Loyalty Might Be Overrated – Miles Aren’t

American and US Airways made some huge changes to their respective mileage programs yesterday, including the following:

  • American has eliminated distance based oneworld Explorer awards
  • American has eliminated stopovers at the gateway city on AAdvantage awards
  • American has created multiple tiers of AAdvantage standard award levels
  • US Airways has created multiple tiers of Dividend Miles standard award levels
  • US Airways has raised the cost of Dividend Miles business class redemptions between the US and North Asia from 90,000 miles to 110,000 miles

While the changes were almost exclusively negative, as far as I’m concerned the biggest offense was the fact that they provided no advance notice. They raised award costs, eliminated an award type, and adjusted stopover rules all at once without notice. And beyond that even when they did announce the changes, they did so in a way that was disingenuous. They sent out an email to AAdvantage members supposedly highlighting the changes, though the only reference it made to the changes is that we can now “redeem for less,” which just couldn’t be further from the truth.

While I’m saddened by the changes and extremely frustrated by the way American handled this, I’ll continue to stand by how I view miles and points.

As I said in response to a comment yesterday:

Changes like these alter my view of the value of loyalty to an airline, but certainly not my view of signing up for a credit card offering a 100,000 mile sign-up bonus and getting a business class ticket to Asia out of it.

Ultimately, earning miles to redeem for international premium travel is a “game.” That’s not to say we don’t take it seriously, but airline miles aren’t an investment, and hotel points shouldn’t be a retirement hedge.

There are goals, and there are rules, and yes it absolutely sucks when the rules change, but the game fundamentally stays the same.

This game is about earning and burning. I’ve been preaching it for years, and if done properly it’s how we come out ahead.

If you don’t have that perspective, there are, quite honestly, probably less frustrating ways for you to be funding your travel.

So just some thoughts on my mind, in no particular order:

We can’t change award chart devaluations

One thing I was told over and over yesterday was how I should be more outraged by the actual changes as opposed to directing most of my anger at how they were communicated and rolled out.

Maybe I’m jaded, but I think the simple fact is that we can’t impact the actual changes airlines make, but going forward we can hopefully impact how they make them.

We especially can’t impact the actual changes when other airlines already set the precedent, as both Delta and United did in this case.

It would be nice if airlines didn’t devalue their award charts, much like it would be nice if there were world peace. But as long as miles have been around there have been devaluations, just as every type of currency deals with inflation and other market changes. That is always going to be the reality.

But more importantly for us, there have also consistently been more and more ways to earn miles. So we’re not losing the game here, even with devaluations.

Lets compare how easy it is to earn miles now vs. eight or so years ago.

  • Back then there was no such thing as a 100,000 mile credit card sign-up bonus, and even a 50,000 mile bonus was exciting.
  • There weren’t credit cards across the board that offered so many category spend bonuses that we can earn an average of more than two miles per dollar spent.
  • So while prices have gone up, so has our buying power. By a lot.

My memory and experiences don’t go back as far as some, but it wasn’t that long ago that the hands-down best way to earn miles was by flying ridiculously complicated domestic routings. At that point in the game, mileage running was lucrative, and I happily spent two or three days a week flying domestic transcons for most of high school and college.

Because that’s how the game was played at the time, and those red-eye flights on crappy products between Orlando and Seattle made it possible for my family and I to fly Lufthansa first class to Europe in summer.

So that’s what I did, and what many, many, others did.

You had to have a some fairly specific resources to do that though. Namely a great deal of time, or a job that required a ton of travel anyways.

Mileage running as a way to earn redeemable miles had (and still has) significant barriers to entry.

But you pretty much had to be loyal to a single program in order for the economics to make sense, which meant putting all your eggs in one basket. There wasn’t a great way to hedge against inflation or mergers or devaluation by diversifying your miles, because the other opportunities to earn miles didn’t really exist in a meaningful way.

