The points game doesn’t make sense for most travelers


Yeah, I said it. So did Chris Elliott recently, and perhaps for the only time ever I’m going to mostly defend his point of view on this topic. I think he went too far in suggesting that all customers should walk away wholesale from the programs and that the programs are "corrupt and corrupting" (especially without explaining what he means there). And I disagree that there is a problem with only some passengers enjoying all the benefits of the programs. But there is definitely a large group of folks for whom focusing on the points is absolutely not the smart play.

Sure, collect them if you’re making the transaction anyways, but don’t be too disappointed if they expire (or use a service like GoMiles.com to help prevent them from expiring). And certainly don’t let points drive you to irrational spending decisions, like paying markedly more for the exact same product, just to earn a trivial number of points. That’s foolish even for the folks who can actually benefit from the programs and doubly so for folks who don’t benefit from them.

For the vast majority of travelers there are only two things that matter: price and schedule. And for most of those folks it is only price. Yes, there are significant differences in the way the travel experience will play out depending on which carrier you fly on. The difference between flying from New York City to Ft. Lauderdale on JetBlue or Spirit Air could not be more dramatic for a pair of products that are arguably the same thing, 1000 miles in a coach seat. But at the end of the day, if the Spirit flight is notably less expensive they’re going to sell seats to a chunk of customers.

The other thing to remember is that the vast majority of travelers are not actually particularly frequent fliers. The number of folks actually flying 25,000 miles or more annually is a terribly small subset of the total traveling public. For the folks who are actually flying a lot – and 25,000 miles annually is just the tip of that iceberg – there is absolutely value to be had in the programs. And even for some folks looking to rack up crazy amount of points via credit card transactions (hopefully with someone else’s money) there is value in the programs. But, again, that 25,000 annual number seems to be a pretty smart place to start as a threshold considering the fees and opportunity costs of directing spend to different cards.

The most surprising and also internally inconsistent claim made in that column is that the programs, started to help differentiate the airlines in a deregulated environment as the service levels started to rapidly decline, should somehow find a way to provide the same benefits for everyone. The programs are, for the most part, rewarding the folks who provide the most value to the airlines. Just because a passenger thinks they’re being loyal by making sure their once per year trip is on the same airline doesn’t mean they are actually a loyal customer. They certainly are unlikely to be a profitable one to the carriers. By providing incentives – mostly in the form of improved service levels in some form or another – to their most profitable customers the airlines are generating exactly the type of symbiotic relationship that good marketing should build. It isn’t at all clear why this is a bad thing in his view.

Are the programs perfect for everyone? Of course not. The implication that they should be is a pretty ridiculous leap that Elliott makes and one that unfortunately detracts from the very accurate part of his claim: most folks do not benefit from the programs. I certainly do, but I also know which of my friends and family to guide more towards loyalty and which to guide more towards always buying the cheapest fare, based on travel patterns and reward goals. The vast majority of the scenarios tend towards avoiding the loyalty programs, or at least not using them to drive purchasing decisions.

And anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying to you.

Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.


Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

11 Comments

  1. Seth, you’re mostly right, and certainly as it applies to choice of airline to fly.

    But that’s not the claim that Chris Elliott is making, and not what I was responding to in my own post yesterday.

    Absolutely most customers — who will not achieve elite status — should buy based on price, within a certain band, which is to say that I do think for many people flying JetBlue New York – Florida is a better decision than flying Spirit (and when factoring in fees may not even be a more expensive one, even accounting for differences in initial fare).

    But when you make your decision on price, still sign up for the program and put your mileage number in the reservation.

    And don’t ignore opportunities for miles or cash back (whichever happens to be more rewarding) for online purchases.

    And sign up for hotel programs, several even provide benefits at the base level like free internet. Or will help you avoid the worst room in the house.

    Not everyone is in a position to leverage the programs in the same ways, and most shouldn’t go out of their way to spend lots extra to be more invested in the programs. But that doesn’t make the programs worthless, with a tiny bit of attention most people will eventually realzie some value from them. Of course those people shouldn’t make big decisions on the basis of that future value, but neither should they ignore collecting the points and pre-emptively give up that value either.

    Playing the points game can be much more lucrative for many more people than currently play it, e.g. just going for monster credit card signup bonuses like 100,000 point offerings when those come around.

    That doesn’t even mean putting all spend on a points card. I recently recommended a good cash back card to someone based on their personal reward goals, they wanted coach flights to Europe in peak season and didn’t want to be flexible on dates or routing.

