Airline Miles Are Bullshit*

*for the casual traveler

If you want to find out what this man is cooking, do not expect United Airlines to help you.

If I read one more article about how I should give an airline my loyalty so I can earn elite points so that maybe, just maybe, one flight won’t be an utter shitshow…

The era of the airline mile has long since passed. If you’re not a business traveler who takes a plane every week, your airline miles are as close to worthless as the 6.3 pretzels that come in your “snack.” You no longer earn miles based on how many miles you traveled, thereby rendering them nearly impossible to amass if you enjoy flying inexpensively; the airline is constantly asking you to upgrade your ticket to a better class (economy plus, economy comfort, economy bonus, economy scam) for the chance to earn more of their worthless miles; and surprise, when you finally have enough where you could actually spend them…good luck finding anything to spend them on.

Starting in my 20s, I fastidiously saved my United miles, going so far as to buy some printer toner from the United website so as not to lose my miles during a 36-month period where I didn’t fly United or a partner airline (fun fact: even though you are required to pay for your airline ticket immediately, your miles aren’t credited until after you fly – which only makes sense if you’re an airline and an asshole). I was really excited when I realized that we were only one trip away from having enough miles to be able to go ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

Visions of Sri Lanka, the South Pacific, Bhutan, danced in my mind. And I was going to get to go to one of those far-flung places FOR FREE! I had earned it. I had been loyal to United and United was about to reward me for nearly 20 years of preferring its airline and partner airlines to others.

Welcome to LOL-town, population you. Sure you can go to those far flung places with your airline miles, but you’re not going to want to. Which would you prefer: taking a ridiculously circuitous route that has you making at least two stops along the way even though a more direct route exists or paying far more that the award chart leads you to believe you’ll spend? Great news, you can do both!

This is what I look like after a flight that DIDN’T fill me with rage.

In case you always wanted to fly to Tahiti via Montreal, Chicago and Beijing, while really, truly getting to know each airport along the way courtesy of a laughably long layover, you’re in luck! United can help you out. It can also help you get to Bangkok via (I am not making this up) Togo and Ethiopia. And if you want to shell out 2x the number of points, United might deign to offer you a 1-stop itinerary, but not the shortest one. Add some injury to your insult by looking up what the current market rate on that fare is and realize you’d literally be better off buying the ticket than using points.

We did that for three consecutive years because United gave us the big middle finger when it came to trying to use points for Malaysia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and even Egypt. In every case we were going to be less hassled and come out financially ahead (if you think our time is worth money) by just buying the damned tickets with cash money or, in the case of Tanzania, using our far more valuable USAA credit card points as cash.

But now these miles were weighing on me. Like a deadweight, I had to be free of them. The visions of beaches at the end of the earth were replaced by cold calculation: what was the best use I could make of them without enjoying the hospitality of the Irkutsk Regional Airport for 18 hours?

So I started trying to use them for relatively simple things: a trip to Paris off-season. Nope. A trip to Portugal in high season. Nope. How about to fricking Bonaire – a place that literally only United flies to from New York? Ok. That we’ll do. For 70k miles per ticket, double what an award ticket to the Caribbean should cost – because fuck you.

FINE. I will use them for a route I know United’s partner flies because I have literally been on the flight twice before. United should be able to fly me, via South African Airways, from JFK to Windhoek, Namibia and back with a stopover in Johannesburg. I know this because I am literally looking at the flights on the dates we want, and I am booking way, way in advance.

Cue the sounds of Oscar Munoz laughing maniacally.

Artist’s rendering of Oscar Munoz laughing at me

We’ll get you to Windhoek, but not through Johannesburg. And I hope you’ve always wanted to fly industry-leading airline Ethiopian Airlines. Also I think you get to stop in Chicago. And a series of flights that should take you approximately 19 hours all told, will now take you more than 30. Because again, fuck you.

Undeterred, I said, “ok, fine, forget Windhoek. Just get me to Jo’berg. Simple, easy, direct flight each way.” To which United replied, “what if we give you half of what you want, and then let you spend five hours in Egypt for no good reason.”

At this point I gave up. If this was as close as I was going to get to using my miles for something I vaguely wanted to use them, so be it. How honestly bad could it be to have a really long return trip, flying as we did from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg (7.5 hour layover) to Cairo (5 hour layover) to home?

