Collector's Blog - Mile After Mile

By Will Brinkman

Our innate drives to consume things make some surprising things "collectible." Last week, Marcos Payan mentioned in the Cryptozoic BOBcast that I collect shoes. That's true enough. I have a few interesting hobbies, ranging from collecting comics to collecting shoes, but one I just recently retired was collecting frequent flyer miles.

Yes, they are nothing more than a series of numbers on a website. You can't even touch them, but there is a community out there that chases miles like many of our customers might chase The Walking Dead autograph cards and World of Warcraft Trading Card Game Loot cards.

I've introduced a few World of Warcraft TCG players to the mileage game in my time as a business traveler and coverage manager, and I assume there are a few people rolling out there with six-digit mileage accounts thanks to introducing them to the mileage community. If you're a frequent traveler, industry veteran, or TCG gamer unaware of the game, you'll want to pay attention. If you're into people behaving bizarrely and enjoy reading about people flying routes just to earn miles, then you'll get a kick out of this too.

First, you'll have to travel enough to really make mileage accumulation worth it. My cutoff is 25,000 miles a year. If you're flying less, you should just fly whichever airline is cheapest. If you're crossing that 25,000 threshold, you're in the game.

When you're taking an international flight or two each year, you're most likely ready to be "in the game" when it comes to collecting miles.

Second, I'll explain why you want to accrue miles. First, miles have some vague cash equivalent value. You can't have United or Delta cut you a check, but you can get some gadgets from your miles. For example, I bought the revamped iPod Nano when it came out for about 19,000 miles. You can check out all the gadgets that United offers through their Mileage Plus program here. The real value is in booking award flights where you pay in miles (plus tax) instead of cash. But overall, you can get an idea of what miles are worth.

Additionally, if you accrue enough miles in a calendar year, you'll have special privileges like a free checked bag or free upgrades. Someday, in the future, a kid is going to have no idea what I'm talking about when I explain to him that all bags used to be free. That's going to be weird. Anyway, you typically get these bonuses at 25,000, 50,000, 75,000, and 100,000 mile levels. Yes, that's yearly. Some people practically live in airplanes. You saw Up in the Air, right? Maybe a loved one convinced you to watch it because they love all things George Clooney. Maybe it was the academy award season and you had a Cloon-a-thon. Well, those frequent flyer people are real. But they get to fly free a lot and get treated like kings while trapped in that aluminum tube. That's gotta be worth something.

So, now that you understand why you want to get miles. Now I'll tell you about all the absurd things that people do in order to get them. How about Punch Drunk Love? That Paul Thomas Anderson movie where Adam Sandler doesn't do his back-of-the-throat-yelling voice or adult baby talk and instead just wants to buy yogurt to game some frequent flyer redemption program? Yeah, that was real.

But, the real bizarre thing I'll tell you about is "mileage runs." You hate going to the airport, right? Well, people go there voluntarily and fly routes with upwards of five connections just to earn miles. Yes, they literally get to their destination and then head to their gate in order to fly home through 5 more connections. Why? Well, I mentioned earlier that there's a loose cash value attached to miles since you can use miles to get things you'd normally buy. So, when people start being able to earn three to four cents per mile flown, they've hit a sweet spot where they're theoretically making money to fly (and earning all those sweet pampering perks). And why so many connecting cities? Most people hate layovers, but I don't mind them because the fares are typically cheaper and at my frequent flyer I earn 500 miles minimum between connections. So, if I fly from Milwaukee to Chicago, I get 500 miles for that route instead of the 60 miles it actually is. I once flew to PAX Prime from Los Angeles connecting through San Francisco and Portland before finally landing in Seattle just to maximize miles. Sure, a direct flight was available, but... miles! So, yes, I voluntarily will take multiple connecting flights for 2% of an iPod Nano. I'm a crazy person.

If you're also into this sort of thing, you'll have to pick an airline and an airline program. I prefer legacy airlines (United, American, and Delta) to budget airlines because of the pampering and ability to use miles on international destinations since they're each tied to the three big frequent flyer programs: Star Alliance, OneWorld, and Skyteam. For example, I'm flying to South Africa in business class (being 6'2” makes economy seating uncomfortable) for just 150,000 miles through United/Star Alliance. That may sound like a lot, but you typically get mileage multipliers at yearly 50,000 and 100,000 levels. Anyway, that's why I recommend a legacy carrier. I also chose United because I lived in Chicago at the time and United has a world hub that is in Chicago. That would provide me the best variety of routes and destinations.

Once you have an airline and accompanying frequent flyer program picked out, you'll want to visit the link I gave earlier: FlyerTalk. On that board, people post "mistake fares" (I once flew to China for under $600 round-trip thanks to that forum) and other good value runs as well as advice on how to earn more miles. And, you can lurk those forums to read the stories from all the people whose lives revolve around airports and min-maxing miles.

Overall, beyond the craziness, I've been able to save a few hundred dollars, fly to some great destinations, and pay for vacations with "free money." It's not too bad of a game, collecting miles. I'd love to hear about what bizarre collections you have, so hit me up on Twitter. Thanks!