Best way to use your frequent flier miles is to take your mom first class to Europe

Christopher Elliott just wrote an interesting piece on LinkedIn titled “Frequent flier programs are a scam – here’s why you should quit yours now.”

Mr. Elliott suggests you “Remove all the frequent flier cards from your pocket. Grab a pair of scissors, cut the plastic into tiny little pieces and toss it in the trash.” I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I say do the opposite. Travelers should sign up to as many reward programs as possible because it’s basically free money if you play the game right.

I’m not suggesting you stick to one airline or alliance because if you do then Chris has a point that “loyalty programs are the crack cocaine of the travel industry.” I know firsthand as I used to give 98% of my business to United Airlines and their Star Alliance partners. I would fly them even if they cost more money than a competing airline on the same route. Actually, I was so obsessed with my United miles I would check the account balance every day and back then you had to call. Even worse, I would make a connection just to fly United even if another airline was flying where I needed to go without a stop.

Fortunately, I snapped out of it. It happened when I needed to fly from Los Angeles to Albuquerque (ABQ) and United didn’t have a nonstop flight so I went through Denver. When I learned my colleague flew nonstop on Southwest for less money and beat me to ABQ by about four hours I realized it was time to stop drinking United’s Kool-Aid.

I was able to quit cold turkey and you can too. All you have to do is purchase tickets based on the cheapest price and most convenient flight times (be sure to factor in the ancillary fees like baggage, seat assignments, ticket changes…).

I fly over 150,000 miles a year but instead of giving my business to one airline I spread the love which saves me money. So I’m not a super elite on one airline but I’m at least a silver (lowest level) elite frequent flier on three airlines: American, Delta and United. Because each of those airlines are a member the three airline alliances I get perks on all of their partner airlines.

That’s important to me since I fly about 30 different airlines a year. And when I fly I want to be able to get a good seat assignment (preferably exit row aisle), access to cheap or free upgrades, special lines so I don’t have to wait and can board early so my bag will have a spot in the overhead bin.

Chris Elliott does have a point that frequent flier programs are scammy (ahem, Delta) and I admit they can be addicting. But if you buy the cheapest and most convenient ticket then there’s no reason to cut up your frequent flier cards. I’ve taken hundreds of flights all around the world thanks to using my frequent flier miles – including treating my parents first class to Europe on multiple occasions. That never would’ve happened if it wasn’t for taking a few minutes to sign up to airline’s mileage programs and keeping track of my number.

For those who argue they stick to one airline so they can check bags for free… There’s ways of getting around it. First of all, you shouldn’t be checking a bag domestically. I rarely check a bag — even when I flew around the world for weeks at a time. You just don’t need that many clothes. Trust me – if my wife can do it – so can you. However, if you must check a bag, ship it ahead of time using FedEx, UPS or USPS’s ground service. If you do it a week in advance it’s usually cheaper, more dependable and will save you time and money once you land. You won’t have to wait around the baggage carousel and can then take public transportation.

Keep in mind some airline credit cards give you free checked bags. Heck, anytime an airline is offering thousands of bonus miles just to sign up to their credit card I do. The trick is you have to pay your bill off on time and negotiate or cancel it after a year if they won’t waive the annual fee. Here’s a list of the best travel credit cards and yes I do make a small commission on them but it doesn’t cost you anymore money and I would still be recommending them regardless if they paid me or not.

I could go on for hours on why you shouldn’t cut up your frequent flier cards but I’m about to book an award ticket so I can fly home for FREE.

Do you agree with me or Chris Elliott?

21 Comments On "Frequent flier programs are NOT a scam - here's why you should signup now"
  1. Laura|

    I go to South America at least once a year, sometimes 3 or more times for the past 6 years. One trip I usually take my god daughter and a friend. So far I have only paid for one flight all the rest were miles….This is why Iwas so upset to find out that you cannot earn miles on your bank card any more…

    1. Johnny Jet|

      What bank card? Hopefully, you are earning them on your credit card!