So the best approach was to earn miles as quickly as possible, and redeem them as quickly as possible.

And that’s still the best way to play this particular game.

But we can only stay ahead of award chart devaluations

“Blogs killed the US Airways 90,000 mile award to North Asia.”


I’ve highlighted the hell out of the great value which is US Airways 90K awards to Asia for at least five years now.

I know hundreds if not thousands of people that have booked that exact award using these “suggestions.”

Yet the price remained the same for so long.

So I (and I assume other bloggers) will happily take the “blame” for that award going away, as the alternative would have been for many fewer people to take incredible trips that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to take.

This isn’t a zero-sum game. We don’t lose just because other players win.

Now it’s time to find the next “sweet spot” redemption.

And you don’t even have to look very far.

For example, US Airways still charges just 90,000 miles for business class between the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, which I’ve highlighted in the past. They didn’t change that, so there’s a new “sweet spot,” and there are other awards that have improved in terms of relative value.

Award chart sweet spots work no differently than any other aspect of any business out there, it’s a simple function of supply and demand (and the corresponding cost to provide the “service”). A lot of people were booking that award, which is a good thing (we were all winning), and they changed the price.

Now we get ahead of the next opportunity, take advantage of it, and continue the cycle. Real estate is no different.

The game changes. Smart players adjust their strategy.

Should we abandon miles all together?

“I’m done with miles, I’m going to start using cashback cards”


Has the value of miles as such fundamentally changed with an announcement like this?

At the end of the day we’re playing the airlines’ game by the airlines’ rules, and they can do with “our” miles what “they” want. Moving the goalposts overnight sucks, and I will continue to be unrelenting in my criticism of that approach, but it is, technically, allowed within the rules that we agreed to play by when we decided to play the game.

But if you’ve been in this hobby for any amount of time, you know the game changes.

And even if you’re newer to the hobby and have only been playing the game for the past few years — and I’m referring specifically to earning miles through credit card sign-up bonuses, everyday spend, and strategically purchasing miles — can anyone tell me with a straight face they haven’t come out ahead, all things considered?

Yes, American just eliminated oneworld explorer awards.

That sucks.

But I can still redeem 67,500 miles for Cathay Pacific first class to Asia.

Yes, US Airways just raised the cost of a business class award to Asia from 90,000 miles to 110,000 miles.

That’s irritating, but not unexpected.

But I can still redeem 120,000 miles for round-trip first class tickets to Asia on Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines.

Cathay Pacific’s new first class bed

Don’t get me wrong, you should do the math and figure out if the numbers still work out in your favor.

If the numbers don’t balance out, you should stop collecting miles.

If the math still works for you, you should continue collecting miles, and ideally have an “earn & burn” philosophy.

As we should all have had, all this time.

The overall value proposition of buying miles hasn’t changed

One of the sleaziest aspects of American’s changes this week is that concurrently:

So they’re simultaneously claiming the “oh, we have to control our costs and therefore raise award costs” card, while simultaneously printing (what I assume are) hundreds of millions of miles. And I realize that many of these decisions come from different people in different departments across multiple companies, and so forth. But I think it still leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

But lets look more closely at US Airways’ 100% bonus on shared miles. It’s an opportunity to generate miles for ~1.1 cents each. That means generating 90,000 miles would cost ~$1,000, which is a hell of a deal for a business class ticket to Asia under the old rates.

So now that US Airways devalued that award, am I not going to take advantage of the 100% bonus anymore?


It’s still a great deal.

I can still redeem 120,000 miles for Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines first class between the US and North Asia. ~$1,400 for an international first class ticket to Asia that would cost at least ten times as much if paying cash is still an absolute bargain.

Again, you have to crunch the numbers to make sure they work for you, but for me this is certainly still a great promotion.

Bottom line: loyalty might be overrated, miles themselves aren’t

The lesson we should take away from this is very simple, and it’s a great reminder for those who have already learned this aspect of the game.

