Should you play the loyalty game? – Sponsored by

This is the time of year for the legendary “mileage runs” — the fabled flights to nowhere that elite-level frequent fliers take in order to retain their status. But in my latest National Geographic Traveler column, I wonder if the game is worth playing at all.

I devote an entire chapter in my book, Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, to loyalty programs. If you want to read more about the hazards of point collecting, you absolutely have to pick up your very own copy.

By the way, Scammed arrives in stores today! Be sure to ask for it at your favorite bookstore. (And please consider supporting your local bookstore, which is a vital part of every enlightened community.)

I want to give a big shout-out to my friends at Luggage Pros, which offers all the name-brand luggage you need for your next trip, plus an exclusive 115 percent low price guarantee and free returns on all products. Luggage Pros is one of the underwriters that funds the consumer advocacy you read here. If you’re looking for great luggage, I hope you’ll visit Luggage Pros.

There’s much more …

• You’ve probably heard about the TSA’s cupcake incident. Now read the rest of the story, including the incidents the other TSA beat reporters overlooked, and what it means to air travelers. You can also read it over at the TSA News Blog.

• If you’ve thought that luggage fees were a scam, you’ll want to read today’s story about Air Berlin. Did they offer this customer, whose luggage was also delayed by almost a month, enough compensation?

Related story:   What's new on Elliott: Desperate for Southwest, Volcano love letters and Continental-United, reconsidered

• Plus, tell me if I should mediate the case of a cruise passenger who says he was smoked out of his suite on a recent vacation. Should cruise lines be responsible for letting secondhand smoke into a room, and if so, what should they do?

Everyone likes to think of the week between Christmas and New Years Day as being slow, but not for me. A lot of you are out traveling, and I’m here for you. Thank you for being there for me in 2011.

(Photo: Macha dox/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • SoBeSparky

    Yes, you should play the airline loyalty program game if you fly a lot anyway for business or pleasure.  Why?

    Consider the complaints in the Elliott columns, such as luggage fees, booking fees, award redemption fees, preferred seating fees, bedlam during irregular operations, and on and on.

    Most of these go away or are minimized with elite status in various airline programs.  So if you rack up many miles a year anyway, it pays to direct generic fare travel to one airline or alliance.

    Mileage runs?  The difference in 95,000 actual airflight miles in a year and 100,000 is between night and day.  At American Airlines, after 99,999 miles, you get 8 international upgrades on almost any fare basis to anywhere in the world.  Trip to Asia?  Save $5,000 or so by upgrading for free to business class.  Use the first class only international lounge, get three bags checked for free, check-in short lines, get luggage back early.  You get the idea.

    There is a big difference in life between capitalizing on opportunities for activities you already do, and being obsessive so that a loyalty program motivates you to spend money you normally would not. 

    In other words, obsessive-compulsive people should avoid airline loyalty programs.  And a mileage run for that last 5,000 miles to top elite status is worth it, if you fly a lot anyway and enjoy the perks of first class on almost every domestic flight for free. 

    Why in your right mind would you sit in coach most of the time for 95,000 miles a year when you could get upgraded almost all the time if you took a mileage run for 5,000 miles?

  • y_p_w

    Speaking of mileage runs, I remember hearing about the ultimate short-trip flight used when someone wanted to reach a certain amount.

    United used to have an SFO-OAK-DEN flight four times a day in each direction.  Some people would book the SFO-OAK segment, which was only 13 miles.  However, United gave a minimum of 400 miles for their mileage plans.

    I heard the plane never reached more than maybe 4,000 ft and spent more time taxiing than in the air.

  • Cody Mitchell

    I have taken trips to Hawaii, Las Vegas, South America, and Mexico with little cost to me thanks to travel loyalty programs.  Thank you very much in writing how “bad” they are and how they are a waste of time.  With fewer people earning points, there will be more first class seats and suite upgrades at hotels for me.  Thanks again Chris!

  • The question fundamentally misunderstands loyalty programs.

    1.  The question buys into the hype that these programs are meant to reward loyalty.  That is of course not true.  They are marketing incentive programs designed to divert your spending to the desired merchant.

    2. Talking about so called loyalty programs in general is meaningless. The better question is would MY travel and spending habits benefit from participation in one or more loyalty programs.   Its a highly individualized question.

    In my case the answer is an unqualified yes.  As a larger person who travels regularly, the ability to travel in a premium cabin for little or no additional money is invaluable.

    I regularly travel from SFO to LAX. The one way fare is $59 plus $30 to upgrade to first for a total of $89 each way.  The cheapest first class ticket on that route is Virgin America at $199 each way or $110 more.  However, my flight is last minute, then Virgin America becomes cheaper than American and I have fff

    Additionally, as a premium member, many of the fees which are railed against, such as checked baggage fees are waived.

    A person with different circumstances may benefit from simply purchasing the cheapest ticket.                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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