I’ve called people who mindlessly collect miles lemmings. I’ve compared them to drug addicts and referred to their devotion to the loyalty lifestyle as cult-like.
But like drug addiction and fringe religious groups, loyalty programs can ensnare some of the smartest people. And I’ve never questioned their intelligence, except maybe when I called them lemmings.
But airlines have. At least that’s the impression I’m given after hearing from Pat Gee, a loyal United Airlines MileagePlus member and a professional travel agent.
Consider the flight Gee wanted to book from Ontario, Calif., to Cleveland.
Option 1: Burn the rest of the miles in his account and then buy enough miles for a “free” ticket. That would have cost him $549, he says.
“I then looked for lowest airfare and found one for only $420,” he says.
So, just to be clear, booking a ticket with a combination of miles and cash would have cost $549. Paying with real money would cost $129 less.
“I hope you pass this along to your readers,” he adds. “This could save a lot of money for some of your travelers who, like myself, still like to use frequent flier miles to book tickets.”
Now, if you’re a loyalty program insider, you probably already know about these airline tricks. But the rest of you might assume that you’ll always get a better deal by cashing in your miles for a flight.
Airlines would like you to believe that — they’re constantly and misleadingly referring to these tickets as “free.”
People, do you really need me to tell you that these deceptive programs are bad for you? Do I have to tell you that they’re rigged to favor the company? Must I spell it out for you: that these “loyalty” programs are not loyal to you?
But let me say this: Pay close attention to the award levels and cash requirements when you redeem your “free” ticket. Airlines like to pull a fast one. They think you’re an idiot. They believe your mindless participation in a loyalty program also means you won’t think twice before you overpay for a ticket. They’re counting on you thinking that free actually means free.
Of course I’d eliminate loyalty programs, if I could. But that’s unlikely to happen. I’d stop you from participating in these anti-consumer offers, if I could. Also unlikely. But I can continue writing about the dangers of disengaging your brain and then collecting and redeeming your miles without giving it a second thought.
Give it a second thought, please.
Airlines think you’re stupid. Don’t prove them right.
Update (8 a.m.): I’ve closed the comments on this post, since they were beginning to veer off topic. This is not an appropriate forum for discussing my well-reasoned, pro-consumer views on loyalty programs, but letters to the editor are always welcome. Details on our comment policy can be found here. Thank you.