Are Miles Rewards Programs Worth It?

National Geographic Traveler Editor at Large Christopher Elliott is the magazine’s consumer advocate and ombudsman. Over the past 15 years he has helped countless readers fix their trips.

Here’s his latest advice:

Reader Question: With all of the changes to airline frequent-flier programs, are miles still worth collecting?

My Answer: If you fly only a few times a year, you need to seriously question your loyalties.

Airline programs are shifting toward revenue-based rewards. Practically speaking, if you want to hit a coveted “elite” level, you don’t just have to fly a certain amount—you also have to spend a certain amount.

Frequent-flier expert Tim Winship says it’s part of the airline industry’s efforts to lavish the best perks on its most profitable customers.

For the rest of us, who are just trying to get from point A to point B without breaking the bank, frequent-flier programs are significantly less attractive. “You are now better off focusing on price, convenience, and service,” he adds, and making point collection an afterthought.

If these program changes wean us from our manic point-collecting habits and force us to think more clearly about our purchasing decisions, then airlines may have done us all a favor.

Christopher Elliott is Traveler magazine’s consumer advocate and pens the “Problem Solved” column for the magazine (this exchange appeared in the August/September 2014 issue). Follow Christopher’s story on Twitter @elliottdotorg.

Do you have a burning travel question? Share it with us in the comments section below for a chance to appear in Traveler magazine.


  1. Chris
    March 1, 2015, 5:46 pm

    As someone who pays his own flight every single time (20-30 flights every year), I gave up being loyal to one specific program. It’s simply not worth it.

    I have made 3-4 trips recently with flights of different companies in the past 3 months. I simply went for the cheapest and the most convenient flights. It’s really saved me hundreds of euros! It’s really a shocking fact. So is the free access to the lounge worthy? Plus nowadays, many of the lounges are over crowded. The service/amenity/food/beverage is not that impressive.

    If I fly business class, I will probably choose flights belonging to my frequent flyer program even if it’s slightly more expensive.

    And I agree, it’s always worth it, why not, it’s free. Just don’t let the miles expire if you can. And be rational when booking flights. Now I am quite happy that I can save quite some money and spend it on luxury hotels or fancy restaurants, instead of sitting in some lounges.

  2. Pat
    Hong Kong
    September 8, 2014, 3:54 am

    Readers: you know whether you are a “frequent flyer” or not. Only you can tell whether loyalty brings you the perks you require. What I find is that a lot of members of loyalty programmes do not know enough what they are entitled to, or what they can BE entitled to- and do not know how to make the case an fight for them ( guaranteed economy seat despite full flights , 3rd guest in the lounge, etc). It is worthwhile staying with a big loyalty programme that houses multiple airlines travelling to destinations that you go to- but at this stage, levels of service, hospitality, decision-making are all airline-dependent, not loyalty-programme dependent. So travellers need to know their entitlements well- and be able to rightfully demand for them.

  3. Tom
    September 8, 2014, 3:54 am

    I’m the highest published status on United that you can get. Sometimes there are exemptions to the spending cap. (For example, people with overseas addresses are exempted.)

    Scott: You’re wrong about that. It’s not always worth it. If you only fly a few flights per year, you’re not going to be getting into the lounge because you can’t save your ELITE QUALIFICATION points from year to year. You can only save the award miles. You need at least 50,000 flight miles in a CALENDAR YEAR (on US based airlines) to receive lounge access.

  4. Burcu Basar
    Istanbul - Turkey
    September 7, 2014, 1:48 am

    Great post. I definitely agree that it is now much harder to collect miles but if you already hold an upgraded cart status and travel quite often, to me – unless the price is twice cheaper – it is still more attractive to get on a flight with an airline party to my loyalty program as the fast track services, quality of of the lounges (especially on this part of the World – Istanbul) and the surprise upgrades you get (i have been upgraded to business for free twice over the last year) mostly cover up the price difference. I am a member of Star Alliance loyalty program and mostly fly Turkish Airlines – if that helps to put my comment in a a better context. Burcu (

  5. Scott
    Wherever the plane lands today.
    September 5, 2014, 6:33 am

    Maria: It’s always worth it. Stick with one airline and even those short flights will add up to something. Even if it’s just a free lunch in the lounge, it’s still FREE. Enrolling in the programs doesn’t cost a penny, so what’s to lose?

    Before enrolling though, keep in mind that some programs will allow your miles to expire after some time. Compare between airlines before you pick.

  6. Maria
    Fargo, USA
    September 3, 2014, 7:30 pm

    What a coincidence! Today I was looking for some information about that and this same question came up.
    What about if you fly few times per year (one o twice) but you make long trips and spend quite amount of money, is it still worth it? In our case, for example, we live in the States now, but we usually go every Christmas to Spain and sometimes we also can take a flight for vaccation.


  7. Jim
    LV USA
    September 2, 2014, 3:07 pm

    Well, that’s a simplistic answer. It depends on how much flying one does; not really on how much your fare is-despite the change mentioned above. If you only fly say two-three times a year, be it domestic or international then yes, frequent flyer programs aren’t worth it. Because you are by definition NOT a “frequent flyer”. If however, you average once a month or every couple of months on business/vacation, AND occasionlly spring for the upgrade; then yes you should probably consider a program.