Switching Back to American’s Mileage Program

October 22, 2014

A lot of people ask me how I afford so much travel. Just yesterday when someone asked me what I did and I told her I traveled full-time, she incorrectly assumed I was a trust fund baby. My behavior after a few drinks certainly helped reinforce this perception, or maybe I’m just paying more attention to how I dress.

I’m not rich. I can’t afford a house in any city, nor do I think I’ll be likely to in the next decade. If I were seriously injured, despite having health insurance, my life would essentially be over, determined only by debt and the impossibility of getting more work. I eat well, and that’s my sole indulgence.

I say sole because traveling isn’t an indulgence at all. I learned long ago that it was cheaper to live in other countries than stay put in the US, especially in a city like San Francisco. Not only that, but the opportunities available to travelers who know the system are almost immeasurable: we can get free upgrades to first class, gain enough mileage points for a one-way international ticket in a single purchase, and earn free stays in hotels across the world.

Flight by Pam Morris

This is what I do. I typically fly United. I applied for their Chase United Mileageplus Visa, got 30,000 points to do with as I pleased, racked up points when I had to pay for flights, and even transferred 40,000 more from the Chase Sapphire Visa last year.

Although the majority of my mileage points come from credit card promotions, I’m extremely grateful to find a cheap flight now and again to accrue miles the old fashioned way. I rarely pay to double or triple these at the airport kiosk, but knowing one little domestic flight gets me a few thousand toward a future trip to Asia, I’m happy with the arrangement United offers.

At least, I was. Earlier this year, United scaled back the value of their points. It doesn’t really affect people flying economy, but for business and first class passengers, the redemption value requires 50-80% more points to cash in for the same service. Thus my dreams of flying first class international get a little cloudier.

But fine, I could have lived with that. Flying economy is what I’m accustomed to. Maybe I’ll just wait until I win the lottery before paying for a first class ticket with cash. As long as I can keep earning miles by flying domestically with cheap tickets at non-peak times, the loss in value wasn’t a deal breaker.

Then, United did it again. Joining Delta and a slew of other airlines implementing similar plans, United announced that starting in March 2015, fliers would no longer receive mileage points based on miles flown. Rather, they would be determined by the cash value of the ticket and your flier status – gold, silver, etc. Thus, the airline would reward its elite fliers, earning 11X the value of their tickets, while completely screwing over the majority of their customers, earning 5X, and selling it as an improvement. Total BS.

Let’s use my most recent purchase as an example. I’ll fly from Sacramento to Dallas for Thanksgiving, a one-way ticket I found for $144. Not the lowest I’ve ever seen, but certainly not a ripoff. For the purpose of highlighting the differences, let’s just round the total miles traveled as 1900, which includes a layover in Houston.

Under the current program, which will be fazed out in March, I earn 1900 miles.

After March, an elite flier would earn 144 x 11 = 1,584 miles
While a general member would earn 144 x 5 = 720 miles

Not only would I accrue about a third of the points I would have earned before, but even 1K fliers receive marginally less. What this means is that there’s no benefit to finding cheap tickets weeks or months in advance anymore. In fact, United seems to be encouraging everyone to book at the last minute, spending 2-3 times more to achieve the same mileage balance.

Like I said, everyone is screwed.

And so, with a hat tip to United, I bid you adieu. I’ll stay on until I pay off the remaining balance on my Mileageplus card and burn off the miles on international flights, and then you will never hear from me again. Which, I can only assume, is what you expect from your other customers too.

Well done. You won’t be missed.

And as to who will take your place? I’m leaning towards American right now, as I still have a valid AA Citicard and a few thousand leftover miles on my account from last year. They’re certainly not the cheapest for booking in advance, but I need an airline which is a member of a global alliance. Coupled with a recent promotion from The Points Guy for getting a quick 7,500, it’s sounding like the right choice.

Not to mention, American still lets fliers accrue points based on distance traveled.

For now.

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