Another lovely article by Chris Elliott

Chris Elliott is a frequent flier program skeptic. Who would’ve guessed? His latest article once again is nothing but paragraph after paragraph of utter garbage, and that’s putting it nicely. In the article, Chris more or less argues that the only types of travelers that should take part in loyalty programs are managed business travelers — those with preferred vendors. As far as Chris is concerned, loyalty programs are a scam and complete waste for everyone else. He argues it causes us to act irrationally. And there’s no doubt it often can cause us to act irrationally.

What Chris completely forgets to mention (which isn’t surprising given his target audience) is that you just have to be smart about using loyalty programs. In many cases it does make more sense to fly the airline you’re loyal to or stay at the hotel chain you’re loyal to, even if they’re more expensive.

Even for a simple domestic trip, I’m willing to pay an extra $100-200 to fly United over another non-affiliated airline. Why? I get elite check-in, elite security lines, free checked bags, free upgrades, lounge access, miles, etc. While there are cases where it might not make sense to fly United (if they were $250+ more expensive than the competition, for example), often it’s smart to pay a premium to fly your preferred airline. Seriously, think about the value of all the things you’re receiving in exchange for your loyalty, and then do the math. If it works out, fly your preferred airline, if it doesn’t, don’t.

Same goes for hotels. It can make sense to stay with your preferred chain, even if they’re more expensive. With Hyatt I get free internet, lounge access, free breakfast, bonus points, etc. That’s incredibly valuable to me, because it saves me a lot of money.

But Chris still argues that “more often than not, the loyalty goes only one way.” For the savvy traveler that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’d love for Chris to take a look at the Hyatt promotions going on right now and tell me that the loyalty only goes one way there. I’d love for Chris to take a look at the value you get as a top tier elite at an airline and tell me that’s not worth anything (let alone a substantial premium).

And Chris argues that the benefits we get as elite travelers are services that should be offered to everyone anyway. C’mon now, really Chris? Yeah, you’re right, I think everyone should get suite upgrades, club lounge access, free internet, and bonus points at hotels. And I think when flying everyone should get free checked bags, lounge access, free upgrades, priority security and boarding, etc. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Sorry Chris, now more than ever, loyalty goes both ways.

Filed Under: Media
  1. Right on.

    I was going to blog about this yesterday, but decided I did not want to give Elliot’s website any extra traffic.

  2. I mean I do think he has a point. Unless you HAVE to travel for work or can afford to travel for leisure upwards of 25,000 miles a year, from a pure cost/benefit analysis its not worth it to pay extra to fly on a particular airline or travel unnecessarily (ie mileage runs). It would probably be cheaper to pay to fly first class every time they fly (which gets you most of the benefits extended to elite members) instead of spending $100-200 extra or booking completely unnecessary trips simply to attain the mileage necessary to gain the elite status.

    I do agree with you that if you already are travelling enough (whether for business or pleasure) to achieve elite status on an airline it’s worth it to pay a little extra sometimes or go out of your way to achieve elite status, but forcing yourself to fly significantly more than you would have simply to achieve elite status is not a very smart decision.

    As a hypothetical situation imagine someone who flies 10 times a year averaging 1000 miles per trip netting them 10,000 miles. Then lets say it costs $100 more than the average cost per trip to fly solely with one airline every time so that is an extra $1000 that person would spend to have those 10,000 miles count towards one program. Then lets imagine that person manages to get the extra 15,000 miles to get to the lowest elite level at a cost of $200 every 1000 miles (I know experienced mileage runners could do better but for the sake of simplicity I chose that number) that person is now spending an extra $4000 to achieve the lowest level elite status. In my opinion that person would be better off spending the $4000 to buy a first class ticket on half of their flights per year (thus getting almost all of the elite benefits for those flights) than putting that money towards achieving elite status (and sense they would be at the lowest level, they might be upgraded 20% of the time). Yes they wouldn’t get the elite benefits every time they flew, but aside from the upgrade and the no fee checked baggage, the other elite benefits are not worth the added costs when they could simply fly guaranteed first class 50% of the time.

  3. Elliott totally misses the point that you can collect miles, even very slowly. You just have to have some sort of qualifying activity every 18 months or so. And that’s easy — just visiting the airlines shopping portal and buy a gift card to Home Depot! No tax, no shipping, and most of us are going to shop their anyway.

    But Elliott is too stupid to think about this. I honestly wonder if he takes his own medicine? Do you think he flies without putting a FF number on his itin? If you’re reading Chris, let’s hear the truth. Otherwise you’re a hypocrite *and* a socialist.