You don’t have to be loyal to any airline to accrue hundreds of thousands of miles, enough for tickets in international first and business class cabins.

And while I’m sure I’ll get flamed for this, I think it’s fantastic that the current landscape allows nearly anyone to be able to experience luxury travel for around the same cost as they’d be spending otherwise. Yes, there are downsides, and award space is of course more competitive, but the products are better, and available to different types of people, and no one has to spend their weekends flying uncomfortable products or hauling boxes of coins in order to be able to have some of these amazing experiences.

And I ultimately think having more people be able to play is a win.

The best we can hope for is that the companies do the right thing and give advance notice of changes.

But up until now we’ve come out ahead, on the whole, and those playing the game right, will continue to come out ahead.

The airlines have shown us that perhaps loyalty is overrated. Picking and choosing the best deals, however, is not.

On to the next great deal we go!

Filed Under: Advice
  1. Does the no stopover rule apply to previously issued tickets? Specifically, I have a LAX-NRT award that I booked months ago. I had planned to add on LAX-JFK on each end. Is that opportunity lost?

  2. This Suzanne Rubin who only emailed us about the “positive changes” (LOL) and “wasn’t expecting such a negative response”… hmmm… now Lucky, you have met this lovely lady, can you please tell us… what is she headless???

  3. @ David — Air France, Swiss, and British Airways imposes fuel surcharges no matter who you book through. There aren’t fuel surcharges if booking Lufthansa through United or Lifemiles, so that’s likely your only option for transatlantic first class.

  4. @ Gene — As far as I know you can still change the stopovers on previously booked tickets, but if you didn’t have a stopover on there to begin with then I don’t believe you can retroactively add it, even if the ticket was issued before yesterday.

  5. Loyalty to any given airline is largely irrelevant when they’re all converging on the same basic playbook, so thanks for the advice but we’re already ten steps ahead of you there. The fewer airlines there are the easier it is for them to further limit offers and expand restrictions without the risk that some other airline will try to take advantage of the situation. When one player holds the vast majority of the cards and retains sole authority to change the rules at will, that’s what most people would call a *rigged* game. But not you. In your mind this is just a minor setback on the way to a bigger and better options for the points peons. You’ve been preaching about earning and burning and for you that works fine because you have no set schedule, no boss to approve your time off, and no need for four or five seats per trip. If you did I wonder if you’d still think this game was so easy and lucrative. You think you’re jaded but you have the whole equation upside down. In the end loyalty *does* matter and is anything *but* overrated. Not loyalty to the airlines or the hotels, but loyalty to the blog authors who continue to sell a highly perishable product well beyond its sell by date despite all evidence to the contrary.

  6. Ironic that your conclusion is that “loyalty is overrated, but miles aren’t.” Presumably the airlines would prefer you to reach exactly the opposite conclusion, yet their devaluations lead directly to it.

    On the other hand, now that there is less capacity and more demand, they are less interested in our loyalty, because they will be able to fill the seats with expensive fares regardless of loyalty.

  7. Excellent article, Lucky. Really do enjoy your blog.

    I am pretty new to the award travel game (<1 year) so am a little bummed out regarding all the recent changes, but you are absolutely right in that changes are inevitable.

    I'm thrilled that because of the travel blogs, my family has been able to take business class trips to Asia for same cost as economy tickets prior.

    The important point is to make adjustment to the changes and on to the next great deal.

  8. Ben, any thoughts on the AAdvantage spin-off rumors? Giving away millions of miles from one-hand and cranking on redemption inflation from another… it almost seems like they are working independently of each other.

  9. I think your headline doesn’t go far enough, loyalty is beyond overrated, I’d argue that disloyalty is optimal. UR/MR/SPG are the only choices that warrant spend, precisely because they allow you to subvert loyalty and achieve maximum ROI for your effort. EQMs are a different matter and are largely gonna be dictated by your location and flying patterns. But anyone making flying decisions based on RDMs is doing it wrong.

