The Dark Side of Miles and Points

Ok listen.  Miles and points are great.  They’ve given me the ability to travel all over the world in world-class airplane cabins for very little money.  But there’s a dark side looming underneath this hobby of ours that pops up and rears its ugly head from time to time, and that’s what I want to talk to you about today.

cathay pacific first class review

What is addiction?

I hate sourcing things from Wikipedia but even with their citations I couldn’t find the original source of this definition that I think is perfect:

Addiction is a medical condition characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences

Let’s break it down further.  A stimulus is something that gets your attention.  When I say “gets your attention” I really means pulls your attention away from something else.  Stimuli aren’t bad things, they’re just things.  It’s easy to see how miles and points would be a stimulus.  A rewarding stimulus makes us feel like by focusing on a certain thing we can be rewarded for it.  So it’s also easy to see how miles and points could become a rewarding stimulus, because of the trips we get to take and the gallons of champagne we drink in the sky.  So rewarding stimulus, got it?  Good.

What does “compulsive engagement” mean?  Compulsive originates from Latin compulsus and means “to force”.  Compulsive engagement simply means that, after enough interaction with something rewarding your mind, you lose the ability to control how often you interact with that rewarding stimulus.  You force yourself to seek that reward over and over and, if you’re not careful, you cannot stop.

 

What are the dangers of miles and points addiction?

It’s a fact: the quickest way to earn miles and points is by signing up for credit cards.  Flying, especially now that many airlines award miles based on the cost of the ticket instead of how far you fly, is actually not a great way of earning miles anymore unless you’re buying very expensive tickets.  With a new credit card you can earn tens of thousands (heck even hundreds of thousands) of points simply by signing up for a credit card and meeting a spending requirement in the first three months, right?  Well, yes.  But there are dangers here.

  • If you’re not paying off these credit card balances every month you’re going to be subject to crazy big interest charges
  • If you don’t keep track of when and why you got each card you’re going to end up paying annual fees totaling in the thousands of dollars when you may not even remember still having the card!  I’m embarrassed to admit this has happened to me before, I thought I had cancelled a card when all of a sudden I showed a $95 balance for an annual fee on that card!
  • You could end up with points in programs that you never use and if you don’t have a plan for using what you’ve earned you could end up losing tens of thousands of miles by letting them expire
  • The minimum spending requirement for many of these sign-up bonuses is $3000 or more.  There used to be a number of ways to manufacture that spending for very little money but those ways are drying up quickly.  Are you able to meet the minimum spending requirement responsibly?  Or are you potentially spending money you otherwise wouldn’t in order to get a credit card bonus?

I know an acquaintance who lost control of his credit card spending in the pursuit of miles and points.  Before he knew it he was up to his eyeballs in almost $20,000 of credit card debt.  But even knowing that he couldn’t stop!  It took credit card issuers denying him to get his attention and from what I’ve heard he’s quit the miles and points game and is on his way to getting back into control of his finances.

Here’s the thing, when people see a ton of credit card debt they usually assume that the debt is the problem but it’s not.  For this acquaintance, the credit card debt accumulation was the symptom of his problem: an addiction to miles and points.

What’s the point?  Using credit card sign-ups to accumulate miles and points is a powerful and quick method for a big miles balance but can be dangerous and have long-term financial impacts on you and your family if not managed responsibly.

 

What about an addiction to airline status?

american airlines 787

I might be guilty of this one if I’m honest.  I’ve had American Airlines Executive Platinum status for I think 4 of the last 5 years.  Only one of those years did not require mileage-running (i.e. taking flights solely for the purpose of earning elite-qualifying miles).

In 2016 I requalified for Executive Platinum status.  I had a healthy amount of international work travel in the first part of the year and did not have to supplement too much with mileage-running, but it was still there and I invested probably close to $2000 of my personal money to ensure I requalified.  For me that investment is worth it and I budgeted for that at the beginning of the year, particularly since starting next year I most likely will not meet the spending requirement to requalify.  So this year was kind of a last hurrah before I revert back to Gold or Platinum status as a result of business travel and become a “free agent” for my personal travel.

