By Lou Carlozo, dealnews contributor
If you've ever wondered what happens to all the frequent flyer miles you've accumulated — and why you sometimes can't track them all — you are not alone. Brian Kelly, aka "The Points Guy" used to fly more than 150,000 miles a year for his Wall Street gig until he left about two years ago to focus on ThePointsGuy, his popular travel news and advice website. Since then, he's often pondered the subject of lost frequent flyer miles, which might just rival lost luggage when it comes to a road warrior's top vexations.
In his quest to track lost points, he hired The Princeton Group to conduct a national survey to find out how much people know about and use their frequent flyer miles. The results of that study released last month, were "very interesting," Kelly says. Here are the highlights:
- Almost three in four Americans (73%) have frequent flyer miles or credit card rewards points and don't know how many they have.
- Only 41% of Americans understand how frequent flyer programs work.
- Just 27% have let some or all of their frequent flyer miles expire at some point.
To get more perspective on these findings, dealnews spoke with Kelly about what's behind the numbers, and inquired about his own insights since the study went public.
What motivated you to conduct a study on frequent flyer miles? Was it a personal experience or a hunch?
Brian Kelly: I hear a lot of horror stories about people losing huge amounts of points and miles, just from losing track of them or by making a few simple mistakes with them. That got me thinking that there must be a lot of folks out there who aren't maximizing their miles; I wanted to get some hard numbers on just how closely people keep track of them.
How do you interpret the finding that three out of four Americans don't know how many frequent flyer miles they have? Did this surprise you?
BK: Although I know most people don't track their mileage accounts as obsessively as I do — I check them every day! — I have to say I was surprised by how few actively track them at all. Airline miles are a form of currency: They have value, you earn them, and you can redeem them for goods and services; it just seems unfortunate to me that so few people take advantage of all they have to offer. We live in a hectic, busy world with all kinds of accounts, usernames, passwords, and data points to keep track of, so airline miles tend to get lost in the shuffle for most people. But I can't stress enough that I think this is a major mistake, and one that costs people the chance to take the trips they want.
Looking at the results, it also seems like the current tech-savvy generation isn't doing nearly as well at keeping track of their frequent flier miles. You had some pretty fun but sharp words of criticism for them to get with the program.
BK: For a generation that's glued to their iPhones and other devices, it was shocking that so few of them seem to take advantage of all the great apps out there that can help them track their miles and travel plans. I think they don't realize that miles and points are a potentially very valuable form of currency, so they aren't taking the steps necessary to manage them properly.... I can literally walk into an airport right now and get anywhere in the world (in first class!) with the miles I accumulate through everyday activities — from flying to shopping to dining out — and that feeling of freedom is priceless.
It seems like if you're tech savvy, a number of apps can help you sort out your frequent flyer mile accounts. Tell us about some of the ones that you recommend and why.
BK: One of the services I use for tracking my points and miles balances is AwardWallet, which has a basic membership that tracks balances and travel plans, notifies you when your balances are set to expire, and allows you to share your travel plans. They also have a premium membership called AwardWallet Plus that does all of that in addition to displaying historical account balance changes, allowing you to export award balances into spreadsheets, and displaying unlimited award expiration notices.
TripIt Pro includes features that track all your frequent travel account information, including: balances and expiration dates; instant alerts about flight delays; cancellations and gate changes (often before airlines themselves even notify you); the ability to automatically share your travel plans with contacts; and complimentary 1-year memberships to Hertz #1 Club Gold and Regus Gold.
What if you're not tech savvy? Are there things you can do to protect your frequent flyer miles to make sure they don't expire?
BK: You can still use either TripIt or AwardWallet — just on your computer rather than as an app — and they're both quite easy to navigate. AwardWallet also offers OneCards, wherein you can list up to 30 accounts with your numbers so you can check them on the fly and have all your info in one place.
How likely do you think it is that people accumulate frequent-flier miles, and have absolutely no idea what they've accrued or what's going on?
BK: I think unconscious mileage accrual isn't that widespread, but the easiest miles to rack up are the ones you're not thinking about. You can link your credit cards to airlines' dining rewards networks so you earn miles for eating out at restaurants. If you do your online shopping through their portals, you rack up bonus miles on the dollars you spend. And if you carry a co-branded credit card, all your purchases go towards boosting your balance.
Soooooo ... How many frequent flyer miles do you have? And how do you keep track of them?
BK: That number is always changing! I fly somewhere around 200,000 miles a year, but I also earn millions of miles through credit card sign-up bonuses and savvy spending. But that's only half the equation. Miles are no good to me sitting around in my account. I use them for travel all the time — most recently to fly down to Brazil and back on American [Airlines]' debut 777-300ER in their new flagship First and Business class seats. And I'm about to head to the airport to catch a flight to Milan on Delta that I reserved using miles. That's the power of miles. If you maximize your earning strategy and keep track of your accounts, you can go anywhere.
We like the way Kelly thinks of frequent flyer miles. So, if you're one of those three in four who doesn't know frequent flyer miles you have, don't lose heart. With a few apps, you can check all of your mileage information for every airline you fly. And once that's done, it's only a little bit of time each week to expand your empire. Apply for airline credit cards, join reward dining programs, look for the matching miles bonuses that come with car rentals and hotel stays, and read sites such as ThePointsGuy for valuable tips and tricks of the trade. Before you know it, you could be sitting next to Kelly in first class.