  10. Lucky, I agree with you completely. Thank you for helping me the average traveler. Ive saved thousands of dollars by reading your blog. I intend to continue that no matter what changes because at the end it is still a game that you have mastered the economics of. If the rules change then we find another way of maximizing our benefit.
    So hats of to you for droppping some serious knowledge. I would wager you could go bumper to bumper about this game with anyone.

  11. i agree loyalty is overrated nowadays, but that wasn’t the case back in the day.
    Before 1997, there were no airline alliances and the concept of obtaining thousands of miles from a credit card sign up bonus was unheard of.
    Back then, you can collect miles but from frequently flying and most of the time, the only option to redeem them is on the airline you flew the most. In order to redeem for Cathay First, you’d have to fly Cathay economy a whole LOT. This type of loyalty made sense to me.
    Nowadays, it seems to me most people just sign up for a credit card like AAdvantage visa card, get 100k miles, and redeem them on a partner airline like CX. That type of loyalty is still questionable in my book but hey I’ll certainly take advantage of that deal given CX products are a lot better than AA’s!

  12. I understand the frustration at these changes but I recently made the following award reservation SDF-DFW-AUS-LHR-FCO, MXP-HKG-PVG-LAX-STL-ORD-SDF, It was booked business till LHR then First class, when using explorer award mileage was greater than using OW ticket awards, ticket cost was about $14,000 and I got for 205,000 miles, this is a great deal which from reading the new award charts, is still available.

  13. Other big problem nobody is talking about is that Gold status used to be something with AA. They even give Lifetime Gold status for customer that achieve 1MM BIS miles which is a lot of miles. However, in the last couple years AA managed to reduce their Gold status no almost nothing. The last damage was the reduction of free bags but they also cut selection of preferred seats, no economy comfort seats and son on. Just wondering is this Suzanne Rubin is a former Delta employee.

  14. I’m wondering if American might have opened itself up to some kind of lawsuit by making this change immediate, without pre-announcing it.

    When you earn miles, you earn them based on the system as it exists at that time. Devaluations can be seen as a sort of breach of contract. So miles earned prior to the devaluation would need to be honored based on the terms at the time they were earned.

    Pre-announced devaluations would seem to have an “out”. Members who earned miles/points prior to the devaluation are given plenty of notice and have a good window to redeem their points according to the old rules, so keeping them past the devaluation date would constitute tacit agreement to redeem under the new rules.

    However, by making this change immediate, AA might have left themselves open to challenge in a way that prior devaluations have not.

  15. I wish bloggers will stop smoothing over the rough waters for the airlines. AA handled this change poorly and we should hold their feet to the fire for a little more than just a day. You were my hero yesterday – Today? – Not so much!

  16. @ Rick — Given how profitable AAdvantage is, and the fact that American isn’t cash strapped right now, I can’t imagine they’d want to spin it off.

  17. @ Nkk — Sorry, don’t really get where you’re coming from here. My conclusion is that you SHOULDN’T be loyal to airlines. That’s exactly what they DON’T want to hear. The best way you can look out for yourself is by maximizing your miles in each individual scenario, and not by trusting airlines.

  18. @ RakSiam — I shared how many miles I earned and burned in 2013 here:

    None of those miles are from credit card referrals, and very few are from airline taxes on award tickets.

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting others would easily be able to travel as much as I do. That’s ridiculous. But for the average person that has 2-3 weeks a year vacation, they should easily be able to cover 1-2 “big” trips per year with miles.

  19. @ Dax — I think I made it pretty clear that everyone has to crunch the numbers for themselves and make sure they work for them. If you have no flexibility and need eight tickets to wherever you’re going, then chances are that you WON’T come out ahead using miles & points vs. a cashback card. And if you’re trying to plan for a party of four or five you may just have to work harder at it and plan further in advance and be more flexible on routings.

