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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.
» Learn more: How to get started with frequent flyer programs
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.
» Learn more: Best travel credit cards
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 travel and dining purchases. This gives me a return of either 3.5% or 7% of the value of my purchases.
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.
» Learn more: 18 benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve
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 our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best travel credit card for you Snag these hotel loyalty perks, even if you’re disloyal Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies