People may be flying less, but the number of frequent flyer miles is growing exponentially.

Leading folks to change the way they live, buy and fly just to increase the number of miles they have in their account.

They’re doing it pretty well. In fact, if everyone in the world cashed in their frequent flyer miles, they’d have enough free tickets to fly for free on every flight for three straight years.

“I think we’ve become addicted to it,” says Randy Peterson of Flyer Talk Magazine.

Frequent flyer miles are all the rage.

“I’ve got the United credit card. I’ve got the debit card. I’ve got the Dominick’s Fresh Values Card. I’ve got the Mobile Speedpass. I’ll do funky routings for miles,” says Mark Adamski, a frequent flyer.

When mileage programs started 22 years ago, you could only earn miles by flying. Today, there are about 900 ways to get frequent flyer miles without ever leaving the ground.

If you buy a house, send flowers or enjoy dining out, you not only get the goods, you get the miles. In fact, 60 percent of frequent flyer miles comes from non-flight activity.

“I pick restaurants based on the book they send me. Some places, you can get six miles for every dollar you spend,” says Adamski.

The savviest flyers know that piling on the programs is the best way to build up those mileage accounts. So, finding the right partner is key.

“It’s reshaped my buying, dining and flying habits,” Adamski says.

Companies know that getting free miles is a great draw.

“We look for partners with the best brand names. Consumers say I don’t want this, I want that. Well, we’ll try and get them that,” says Tom Kelly, of Bank One.

“There’s just a little bit of greed in all of us that wants something for free,” says Peterson.

Free miles is such a strong draw that mileage programs have exploded. Right now, there are 8 trillion frequent flyer miles sitting unused in mileage accounts waiting for the right trip, or a rainy day.

“Most airlines do not have expiring miles as long as you stay active in their programs. It allows you to save your miles for later in life. Save their miles for retirement and travel the world for free,” Peterson says.

Last year, 8 percent of U.S. flyers flew on a free ticket. But if you don’t know how to get the most out of your miles, you could miss the boat. A good rule to follow is, if you can buy a ticket for less than $300, don’t burn your miles.

“Using your miles for international upgrades is the absolute best use of your miles,” Peterson says.

Of course, free miles are great. But some people think there’s something even better…cash. Discover Card and American Express offer cash back of 1 to 2 percent on every purchase.


Dec. 7, 2003.