Travel Obsession: Mental Illness or Great Return On Investment?


New United/Continental livery, courtesy

Callie and I returned a little earlier from a same-day trip from Houston to Seattle (or, IAH-SEA, to use the airport codes) that kicks off this year’s efforts to requalify as gold elites on Continental/Star Alliance. We traveled on a fare that cost roughly 4 cents per EQM (elite qualifying miles), which many folks on Flyertalk would characterize as a weak mileage run at best. But, for us, the fact we could do a one-day weekend turn on Continental meant no lost vacation time, no accommodation cost, and a shot at complimentary upgrades to first class (the upgrade didn’t come through on the outbound, but we did sit in the front cabin on the return).

We have a number of these guys booked early this year, so we’ll get a nice jump-start on gold elite status this year (as opposed to flying a cheap US Airways same-day turn in mid-December LAST year to finally reach the mark*). Air travel this year will pretty much displace other hobbies on the priority list (although some camping and hiking and gardening will find their way into the mix, along with grilling and food and wine and reading and blogging of course).

So why DO all of this?

1) Travel is enjoyable and relaxing

For me, it’s enjoyable and relaxing (yes, relaxing, as my friend Stephan described it in the first associated post linked above). Flying is a neat little escape (from the normal mundane things that will always try to intrude on free time: house projects, maintenance projects, all the stuff that will eat up every minute of the day and more). Sometimes, a cheap fare is a chance to see a new place (the ULTIMATE reason to travel). Sometimes, a cheap fare is a means to an end (like today — more on that below). It’s always a chance to engage in some pleasure reading (Kindle is the BEST invention for travelers EVER!), or catch a movie (except on US Air domestic, bleh!), or catch a nap (guilty pleasure), or even get some work done (yeah, I finished some work from the week on the coach segment of today’s itinerary). In other words — leisure time! Americans sometimes underestimate its value.

2) If you’re gonna be flying, there are advantages to loyalty

If one does find this sort of thing enjoyable, for whatever reason, then there are some steps one can take to maximize the enjoyment. Because honestly, flying around in a cramped coach seat on US Airways (or the Southwest Cattle Call) with no entertainment system is not as enjoyable as scoring an upgrade and making that same trip in a comfy leather seat with complementary food/drinks and a nice entertainment system in the front cabin of the plane. That’s where elite status comes in — the airlines’ way of rewarding their most frequent fliers with perks like preferred seating, early boarding, free checked baggage, and complimentary space-available upgrades to first class. As discussed in the second linked article above, focusing one’s flying on a single airline/alliance can secure those elite perks with as few as 25,000 butt-in-seat miles flown in the calendar year (known as EQMs, for Elite Qualifying Miles, in Continental’s program). The perks increase at various levels (typically gold at 50,000 miles, and some higher tier often at 75,000 or even 100,000). Friends like Stephan who work to hit that highest tier really travel in style — and usually on extremely cheap fares.

3) The payoff: Luxury reward travel is sweet — and a great ROI

So all this cheap flying is fun AND can be made even more enjoyable if one is strategic. But there’s an even bigger potential payoff: International travel in premium cabins using one’s redeemable frequent flier miles (different from EQMs). A typical roundtrip to Europe in a business class (or even better, first class) cabin can easily cost well over $10,000. With a little bit of work, though, that same trip can “cost” as few as 105,000 (business) or 135,000 (true international first) miles. For a gold elite, the mileage total for biz is roughly a year’s worth of flying on cheap fares. Potentially turning $2000 worth of flying (or significantly less, if one is good at the game) into a $10,000-$20,000 luxury flight overseas is not so insane in my view (for folks who occasionally question the sanity of frequent fliers) — and that’s not even accounting for the multitude of ways that redeemable miles can be earned without flying (affinity credit cards, banking, shopping, etc). In fact, that’s a MUCH better ROI than most folks have seen in the stock market in quite a while!

Until recently, I had only ever used miles either to purchase exorbitantly priced domestic tickets (technically not the “best” use of miles, but there is no good reason to pay >$500 for a <500 mile flight to Tulsa!) and to upgrade to BusinessFirst on international flights. But frequent-flier friends have convinced me that (3) really is the way to go — and all those stockpiled redeemable miles ought to be put to use at least once a year. So this year’s trip to Greece will be in business on a reward that “cost” 105,000 miles per passenger — a GREAT value given the rough price of the fare ($15,000 per passenger as priced out roughly on ITA’s search engine). As the trip approaches, I’ll also be watching one segment (DEN-FRA) for true international first availability to open. THAT is a whole other level of luxury I understand (see the third linked article above), and I wouldn’t mind trying it once.

So that’s the not-so-quick version of “why do this.” And in all honesty, there’s no mental illness involved!

Well, okay, maybe just a tiny bit — there is the constant obsession with finding cheap fares and lucrative routings.

* A fair part of last year’s travel and even a few reward tix when fares were exorbitant involved trips to Tulsa, which unfortunately I’m not making as frequently this year. But we have been happy to talk my dad into flying down to see us more often!

One Response to “Travel Obsession: Mental Illness or Great Return On Investment?”

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  1. Hi, just wanted to say, I loved this blog post. It was funny. Keep on posting!