For years we used a cash back credit card. I had looked into cards that earned miles and had done the math. We lived in Denver, but I was from Calgary, making it our most frequent flying destination. So, it made sense to use that trip as our “unit of measure”. And, since United was, and still is, the only carrier with direct Denver/Calgary flights, their mileage program was the only one of we were interested in.
Based on our annual spending I determined that we could earn enough miles for one round trip flight (mainland US, Alaska and Canada) using United’s MileagePlus® card. Using our cash back credit card, we got a reward check every year for $300- $350, which was about what that round trip ticket to Calgary cost. The decision seemed simple. Cash was more flexible than air miles. And the cash back card had no fee, to boot. So, we opted for it.
And then in 2004 there was a death in the family.
I wanted to fly up to Calgary for the funeral. I had air miles from previous trips, but not the 40,000 I needed. I could buy the extra miles, but they wouldn’t post to my account in time. And that’s when I discovered that a flight to Calgary cost $350, when you planned and paid for it weeks in advance. But it cost $1,000 if you needed to fly right away. (The bereavement fares weren’t that great and, in this situation, I didn’t qualify for one anyway.) We had three young kids and couldn’t afford the $1,000 price.
I stayed in Denver.
It was an epiphany. My perceived “value” of air miles skyrocketed that day. We immediately signed up for United’s MileagePlus® card. The next year, we got a MileagePlus® business card. And, more recently, we signed up for Explorer cards – one personal, one business (to replace the MileagePlus® business card), and one in Jay’s name (just to get the miles; we will be canceling it before the annual fee kicks in).
I wish I could say we never had another urgent need to fly again. But we did, and the air miles we had accumulated helped when all five of us had to rush to Calgary in 2005. They got me up there just last month (June, 2012) to help my Mom recuperate from hip replacement surgery. My brother called on a Sunday to say Mom wasn’t going to the rehab hospital like we’d hoped, but was being released home the next day. I flew out and we picked her up from the hospital on the way home from the airport. That last minute flight would have cost more than $1,300!
We’ve also used the miles to fly back for planned (ie. happy) occasions, like my niece’s 2011 wedding, since advance tickets are currently around $800 and it’s well worth using miles if we have some to spare.
In recent months I started a campaign to optimize mile accumulation like never before. Who knew I was leaving so many miles on the table! Today, I am the MileagePlusMama! It’s become a game for me, albeit one that translates into thousands of dollars/year in savings.
Stay tuned for helpful hints. Even if you aren’t a United flyer, many of the suggestions can benefit members of any mileage program.