The Warren Buffett Approach to Earning and Burning Miles and Points

Frequent flyers over on the Milepoint forums are engaged in an insightful and informative discussion as to how/if some of the recent changes to programs such as Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus would impact their loyalty and travel decisions.

One of the interesting general takeaways in my opinion is that many of the flyers who have replied say that they will not be switching their loyalty based on Delta and United going to a revenue-based program model. For some the new model promises to work better for them. Others won’t be switching because they are more or less hub captive. Whatever the reasons, it’s interesting to see how few actually seem to be pushed away by the changes.

What struck me even more though was one particular, fairly innocuous comment, posted by traveltoomuch:

I think I’m in a phase of more “burning” than “earning”.

I told you it was fairly innocuous.

What struck me about it is that it represents a different approach to how best to use miles/points than the two options that are most commonly debated. Years ago, many held the belief that frequent flyer miles were something to be accumulated, saved like money, for use in the distant future – possibly even to be used as a sort of travel fund in retirement. Even the venerable and now defunct InsideFlyer magazine published a cover story article in its August 2003 issue titled: “The Future Is Now — Secrets to making your miles and points last long into retirement.” The intro for that article read:

Few people adequately plan for their retirement. Even fewer have strategies for using their miles and points in their golden years. Here’s some advice, no matter how near or far away your permanent vacation might be.

Nowadays though, the pendulum has swung the other way entirely. The vast majority of frequent flyers today are proponents of using your miles as quickly as you earn them, before they suffer inevitable and possibly dramatic devaluation.

In his very brief statement, traveltoomuch offers a third option. Focus on earning miles and points when the business cycle and airline/hotel industry trends are favorable for collecting, and burn them when the cycles shift in the other direction. Sort of the frequent flyer equivalent to Warren Buffett’s famous quote, “Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful”.

While this might seem obvious, it isn’t a strategy I have seen discussed often, but it makes a lot of sense. When the travel industry is struggling, like it was after 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, it makes sense to keenly focus on the earning side of the equation, as airlines and hotels offer reduced prices and bonus promos en masse to attract business. Then when travel picks up, the hotels and airlines are full, prices increase and loyalty programs make it harder to earn miles and points, use those that you accumulated to continue to travel well during the “good times”.

While you won’t ever know when the cycles will shift exactly, it’s a pretty fair assumption that they will.

What’s your earning and burning strategy? Or do you have a strategy at all?

Read the thread in its entirety: So, with all the new 2015 mileage earning rules, will you change carriers?

Image from Edwin Bennion and Jon Ruder, “International air passenger fares shrug off the recession,” Beyond the Numbers: Global Economy, vol. 1, no. 1 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2012)


  1. Selecting a travel points progam to be a part of should be evaluated every year. In some instances (like in Canada) there is really only 1 main place to collect travel for any meaningful travel. Check your programs pulse every year to make sure they are fullfilling your goals. If not, turf them quickly and go somewhere else. Above all make ’em fight for your loyalty!!

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