    But you’ve been leaving comments for a long time with the “doom and gloom” message, and I want to do what I can to help. I’m curious, what awards are you trying to plan a year out for four people where you’re having absolutely no luck with some flexibility? Unless it’s Australia over Christmas or Tahiti, I’d like to help you make the most of your miles.

  20. @ badger — I highly doubt it, unfortunately. Per the terms & conditions of the AAdvantage program:

    “AAdvantage award restrictions may be announced by American Airlines or AAdvantage participants at any time without notice.”

    “American Airlines may, in its discretion, change the AAdvantage program rules, regulations, travel awards and special offers at any time with or without notice. This means that the accumulation of mileage credit does not entitle members to any vested rights with respect to such mileage credits, awards or program benefits. In accumulating mileage or awards, members may not rely upon the continued availability of any award or award level, and members may not be able to obtain all offered awards for all destinations or on all flights. Any award may be withdrawn or subject to increased mileage requirements or new restrictions at any time.”

    We really are playing their game by their rules…

  21. This posts really rubs me the wrong way for some reason.

    It comes across as really, really, conceited.

  22. Well said Lucky. Change is never easy, but it opens up new opportunities. It is a game, not a long term commitment.

  23. I think you make some important points here Lucky, particularly that this game is constantly evolving. I started playing the game hard in the late 1990’s. At that time almost all miles came from BIS miles and the occasional bonus for BIS miles. Some credit cards spending miles but it was a smaller fraction. Award prices were certainly cheaper then, but my balances were all lower too. Everything has inflated, the awards and the mile accumulation rates.

    Everyone’s value equation is different, and everyone should be checking their equation from time to time to determine whether the miles game still makes sense. For me loyalty has two distinct benefits – the value of the free travel I get for miles, and the value of elite benefits that I get traveling around the US for work. Two days ago I had little trust for the airlines, yesterday I had even less – but my distrust of the airlines does not change the fact that mileage programs and elite benefits make my travel experiences better and cheaper. That could change at any time, and when it does not work out to my benefit then I’ll move on.

  24. Good post, a bit tempered. I really enjoyed the posts yesterday.
    I’m wondering why everyone is always talking about flights to Asia? I’m more interested in flights to Europe or maybe even Australia.

  25. One of the best articles I have seen written for a long time on the subject. Well done.

  26. @Dax Lucky is right, if you have to book for a larger group, you have to work a little harder to make it happen, but it can easily work. I have booked my family of 6 in business class from US to Europe return (and my in-laws from Canada to Europe) in business class for this summer. And I was able to throw in a free one way in business from Canada to US when the six of us went home at Christmas. And I have not only been able to book it, but I have changed what started out as a 10 segment odyssey at least half a dozen times to where it ended up being 6 segments with a couple of date changes thrown in, so there have been at least another half a dozen times since I booked it that anybody could also have booked 6 tickets together in business class. And I earned all the miles I needed for the trip for all 8 of us in about 8 months with no manufactured spending and no miles purchased (but a lot of credit card sign ups!). For 7 of those 8 months, it was only me, as my wife couldn’t sign up for credit cards. Admittedly, I do have a business that earns me a lot of miles for spend, but if it was only 4 of us and both my wife and I earning miles, it seems like this would be a pretty easy game to play!

  27. Sadly these are global programmes and the devaluations hit us all, but the inflation in earning potential is US only 🙁 We’re lucky to get 30k or so max sign up bonus, usually for a $5k or more spend and normally only get 1 mile or point per $1.60 – nowhere near the same league.

  28. @Tex
    I think the reason most people are most excited about Asia redemptions is because they are biggest bang for the buck. You are traveling halfway around the world (12-16 hours in the air) so being up front makes that a whole lot easier to handle. And those tickets on a cash basis are typically a lot more than a similar trip to Europe. There are relatively frequent biz class sales to Europe where you can get a round trip ticket for $2000 or less. Plus for a lot of Asia, once you get there it is cheap. So you can stay in higher class hotels for less money than you can in Europe.

