Frequent Flyer Miles

“So let’s schedule our vacation then,” said my wife. “It looks like we’ve saved enough.”

“Sounds good,” I replied, not totally convinced. Who ever saves enough money for a vacation? Most people simply go and then spend a year paying it off – just in time for the next vacation. But then I thought about it. This vacation was still months away. And we had the holy grail of vacation dollars right in our very pocket…those ever elusive frequent flyer miles.

There was once a time when I traveled so often on business, that I was able to accumulate quite a few frequent flyer miles on my US Airways credit card. Enough for all four of us to fly somewhere, twice a year. Of course, I had to use the US Air credit card to get those miles, but that was okay. I’d always liked their service.

Not too long into this goldmine of a benefit program, every bank in the world decided to get in on the frequent flyer deal. Eventually they all started offering one free mileage point for every dollar spent with their credit card, whether or not it was for airline tickets. Suddenly, even people who had never set foot on an airplane could start accumulating miles toward their first flight. People racked up big bucks on their credit cards, just for a free flight to Topeka to visit Auntie Grizelda. Never mind that the debt kept accumulating month after month, compounded annually at 18%. A free flight was a free flight, right?

It’s a bizarre way to “save” for a vacation. But if you did it right, it paid off.

Of course, over the last five years or so, the airlines have more than doubled the number of points needed for a flight. Five years ago, I needed 15,000 points for a free ticket to the Caribbean. Now I need 30,000 points. And chances are the few frequent flyer seats set aside on an airplane at that rate are gone by the time we want to take our vacation. So we always have to dish out 60,000 for the “next level” of available seats – on that same plane. And it’s not like the extra points suddenly brought heated seats or better food – or any food, for that matter. The number of points needed for a free seat have increased faster than the price of a plane ticket, even with the spike in oil prices. But that’s the nature of this frequent flyer game. Lots of people flying, too few free seats.

Over the last few years, I haven’t traveled much at all. So we’ve had to be content with building our frequent flyer miles with those credit card purchases – and we’re pretty frugal with them. At the rate we’re spending, I figure it will take us almost two years to accumulate enough points for one free ticket within the US. A free ticket to the Caribbean would take almost three years. If a free ticket to Australia was our goal, that would take a lifetime.

The airlines know this mileage accumulation is a painfully slow process for all but their real frequent flyers. I suspect they don’t really care though, because most of them have now placed time restrictions on using the points. Can’t accumulate enough for a free ticket to Terre Haute within two years? Or a trip to Bora Bora before heading off to the nursing home? Not to worry – neither the credit card companies nor the airlines will let you get that far. Most strip those points away if you haven’t used them in two years. Saves you the heartache of worrying about whether you still have enough remaining years before you earn that free trip to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore. A trip that now costs $39 one way on Southwest when the bargain is offered.

A few years ago, we received a very official-looking notice from Continental Airlines Awards Processing Center. I thought “well, here we go – they’re finally taking away those points too”. Since we only had a few Continental points, never enough for a free plane ride, we really didn’t care. But instead, this notice was to inform us that we could now cash in our miles for valuable prizes. Yessiree – magazines! Yup, for the price of a few thousand points we’d never use anyhow, we could get subscriptions to such famous periodicals as Body & Soul, Conde Nast Portfolio, Dog Fancy, Horse Illustrated, Men in Nursing, or Veranda! We’d never heard of any of them. That notice went in the trash.

I guess other infrequent flyers were as enamored of Continental’s offer as we were. So they apparently upped the anti. A few weeks later, we received another official letter from them – this one marked FINAL NOTICE. And this time around, the selection list included periodicals we knew – among them, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, even The Wall Street Journal. Good stuff. So we went to town. Ordered eight of them – all one-year subscriptions; some dailies, some weeklies, some monthly. Used up every free Continental mile we had left, except for 32 of them. Plenty of reading material for every coffee table, bedside, and bathroom in the house – even now, years later.

And our planned vacation? Well, as it turned out, four years later, we have enough US Airways points for two free tickets. So we purchased enough additional points to get one more “free” ticket for our daughter (I’m not sure how that makes them free, but…). And with that, we’ll all get to our timeshare next spring.

I’m sure we’ll have a great vacation – we always do. And when we return a week later, we’ll have a backlog of free magazines and newspapers, from four years ago, that we’ll never have time to read. Maybe, instead, we should just stay home and read during our vacation. We could save those miles for another year – maybe accumulate enough for another completely free ticket. And we’d save another few bucks. Unless inflation eats it away. Or airfares skyrocket…

This frequent flyer deal isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be, is it? But free is free, so who can complain?

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6 Responses

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  1. Vote -1 Vote +1Bob H

    I love credit card reward cards because if you behave responsibly and pay off the card balance every month, you can beat the banks. I use the Capital One Venture card which pays double miles for every purchase. The miles can be redeemed for any travel purchase (air, hotel, car rental, train, etc.) and they reimburse you dollar for dollar with no tiers. Also, there are no blackouts. If you can buy it, they will reimburse it. There is a $59 annual fee, but I earn that back after a couple of months with accumulated points. This reward card is far better than any other I’ve seen. You must be disciplined to pay it off every month though, or else you will be paying large interest fees and underwriting my next trip to Hawaii.

    1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Bill

      You honestly believe that you are beating the banks? NOBODY beats the banks. All of the prices are increased at the retail level to compensate for the hold back that the card companies charge the retailers. My wife and I always paid off our credit cards monthly and received some points back. We decided to cut up the 2 cards we had and went stricktly cash only. People don’t realize that most prices are negotiable. We recently paid $847.00 with free delivery for a pair of chairs that would have cost us $1,120.00 if we used a card. The money we save and invest is far greater than any rewards we get back.

      1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Bob H

        Interesting point. So next time I’m at Market Basket, Shell, or paying the Comcast bill, I should just offer them cash for 75% of their marked price? Got a feeling that strategy won’t get me very far.

        1. -1 Vote -1 Vote +1CMelcher

          Bob…I have had a similar experience with Discover’s double points card. Its $60 a year annual fee. Ive had it for approximately 16 months and earned $600 cash back…obviously more than pays for the annual fee. But, like you said…you need to pay it off every month. I have it solely for the points, and put every single purchase on there and just pay for those purchases in one big bill. Obviously thats not possible for everyone depending on size of bills/circumstances.

          And of course, the only big drawback is Discover isnt accepted everywhere!

          1. -1 Vote -1 Vote +1John Robinson

            What on Earth can you “dislike” about comments in this thread?

        2. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Bill

          I said most. Not all. I’m working on a local gas station and they are thinking about it. Most supermarkets work on a 1 to 2 point profit margin. They don’t negotiate. I’ve done it at quite a few restraunts and believe it or not most will take the cash difference from the credit card. As for Comcast, get the dish.

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