I assume it's behind a paywall, but I also think the NYT allows a certain number of free articles.
I got a free look at the article
The value of FF miles probably does vary among the carriers, and on what one uses them for.
Using 120k miles for a r/t biz class trip, e.g. US to Europe, is a good value. When I have priced out buying such a ticket it has been in the $4k-6k range.
And one reason people like "free" trips with frequent-flyer miles rather than cash-back cards is that the miles are held separately while the cash-back savings get frittered away on, say, making monthly credit card payments.
I try to use miles when their value is close to $.02 each, but holding them until such an opportunity presents itself is highly questionable. We've all seen how the miles required for various types of flights keep creeping up faster than airfares. I made good use of miles for a cross-country trip to California a couple of years ago when I needed to depart before New Year's Day, when fares were still high but I could get a mileage Saver Award. Such opportunities are limited.
One of the best uses of FF miles is one way tickets to or from Europe or anywhere really. If you take a transAtlantic or Pacific cruise or any other trip that does not start and stop in the same country or continent. It is very expensive to purchase a one way ticket. FF miles flights are not more expensive if you only purchase one way.
I haven't done a fly/cruise trip, but twice I have simply booked my eastbound flight with miles and waited until midway through my (3 to 4-1/2 month) trip to book the return, also with miles--and both at the Saver rate. I found that technique totally viable when I had some flexibility as to when and from where I would fly home. It would obviously be risky if you were on a fixed schedule and needed to fly back from one particular city. This is one of the perks of retirement.
I used to play the frequent flyer miles game and was not only very proud of my American Airlines Executive Platinum status but also went out of my way to continue to earn it year after year, while also doing all my flying with AA to build up a hefty mileage balance with them.
Then one autumn I tried to actually put those miles and status to use for RT business class on a transatlantic flight to Barcelona. There was no award inventory available for any flights to Barcelona, from any departure airports in the US; no inventory available to any other European airports (to try to use miles to just get over the ocean, then take a short hop of train to Barcelona once there); my systemwide upgrades (free upgrade certificates that came with the “elite” status to automatically upgrade an economy ticket to business) could not be used for any flights to Barcelona or Europe anywhere near my desired travel dates; the discounted miles redemption rates were not available. Ultimately the only way I was going to use miles was not only by redeeming almost every single one of the hundreds of thousands I’d had saved up, but also paying well over $1000 in cash on top of that because AA only offered British Airways flights as redemption options and BA’s surcharges are significant. I came away from the experience thoroughly convinced all those hard earned miles were worthless and that hard earned status was meaningless (and they were indeed hard earned when you consider I was so focused on earning within AA’s program I often skipped over cheaper flight options with other airlines).
I find being a “free agent” with a good rewards credit card is best. My Chase card earns me Chase points I can redeem on travel with most any airline, or transfer in to miles with a number of different loyalty programs. I’m not held hostage to any one program, and I’ve found it infinitely easier and more pleasant redeeming credit card rewards points than redeeming airline miles. In the meantime, while earning, I can focus on price and schedule rather than limit my options to a single airline or program that may be more expensive. Sure, I’m a lowly non-status holder when I fly and must wait my turn to board with the rest of my proletariat brothers and sisters but more power to us! :)
I have used American Airlines and Delta Airlines for award points and have been fortunate to have had several "free" flights. I usually would sign up on a card with a good initial point offer. Airline points have also come in handy when I had to buy a one-way ticket back to the US at short notice. One time, the actual price of the ticket was in the $4,000 range for an economy seat, but I was able to get a 60,000 point ticket. I had saved my points for a 'rainy day' and this was my "rainy day" moment. My brother had got sick in the UK when I was leaving Switzerland, luckily I was transferring through London. I got off the flight in London. They would not re-book my flight either at any sensible price. For next year, I have 100,000 points on Delta and just brought two round trip tickets for 50,000 each from STL to London for June 2021. Those tickets are usually about $1400.00 each. I play the air point game pretty hard. I try to buy everything with my CC. I hope they don't go away.
