By the time I stopped traveling for a living in early 2001, I had accumulated about a million frequent flier miles. Unfortunately, these were spread among too many airlines (and hotels) to make them useful for any kind of family vacation. I would have been content to hold onto them, but
US Airways, Delta, United Airlines, Northwest … pretty much every one except Southwest and Jet Blue (the only two on which I have no miles) have been in deep financial doo-doo. I earned them, I’m going to use them.
I blew most of the miles flying various friends and relatives around the country, sometimes to visit us, sometimes not. Even with the aggressive use of miles for trips, I still had puddles here and there.
I’m gonna make him
an offer he can’t
Miles are theoretically valued at $.02 each (and cost more if you want buy them — sucker), but in practice are worth… less. (Ha ha!) Redeeming them on tickets is often an opaque process. For example, several years ago I had stockpiled a lot of miles on American Airlines and wanted to redeem them for three tickets to New Zealand. Even with eight months’ advance planning and a flexible travel schedule, the best I could do was travel during the shelf season, routing via Sydney, and I still had to buy the segment from Seattle to Los Angeles.
If you don’t want to travel, you’ll discover that airline miles aren’t readily convertible to cash, goods or tangible services. Airlines have
hefty rules and
reserve the right to cancel your account or reservations. We all know how airline pricing — and now security — reacts to last minute purchases. Some services have popped up to let you move miles around, but at ridiculously bad conversion rates. (I assume some of this is payola to the airlines.) For example, points.com suggests it’s a “great deal”
when it lets you convert 10,000 Aadvantage miles into $45 worth of Starbucks’ credits. The first conversion is free, but thereafter, you have to pay $5.95 per transaction thereafter, or you can just sign up for $19.95/year.
Let’s do some math:
10,000 miles points * $.02 play money / mile point = $200.00 play money
($45 Starbucks card – $5.95) / $200.00 play money
= 19.5% conversion rate
Hmm… I suppose that’s better than the lottery.
An older, “free,” and non-travel conversion option is trading in miles for magazine subscriptions. For example, it’s only 1,100 miles for a subscription to Scientific American. The magazine list isn’t very comprehensive, but the conversion rates can be better.
1,100 miles points * $.02 play money/ mile point = $22.00 play money
$24.97 Scientific American / $22.00 play money = 113% conversion rate
That’s not bad considering I was going to lose those miles soon anyway, and unlike the coffee card, there’s no money out of my pocket.
With the odd amounts of miles, I subscribed to many magazines I wouldn’t otherwise have normally tried. One aspect of magazine subscriptions that has been very annoying is the perpetual renewal mail. I wish I had tracked it better, because I’m sure there’s a class-action lawsuit here, but it works like this:
- December 1, 2003: One of Jim’s relatives tires of his complaining about yellowjackets. As a Christmas gift, she buys him a subscription to one year of Wasp and Hornet Killer monthly. The subscription begins with the March issue, sent sometime in early January.
- March 15, 2004: Wasp and Hornet Killer sends Jim a renewal card for the doubleplus good extra special double secret probation bonus rate. The rate is calculated by dividing the newsstand price by the number of days it took Susan to get her shoes and multiplying by six.
- April 30: Wasp and Hornet Killer sends Jim a renewal card with the forbidding warning Lock In Your Saving Before Your Subscription Expires. Inside is the “scrum-dillylicious preferred subscriber rate.” This rate is the same, but calculated differently, apparently based on the average spraying distance of hornet spray.
- June 15: Wasp and Hornet Killer sends Jim another renewal card, this one shaped like a large, friendly yellowjacket, but bearing the warning Don’t Get Stung By An Expired Subscription… Renew Now. Inside is the “buzzriffic absolutely cheapest rate on the planet earth.” Again, the rate is the same, but instead of calculations, there are quotes from industry luminaries.
- August 31: Having finally rid his kitchen of hornets, Jim renews on the Wasp and Hornet Killer web site. The rate is 10% less than the one on the cards.
- September 30: Jim’s relative receives a “Gift Subscription Renewal” request, positioned as “Easy Kill for the difficult-to-shop-for.” Wasp and Hornet Killer is planning that Jim and his relative don’t swap notes.
- November 15: The subscription label shows, in heiroglyphics, an expiration date of March 2007. In twelve weeks, another volley of renewal notices will begin.
There were other shenanigans. For example,
MIT Technology Review retroactively started my subscription with three back issues so it would expire sooner.
After three years, I am no longer “Gold” or “Elite” anything. My soul is purged of the urge to hoard miles for some unspecified future grand adventure.