  4. I agree that low-level status isn’t worth all that much. You have to work all the angles, and for me, I find that I’d rather have top-tier or nothing. I wouldn’t go to the trouble just to get an upgrade percentage around 50% or less.

  5. One thing I think he has a point on is the push toward irrational behavior. If you go over to the mileage run forum on FT you see people flying on ridiculous itineraries for 0.05 cents a mile. Complete nonsense. They’re doing it because they feel like they “need” status. So yes, it does lead to irrational behavior in some individuals. And this is exactly what the airlines want to happen.

  6. Chris Elliot makes good sense – and we need to hear both sides of the frequent flyer game.

  7. Kudos to Chris for encouraging the masses from wanting to swell our coveted elite ranks. More upgrades for us! 🙂

  8. re: magiciansampras

    I totally agree. I totally agree that there is no rational justification for doing scores of mileage runs solely to attain elite status if you weren’t going to naturally get there anyways through your typical yearly travel. It’s one thing for someone 5,000 miles away from the next tier up to take advantage of a good mileage run to push through to the next level, but its a completely different thing for someone who only travels 60,000 miles a year to go on numerous mileage runs to get up to the 1K level (for example). The benefits of 1K status will never match up to time and money spent, no matter how efficient.

    Now I completely understand those that view it as a hobby/sport and more power to them, but those people need to be honest with themselves. They are never going to convince me of the value of mileage runs on a pure money and time spent for goods/rewards received argument.

  9. Bravo, chasgoose. If you’re going to play this game, it’s certainly necessary to go into it with full information and an honest view. Corporations are sociopathic by definition and are in the business of maximizing profit. They don’t “care” about us, but that’s no reason not to go a reasonable extra mile (highly subjective, I know) to harness perks they might offer.

    Living in a UA hub city and having to buy work travel on the open market, I make the calculation that it’s worth the time to aggressively chase UA’s lowest fares (which are usually the lowest overall our markets) and do the same for my personal travels. It’s also worth the time and money to take a few MRs each year. 40% business travel, 40% personal, 20% MRs is an acceptable ratio to me to justify maintaining 1K for now. It’s not based on a strict cost-benefit analysis, but playing the game for that 20% sure makes the other “real world” 80% much more pleasant than being 1P (or no status on many airlines). Others may have MRs as a higher percentage of travels, and that’s their personal decision. So long as they understand the true costs and opportunity costs, more power to them.

    As for “falling in with the wrong crowd on FlyerTalk,” I guess I always wanted to be in a gang! =P But seriously, FT is an invaluable resource. Anyone can go to the FT echo chamber to reinforce their own poorly thought-out personal behavior. It’s like saying we should vilify pubs because some of their patrons are alcoholics. Never trust a neo-prohibitionist.

    From Elliott’s perspective, he probably thinks he’s doing a public service to those who don’t know better, since companies can indeed be deceitful. But doesn’t that make the collective intelligence of FT even more valuable for those of us who do decide to go down this rabbit hole?

    Further, it’s disingenuous for him to imply that because US CP requires 100,000 miles, status isn’t worth it at all if you book your own travel. That actually does a disservice to marginally frequent travelers who check bags and who could save on fees if they got one low-level status. And why would an issue like credit card interest rates matter to anyone with the actual means to do elective MRs?

    The true value of loyalty is fair game; indeed, we should always be questioning ourselves. But Chris Elliott is the wrong cat to be the arbiter of this topic.

    Great, thought-provoking thread here, as usual.

  10. I think the problem is that the article says only managed business travelers should join FF programs. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. It’s case-by-case to see if it’s really worth it to fly only one airline/stay at one hotel chain. A more reasonable thing to say is that lots of people give more money to an airline than they really should for the illusion of status.

    My travel’s been cut back tremendously over the last two years. I’m looking at probably only 15,000 to 18,000 miles this year. Is it worth it for me to take a mileage run on United to get 5 inches of extra leg room? My bags are paid for by work and the elite line at IAD isn’t anything special. So, I’d say the article would be a good warning to someone in my situation not to give too much of my loyalty to one airline.

  11. chasgoose, I agree. I feel like many of the people who espouse the “value” of the awards they earn would never ever pay anything close for such an award, so I really do have to question how much value the person is getting. For instance, if you redeem some miles for a $20k first class flight to Perth, but would never otherwise go to Perth in coach class, let alone first, is the award really worth $20k?