  2. Flying With Fish (@flyingwithfish)|

    Frequent flyer miles certainly are not a scam. I play the programs to my own advantage. While my home airport is only served by US Airways, where I was previously a Platinum and Chairman, I switched to BMI (who has since left Star Alliance) and now to Turkish because their programs offer me better returns on what I am looking for. Prior to the Delta – Northwest Merger I was Platinum on Delta and Gold on NWA, when the futures were uncertain I started banking my miles in Air France-KLM’s Flying Blue as a Gold (I am now presently a Delta Gold).

    Know the system, know how you travel, know what you want and find programs that work for you. Its not the airlines working you over it is you working the airlines for your own game.

  3. Terry Ward|

    I agree with you on this, Johnny. I also book according to lowest price but collect miles on all the airlines. Silver status is better than none. I also have signed up for many credit cards for miles bonuses, well worth the free flights they afforded, and cancelled some and kept others I wanted to keep. I think Star Alliance is far and away the best miles program. Having miles has saved me more than once on last minute one-way flights home from Europe that otherwise would have put me out well over $1,000. I’ll continue to amass miles everywhere I fly. A one-way flight from France to Nassau costs just 20,000 miles, for example, and only around $100 in taxes. Now that’s a deal.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      For sure! I always use my miles for last minute trips. I was going to fly YYZ-LAX next week and it was $800 a ticket. But I could use just 12,500 miles on AA or UA!

  4. CT|

    I think they are. They’re not what they used to be that’s for sure. You accumulate points, but then you have to buy some too to get upgraded or so-called “free airfare!”

    1. Johnny Jet|

      They definitely aren’t what they used to be but what is these days?

  5. Kevin - The Mad Traveler|

    You are totally right. Spread them out but stick with them. I no longer have Platinum or even Gold status with American Airlines because my miles are spread out through three alliances. However, because I book an American flight with an AA credit card, (or United with a United card) I get mileage bonuses and Priority Boarding, free bag, etc. And when I want a miles award flight, I can check three mileage programs for the best option. Once there was a far sale r/t from Chicago to Bogota for 15 or 20K miles on AA while it was damn near 100K on another airline.

  6. Durant Imboden|

    A scam? Not at all. My kids have flown to Europe and back on tickets that I’ve paid for with Delta miles. And my wife and I are able to book our favorite A330 seats in Delta economy (seats that have more legroom than Business Class seats) because of my Elite status.

    Some programs are better or worse than others, but to Delta’s credit, its miles don’t expire, and excess qualifying miles for Elite status carry over to the next year. That’s handy for us: Delta operates all but one of the nonstop transatlantic fights from our nearest airport, so we usually prefer to fly Delta in any event.

  7. Susan at|

    Definitely not a scam, but the secret is using them the way you explain. Because I’m out of Phoenix, I end up flying US Air a lot, but I also have miles with Delta and AA. I always book what is cheapest and apply the miles to one of the cards and have enough with all of them to usually upgrade and at least get to board first. Even flying Egyptian Air last year or Thai Air, for example, they were both part of Star Alliance, so I could add those to the US Air card and when I fly United or KLM, I can add those to my AA miles. I’ve been able to fly first class on the last 6 flights I made using miles and I have made many flights completely paid for with my miles. I almost never check a bag, either. I’ve spent several weeks on the road in distant locations living out of carry on and my under-the-seat small backpack – and even take a pair of dress shoes with me. :)

  8. Romsdeals|

    Not a scam because I booked business class tickets to Europe, 2 tickets to Kauai, ba first class to london, business class from frankfurt to lax and tons of hotels.

  9. Dodson Skipworth|

    I actually agree that frequent flyer programs do not HAVE to be a scam. But I disagree that spreading the love across multiple carriers is the way to go. I find that the true value of being a frequent flyer program member comes really only when you reach elite status. And REALLY only when you reach the top tier or two of elite status. That’s when the seat availability opens up. That’s when the benefits really do start to pay for themselves. That’s when the bonus miles pile on. That’s when the rerouting flight cancellation benefits happen. For example, using UA MileagePlus: achieving 1K or Global Services does in fact result in major benefits and enables you to cross the line to “not a scam at all any more”. Of course, you have to put in the time and effort to attain that high level. But anything below MP Platinum, not worth worrying about.