It was. Not great.

I won’t be doing it ever again. But that’s ok because I won’t be accruing United Airlines miles ever again. Huge shoutout to the Shongololo Lounge in the Johannesburg airport for your abundant power outlets, your endless supply of decent enough free food, and your genuinely nice staff and highly clean bathrooms.  A lounge we gained access to through our credit card. A huge WTF to whatever that thing was in Cairo that was called a lounge. We especially liked that there were no power outlets of any kind. Also, the dirty looks I kept getting were a plus despite the fact that no Western woman in history has ever taken so much care with her dress while sojourning in your lounge. Elbows, knees, ankles, and neck were all well and truly covered. I’ve been to Egypt. Twice. I try to respect your cultural norms. Please stop sneering at me.

So now what?

Well, I have a theory, and it might be a solid one. I’m going to give up on thinking of airline miles as anything other than a lottery ticket – maybe I’ll win, most likely I won’t, it’s best not to plan my retirement around winning. In the meantime, I will make all of my travel purchases using my Chase card (whose amazing rewards program is going to eventually take me to the far flung places of my fantasies – Fernando de Noronha anyone?), and I will start amassing miles on an airline whose hub actually serves my interests: Emirates.

The problem with US carriers is that they can shuffle you around the US through their various hubs to make your straightforward trip anything but; Emirates on the other hand, flies through Dubai. That’s its hub. And you can connect through Dubai to pretty much anywhere in the eastern hemisphere. Here’s a random sampling of trips that connect through Dubai: Perth, the Maldives, Colombo (Sri Lanka), Bali, Auckland. I’d go to all those places. And Emirates is a nice fricking airline. Its planes are new. And clean. And the tvs work. I won’t mind flying Emirates to the exclusion of other airlines even if I never get a free trip out of it. We’re flying them to Sudan next month, to Italy in July, and I’m going to attribute my trip to South Africa to their rewards program instead of Star Alliance’s. And I guess we’ll now try to fly JetBlue or Alaska domestically, since we can earn Emirates awards miles there.

But before I stop being mad at United, I wanted to say that the thing that upsets me the most is that the miles I accrued were aspirational. I, a recent college grad, who scrimped and saved to be able to travel, knew that if I was just patient and loyal, I could go somewhere amazing. It was a really nice dream, one that persisted long after the cost of a plane ticket was no longer an untold luxury. It did cause me to choose United over American and Delta because United was going to let me have an amazing trip. One that was going to make me feel good about waiting 20 years to use my miles. That didn’t happen. And after hour 3 in the Cairo lounge, I realized at long last that frequent flier programs only really benefit frequent fliers, and that I had been fooling myself these long years. Any company that wants to charge me extra to check a bag and pick a seat isn’t ever going to upgrade me because I smile and am polite and two to three times a year chooses to fly with one airline over another. I gain nothing from this relationship. I don’t really care about nabbing a business-class ticket to London a) because it’s just not that long a flight and b) a ticket to London is inexpensive enough that I wouldn’t want to spend aspirational money (or money-like objects) on it.

I’ll talk another time about the amazing, somewhat life-changing experience it is to be a Chase Sapphire Reserve customer, but I think I’ve done enough first world problems for one day.


4 thoughts on “Airline Miles Are Bullshit*

    1. I would never have thought about that. I wonder how often it works out – I can totally imagine situations where you get turned away because the passes weren’t intended to be transferable.

      On the other hand, I used to pooh-pooh the idea of airport lounges and now I totally get it: they don’t matter much if you have a 90 minute layover, but they are amazing when you have a multi-hour one.


  1. I love this. Hilarious and a well-justified rant. I never can tell who screws people (and gets away with it every time) more: airlines or banks. I especially love it when I book a direct flight and a month before the departure date they tell me they’ve changed it and now there’s a layover. “If you don’t like it, well, I guess you can cancel your vacation. That’s your only option.” I’d say you’ve never heard such a string of expletives, but I suspect you can match me swear for swear. 🙂


    1. I have had that experience, but I was luckily traveling somewhere with multiple flight options, so I was able to switch.
      My best was when Lan (Mozambique’s airline) canceled a flight without replacement, a week before we were scheduled to depart…a story I should probably save for a blog post 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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