Reminder: The Dark Side of Miles and Points

I posted this just over a year ago and think it’s a very important reminder as we begin the new year and people start making travel and status goals.  Apologies for the repost but I think it’s worth reading again.  

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.

Honestly, the same thing is true about social media.  More and more research is being done about things like Facebook and Instagram and how things like a Like or a Heart can give people a dopamine hit (to which they can become addicted).

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 5 of the last 6 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 2017 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


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:

Sometimes it’s better to stay home and face your problems instead of running across the globe trying to get away from them.  I can only speak for myself but my problems are incredibly patient and are always willing to wait for me to get back home before showing themselves again.

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 spending miles you need to 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.


  1. I’m guilty of enjoying a solid mid tier status (ie. Star Alliance Gold, and One world Sapphire), I will lose pretty much all of those perks after January. I just couldn’t justify flying for the sake of status this year. Travel for work got cut back tremendously, and I’m ok with it.

    • Wow! This is truly one of the best travel articles I have seen. Period! Someone is writing something from the bottom of their heart and isn’t afraid to share their mistakes with the rest of the world. I sometimes struggle with card hoarding. A LOT of lessons to be learned from this writer!!!!!

  2. Great post! I can see this becoming a real problem for people – which is why I never recommend it to any of my friends and family members who I know carry a balance. As a soon-to-be digital nomad and a miles/points obsessive, I’ve been collecting miles/points for a solid 1.5 years now (to spend during our travels!), and I get that undeniable butterfly in my stomach when I get the “you are approved!” message. I’m actually kind of glad AND sad that I won’t be able to amass as much when my husband and I start our new life next month. Hopefully I’ll be just as satisfied SPENDING the miles/points 😀 (and hitting the refresh button until the next round!… spoken like a true addict…)

    • Thanks for the comment, I echo your thoughts and look forward to following along on your journey!

  3. I don’t have a Points Problem. I Just Need to Have 24 Credit Cards. Smiley Face. Smiley Face. Smiley Face.

  4. I am JUST starting this journey! Just got approved for my first credit card this week.
    This is probably the best article to read before jumping in.
    I can see how this could spiral out of control.
    Thank you for explaining it so well!

    • To the newbies here:

      Tell me the blogs you read and I can tell who you are 🙂

  5. First time reader here; arrived via a link on another blogger’s site.

    I appreciate the calmness and candor of this post, as well as the transparency and honesty of the video “Travel Will Not Fix You.”

    I personally do not struggle with what you’re discussing, but know of many people who have and do, and I hope they come across this post!

  6. Great article Andy! I totally know what you mean about the obsession with points and miles and membership status, I personally had to try calculating spending vs. ROI carefully to see if it’s worth it instead of just diving in. Also the part about going across the globe won’t fix your problem is spot on. Travel has so much glamour attached to it some people make it their ultimate goal and sacrifice so much more valuable things for it. Thank you for sharing, hope more people will read your blog!

  7. Very good article, about a real problem. Many times Points & Miles equal for self-steem more than for real benefits. After all, the most important thing is the place you are going to visit, not the air trip!

  8. Excellent article. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been collecting points on a capital one venture for quite some time and just began expanding to other credit card avenues. This is a great article that puts the whole purpose behind this activity in perspective. I’m glad you re-posted this. Should be done every year as a reminder.

  9. Brilliant post. Worth repeating semiannually versus annually. One can see the signs of mental impairment in points chasers. Just visit flyer talk or any point chase board to see the impact on the lives of these people. It’s obsessive and strange to think that they feel they are bearing the system or one upping the point game makers.

  10. I am in this hobby since 2011 and I’ve stayed on the healthy side. Thank you for this honest and truthful article <3

  11. Raise your hand if you are reading this from your car, in front of your MS hotspot while waiting for your kids to wake up from their nap so you can drag them inside to buy gift cards with you. ‍♀️ I need Dr Phil for my addiction.

  12. Andy,

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. I think you touch on something that most bloggers miss…the effect of status on your feeling of worth or esteem.

    We have witnessed countless devaluations and after each one there are a myriad of posts saying I am done…goodbye to whatever airline is making the latest cut. Yet do people leave? I don’t think so.

    Putting on out “Gary Leff” hats for a moment. Delta is the evil “death star” that has ruined the industry. No notice devaluations, revenue based, reduced benefits, first class monetization. If you listen to Leff no one should be flying Delta and yet they just raised the credit card MQD waiver to $250,000 of annual spend because there are too many elites.

    We live in a social media world where the external images of our lives often gives us status in our minds. We also live in a world where technology isolates us from each other.

    I think what has been missed is that airline “loyalty programs” have begun to understand you don’t have to give huge perks but rather make people feel important.

    What other industry in the world has it’s top elite customers sit down and then parades the non-elites in front of them in the aisle? On Delta now the flight attendants look on their hand held devices and address the customer by saying thank you for your Diamond status and being a million miler. Of course they say that loud enough for the lower of non-elites to hear.

    We rationalize our continued elite status but assigning outsized value to the few remaining perks so we can walk on the plane and be a “legend in our own minds” for the next three hour flight.

    Of course I am overstating some of this and there are still some useful perks but my admiration is for those who have packed in elite status and just fly whatever airline suites their needs at the moment…as I am still addicted.

  13. Hey Andy, just getting into the travel award arena in a hardcore way. Did a 24 day trip in Europe with my SO for less than 2k. Just got back. Doesn’t soothe the pain of all the bitcoin I used up or gave away years ago; this post really resonated with me. Hit me back if you want to come visit Maine and snow mobile or ski or both, with Anna and myself up at our camp in the next month or so.

  14. Andy. Thanks for this. I really appreciate the sincerity of the post. I have never read your blog but popped over from Greg at FM, and was presently suprised at this very kind and genuine post. Your video is very sincere so thank you for that!

    I will be following you going forward!

  15. I really appreciate this post.

    This point deserves underlining: Spend your time on things that are eternally significant. Lots of things in our lives should have our attention. Friends and family, as you point out.

    Also our wider communities and our world!

  16. I echo others
    Amazing post.


  17. whatta f’ing honest video… am in the same situation, ‘cept almost 70 and lost my travel partner… 6 continents in the last 5 years, have seen amazing stuff… trips with my peeps are great, w/o them are “don’t fix anything”… lost my travel partner 5 years ago and have 5+ million points… NOT depressed, but you nailed my situation… thanks mucho for the insightful video!
    would like to communicate it that would work for you…



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