  10. circomassimo|

    I don’t think they’re a scam at all … the cost of the miles are built into a ticket’s price anyway. if you don’t collect them you’re paying for something and then not collecting it.

    In my case, I fly a lot (not 150 flights a year like the author, but around 90) and I have been doing it for a long time. I live in Europe and so use European airlines more but have found a great niche. I don’t think the treatment is as good as it was but I still find plenty of value.

    I have been Platinum on Air France (first Frequence Plus and then Flying Blue) ten years running and so now have achieved lifetime Platinum status. And then this year I became Gold with Aegean (Star Alliance), which has a low threshold for Gold and only has to be renewed every three years and is recognized across the alliance. So now I’m Platinum on one alliance and Gold on the other and most places I go outside my home country (Italy) are served by 2 or 3 or 4 airlines between those two alliances, and so I can usually get a good fare.

    I’m flying back to the U.S. for the holidays (upgraded to business class using miles) and use them for upgrades and other perks. I enjoy the lounge access (I have an AmEx Platinum card, which gives me Delta lounge access in the U.S., and AmEx gives me a free Priority Club card that gives lounge access in many other places), the extra baggage allowance, the preferred lines for check-in, occasional upgrades and preferential seating and sometimes better meals even when not upgraded, etc. Why would I want to throw those cards out??

  11. ambiancedaix|

    Totally agree with you Johnny. But for me it’s been valuable and makes sense to keep to one airline/alliance. Have been United 1K for several years now, and continue to ensure that I make it yearly due to the multiple and very valuable benefits. The savings that are unique to status have been well worth it – no fees for changes, mileage tickets, and increased availability of mileage tix. And the frequent upgrades, almost always domestically and frequently internationally keep me motivated to continue attaining the status!

  12. Grant Parish|

    Thanks for your response to Chris. I read his original article and disagreed with it. Like anything else, these programs can be beneficial for the right people in the right circumstances.

    I live in a Delta hub and have no choice but to fly Delta for 90%+ of all my flights. It would be dumb not to participate in the FF program and get benefits for what I am spending anyway.

    I do use credit cards and take advantage of special offers to maximize my elite status. While I am not thrilled with the Delta program or my geographic hostage status to it, it still has really helped me on several occasions. Most recently last month, when despite getting to the Dublin airport early, standing in the very long non-priority line to check in would have caused me to miss my flight.

  13. will|

    I don’t fly as often as any of the posters above-so spreading the wealth can’t really work. And most of the time I do fly (3-6x/yr) btwn SAN and either ATL or JFK/LGA (to visit family). My choices are Jetblue (sometimes cheaper), delta, or united (with transfers or into ewr). So I usually fly delta, they have 2 nonstop daily btwn those cities. When I fly overseas I do look for the cheapest.

  14. Shelley Seale|

    Half of the flights I take are free due to frequent flier miles. I get a lot of them through credit card and other offers, not just flights, but based on how much I get to travel using this I would never opt out of these programs. If you work it right they are well, well worth it!

  15. Dana|

    I am not so sure I agree with your article. We just recently booked three round trip tickets from British Columbia to Zambia and the taxes alone cost us $2550! Trying to book business class or first class was not even an option we were told. The routing was not easy and we really had to change our dates. So you save your air miles and you end up not being able to use them the way you would like to. We have used them for long haul flights before but I would not do that again.

  16. tonya|

    I agree with you — they aren’t a scam at all. However, if you don’t fly frequently, the bulk of the accumulation is on credit cards, which we do use a lot. One thing you don’t address is the fees on credit cards, even if you pay them off every month as we do. $450 a year is a lot of fee, and when you factor in a 2.5% foreign exchange fee, the points do come at a cost. We’ve opted for a card that we collect on Star Alliance (aeroplan) but the annual fee is $175 for two cards.

  17. SHaron Labos|

    yes they are a scam, idiot

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