  12. Lucky, I hate to say it but I think your hatred of Chris Elliot is affecting your thinking. I usually really enjoy your posts, but whenever Chris’s name comes up all you do is find every little thing wrong with it and nothing right about it. I don’t know what he did to you (or care), or if you’re becoming deluded by your own view of FF programs.

    No, he’s not right about everything. But when you say you’ll pay an extra $100-$200 for a flight to keep loyalty I wonder how much these flights cost. I’m taking an international flight (costing around $1000) and will spend an extra $100-$200 because I have a good chance at an upgrade to first and like the product of the airline. If not for that upgrade I would probably fly another airline, but there are some other benefits for me too in flying with this airline. But on a domestic flight that costs $200 then spending another $100, I’m not so sure it’s worth it.

    I am a “time is money” type of person, so I can certainly see the allure of all of the conveniences and perks that comes with status. And everyone has a different price point. If you spend an extra $1000 on flights where you used United over a cheaper airline and then you spent another $2,000 on milage runs – well for some that’s worth it. For others they could take another vacation. I think the problem is that there are a lot of people who aren’t doing the math like that and are just trying to get status or just earning miles without regard to the cost. Of course then the people who just enjoy the chase of the miles and the status – hey if you can afford it (financailly and socially) and enjoy it then – Good for you – there are worse things to be addicted to.

    I think more of the point of Chris’s article is to the people who aren’t donig the math, are missing time with friends and family, and are working really hard for status. People who get so consumed that they don’t see how much they are really spending, the affect it is having on relationships. Yet the airlines and hotels they love so much, doesn’t necessarily love them back. They change point values, perks, who gets perks, when they get perks.

    Lucky, I sorry to pick on you on your own blog – hey if you don’t like someones blog just don’t read it, right? But I do usually enjoy your blog. But also, when I started getting interested in FF programs and earning points I started to see my thinking change and not always for the better. Realizing that, I can take the cautionary blog of Chris as a reality check for myself.

  13. Sampras and Goose —

    So if you’re sitting at 98,000 EQM on the year, would you argue that it’s not worth paying $200 for a mid-con that can get you 1K for the year, even if it costs 5 cpm? Seriously? Yes, I’m cherry-picking my example, but that’s exactly what Goose does in post #3 when he says the average trip is 1000 miles, when it’s pretty clear that most people fly 500 miles to a hub, and then another 500 miles to the destination, for a >2000 miles RT.

    I’m with Ben on this. Elliott is an idiot. For all of us who have ever flown a mistake fare (I assume you went to AKL in 2007 for $1500 in C, Sampras!), you do realize that Elliott calls us thieves? Personally, I don’t care so much what he thinks, but when he starts accusing us, that’s where I draw the line!

  14. I have elite status with a number of hotel programs, car rental programs and an airline (don’t fly enough to get elite status on more than one!). I have done mileage runs in the past, and likely will in the future. I have paid a higher fare for a flight because it was on my preferred airline. I have paid a comparable fare for lesser service (think US Airways vs. JetBlue) because I could post the miles to my alliance carrier. So, in a lot of ways, I am the idiot of which Chris Elliot speaks.

    And, in a lot of ways, he makes good points. I think his advice is pretty good for the AVERAGE member of a frequent flier program. This is obviously not that crowd. But, I do have co-workers who are slaves to Delta. They have Delta’s crappy credit card. They pay more to fly Delta when there are better options – both by price and direct flights. They are slaves to one hotel chain or another. One only uses Hiltons (and scoffs at me for spreading my stays out to Marriott and Hyatt – or whoever happens to be chasing my loyalty at the moment). One bragged about using “all” of her points that she accumulated over the course of two years for a few nights stay on Marco Island. She knows nothing of Big Welcome Back, Starwood’s free weekend promos, etc. But, no doubt she has paid a premium to chase those Hilton points.

    Writers generate buzz by making outrageous claims (only corporate travelers should belong to loyalty programs, for instance). Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but the message may be more accurate to more people that you guys are giving him credit.

  15. @chasgoose:

    You’re right that there is a point of inflection based on how often one flies, fares paid, etc, however the numbers you used in you example are way off, and accordingly exaggerate the location of this inflection point:
    -You MR cost ($200 per 1,000 miles) is about ~10x what any mileage runner would pay
    -You would be hard pressed to buy 5 1,000 mile trips in F for $4,000

    The fact that a big bad evil corporation is able to make money in selling you something doesn’t entail that what they are selling isn’t valuable or isn’t worth what they are charging.