Then one autumn I tried to actually put those miles and status to use
That's when the problem comes in. Back in the 1980's I did a lot of business travel, and accumulated plenty of miles on one, now defunct, airline. So it came time to use them for 2 round trip tickets to England from Boston. Despite contacting the airline many months in advance, the best I could do was a flight from Boston to London via Houston, with a 5 hour layover in Houston. And basically the same on the return. Although that was better than when I tried to redeem my Air France FF miles before they expired. I would have had to pay several hundred dollars in fees and taxes, and my wife, who didn't have enough FF miles, would have had to buy a ticket from AF at their very high rate. So I just let my miles expire and we bought tickets on another airline for much less than we would have paid for getting the "free" ticket. Since then I use no FF programs, either airline or credit card.
Ah yes, FF miles. Before I retired, I flew American or Southwest and stayed at Hilton's. For domestic travel Southwest FF was the best. American is hit and miss. I found Europe travel, at least non-stop is almost impossible. I use American 500 mile upgrades and real miles for trips domestically and upgrading to first class. First class upgrades are hit and miss also. I hit the grand prize on Hilton which was one free week at a Hilton with Free tickets anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, that inventory was only available 366 days in advance. We went to Barcelona in July before we really understood traveling.
Even now I feel that I get good value from FF programs, with these caveats.
- I use a cashback credit card for everyday use.
- I don’t pay a higher fare to fly a specific airline to support one FF program.
Mostly I use the sign up bonuses for airline credit cards.
For example: We were taking a trip to NZ in 2019 on United, so I signed up for the Chase United card offered online during the ticket purchase. This single transaction put me over the bonus threshold, giving me:
A $100 statement credit which I put to seat upgrades one way.
2 tickets to the United club, which we used for a free dinner and a nice toilet during our Houston layover to NZ.
The 40,000 sign up bonus points paid for 2 One way tickets to California, then another domestic round trip for 1.
A great car insurance plan used free for the NZ rental.
Free Global Entry ($100)
Then I canceled the card before the first annual fee was due.
So the credit card sign up bonuses can still be quite lucrative, easily $750.
Currently I’m eyeing American Airlines tickets to South America, round trips for 40,000 points are possible (on a $900 ticket). The credit card bonus right now is 50-60,000 points, well worth it.
You have to be careful about closing the card before that annual fee is due, though. Credit card companies are wise to that practice, and folks can find themselves denied future cards from those issuers or even having other accounts closed by them. So the welcome offers and bonuses can certainly be worthwhile but companies like American Express and Chase each have policies designed to crack down on people who get the welcome bonuses and then close their cards.
Normally a person has at least 3 weeks after the annual fee is billed to close the card and have the fee waived.
Chase (United, Southwest) is the easiest to work with. If you have exceeded their limit (no more than 5 new credit cards from any bank in the last 24 months, or less than 24 months since the last bonus so not eligible) they will tell you up front at the time of application and it will be denied. They give the sign up bonus every 2 years per airline.
Amex (Delta) will give bonuses every 7 years.
Citibank (American) is more difficult. Sign up bonus every 4 years. They will let you open the card and not tell you that you’re not eligible for the bonus so the onus is on you to keep track of the 4 years. There is also an AA Barclay's card with a separate bonus so it's possible to get 2 sign up bonuses the same year for AA, up to 100,000 or maybe more.
So yes it’s like a part time job: some time for free travel. Also my credit score is 875 so burning thru multiple cards and even having applications denied apparently has only enhanced my score. Since I pay my homeowner's insurance in a lump sum once a year, I can usually reach the bonus spend threshold in one transaction.
What do you know, I just got my 40,000 Southwest points credited this morning.
Since we are long retired and had jobs that involved little or no business travel, we are very unattractive as customers for the airlines. Bottom tier, or whatever they call it. We did and still do have close relatives on the east coast; and, visits to them, plus annual foreign jaunts, have made it worthwhile to pay for Chase United Visa and Delta Amex cards. We’ve carefully pumped up our accounts by using the cards for various payments, like insurance, groceries, etc.
Because of their high point charges and limits on availability, we’ve pretty much written off any possibility of using the Delta miles for flights; however, we have been able to use them for free nights at hotels. This is useful for staying at or near airports the nights before early departures, or after late arrivals, e.g., the Sheraton at CDG. One such stay more than defrays the annual fee of $95.
United points have been much easier to turn into flights, along with some hotel nights, as well.
Our close relatives, though fewer now, are still there on the east coast; and we continue to harbor hopes of another trip to Europe, so we’ll use the points when we can.