    But the points game — contra Chris Elliott, just signing up for programs and giving the account number when there’s something being offered, though not spending more out of pocket to collect those points — does make sense for more travelers than play the game currently.

    1. Of course I agree Gary (et al) that you should accrue the points so long as you’re spending the money anyways. The problem – and the marketing folks have been VERY good at making people believe it – is that too many people think they can actually “win” the game with ridiculously low spend/travel numbers. I think that the salient point Chris is making (lost in the mess of other crap that is that article) is that, for many folks, having the programs drive spending patterns is a money-losing endeavor. Losing a little bit of value on each transaction but making it up in volume is always going to show a negative RoI.

      Chirag, I’m surprised that you’re seeing a better cash-back value from the Sapphire card than other options out there, but if that’s working for you, great. And it is great that you managed to earn the OnePass miles to make a domestic US award ticket happen, but at what cost? If you purposefully pay $200 extra on the trip to India every time just to “stay loyal” to Continental then the cost of that “free” ticket is actually several hundred dollars, possibly more than you would pay in cash to get the redemption. That’s the sort of additional though that has to go in to these decisions to figure out if they are actually smart investments or just seem like they are.

      Understanding the programs – an incredibly difficult task as the airlines make them tremendously complicated and constantly change the rules – is key if you’re going to truly get value from them. Simply believing the “25K for a free ticket” marketing schtick is a recipe for disappointment. And there are way too many folks out there who buy that crap. They shouldn’t because they’re almost certainly not going to get to the level of earning that they’ll realize the value. Someone who makes that NYC-Florida trip even 4x annually will take more than 3 years to get to that 25K point. If they are spending even $20 extra per ticket then they’re paying >$250 for that award. Hard to believe there is real value there in that investment. And those are the many, many travelers who get “screwed” by the programs, the ones Elliott is talking about. He’s overly anti-FF programs to a fault, but in this specific case I’m inclined to agree that letting the programs drive spend is a bad play for many, many people.

  2. And for what it’s worth, I hope my position on this is sufficiently nuanced for you to re-consider your claim that anyone who says the points game makes sense is either evil or stupid… 😛

  3. I agree, for a number of my infrequent traveler friends and relatives the programs are frustrating and feel like a burden added on already stressful travel. They are happy spending their time in other endeavors that have better rewards for them.

  4. I belong to the category where my travel is less than 25000 miles (2-3 trips a year, on personal dime). I only recently got into this mileage game and I definitely think loyalty programs are rewarding (especially with credit cards). I have managed to accrue considerable number of points with my Sapphire card without changing my spending patterns. These points that I can redeem for cash are definitely more than what I would achieved with other credit cards.

    I do however agree that I am not going to get Elite status or tons of miles with airlines or hotels, but just having a mileage account [adding it to awardwallet] makes a lot of sense to me. I travel once a year to India [in coach] and always enter my mileage number (even though I book my flights from all over the place {orbitz, travelocity}) and have managed to accrue enough miles for a domestic coach ticket (for something I was going to do anyways). I will admit, I was lucky that I was flying CO and these miles did not expire, but I still got something out of it!

  5. Agree, even without including the time needed to monitor the programs. I would add that it makes sense to fly foreign airlines on fares that earn no miles, but do provide much better economy class service and even seat pitch. Prime example: Singapore Airlines.

  6. Hi Seth,
    I also have the chase freedom card (5% cashback) so combined with sapphire, its given me great value [especially using the UR mall].

    I agree with you regarding economics (I always choose the cheapest flight), it just so happened that it was CO [or one of their partners] for my destinations. My point is that, it doesn’t hurt to have a mileage account to put in whenever you book your tickets.

  7. Seth,

    It is a chicken or egg argument – there will be no conclusion at all.

    But bottom line – it all depends on the people if they know how the game is played or not.

  8. it’s like all marketing games – many play, few win 🙂

    cc gives you 0% rate or 100k miles to start, but if you are paying interest in the end, they will make more off you then they give you. And what percentage of americans do pay interest?

    1. If you’re carrying a balance then it is absolutely impossible to win the game. Period. End of story. I’m sure there are many who do it that way, thinking they’re winning and blinded by the allure of “points” that they are earning.

      And I disagree on the chicken/egg analogy, Gary (different Gary than the first comments). Like I said, there is nothing wrong with collecting the points. But there is something VERY wrong for most travelers in letting that drive the decision process.

Comments are closed.

BoardingArea