When Frequent Flyer Miles Are Worth the Wait

It is a common question among those who write for travelers: Are frequent flyer miles worth the hassle? Like most broad questions, the answer depends on who is asking. Certainly if you have unlimited money, the answer is no, they are not worth the hassle — don’t bother to give out your frequent flyer number, don’t track your points and don’t jump through hoops to redeem frequent flyer tickets.

Then again, those with unlimited money probably don’t fly commercially. For the rest of us, frequent flyer miles are given out for free when we purchase an airline ticket and often when we check into a hotel or rent a car. So, what’s the answer for everyday people?

How to Accrue Frequent Flyer Miles

First, you need to enroll in a mileage program. That takes about five minutes, tops. Then, you need to give out your frequent flyer number when you travel. Ideally, you should follow up with your account to make sure the mileage is credited properly. If it is not, you must then pester the airline to give you the miles you earned.

You must also make sure to have some activity in your account occasionally so that your miles never expire. When it comes time for you to redeem an award, the challenges can also be considerable, especially at some airlines — cough (Delta) cough.

The Advantages of Frequent Flyer Programs

The benefits can range from an occasional award ticket to taking a major, international trip with your family every year in first class. Surprisingly, I have found that the difference between those two outcomes is not necessarily how much you travel, but how well you play the game of collecting frequent flyer miles.

I travel with paid tickets fairly infrequently, about three or four times a year, yet I have become a guru at collecting miles from credit cards and other promotions. As you can imagine, I also have a fairly high tolerance for learning about these things and dealing with them. Others aren’t so tolerant or simply don’t have the time.

Who Really Benefits From Frequent Flyer Programs?

If you travel once a year or less and you really aren’t interested in taking advantage of various promotions to earn free tickets, frequent flyer programs are probably not worth your time. For those who still want to earn points for travel, a regular card with travel rewards and no annual fee will do. If you travel more than once a year and you are not registered for a frequent flyer program, you are just leaving money on the table.

The Value of Patience

I was boarding an aircraft for an eleven hour flight last year and took my seat in business class. This particular aircraft had the new, lie-flat seats.

The boarding process required economy class passengers to walk through the business class section on the way to their cramped seats. People were watching me get comfortable with  envious looks on their faces and more than one asked me what I did to get such a nice seat. The only answer I could come up with was, “collect frequent flyer miles.”

Frequent flyer miles are not for everyone. If you have way too little time to worry about miles and points, and you don’t travel often, it’s likely not worth it. However, if you travel frequently, especially if you travel internationally and would prefer to be seated in business or first class, I have found that frequent flyer miles are indeed worth the hassle.

Photo credit: Luke Ma