I Hardly Have Any Frequent Flyer Miles, and That’s a Good Thing

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Written by Jason Steele
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Edited by Mary M. Flory
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One of my favorite movies is "Up In the Air," about a business traveler portrayed by George Clooney who's obsessed with earning frequent flyer miles. It’s very accurate when it comes to most aspects of loyalty programs, but there’s one line that doesn’t make sense to me. It’s when Clooney’s character explains that the reason he earns travel rewards is because “the miles are the goal.” They aren’t, and I’ve never met an award travel enthusiast who thinks so. In fact, I hardly have any frequent flyer miles in my accounts, and I like to keep it that way.

Why earn frequent flyer miles?

There’s only one valid reason to earn miles, and it’s not so that I can brag to my friends or feel good about my accomplishment. Those of us who are serious about earning miles do so to use them to travel to places we want to go. But even if the goal is travel, why don’t we want to have a lot of miles available in our accounts?

Airline frequent flyer programs are notorious for their frequent, and often unannounced, devaluations. A devaluation occurs when a loyalty program takes steps to reduce the value of its points or miles. This happens when a program raises the prices on its award chart, or even when a company removes its chart entirely, as United recently did. It also happens when a company makes fewer and fewer awards available at the lowest mileage levels, or when it adds expensive fuel surcharges to awards.

As a result, any miles that you keep in your account unused are worth less over time. So it’s in your interest to “earn and burn” your miles at about the same rate.

How to earn rewards that are better than miles

Another reason I don’t like to have frequent flyer miles is because I don’t want to earn them — at least not directly. When you earn miles in a frequent flyer program, they can only be redeemed for award flights on that airline and its partners.

Instead, I like to earn credit card rewards in the form of flexible points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards®, American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles and Citi ThankYou points. These reward programs allow you to transfer your points to different frequent flyer programs. And since these transfers are often instant, you can wait until you find the exact award you need from a particular frequent flyer program before transferring just the amount of points necessary. Once I receive the miles in my account, I immediately book the award I need, returning my mileage balance back to nearly nothing.

What about earning cash back?

Some argue that it’s better to just earn cash-back rewards from your credit cards. And for those who aren’t that interested in traveling, that’s true. For the rest of us, we can earn far more valuable rewards through collecting points and miles than we could from earning cash back.

For example, I recently transferred my Ultimate Rewards® points to United miles to book five tickets on a nonstop flight from Costa Rica to Denver the Sunday after Christmas. These tickets are selling for $411, but we paid 17,500 miles each, for a value of about 2.3 cents per point. Even if you were only earning 1 mile per dollar spent, you’d have a very difficult time finding a credit card that will offer you a better deal; it would have to offer more than 2.3% back.

And by using the Chase Freedom Unlimited® and Chase Sapphire Reserve®, I always earn at least 1.5 points per $1 spent, and often 3 points per $1 on dining and as much as 10 points per $1 on travel purchases made through Chase.

And that wasn’t one of my best point redemptions — not even close. I can sometimes realize 4 to 6 cents per point in value when I redeem my points for premium class seats on international flights. These are seats in business or first class cabins that we otherwise couldn’t have afforded in cash.

But here’s the real reason my frequent flyer accounts are empty

If I’m earning credit card rewards in the form of flexible points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards® and American Express Membership Rewards, what about the miles I would frequently earn from flying on planes? You know, frequent flyer miles. The truth is that nearly all of my flights are paid for with the miles I earn from my credit cards. So I can’t earn miles directly from the airlines if I never actually pay for my flights. And since I also pay for nearly all of my hotel stays with the points that I earn from my credit cards, I rarely earn hotel points, either.

The bottom line

"Up In the Air" is a great movie, but there’s no way I’ll earn points and miles just for the sake of it. My goal is to earn flexible travel rewards from my credit cards that I can transfer into miles. I then spend those miles within minutes of receiving them on the travel reservations that I need. And when I do this effectively, I rarely have to pay for travel. That’s why award travelers like me are happy not to have any frequent flyer miles stashed away, waiting for the next inevitable devaluation.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
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Rewards rate


5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.


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Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.


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Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
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Rewards rate


Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.


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Enjoy $250 to use on Capital One Travel in your first cardholder year, plus earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening - that’s equal to $1,000 in travel.

See more travel cards
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