Addicted to Air Miles
(The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 25, 2005)
Hi, my name is Miriam and I'm a miles addict and a pointsaholic. But I'm not in recovery. In fact, I fear my condition may be getting worse.
It all started so innocently. In the mid-1980s, I joined USAir's frequent flyer program (now USAirways' Dividend Miles). Back then it was basic: Fly on a plane and earn miles. Amass enough miles, claim a free trip.
Since most of my travel is company-paid, I really was getting something for nothing. It took me about four years to earn my way to London via then-partner British Airways. Fantastic, a free trip overseas! Not so fantastic, an addiction was born.
Before long, I had succumbed to the siren calls of United Mileage Plus, American Airlines AAdvantage, and Delta SkyMiles. Later, seeking greater gratification, I also allied myself with Southwest Rapid Rewards and Amtrak Guest Rewards, and the hotel points programs Marriott Rewards, Hilton Honors, and Starwood Preferred Guest (which includes Sheraton and Westin, among others).
As participants know, 25,000 miles buys a domestic ticket on most of the airlines, while 50,000 takes you overseas. The hotel point formulas are more complicated, but the principle's similar: The more paid stays, the more future freebies. You can swap your hotel points for airline miles and vice versa, or lump 'em all together and cash in on a cruise.
And all might well have been smooth sailing were it not for my Achilles' heel: My pushers, the personal credit cards. They enticed me with promises of bonus miles and got me hooked. Now they maintain my habit by reliably supplying me with at least one mile for every dollar I charge. First came the USAir Visa (annual fee $50), then the United Mileage Plus Visa ($60), and the Delta SkyMiles American Express ($85).
So, I no longer need to leave home to score free stuff. All I have to do is spend money.
Slowly, insidiously, something strange has been happening in my head. I'm less squeamish about spending than I used to be. Whereas in the past I would routinely seek bargains, now I often find myself at least contemplating paying full price. I'm not sure when this sick mind-set started, but by the time I noticed it had caught me by the throat, like a cold coming on.
Of course, it does make sense. Like many busy people, I'm a multitasker. I catch up on phone calls while exercising. I listen to foreign language tapes in the car. Why on earth would I merely spend money when I can also pick up points along the way? I mean, why be a simple old-fashioned shopaholic when you can be a 21st-century double-dipper instead?
Better yet, make that quadruple. After obtaining the second Visa, I had told myself that was it -- no more credit cards! But the Delta Amex folks knew how to win me over. Not only did they offer me a bunch of bonus miles, but they dangled before me the prospect of earning double miles at the very places I shop the most -- grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations and hardware stores.
Having thus bitten, I devised a system whereby I would use the Amex only at the double-miles businesses, while alternating the two Visas for everything else. (I've since set aside the USAirways Visa, waiting to see whether the airline will survive. I do wish them well, but a mile is a terrible thing to waste.)
Alas, at that time Safeway -- one of the two grocery chains at which I regularly shop -- didn't take Amex. Finally, last fall, I spotted the store's notice: "For your convenience, we now accept American Express cards." The way I jumped for joy, you'd have thought they were giving away free groceries.
Once, I accidentally used my Visa card to buy an $18 item at a hardware store, forgetting that hardware stores were among the places I could earn double miles with my Amex. When I realized my horrific error, I seriously considered returning the item and repurchasing it with the correct card. Had I not been pressed for time, I probably would have done it. Is this normal? I honestly don't know.
I still use the Visa at restaurants, for which I always used to consult trusted magazine reviews for "best bargain" recommendations. Now, I'm just as likely to turn to the online "iDine" list of eateries where I can earn up to 10 miles per dollar charged to my miles card. The quality of the food at these establishments rarely rises above mediocre, but no matter -- the sweet side dish leaves a lovely aftertaste.
Not long ago, I ate at an iDine restaurant with four friends who gave me cash while I put the entire bill on my card. Tab plus a generous tip afforded me a whopping 1,272 points -- more than one twenty-fifth of an airline ticket! My heady feeling of triumph was nearly identical to the one I get when I have a coupon for a store item that also happens to be on sale -- except of course this time I was spending more money, not less. Clearly, the pleasure centers of my brain can't distinguish between the two stimuli.
At least I haven't stooped to offering my credit card-charging services to the strangers at the next table ... yet.
Naturally, since I rarely spend cash anymore, it sits in my wallet for weeks. When I do end up paying cash for something, I feel edgy and dissatisfied. It's a missed opportunity, and it makes me cranky. Still, I've managed to keep myself mostly in check: No wild spending benders as yet.
Moreover, I recently discovered that, like many addictive substances, miles and points programs do possess true medicinal value: They ease the pain of obligatory large expenditures, like buying gas these days ... Ouch!
But at least when I use my Amex at gas stations I get double miles. Just a touch of numbing cream to take away the sting. ... Is that so wrong?
Indeed, the problem with this particular addiction is that it's not quite destructive enough to merit quitting. Besides, without the points and miles I'd be left with just plain old debt. What fun is that? This way, I'm experiencing one of life's greatest thrills and most intense of highs: Getting stuff for free. ###
Copyright © Miriam Tucker. All rights reserved.