be situations where something like that is worthwhile. You fly more than the vast majority of people.

    The point is, you should figure out what you’re getting back in exchange for what you’re paying, as I presume you did. Don’t pay extra to fly with your chosen airline unless you really believe you’ll get your value back for it. If you just fly with one airline blindly, and expect them to return your loyalty blindly, you’re *guaranteed* to be disappointed. Way too many people are in this mode.

  • mytimetotravel

    What part of “I rarely actually fly American” did you not get? I have flown them just once in the last few years, and they had the best price/convenience combination for that particular trip. So I did not give American any business I would not have given them in any case.

  • Christopher Elliott

    After reviewing all of today’s comments, I wanted to add a final thought to this topic.

    Unfortunately, some of you have taken my well-reasoned and insightful commentary personally because you’ve made a choice to give your loyalty to an airline and hotel, and you believe that because you have, my critique is aimed at you. It isn’t. It’s the programs that have incurred my wrath, and rightfully so.

    My perfectly logical position on loyalty programs is the direct result of mediating hundreds of cases in which a program took advantage of travelers, sucking time and money from them and often leaving them with nothing.

    I will not apologize for advocating for these victims and for warning others about loyalty program scams.

  • Christopher Elliott

    We’re arguing semantics. I’m saying you had to give AA your business. “Free” implies AA would have given you the upgrade just for breathing. Not so. You got an “award” ticket which is not the same thing as a “free” ticket.

  • mytimetotravel

    No, we’re not arguing semantics. I’m waiting for you to show me where I actually spent money for those award tickets. AA “gave” me the tickets in exchange for the FF miles, but where, exactly, did I “pay” for the miles?

  • Hal

    You answered your question yourself. You “paid” for it with FF miles. The currency you used were Frequent Flier Miles. If you had 100,000 and after getting your “free” ticket AA “gave” you, you didn’t have 100,000 miles. So it wasn’t “free”.

  • mytimetotravel

    You hear from the people who have problems with the programs (naturally, since you’re a consumer advocate). You don’t hear from all the people who do not have problems. The same is true of car hire, but you don’t tell people not to rent cars because you only hear about the problems.

  • bayareascott

    The first example was clearly a saver award. The second clearly a standard award. They are not the same thing, this is just cherrypicking examples. Sometimes the inventory an airline sets aside for award tickets (saver awards) are not available on the specific flights you request. The airline will still let you use miles if you want, but at a higher scale. That is the customer’s choice. No one is forcing you to use miles on a given set of flights.

  • mythsayer

    Okay, look: I LIKE my AmEx card, even with its annual fee. It gives me “free” baggage in the US, so that’s been generally worth the annual fee. Some people like their AmEx cards, too, with or with SkyMiles. People use AmEx because it’s a good card. So explain to me how I pay MORE using my AmEx to get my FF miles than someone who uses AmEx and gets basically nothing (because they don’t use points or whatever). I’ve flown myself from Japan to the US roundtrip twice and my daughter once entirely for FF miles and I have another 172,000. Those were earned by some flying and mostly AmEx spending, and I would have to buy things anyway. In terms of the tickets from Japan, ALMOST EVERY SINGLE ONE was the cheapest flight. ONE TIME, I flew United, because it was cheaper. So, if Delta tends to be the cheapest for the flights I take (and if it isn’t, I take a different flight), and I get my miles from my CC mostly ANYWAY, how am I really losing anything? Keep in mind, I’m just buying things on my AmEx for the most part… something people do everyday. I’m pretty sure that I would have spent around 5k for those Japan flights and I KNOW I haven’t “spent” anywhere near that in real dollars for those miles. So that seems like a win to me….

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    We agree. In any transaction, you figure out is it a good one for you. You cannot generalize and state one way or the other for all people. That’s why the article is simplistic, sensational, and flatly wrong. Each persons needs and habits are different. It would be equally fallacious to state that everyone should belong.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s disingenuous. Mytimetotravel is saying fairly plainly that the currency he accumulated, in this case FF miles did not cost him anything as he did not have to alter any spending patterns or incur any additional debt.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But for my part, an ad hominem attack on a post will blur the distinction between spirited debate and personal attack.

