Frequent flier confronts phobia of redeeming miles

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; F02

It's irrational, I know. Frequent flier miles exist for my benefit, to treat me to a well-deserved vacation, a bonus prize for being such a loyal traveler. And yet I still fear them. I don't fully trust myself with them or them with me.

I, dear friends, am a redeemophobe.

I am fully aware of this phobia; I have all the symptoms. Whenever an awards program statement arrives in the mail, I quickly toss it, unopened. I prefer floating in a cloud of oblivion to knowing the truth -- how many miles I've accumulated and how many are set to expire. And while I may briefly consider using them to book a trip, this dance is for show only. I know in my head and my heart what I'm really going to do: Pull out my credit card and keep my miles intact. Lest you think I am completely foolhardy, I do always input my mileage number for each reservation. I won't spend them, but I'll accrue them.

I crept out of my cave of denial last week, around the time my parents returned from Turkey, a trip "paid" fully with miles. (For more tough love, my mother told me that our winter vacation to Ecuador was covered by miles, as will be their upcoming journey to Naples.) As I saw family and friends jetting around the world on the airlines' purse strings, I realized that I was suffering from a condition that fell somewhere between Hummel collectors and clinical hoarders. Help.

For some phoned-in analysis, I contacted Walter Brown, a clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University who has written extensively about hoarding. I was heartened to learn that my condition is not pathological, because, unlike true hoarding behavior, squirreling away miles like winter acorns is neither intrusive nor destructive to my life.

"Collecting things is an innate element programmed in our brains," Brown said, pointing to birds that gather string and bright beads and rodents that store food they never eat. He explained how during times of deprivation or famine (see wartime Europe), people cling to clothes and food as symbolic armor against potential hardships. Finally, he compared my problem to investors who don't sell their stock, even when it's sinking like a stone in a lake. (According to Tim Winship, guru of, miles used to be worth 2 cents per mile, but over recent years have depreciated to 1.2 cents.)

I beseeched Brown for treatment. "Face the phobia," he counseled. "Spend some of those miles, and experience what that feels like."

I thanked him, promising to send a postcard from wherever my miles sent me.

Before taking on my demons, I sought out one more voice of guidance -- Winship, who advises travelers on the intricacies of frequent-flier programs and has amassed many hundreds of thousands of miles himself. I asked him whether there were others like me, guarding a mountain of miles with no plan to scale it.

"I've come across a lot of people who are socking away their miles for retirement or think they should wait till fares go up and it's a better return on their investment," he said. "The number of outstanding miles sitting in people's accounts is in the trillions, and is continually growing."

Then he gave me a you're-not-alone hug: "I have trouble myself redeeming miles."

One of the biggest risks in stockpiling is that the miles could expire if they remain dormant for too long. Due to a recent policy change, airlines now nullify miles after 18 months to two years of inactivity, compared with three years previously. Aggrieved travelers should also note that when you don't trade in your miles, Team Airlines scores the advantage, gaining your dollars and fealty without having to reciprocate. "Travel is so loaded psychologically. It's fraught with significance," Winship said. "People are wont to defer [using their miles] because it feels like a big decision." (In those people's defense, the difficulties and frustrations of redeeming miles can be emotionally scarring.)

It was time.

I spent most of a day calling all the airlines, inquiring about my balance. It was eye-opening. First, I learned that I have been a member of some of these programs since 1986, only five years after they were established. My contact information is still listed under my parents' home address. (Am I secretly funding their wanderlust?) The American Airlines agent told me that I have two accounts (news to me) totaling 7,393, a mere crumb compared with the 21,402 that expired last year because I hadn't flown with the airline for several years. Put head against wall and bang hard.

My Delta miles are in the same neighborhood, 8,293. "You can't use those for anything, flightwise," said the patient voice on the other end of the receiver. "But you can purchase something in the SkyMiles Marketplace, like umbrellas, golf clubs or a bike helmet." Wish I'd had that headgear before I called American.

My mileage with US Airways was much more promising at 58,636, enough to take two trips anywhere within the continental United States, Canada or Alaska (25,000 miles each), or one flight to Hawaii (40,000), with miles to spare. My biggest windfall flew in on United's wings. In the past 24 years, I have earned a whopping 145,843 miles, enough for a first-class trip to North or South Asia, the Middle East or Northern Africa. Or I could take a trip to Australia and Europe. Or I could, er, hold on to them for just a little bit longer . . .

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