Cut Up Your Frequent Flier Card and Quit Your Membership? Seriously?!?

Photographic illustration ©2012 by Brian Cohen.

Are frequent flier loyalty programs actually the “crack cocaine of the travel industry” which are little more than “pyramid schemes” designed to scam the majority of their members? Do you need to cut up your frequent flier loyalty program cards and quit the programs “cold turkey” in order to rebel against a ploy which cleverly fools you into feeding into its ultimate fiendish goals?
Christopher Elliott — a columnist who has long eschewed frequent flier loyalty programs — believes so, as this is what he has been espousing for years.
As early as 2003, Elliott offered seven reasons why you should “cut up your frequent flier” loyalty program card. In 2008, Elliott claimed that elite fliers are “frequent criers” who are “ruining air travel.” The Gate even reported on June 17, 2008 and May 22, 2010 pertaining to his skepticism regarding frequent flier loyalty programs.
While the majority of FlyerTalk members have disagreed with the views of Christopher Elliott through the years, they especially took exception to an article published in The Washington Post authored by him on May 16, 2010 where he writes:

“If you’re an unmanaged frequent business traveler, and you want to collect points, youre playing a dangerous game. Falling in with the wrong crowd on FlyerTalk, a popular hangout for frequent travelers, isnt the biggest risk to you. It is, instead, making purchasing decisions that are in the interests of your program, but not you.”

…and a similar story was posted later that week by Cable News Network, also known as CNN.
In his latest salvo against frequent flier loyalty programs, Elliott once again calls on frequent travelers to rescind their memberships in frequent flier loyalty programs while taking the frequent flier loyalty program cards out of their pockets, “grab a pair of scissors, cut the plastic into tiny little pieces and toss it in the trash” — and FlyerTalk members respond accordingly.
I am not sure what is the basis for the animosity Christopher Elliott has for frequent flier loyalty programs, but I do believe he is sensationalizing his disdain to the point of disbelief.
Let us take a more objective look at frequent flier loyalty programs in general.
The original intent of a frequent flier loyalty program is to reward the customer who has shown loyalty to the airline. Fly this many miles and you get to go on a free trip. Simple, right?
Well, perhaps at one time it was that simple. However, as airlines were hemorrhaging billions of dollars every year before discovering the advent of charging ancillary fees to their passengers, they began to leverage the loyalty of their customers by eventually turning their frequent flier loyalty programs into profit centers — for example, by selling frequent flier loyalty program miles to businesses such as credit card companies — while decreasing availability for redemption for coveted award tickets as inventory for revenue tickets increased. Is this a “bait-and-switch” deception perpetrated by the airlines? I will not outright say no, but in terms of business in general, it is sensible — as long as the customer knows that the odds of their chance of redeeming frequent flier loyalty program miles for the lowest cost to secure an award ticket is narrower than ever which, admittedly, is not always the case.
Then again, is that really true? Last year — against my better judgment because I typically prefer to use my frequent flier loyalty program miles for more expensive international flights — I redeemed 25,000 Delta Air Lines SkyMiles for a round-trip award ticket between New York and Atlanta within three days of my flight. I also had to pay $5.00 in government taxes. If award availability was scarce, it did not affect me. There was plenty of availability for 25,000 SkyMiles.
Now, I do take exception to credit card representatives in airports hawking “free” flights if you use their credit cards. That is an absolute misrepresentation, as no flight is free anymore — unlike many years ago. Five dollars may not be much, but it is still five dollars — not free. Using that lexicon, I would agree with Christopher Elliott. It would be more accurate to state that frequent flier loyalty program miles give a significant discount off of the price of an airline ticket, rather than any possibility of traveling on a flight for free.
Interestingly, hotel rooms can still truly be free of charge — not even paying any taxes — using frequent guest loyalty program points, which may be a reason that I do not recall any ranting by Christopher Elliott about the frequent guest loyalty programs of hotels. I just hope that the frequent guest loyalty programs of hotels do not eventually follow the lead of frequent flier loyalty programs by charging taxes on award stays.
Look — I admit that inventory is scarcer for award tickets using frequent flier loyalty program miles, which have lost value over the years. Perks and benefits for elite frequent flier loyalty program members have declined. It is tougher to secure that elusive upgrade. Sometimes it could cause you to ask yourself why you even bother anymore…
…and if you are an infrequent traveler, perhaps you should ask yourself that question. For example, FlyerTalk member mooff asks: “Is it worth $1400 Out of Pocket for Silver Status?” Many FlyerTalk members advise “no” because the benefits of Silver Elite Medallion status on Delta Air Lines do not justify spending $1,400.00, which could be used for purchasing upgrades, better meals — or investing in something where that money could grow. In this case, Christopher Elliott may be correct when he says that being a member of a frequent flier loyalty program “completely short-circuits your common sense as a consumer.” I would argue with the use of the word completely, but logic should dictate whether or not the return on investment for the frequent flier loyalty program justifies the spending of money for the benefits you will receive.
I vehemently disagree with Christopher Elliott when he states that “You get nothing in return — literally.” Yes, it is true that the airline can change the terms of its frequent flier loyalty program for any reason, and it does not even have to tell you about them. It is also true that the frequent flier loyalty program miles do not even belong to you. So what? I have benefited greatly from using frequent flier loyalty program miles. I used them for a flight on Air France Concorde that I would otherwise have had to pay thousands of dollars. I have traveled in the premium class cabin on international flights — also worth thousands of dollars. Yes, I would say I absolutely get something in return for my frequent flier loyalty program miles — I saved plenty of money on experiences I might not have otherwise had the opportunity to enjoy, and I am nowhere near the top of this so-called “pyramid scheme.”
As long as you are logical about the use of frequent flier loyalty program miles in terms of actual cost versus benefit analyses — and as long as you follow the rules of the frequent flier loyalty program of the airline — there is no need to renounce frequent flier loyalty programs, cut up your cards and quit. First-hand experience dictates this to me — and I did not even begin to touch upon the benefits which I have received as an elite frequent flier loyalty program member of several different airlines.
To summarize, while Christopher Elliott does state some cogent points in his argument, they get lost like needles in a haystack when he tends to take it way too far, as in this case.
You keep right on fighting, Chris. Meanwhile — if you will please excuse me — I will determine the next way I will use my frequent flier loyalty program miles to my benefit and keep “falling in with the wrong crowd on FlyerTalk” while you rant…
…oh, and one more thing: I have not used a frequent flier loyalty program card in years. That is so-o-o-o 1980s…