  29. This is a very good post but, especially, I’ve always appreciated that Lucky doesn’t claim that we can travel all over the world for free.

    He takes a more realistic approach that, by taking advantage of various offers (incl. buying miles outright), we can travel in business/first for roughly the price of an economy ticket.

    P.S. Also happy that there’s little talk of cents per mile value. Majority of the readers probably wouldn’t buy a $5-6K J or $10-15K F revenue ticket outright.

  30. Thanks for this. I’ve reupped on USAir and AA (via the executive card 100,000 promotion you’ve mentioned) and am trying to book an award trip to the maldives. I have one leg booked in cathay first to hk from chicago. On the return, only Cathay business is available Since i’m shelling out 160,000 (this is a us award) should i try and fly AA first from Shanghai to the U.S. or stick with Cathay Business. What’s a more enjoyable product?

  31. Lucky – you are right on. SO and I are new to this game, but have raked in close to 8MM miles/points in the last 18 months. Much of it 5x that can’t be replaced, but anyone playing this game halfway competently can easily do 1MM/yr. And do it at negative net cost (as we do).

    SO and I can’t burn the points fast enough (even booking premium seats for close relatives) – don’t have more 30 days a year to travel (we have a life). SO and I redeem for F/J exclusively. Paris/Bangkok/Kauai/Johannesburg/Sydney (latter 3 on CX). I don’t care much about “best value” or sweet spot rewards – burn 500K at a time on flights without caring – plenty more where they came from. As such I read with surprise the handwringing/whining by so many – how is it we can rack so many points with such relative ease at negative cost while others seem flummoxed by award prices rising so inconsequentially?

    People need to focus on earning low/negative cost points. Build a portfolio of MS methods and hoard multiple point currencies to give greatest flexibility (the notion of loyalty is ludicrous to me). Having a million (or ~5MM) sitting in accounts waiting for a redemption makes award travel stress-free. For SO and I, the biggest struggle is deciding “where next”? And “how nice is the F/J seat” and “will we get a suite upgrade?” None of that was possible before we learned about travel hacking/MS. As far as I am concerned, right now is the Golden Age of Travel Hacking and these devaluations only make things easier (less competition for premium seats).

  32. @ Paul — what resources do you recommend to learn good MS strategies? Things are always changing (e.g. VRs using CC going away), so not sure what would be a good place to start.

  33. This is a great post, and I would even go as far to say that it is a very significant post to get oneself thinking.

    Just as good as the post is the comments. Give oneself lots to think about.

    I think this is a good time to now start thinking about cash back cards rather then points cards.

  34. Great post – loyalty doesn’t matter we really become cogs in the machine. As much as the BA devaluation hurt a few years ago, at least there was time to book the sweet spot awards (how many of us ended up on Easter Island that year?), AA making it immediate is definitely not the best customer service play, however, they have the power, not us and the only way you can protest is to stop giving them your money and/or loyalty which for most we can’t do in a hub city. I’m sad I wasn’t able to get an Asia award together in time but that’s how the game is played – there are risks but for me the rewards outweigh the frustration. I’m waiting to see the changes once all the “elites” of AA/US merge.

  35. Great article, was wondering how this game used to be. thanks for keep a clear mind ad mist the confusions & frustrations from the devalue, your site is of great value & services to me.

  36. Great post, Lucky.

    I sometimes (but not often) have to remind myself that this is a fun hobby for me. It’s fun to read blogs, and yak on the message boards, get as many points as I can through various means and then redeem them for great vacations with friends and family. Other people have book clubs or golf, I have points and miles.

    The bottom line is that I will most likely never buy a seat in J or F (unless there is a mistake fare or deep discount), but points and miles allows me to have a little fun earning miles and travel in the luxury that I am now accustomed. 🙂

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