There was a time when I was in deep with air miles. I used to be part of a network of frequent flyers who would post regularly on FlyerTalk.com about the best ways to earn and burn them, and write up lengthy trip reports after every flight.
These guys (almost all of them were male) had a formidable amount of knowledge about aviation (they are fondly known as “avgeeks”). People would post things like “New to JAL, need to know about upgrades” or “Why don’t airlines just sell elite status?” Then, every few months, a group of them would get together IRL in the BA first class lounge at Heathrow for a “jolly”. They’d redeem a bunch of points to go for a boozy lunch in Rome or Geneva, starting with several bottles of free champagne in the lounge beforehand.
It was a time when, between their regular business trips abroad (many of them spent more than half the year on the road) they’d also still take time out at weekends to do elaborate “mileage runs” whereby they’d buy a cheap ticket for a circuitous routing and then reap the miles and possible status bump they’d receive as a consequence.
There was no interest or even time to see the destination – they were mileage junkies, addicted to the thrill of adding another gold card to their collection. However, times have changed in the last decade, and airlines have modified their loyalty schemes to skew the benefits more in their own favour.
One of the biggest adjustments has been the switch from miles-based earning, where you get points based on how far you have flown (hence the mileage run could be so effective), to revenue-based earning, whereby you are awarded points based on how much you have spent. This effectively means the rich get richer. A writer for
OneMileAtATime.com gives a useful US-based example, whereby you could do a $200 mileage run from Tampa to New York to San Francisco to San Diego and back, covering 8,000 miles, which in the past would have earned a top-tier member of Delta 16,000 miles thanks to a 100 per cent bonus. Nowadays, you’d only earn 1,000-2,200 miles because of the price of your ticket (Skymiles pays five miles for every $1 spent, or 11 miles when you achieve Medallion status).
This is not to say that air miles are dead. On the one hand, the game is not as profitable to play anymore so many travellers are becoming “loyalty agnostics” in that they will often choose an airline based simply on ticket price or who has the best business class product, rather than religiously sticking to the airlines they earn miles with. (Sure, you can sign up to every airline scheme and earn points but spreading yourself too thin has never been an effective tactic.)
On the other hand, for those who have the motivation, there are still ways to gain miles and status – you just have to worker harder and be more creative. There’s lots of good advice on websites such as ThePointsGuy.com, FrugalTravelGuy.com and HeadForPoints.com, but a good place to start is by signing up for travel credit cards such as the AMEX Gold card, which earns you 20,000 Avios when you spend £2,000 in the first three months. This would be enough for a return flight to Geneva with BA in business class. If you want access to the Concorde Room at Heathrow, though, you’ll need that Executive Club gold card.