What Saving Miles for Retirement Gets You

It used to be fairly common to hear travelers say they were hoarding their miles and points for retirement, when they would have the time to use them to travel the world.

That was 10-15 years ago, long before frequent flyer miles became “one of the fastest depreciating assets you can own”, as Unpaintedhuffhines puts it in this thread in which retirees discuss their frustrations with the cost of redeeming miles for “free” flights.

mystang52 kicks off the thread by expressing an all-too-common frustration with regard to cashing in miles – particularly amongst somewhat less frequent travelers:

Wow, I love United Airlines…. I just cashed in my miles for “free” flights. Besides some nominal $5 award fee, I also have to pay $75 per ticket for “Award Booking Fee.” Obviously, I’m still paying less than a regular ticket, but I view this fee as an insult.

A few, more frequent-flyer aware, posters quickly confirm that the fee is the result of a booking made within 21 days of travel, but understanding that the fees are clearly announced in the program’s fine print offers cold solace.

This is a particularly interesting discussion because, so often on BoardingArea and in discussions on frequent flyer forums people will wonder aloud thoughts along the lines of, “Oh sure, those of us who are really into the game can figure out ways around this or that frequent flyer gotchya, but how are less frequent travelers going to react to this, and what will that mean for the overall game in the long run?”.

Here, in this thread, we can read first-hand how less frequent flyers feel about award booking fees, and what they intend to do about it:

We have enough AA miles to get one of us to Europe in Business Class. We’ll pay for the other when/if we decide to go. My plan is to gradually move to cash-back cards such as Chase Sapphire (also convertible into miles/points) or the Fidelity Visa and use those rebates for future travel, letting the cards with fees expire as they come up for renewal. Why get a hotel/airline point that’s worth about a half cent when you redeem it when you can get 2 cents in cash instead? ~athena53

Airline miles are not that significant to me anymore because of the difficulty to use at low miles/flight. ~aja8888

…the ‘cost’ to fly using FF miles is now so high I would rather just pay the ticket price. ~Texas Proud

While the general sentiment amongst this group skews toward the negative side, there are still some who believe that collecting miles for later use isn’t such a bad idea – as long as you have a plan:

I’ve managed to get frequent flyer coach tickets with my miles many times. … I got at least 1 free ticket from 3 other airlines’ programs. Free tickets on United miles from the East Coast US were to Europe (3 times, including this spring albeit with sub-optimal connections), 1 to Australia, 2 to Mexico, 1 to Costa Rica, and at least 5 tickets to the West Coast (SF, Seattle, Vancouver). I paid for tickets to Asia 4 times because they accumulated lots of miles for relatively inexpensive tickets. Same with 4 tickets to S. America. I got 2 separate tickets to Mexico within the past 4 years because the fare was ridiculous at $600+ each time, but I think the nonstop frequent flyer tickets were only 30,000 or 35,000 miles. Both times, my flights were 60% empty, which explained why I had no problem using my miles, but did not explain why the airfare was so high for a purchased ticket. ~anethum

Even though these programs devalue every year they can be great still for the retired person. For example, I am flying to Thailand in September (I know it is the rainy season) and into October. … I am flying in first class in planes that are 3 class cabins for the overseas portions. I booked this for only 140,000 United points back in January before the last devaluation took place. … The key to points and miles is to diversify to guard against significant devaluation in one program, and to use the miles wisely during off peak travel (for the retired this should be easy). ~Hiss

So, the forum changes but the tune remains the same. If you learn how to play the game you might still be able to get some good value out of miles that might have been sitting around for awhile. And if you don’t want to be bothered with the details of the game, cash back cards and paid tickets might be the best route for you.

Read the thread in its entirety: Frequent Flyer “Award Booking Fee”

Image: “saving and retirement” by 401(K) 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0.


  1. Saving points for retirement is an incredibly stupid idea, but it benefits me (who regularly uses them), so I am not complaining. Keep saving (but not using) those points as they are valued down to nothing!

    Perhaps we should also cover savings efforts of Zaireans in their respective currency? Or maybe it is smarter to just spend it…

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