    If a post is delusional, it follows that the poster is delusional as well. And I don’t know how anyone can not take it personally that they’d be more comfortable in the darker parts of the internet. Vilify the programs till judgment day, if you will. But showing a modicum of respect to those who disagree will elevate the discussion.

  • California_Dave

    AJ, I agree with you 100% that “loyalty” is the wrong word for these programs in my opinion. I belong to the “Reward” programs for every major airline, car rental agency, and hotel chain. I’m the type of customer none of these companies really want as part of their programs because I have no real loyalty. I shop smart based on the best value, location, and amenities for my destination. I enjoy many perks from these companies and I AM treated better (except with the airlines) because I am a member of their club. Yes, I have to put up with some junk mail and some spam, but I also get welcome gifts, discounted meals or parking, speedier checkinout, upgrades, late checkout, etc. If I happen to get points that I can use towards freebies in the future, I count that a bonus, but do not base my purchase decision on how many points I will earn. I see no downside if you use the programs in the right way.

  • bodega3

    Your position isn’t logical, it is based on onesidedness as you have never belonged to one, or admitted to it, to know. Most people who belong, know it is a ‘free’ program and that changes can and will take place, but if you pay attention and play the game, even moderately, you will benefit. In my business, have signed many clients up for hotel, car and air programs as there is more benefit in them than not. Just like owning credit cards, you need to keep an eye on what you are doing with them, adjust accordingly, and pay attention to what is the best deal for you.
    Personally, I have joined and dropped some, added others and have felt that I have benefited a lot from having them. Just yesterday I saved 20 cents a gallon off my gas as I get some of our groceries and most of our prescriptions at Safeway and I beat the lowest price gas in our area by 9 cents with that savings according to the newspaper that prints prices around the county for us.
    As mytimetotravel said, you have heard from those who have had issues, which are a drop in the bucket to those who have been very happy with these programs.
    So don’t knock it if you haven’t joined any Chris. BTW, one of the best deals in loyalty programs starst in 3 weeks and runs until January with a major department store. I earned so much last year that I haven’t even spent all I earned and it is almost the end of August. Plus I have $125 earned certificates in addition to spend. I’ll be joining up again this year as I have for many years past.

  • bodega3

    I decided you are wrong on this one and I have the free tickets, free hotel stays, free gift certificates all earned to prove it!

  • bodega3

    Yes, it is pretty clear what is being said. If you are going to fly a certain carrier regardless, then sign up for the mileage program and earn enough miles on those flights to fly on another trip for free or use the miles for upgrading. It is pretty clear that this is a good deal. As an agent, I have handled these for clients, as well as for myself. I know the value and totally disagree with Chris on this.

  • bodega3

    That is pointing out the obvious. With any loyalty program, if you are paying for a product just to get something for free, you need to look at the whole picture. Some people are just too stupid to figure this out!
    Several years ago, a local bank was giving out ‘free airfare’ certiicates to Hawaii if you opened up an account. The deal was that in order to get the ‘free airfare’ you had to book the hotel with the same company that handled the air. Someone I knew opened an account and showed me the certificate and the hotels offered were limited and with huge inflated pricing. For what the hotels would cost, you could get a complete package with a good tour company that include air, hotel, transfers and taxes for less.
    As Ron White says, You Can’t Fix Stupid!

  • TheLightningKing

    You have to look at the big picture here. Yes, you didn’t have to give American any “extra” business. But base fares are inevitably kept a little higher for every award ticket that is doled out, because it’s zero-sum. So you did pay a little extra. So Chris is right in that sense. It’s a little like the department stores that have 20% off sales every three weeks, only because they jack up the price by 20% to begin with.

