Am I Unfair to Peter Greenberg? (Am I a Smug, Out-of-Touch Mileage Multimillionaire?)

Upgrade Travel Better thinks that I was unfair to Peter Greenberg when I went all Rodney King on him last week.

Gary argues that Peter’s restatement of the conventional wisdom — that cashing in frequent flyer miles is getting harder, if not impossible — is wrong…. Good for Gary, but let’s face it, not everyone has the luxury (or curse?) of multiple accounts with 6-digit mileage balances.

It’s like saying, “Well, my checking account at Citibank was tapped out, so I just paid for my bills, a vacation, and a new house with the interest I earned in my WaMu account.” It’s easy to be glib when you’re a multi-millionaire.

First, I’d challenge readers to re-read my criticism, I stand by my claim that Greenberg is overly alarmist and more importantly that his specific advice is bad to follow.

But with due respect to Mark Ashley of Upgrade: Travel Better, I don’t think there’s really any difference in the conclusion and advice that both of us are offering.

My advice has consistently been that if you fly enough for elite status, credit your flights to that one program and your miles from other sources to another, at least once you’ve earned enough miles in the first program in order to redeem for the awards you want. (And without enough flying for elite status, just concentrate your miles in a single program until you earn enough for the redemptions you think you want and then start on another program). I believe I’ve made the point you’re making here on my blog about three times in the past month.

And while the average American may not ever get hundreds of thousands of miles in multiple programs, the average reader of these columns may well. Besides, the non-elite flyer who accumulates their Delta, Continental, Northwest, and American flights all in Alaska can rack up awards pretty quickly that way.

As Ashley suggests, a Starwood American Express is a good idea. I’ve also been a big proponent on my blog of the Starwood American Express card, even in spite of last year’s substantial devaluation of SPG hotel awards. (And while recognizing that certain other cards offer a better value in specific situations).

Still, we need to think about not just a primary airline program and Starwood. There are plenty of great ways to earn miles besides flights and credit cards, I talk about them frequently here on my blog. Starwood isn’t a great place for rental car points earning (for Avis rentals I like Virgin Atlantic, for Hertz rentals I tend towards british midland, better temporary promos aside). Starwood doesn’t participate in Rewards Network (which I still insist on calling iDine), etc.

The point I’m making in my critique of Greenberg is

  1. the sky is not falling, although loyalty programs do annoying things and do reduce program value from time to time (though some things improve value, such as the advent of alliance awards).
  2. you should not redeem NOW for ANYTHING regardless of VALUE because you’ll get NOTHING later as Greenberg seems to suggest.
  3. don’t transfer all your Amex Membership Rewards points into a frequent flyer program now, no matter what (and by extension, accumulate in Starwood rather than transferring those points out too)… flexibility has value.

Still, I have also long argued that miles are always worth more today than they will be tomorrow, so don’t save miles for the far off future. Earn them and burn them in the same general period, and hopefully at the same general pace, so that you can enjoy your rewards without suffering too much from point inflation.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It would interesting to compare american programs, which are much as you describe, with european-based programs, much more geared towards business travelers.

    I supect the airlines would prefer the move to the european model, but their credit card partners (and creditors) won’t let them.

    Also, if we move down to 3 legacy carriers, that is going to be a big shift in availability of flights…

  2. With all the miles credit cards have thrown out over the years, and the fact that you can still recycle many of them, there is no reason anyone shouldn’t have 6 digit miles in multiple airlines.

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