Top-tier airline status is incredibly desirable once you’ve had it.  It’s hard sitting “behind the curtain” when you’ve received complimentary upgrades on domestic flights for years.  It’s hard not jumping to the top of the standby list due to your status.  And let’s be honest, sometimes it just feels good!

When you get close to the next status tier sometimes it’s tempting to hit the road or buy a flight so you get that next benefit, but you need to be realistic and responsible about pursuing status or airline benefits.  A dear dear friend of mine asked me this morning what he might be able to do to earn 25000 more elite-qualifying miles with American before the end of the year in order to receive two more systemwide upgrades.

At the end of the day, airline status is a benefit offered by a corporation run by people who are accountable to their shareholders, not their frequent flyers.  Their goal is to make money for their shareholders, not to look out for their frequent flyers.  Investing in frequent flyer status makes sense to a certain degree but it’s important to be reasonable in your pursuit.  If you’re having to perform mileage-running to accrue more than 50% of the EQM to earn a certain status above and beyond your every day travel, you might want to think long and hard about whether or not it’s worth it.

What happens when I lose my Executive Platinum status someday?  Well, I’ll be the same person but probably just won’t board as early on American Airlines flights anymore.  As crazy as it sounds it’s pretty easy to lose sight of that.  I’m a part of a few groups on Facebook for frequent flyers, will they judge me if I’m no longer an EXP?  Of course not.  Airline status should not have the power to determine your personal worth or esteem.  If you ever start to feel like it does, take a step back and evaluate some things.

 

Some things to consider if you think you have a problem

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Obsession is easy.  Particularly when that obsession is about something that has its own vocabulary, its own terminology, and its something not everyone can do.  Sound anything like the points and miles game?  How do we guard against it?

1. Understand that travel will not fix you

Who you are when you’re traveling is who you are when you’re at home.  Travel can be a great reason to get away with friends and family or on a personal journey, but having a huge miles and points balance does give you the ability to run away when life gets tough.  This point is very personal to me, and I made a video a while back talking about it:

2. Points, miles, and status are tools, not goals

You should have a plan for using the miles and points that you earn, full-stop.  There is no reason to hold on to massive amounts of miles and points because they can be devalued at any time.  If you do not have a plan or at least some ideas for earning miles, think long and hard about the effort you’re expending to earn them.

3. Return on investment isn’t only about dollars but also TIME

How much time are spending earning status and miles?  For me running off to Hong Kong for a weekend is fairly easy because I’m single with no pets and have a job with a flexible time-off policy.  Are you spending time away from your family to earn points and miles?  How much?  Is that healthy?  Ultimately I don’t have the answers to that, but if you’re investing tons of time in the air and at various stores trying to take advantage of point-earning opportunities and you’re missing out on lasting family moments, STOP!

Spend your time on things that are eternally significant.  Now if you’re spending that time earning those miles and points so you can take your family on a dream trip to Paris for Thanksgiving or something, that’s awesome and it’s totally worth it!  Just make sure that you understand that your time is a resource and you should invest it where you’ll get the most return.  For me that’s with friends and family more than it is a first class cabin.

 

Is this really that big of a deal?

I think it is.  I think there are thousands of people who are earning miles and points and have no idea why other than the ability to say they’re a “travel hacker” and some of those people have lost control.  There are people who have earned millions more miles than me but have never traveled.  I think it’s something we need to talk about more.  I want to make sure that as a miles and points blogger (albeit a bad one) that I talk about responsibility and am honest at the amount of effort it takes to responsibly maintain things like 10+ credit cards at a time.

It’s one of those things where if you aren’t experiencing it yourself it might sound kind of ridiculous but if you’re struggling I hope you found some solace in knowing that you’re not alone.

Addiction can be overcome but usually not in isolation.  Find a counselor, find a financial advisor, and get the help that you need.

 

This is a safe place for you to ask questions but inherently it’s a public blog and a bit of a public forum, so please be careful about the info you disclose if you choose to leave a comment about anything specific.