    The question is…what did you get for paying that extra? If you use loyalty programs the right way, I still think you can get out what you put in. If you follow one airline blindly and expert return loyalty, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  • TheLightningKing

    Chris, I agree that if you look at the big picture, loyalty programs are scams, in that they make it all too easy to give way too much business to one airline, and once you’ve given that business and the airlines have what they want, there is little incentive to return the loyalty.

    But base fares in general are inevitably kept higher for every award ticket that is given out.

    So to not even participate in the loyalty program, you are paying that extra amount on every flight you take. It’s like walking into a store that has a “buy 5, get the 6th free” promotion, and buying exactly 5 of something. Of course, they only offered that promotion because they increased the price to begin with. But…if you don’t claim the 6th item (which is the award ticket) that benefit will somehow be handed over to the elite travelers, widening the gap between regular travelers and elite travelers even moreso!

    So I’m not disagreeing with you characterizing loyalty programs as annoying gimmicks or even scams. But I am questioning whether your proposed solution is the best approach.

    I request that in a future post, you should be clear not only why loyalty programs are annoying, but why having average travelers boycott it would result in better customer service, etc. That’s what I’m having trouble understanding.

    For me, right now, I think the best solution is to participate in loyalty programs, without actually being loyal at all.

  • Eighmeagh

    Actually, in the original post, he never said he flew around the world for “free.” He said he flew around the world on FF miles. And he did not say that he thought those miles were free. But I don’t understand your insistence that all miles cost something. When I buy an airline ticket, I choose based on price, and then convenience as far as airport and flight schedule (i.e. it is sometimes worth an extra $50 for me to fly at a certain time of day, or from a certain airport). I ALWAYS choose my tickets this way, whether for business or leisure travel. I also belong to the “loyalty” programs for AA, UAL, Delta, and Southwest, so I accrue miles with whichever airline I happen to be flying. If it eventually turns out that I’ve flown enough on any of those airlines to gain some benefit, great. If not, no big deal; I didn’t go into it trying to score rewards or elite status anyway. But It does turn out that in that last year or so I have flown enough on two of those airlines be able to fly a (domestic) rewards ticket the next time I fly. So what exactly, in terms of $$ or time or whatever, did that rewards ticket cost me?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Those base fares remain the same regardless of mytimetotravel’s participation in a loyalty program. Thus to the individual that’s an irrelevant point.

  • BMG4ME

    My four flights on Concorde prove that the answer is Yes. I would never have been able to have afforded to pay for tickets with real money.

  • Joe

    They are not free. Some portion of every dollar you spend has to be tucked away by the airline for a potential award ticket later. There are 2 ways of looking at it. The first is to understand that if they didn’t have to tuck away the money, your fare would be lower. The other way to look at it is if you don’t sign up for the loyalty program and bank the miles yourself, it’s like handing money to the airline because they get to charge you a higher fare and don’t have to give you a thing in return.

  • bodega3

    Keep in mind that companies that allow you to earn airline miles, actually pay the carrier for them. So the airline is often making money on your free ticket.

  • TheLightningKing

    I don’t understand the appeal of mileage credit cards at all. You get 1 mile for every $1 you spent. An airline mile is worth about a penny, so basically that means you get 1% reward in the form of miles.

    But you can instead get cash reward cards that give you 1% back. Or even 2% (there’s one from Fidelity that gives you 2% cash back and no annual fee). I’d much rather have $250 in cash than have enough miles to buy a $250 air ticket.

    Moreover, many of the cash rewards cards have no annual fee, and the airline miles cards I know of do.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The value of miles really depends on the usage. Probably the lowest redemption value is to get a coach ticket. Get a premium class ticket instead and the redemption value skyrockets.

    For example. American Airlines requires 50k points for a round trip domestic first class ticket. A round trip ticket SFO-MIA leaving tomorrow runs $1700-$3400. But, if you took the redemption in cash, you’d get between $500-$1000 dollars. Approximately 1/3 the value.

