Miles Off Target – The Problem With Air Miles

I’ve read lots of blog posts explaining how to travel for less using air miles. It’s a tip you find regularly on travel blogs and some are even entirely devoted to the subject.

They miss some important points however and I would argue, could mislead people into bad decisions. I hope with our alternative viewpoint on air miles programs, we help people avoid falling into that trap.

“What trap?” I hear you say. Read on…

An Alternative Air Miles Perspective

Now, I’m not claiming to be the only authoritative voice on the topic of air miles but I have my own personal experience to draw from, as well as working for many years, with hundreds of clients within the travel industry. Clients who are attempting to achieve various goals using air miles.

Here, I want to present an alternative view: My first point is that air miles programmes are designed by the airlines to get you to spend more with them, be loyal and for them to make higher profit margins. This should always be your starting point for thinking about these programs. Why else would they have them?

A Guide To Flying Air IberiaI’ve seen people take out credit cards with uncompetitive rates just to earn a few air miles. I’ve seen people book flights they could have got for less from a different airline because they wanted to earn a few more points. These are points we don’t often hear about but are far from the worst part, when it comes to frequent flyers.

One of the most troubling trends the air miles culture is¬†responsible for, is the ‘miles run’. A ‘miles run’ is when someone takes unnecessary flights just to earn air miles or tier points. Think of the environmental impact of that for a second.

This is the behaviour that these points schemes encourage. In fact, here is a whole section of a frequent flyer forum, with hundreds of thousands of posts, devoted to and encouraging just this very practise.

Air Miles = The points you earn from the flights you take to spend on benefits. For example: Spend miles on an upgrade. 

Tier Points = The points you earn to elevate your status up the ladder of the mileage scheme. For example: Bronze/Silver/Gold Member levels. 

Lufthansa promo codeOne such example of this practise: I booked a man to fly from London to Dublin, back to London, to Miami and then to New York. Oh and then back via the same route. The guy genuinely wanted to go to New York but what a wasteful way to do it. He did it to get around 2.5 times more points that a direct flight would have provided but also increased his carbon emissions by around the same value. The flights cost the same as the direct flight, so there wasn’t even a financial incentive to do it. If this example is something you would do, then you might be the very worst of the travel industry. I write this here not to tell people how to do it but to ask those who are already doing it to stop.

It is widely accepted and governments have agreed that each person should look to achieve a personal target of 5 tons or less of CO2 output per year. A return flight from the UK to New York takes up around half of your year’s allowance and thats before you think about your home, food transportation, car and other outputs.

Carbon Emissions

Let’s look at the big picture of this behaviour…

Consider that just one return flight from London to New York could take 2 to 2.5 tons of your personally allocated 5 ton carbon target per year. If you are flying more than that, then you are reliant on people from developing countries who don’t fly anywhere near as much, to balance out your personal emissions output.

Not only are third world countries getting the worst deals economically but they are saving the planet whilst they do it by not using as many flights, owning as many cars and consuming at the same rate as the western world.

co2 emissions per capita
co2 emissions per capita

Above, we see that the USA, Canada, Australia¬†and the Middle East are the worst offending areas per capita with around 15-20 tons to CO2 emissions per year for the average person. Russia aren’t far behind with on average around 10 tons per person, per year. The UK is just under 10 tons PPPY and one of the highest in Europe.

Feel free to take a look at your own emissions output using this in detail calculator or this simplified version from the WWF. Of course, I am not suggesting people shouldn’t fly to places. I think we should be campaigning to prevent useless, meaningless flights and reduce waste wherever possible.

You might also want to look into ways to minimise your CO2 impact, even if you are travelling for valid reasons. You may be travelling for cultural exchange reasons, tourism, for work or industry. Either way, we each have a responsibility to travel in a way that avoids as much damage to the planet as possible.

Read More: Take a look at our guide on how to reduce your CO2 whilst travelling. Full of great tips and hints for the environmentally conscious traveller. Also, take a look at our guide to Air France, as one of the most CO2 light airlines in the world.

Frequent Flyer Credit Cards:

Air Miles PollutionOf course, if you need a credit card anyway and you clear the balance in full every month, then you can accrue air miles for free effectively, using an air miles sponsored credit card. This takes good financial management from the card holder however and as I am not a qualified financial advisor, I wouldn’t want to give financial advice to readers of my blog.

There are hundreds of blogs out there telling you to sign up to miles accounts, credit cards and other methods of earning air miles. Personally, I can’t endorse it and this might be the only blog post you read looking at it that way.

I hope that you are able to think about the motives of the airlines who produce these schemes, the kickbacks they are getting from credit card companies and the referral benefits to the blogs who are singing their praises. I hope you personally choose a travel method that doesn’t selfishly destroy the planet for your children too, when travelling around the world.

Difficult to Spend

Air miles are notoriously hard to spend. The airlines only release very small numbers of reward seats, during dates that are very much off-peak. The schemes often change rules, meaning there have been times when I’ve been saving air miles for something specifically, only to have the goal-posts move or be removed entirely.

Trying to spend air miles can be very frustrating and leave you feeling duped out of the money you’ve spent to accrue the miles. Whilst it is possible to get a vastly reduced rate on a business class upgrade, often you need to become an expert in the scheme rules to be able to take advantage.

The Verdict

I have been a travel consultant for half a decade, flown around the world and been writing about travel for a long time. I have collected miles in the past and used airline sponsored credit card but I won’t in the future.

To me, it is a murky world, using unscrupulous tactics to profiteer. It is an industry with little concern for the environmental impact of what it encourages and attracts selfish, needless travel.

By all means collect miles from flights you need to take anyway but try not to get sucked in to the gamification or offer of manufactured social status – there’s no point in seeing the world, if you are ruining it as you go.



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