  1. I would find it questionable to fly a carrier solely for their loyalty program if it costs you (or worse, your company) additional money. But not taking those points, especially if you gain status (even Silver), is leaving money on the table. At the very least, it means paying checked baggage fees (you or your company). It means losing priority in the queue for a cancelled flight which can delay your travel to an important company meeting or an urgent personal event (sickness, funeral, wedding).
    I know of startup executives who have been burning up their goldmines of airline and hotel points (gathered from former corporate days) to travel on behalf of their fledgling enterprises that would otherwise not afford to send them.

  2. 1. The cost of belonging to these programs is nil.
    2. The cost of linked credit cards can be considerable and even the ones that are free or close to free do have an opportunity cost – to wit the percentage rebates available with cards available to those with good credit, often 1.5% and more for selected purchases. But, $25,000 on such a card gets you 25,000 miles plus often some bonuses in terms of flight miles. Is that worth $375 (1.5% of $25,000). It certainly can be worth more than that when redeemed wisely.
    3. The perks of belonging to the FF program for free if one flies frequently are too good to be passed up. Why would one give up free bag checks, boarding priority, occasional free upgrades, and for the higher level statuses, free companion tickets and international upgrades? Just one of these can be worth thousands.

  3. I don’t understand how being part of a free program that rewards frequent users is the same as getting “nothing in return – literally”. Hell, if you fly very infrequently and get nothing in return, what has it cost you? nothing.

  4. I travel almost every week for work. The experience when I fly the airlines where I have status is significantly different than when I have to fly on an airline where I don’t have status. I’m not willing to give that up.

  5. “You get nothing in return — literally.” This is what I take exception to. My wife has said on more than one occasion “You NEVER buy me flowers”. What she really means is : “You do not buy me flowers often enough”. The above statement is similar.
    FF programs do give you something. Maybe not enough for the columnist, but they do give you something.
    I am Platinum Medallion on Delta. I get frequent upgrades and they are very nice too. I have been on a TATL now on 6 occasions (2DL and 4 CO), where the flight was oversold. Who do you think got bumped up to Business – me – or Jo Blow without FF status? I have brought my family over from Europe to visit me and the wife in the USA. It cost me very little indeed with FF miles. So to say I get NOTHING in return is talking like my wife when she says I NEVER buy her flowers. It is just plain horse h (ONE) t.

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