  16. I don’t think the problem is that Elliott is an idiot, but that he presumes everyone else is Buried in the hyperbole and bad writing, there’s actually a couple of good messages: don’t do irrational things to earn miles, and be aware that the benefits of loyalty programs may be less than advertised, particularly on international flights which may carry surcharges or other fees.

    The problem is that Elliott takes these rational messages and somehow arrives at the ridiculous conclusion that only corporate travelers locked into preferred-vendor relationships should belong to FF programs. He seems to presume that consumers are idiots incapable of crunching the numbers to see if they’re getting value for money, that blind “loyalty” will inevitably lead to irrational behavior.

    What he seems incapable of realizing is that for most of us, loyalty programs are just a way to earn free or discounted travel for just doing what we’d normally do anyway. For example, last Christmas I used Delta Skymiles to fly to Florida. I’d earned those miles over the years by flying Delta and Northwest a few times (when they offered the best fares), taking the miles from one flight on Midwest on my NW account, and taking miles for the occasional car rental on the accounts to keep them active. So for nothing more than a few minutes of my time making choices and keeping track of expiration dates) and giving DL preference over American or JetBlue (at the same fare), I got a ticket worth about $500. Sounds like a good deal to me!

    Like so many people who consider themselves “consumer advocates”, Elliott has a paternalistic attitude that permeates his writing, which, let’s be honest, is not particularly good to begin with.

  17. I admit my example wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t putting that much effort into realism. The point was more to illustrate that there is a “cost” to attaining status, that for many people outweighs the benefits afforded by elite status. In some ways I think it would just be more honest if airlines charged people for elite status. Elite status is not a way of saying “thank you for flying us” its a service provided for those who give the corporation more money than others. There is a reason why you hear stories of people achieving elite status because they spent a lot of money on the airline (ie all full fare flights) even if they haven’t met the mileage/segment requirements. In the airline calculation, money talks and someone who spent $20,000 on two TPAC F trips is worth more to their bottom line then someone who flew 25,000 on mileage runs and ended up spending only $5-10,000. Elite members fool themselves into thinking that airlines are giving them the status as a recognition of loyalty, whereas they should truly view the elite benefits as a means to keep people from flying with the competition. Now I am not saying that every elite member is a slave to the airlines, but most people–even most elite members–aren’t as savvy about travel as the typical FlyerTalker. I think Elliot’s point, despite being poorly made, is essentially that you always end up “paying” for elite status. He was trying to point out that a lot of people make financially irrational decisions to attain elite status and get a cadre of supposedly “free” perks. No matter how savvy you are, those perks are not free and they should be viewed more as goods provided for a price than a “loyalty benefit.”

    I don’t want to come off like a hater on elite status. I have top-tier status on a couple airlines and I don’t want to give it up if i don’t have to, but I understand that my relationship with my elite status is financially irrational. I am willing to go the extra mile to maintain status because the benefits are valuable to me since I travel so often. I understand the extra costs involved to attain that status and am willing to pay them to get what I want. That said, if I only traveled 10,000 miles a year, elite status really wouldn’t be that valuable to me and unless I really liked the thrill of hunting elite status (and I had the time and disposable income to go after it) .

  18. The so-called “mileage addiction” can be reflected by the number of posts in the thread “Will there be a DEQM this year?”.

  19. I just read that thread on supercouponing. I thought they were crazy, then I realized it’s just like mileage running to get miles for intl flights.

    Everyone has their crazy hobby

  20. If you go over to the mileage run forum on FT you see people flying on ridiculous itineraries for 0.05 cents a mile. Complete nonsense.

    If the cost per mile were actually “0.05 cents,” you’d be a fool not to fly twice before breakfast every day.

  21. Coins said ‘Even for a simple domestic trip, I’m willing to pay an extra $100-200 to fly United over another non-affiliated airline. Why? I get elite check-in, elite security lines, free checked bags, free upgrades, lounge access, miles, etc. While there are cases where it might not make sense to fly United (if they were $250+ more expensive than the competition, for example), often it’s smart to pay a premium to fly your preferred airline. Seriously, think about the value of all the things you’re receiving in exchange for your loyalty, and then do the math. If it works out, fly your preferred airline, if it doesn’t, don’t.’

    Dan says… you’re preaching to the choir. Lets face it, there’s a small percentage of the population that ‘gets it’. Everyone else laughs at us… until they hear about flying in business or first class on international routes… staying in a nice upgraded room… and listening to how we booked JFK/SYD for $575 R/T all-in (with a $250 voucher)!

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