24 Comments

  1. This is good, Andy. Thank you.

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  2. Fantastic Post, Andy

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    • Thanks Angelina!

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  3. Congrats, this one will make it to another edition of the world famous curated TBB Buzz posts! Well done.

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    • That’s high praise George, thank you!

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      • Any card advice for Australians?

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        • Unfortunately I don’t have any expertise in that market.

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  4. Great article, Andy, especially the examples from your friends/acquaintances and your thoughts on possible solutions/getting help.

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  5. Great Post. And as a new subscriber to your blog, I’m seeing the video “traveling won’t fix you” for the first time…..Powerful and said perfectly; giving travel it’s credit while warning about the temption of making it an idol of sorts. Thanks Andy!

    Reply
  6. Great piece, resonated with me deeply particularly when you wrote that travel will not “fix you” and how points, miles, and status are tools, not goals.

    The miles game has consumed hours of my time but I think it’s time well spent especially for family trips where the memories created are like you said “eternally significant”.

    Keep up the good work Andy!

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    • Thanks so much!

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  7. Good article, and something that is not discussed all that much. Like with any other positive feedback mechanism, travel Hacking can easily become the focus of one’s life. Thanks for bringing this subject to the forefront.

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    • Thanks for your feedback Jim, I’m hoping it helps some people and glad to start the conversation.

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  8. Fantastic article, Andy! Thank you. I gave up playing the status/miles game two years ago because I realized I was obsessing and came to the conclusion that just having one credit card with United and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card were bringing me the exact same benefits as being a Premier Gold.

    Nowadays, especially with the way airlines are running their mileage programs (some say scams) I just buy miles from United when they have generous percentage bonuses and in doing so, I’ve been able to fly home to Australia four times in business class on five star Asian carriers. It actually works out being cheaper, less stressful and a hell of a lot more sensible.

    Also, sometimes it’s just better to find a really great business class deal because it’s cheaper, faster and a hell of a lot less stressful than accruing miles.

    I often tell people who travel that if you have problems, even if you go as far away as Pluto, when you look in the rear view mirror; all your problems are still there following you.

    Thanks again!

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    • What a great reply Jim, I agree with many of your thoughts and I appreciate you taking the time to write them out.

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  9. I thought this was an amazing article on a subject that no one talks much about.

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    • Thank you very much, I hope it benefits some people and I think the conversation is long overdue.

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  10. Your post really resonated with me, particularly when you wrote that travel will not “fix you” and how points, miles, and status are tools, not goals. The miles game has consumed hours of my time but I think it’s time well spent especially for family trips where the memories created are as you wrote “eternally significant”.

    Having a family of 6 makes award travel all the more challenging. Most times it takes a combination of miles, points, cash plus A LOT of planning to pull things off. But when they do come off, the quiet sense of justification makes everything worthwhile.

    Great post Andy, keep up the good work!

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    • Sounds like you’re doing it right and creating lifelong memories for your family, thanks for chiming in!

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  11. Really enjoyed this post, Andy. Everything in life deserves a little cost-benefit analysis… aka is the benefit you receive worth the time/money you’re putting in.

    I’ve never had status with any airline, other than Southwest, which doesn’t really count. I enjoy being agnostic to which airline I’m flying, so I can earn and burn my miles and points based on which airline gives me the best deal. As one of the readers above stated, you can easily get mid-tier benefits just by having the airline’s co-branded credit card for a fraction of the cost of trying to mileage run to earn that tier.

    Keep up the great work!

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  12. excellent article and thought provoking..

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    • Thanks Sam!

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  13. I found your blog today. The first article that I read was on travel addiction. This is a fantastic piece of work. I know of a few travelers who are points addicted. I never thought of this as a real problem, until reading your article. You have provided a great service, as I could see myself with a potential problem, in the future. I will work on remembering that this is my hobby, so that it remains fun.

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    • Thanks very much for the kind words Stephen, I’m glad to see so many positive comments from the post. I hope it continues to be a warning sign for some and casual reminder for others.

      Reply

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