    If you get a business class international ticket its an even better deal. Tomorrow a business class ticket from San Francisco to Paris runs $7,000-$10,000. It costs 100k in miles. If you took cash instead of miles you’d get between $1,000 or $2,000.

    Of course, those numbers only make sense if traveling in a premium class is a value to you.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I got one of those offers. It was a get a companion plane ticket free, but I had to book with XYZ agency. After reading all the fine print, it turned out to be an incredibly bad deal. Their tickets were highly inflated, more than double the price of a regular ticket.

  • Charles

    I have the Delta AmEx platinum card. For that, I get a) one free bag per person, b) zone 1 boarding, and c) a free companion fare once a year. The 1 mile per $1 is, as you say, not worth it and we put most of our charges on a Chase Freedom card (and a few others where you can sometimes early up to 5%). But, we just finished a trip where the baggage charges would have nearly covered the annual fee and zone 1 boarding was really great considering the planes were full and the massive amount of carry-on people bring today.

    We tend to favor Delta when flying, not because of the mileage program, but because that baggage charge savings can really add up and zone 1 is worth something to me as well. And, Delta is a “real” airline, so that puts them over companies like Spirit and AirTran any day (both of which we have flown and probably will fly again, but we’ll pay a bit more to fly a major airline).

  • Charles

    What is most amazing to me is that you are someone who will benefit from these programs. All you would need to do is open FF accounts for you and your family and add that number to each reservation. You travel a lot. The miles would accumulate. Use them, don’t use them, but do explain to me what exactly it has cost you to do that? The “fork over their valuable personal data and spending history” argument is nonsense. They already have all of your personal data from the ticket and they will figure out your spending history no problem. So, explain to me how this is costing you money?

    You have made this choice to not participate. That’s fine. But, as a consumer advocate, I would like an explanation as to why you don’t participate. First, what are the costs to you. An extra minute when booking to add a number? You don’t have to be loyal to use these programs. Just add the number to flights you already have booked. Many of my miles come from booking by an agency that could care less what miles programs I belong to. All they care about is cheapest fare.

    So, you accumulate some miles. If you don’t want to deal with awards tickets, get some magazines. That’s what my daughter does. She’s unlikely to reach 25,000 miles for a long time, so she spent her miles on magazines. We recently took a trip and just applied the miles as cash to the trip. It saved me $700 I would have otherwise spent. In a previous conversation you told me to cancel my account and throw those miles away. When asked for a reasoned argument in support of canceling the account, I got only silence.

    I can understand advocating for people to be reasonable about these programs in both their expectations and their use. But, I and many others have used these programs for years and gotten benefit from them. I’ve asked repeatedly what the downside is, but all I hear are these same arguments that you don’t own the miles, can change the terms at any time, etc. None of these factors impact the fact that I, and millions of others, have been able to use miles for years.

    You said: “A few people are benefiting from loyalty programs, including top-tier frequent fliers, usually traveling on their company’s dime, and hobbyists who spend their free time figuring out a way to game the system.” I know a few people in the first category and nobody in the second category at all. But, everyone I know who travels regularly has FF mile accounts for the airlines they fly. Most take advantage of them every now and then for a free ticket, some purchase, or cash for miles. Pretty much all of them are benefiting.

  • emanon256

    I had an employer once who in 2009 suddenly changed their travel policy and demanded I take the cheapest flight and I had to provide them proof by showing them a kayak or Expedia search. They also made me stay at the cheapest hotel, and show them a search as well showing what hotel was the cheapest. If I took anything above the cheapest, I was to pay the difference myself.

    Before the policy change, we were told to use our judgement and do what was best for the company making sure we also took our personal life into account. We were asked to stay at the cheapest decent hotel, and book a flight that still gave us time with our family. Everyone I knew was very good about not splurging and working to save money.

    After the policy change, I had to take the 6am flight on Sunday morning even though I didn’t have to be at the clients until Monday, stay at a red roof inn or dirty roadside motel, and then take a 3 hop trip home Thursday night with an overnight connection not getting me home until late Friday. With only one day at home each weekend, I left for another company. I heard from a few co-workers who stuck it out that it got even worse, they wouldn’t let them leave until Friday night and they started making them share hotel rooms.

