The Real Reason I Collect Miles and Points

My sister and daughter at Herald Sqaure in NYC
My daughter and sister at Herald Sqaure in NYC

My sister lives in Helena, Montana (HLN) the capital of the Big Sky State.  The population of Helena is less than 30,000 people.

The airport there is really tiny.  Long-term parking is $15 per week; you leave your payment in the drop box when you exit.

There are only about six flights per day out of HLN.  The flights are not only scarce, they are also expensive.

My sister wanted to come east for our Mom’s 90th birthday and our Uncle’s 95th, so I offered to buy her a ticket.

Well there was no way she was going to let me buy a ticket.

But she would allow me to pay for her ticket with frequent flyer miles — miles that I had accrued largely through credit card sign-up bonuses.

That’s the reason I collect miles and points!

Extreme Travel Hacking for the Sandwich Generation

When I attended my first frequent flyer meet-up a few years ago, one of the old timers informed me that frequent flier miles should not be used for domestic flights.  Excuse me?

I was told that I could get a much higher value if I redeemed points for international first class travel.

Over the past several years, I have redeemed hundreds of thousands of miles for flights — and all of these flights were economy class domestic travel.

Most people think of family travel as traveling with children.  Our family travel is traveling to see family, or flying family members in for a visit.  To me, that is maximizing the value of frequent flyer miles!

I don’t care whether I have to spend 25,000 miles or 50,000 miles for a roundtrip ticket.  The “point” is that we use the miles to get where we need to go.  Like many busy families, we have limited time off work and we must adhere to the school calendar.  We don’t have much flexibility about when to travel.

I don’t mind paying a premium price (in miles) for travel during school vacation time, or for nonstop flights at convenient times.

Everyone Likes to Get Something for Nothing

The appeal of miles and points is that you feel like you are getting something for nothing.  Whether this is real or an illusion has been the subject of much discussion.

My rational mind tells me that there is an opportunity cost for collecting miles and points.

My emotional mind tells me that it’s fun to travel with points — trips I might not make if I had to pay cash.

Delta Ripoff Blows My Story

The cousins celebrate Uncle Bernie's 95th birthday
The cousins celebrate Uncle Bernie’s 95th birthday

I planned to write a story about how I was able to pull off a family trip to New York City for my uncle’s birthday party for free.

I flew my sister in from Montana for free by transferring SPG points to Delta.

My daughter and I got train tickets up to New York for free with Chase points I transferred to Amtrak.

We stayed in a nice hotel for free with Club Carlson points, and they offered us free breakfast.

Unfortunately, the reality conflicts with that story line.

Because of a change in plans, Delta socked my sister with a $150 change fee.  Beyond that, she paid $25 to check a bag each way, and $11 in fees.  Her “free” plane ticket ended up costing $211.  Her Uber ride from the airport was $70.

These fees from Delta are totally annoying.  I don’t think they should charge change fees on award tickets.  When you read mainstream miles and points blogs, you don’t hear much about these fees.

There are a lot of ancillary costs for “free travel” that need to be taken into account.

How does the psychology of miles and points factor in to your decision-making?  

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10 thoughts on “The Real Reason I Collect Miles and Points

  1. Other than three business class tickets to Australia, all of my points/miles redemptions have been in coach, international and domestic. That gives me more bang for my buck. I totally understand that the value may be higher on international first or business class, but my redemptions have taken me where I wanted to go when I wanted to go. That always has been and continues to be my bottom line.

  2. When you say “expensive” to fly from HLN–for example–you sure are correct. Small cities are always touted as having a lower cost of living. But, when you compare taking vacations or family visits (along with other important costs that they don’t include in the calculations), the cost of living differential disappears.

    On some trips from SFO to IAD, for example, I can find a ticket for as low as $300. If I switch to an HLN to IAD itinerary, I could pay as much as $1400 for the same dates; and never lower than $500. So, my penalty for living in a small city is anywhere from $200 to $1100 per trip. Yikers! That really messes with the cost of enjoying living.

    Besides that, there is the horrible routing. I once had 3 stops and 1 plane change to get from HLN to Indianapolis. (Then, when I got there, there was no there there, ha, ha!)

  3. Thanks for sharing the brutal reality! I, too, have redeemed for economy domestic tickets (including to Montana) and think that using miles to/from expensive US airports is one of the most consistent ways to get bang for your buck. I’ve also paid double miles for a last-minute trip, and even then I got great value (25K miles for a one-way that priced at $600).

    I agree that fees add up, but no more so than if you buy “regular” (cash) seats, at least in the examples you provided. Since it’s held at the same standard, I personally think it’s fair. On the flipside, I work hard to avoid fuel surcharges although that’s a moot point for domestic tickets.

    • I’ve learned to temper my expectations about award availability and costs especially since I tend to make my travel plans at the last minute.

  4. I love that you make a case for domestic travel. I mean, in my mind the points and miles hobby is great for allowing travel that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise- regardless of what kind of travel or what motivated that travel.

    So boo to whoever suggests you’re using your miles wrong just because you’re going someplace they’re not motivated to go!

    And go you for flying where you want to fly!

    Sorry about the change fee though. 🙁 Fees suck!

  5. Too bad your sister didn’t have the Barclay’s Arrival CC where she could have used those points to cover the “travel related” charges. If I ever have to pay any of those pesky fees, that’s what I normally do, but I imagine your sis doesn’t have the card. If you’re going to be at the Frequent Traveler University in Dec. in DC I’d love to introduce myself as I’ve enjoyed your blog.

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