  • bodega3

    But isn’t it nice that there are options for those who qualify for credit cards? We have both type of cards…actually three type of cards as one is linked to a department store and have a method of when we use one over the other.

  • Kevin Mathews

    Funny enough, I actually believe that everyone should belong to these loyalty programs…I view them exactly the same way as I view the various grocery membership cards on my key rings. I have Kroger, Giant and Food Lion… right next to my CVS and Walgreens.
    I also don’t travel enough to really care and almost always let my boss pay for the hotel room on the random occasions we travel. Figure it’s worth the points i’d get for not having to file an expense report by letting him pay for everything…

  • Christopher Elliott

    This comment has been flagged, and violates our comments policy.

    On personal note, I am disappointed at the continued ad hominem attacks and incorrect assumptions being made.

    There’s an important difference between belonging to a program and actively participating in one. I can’t believe anyone is making an argument that everyone should actively participate in a program. Read the story carefully and you’ll see that I’m arguing against active participation.

    The other pointless parsing relates to the word “free.” If American Airlines were giving away business class upgrades to random passengers in the airport terminal, then it would be free. But you have to earn the upgrade by giving the airline your business. That is not free. Please don’t insult our intelligence by calling it “free.”

    Also, without going into details, anyone who thinks I don’t belong to a loyalty program is wrong. I do belong; occasionally, I even participate. And as some of my closer friends know, I have earned elite status in several programs.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    @elliottc:disqus – can you explain specifically why @4a58b6930d0b32ac252b73abdfa18b1e:disqus ‘s comment was flagged? I know both you and she have strong opposing positions on this issue, but I’m not reading anything really nasty in anything she said.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I don’t know who flagged the comment, if that’s what you’re asking. Unfortunately, Disqus doesn’t allow you to see that, even when you have moderator privileges.

  • bodega3

    Why was my comment flagged?
    And what attacks are being made on you? The miles I earn are free. The gift certificates I earn with my Macys/AX card are free. The hotel stays I earn with my member numbers are free. With two of the carriers I have frequent flyer numbers with, it does cost to use the miles to upgrade but I have upgraded FOR FREE many, many times in the past. Internationally all I have to pay are the taxes, which is what employees have to pay, too, for their ‘free’ travel.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    No, I’m not asking who, but why. I’ve seen too many people get flagged just because of their name, not because of their comment(s). I wish there was a way to say “why” when flagging a comment – you know, profanity (be polite), calling someone a {insert ad hominem attack here}, saying that everyone should shop at XXX because of their great rewards program (no promotions or spamming), etc.

    BTW, speaking of egregious loyalty programs, did you see that CVS’ new rewards program requires their members to waive HIPAA and allows CVS to share personal medical information with 3rd parties? See,5,6795096,full.column

    Now, belonging to THAT kind of rewards program is truly delusional thinking!

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi Jeanne,

    I think the first line of Chris’ response to Bodega3 should have said “This comment has been flagged AS violating our comments policy” rather than “This comment has been flagged, AND violates our comments policy.”

    I say that because we as moderators have no way of knowing by whom OR for what reason a comment has been flagged. It just comes to us with a blurb saying “Reply to this email with “Delete”, “Approve”, or “Spam”, or moderate from the Disqus moderation panel.” It’s then up to us to decide whether the comment in question violates our Comments policy…

    And you’re right that the “Flag as inappropriate” link appears to sometimes be used in an attempt to harass fellow posters because of their names. The only folks who actually ARE harassed, however, are your friendly neighborhood moderators. We have to review every one of the flags, and the great majority of them are allowed to stand, anyway.

    If you can figure out why Disqus keeps us in the dark about the identities of “no-voters” and flaggers, we’d love to know. They recently made a unilateral change which reveals the user names of “up-voters,” so obviously the technology is there. Hope this explanation helped.