Help, I’m Addicted to Frequent-Flier Miles

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Traveling the world for the chance of an upgrade. Photo: Jason Alden/Getty Images

Even on the spectrum of Problems That Aren't Really Problems, having to fly to London for a weekend just to rack up frequent-flier miles is preposterous — the kind of behavior that will be cited, in some not-too-distant revolution, as you’re lead away to the guillotine. But there I was, about two weeks ago, boarding a transatlantic flight for the sole purpose of securing another year in Delta's Platinum Medallion tier. It was the last time I would do such a thing, I told myself, but I’d made that resolution before. This was my third Mileage Trip in three years.

Hi, I’m Mark, and I’m addicted to frequent-flier miles. Worse: I am not alone. There are websites and Twitter accounts dedicated entirely to the Mileage Hunt. And there are the extremists, like this guy, who seems to have abandoned any connection to life on the ground in order to use a series of first-class cabins like an airborne, low-oxygen hotel. I am not like that guy. I have a more mild case. But it’s real. And every few weeks, I meet another addict just like me.

None of this is by accident, of course. A few years back, Delta and American Express created a co-branded credit card and devised an incentive program to get people to sign up for the thing. Now, we all know credit cards are the great sea-anchors of the middle class, designed specifically to profit off the compounding debt of American strivers. But my peers and I forgot about that for a second because, goddamn, were the sign-up incentives good. I was 26, and someone wanted to give me 35,000 miles and 15,000 MQMs — Medallion Qualifying Miles, the points that count toward airline status — just for signing up for a credit card? Sold. I signed up. Which put me more than halfway toward the first tier in Delta's frequent-flier program: silver.

This was happening in big cities all across America. Crucially, for the first time, it was happening to 20-somethings. For decades, airline status was the property of older dudes in suits, the consultants and corporate lawyers who basically live in the sky. But then, all of a sudden, less than a year after signing up for the card, I was up there, too — well, sometimes. Silver status gets you on to the upgrade list, but unless you're on a midweek flight to a small city, you're never near enough to the top of that list for it to matter. When I did get upgraded, I saw that there were two ways to fly: fighting for overhead space near the tail, or lounging up front with the patriarchy.

Achieving Silver isn't much, but it makes flying into a game. Chance is part of the experience: You might get an upgrade; this flight might not suck. But because you're the lowest tier, your chances of winning are minimal. So you take a look at the little Status chart, to see what awaits you at Gold, one tier up. You'd get to skip the regular security line at the airport, cutting your lobby-to-gate time by about half. And you don't just get upgraded on empty midweek flights out of regional airports; you might get upgraded on longer midweek flights from a hub, like New York or Los Angeles. When you're trying to squeeze your knees into 11 inches of space between you and the recliner in front of you, these things begin to take on an outsize importance.

Here is what got me to Silver: a credit card offer and three flights.

Here is what got me to Gold: a credit card offer, plus trips to Jamaica, San Francisco (twice), Chicago, Miami, St. Louis (twice), Madison, Seattle, Portland, and Bordeaux.

That's 11 trips in one calendar year. Five for work, five for fun, one specifically for the purpose of earning more miles.

I was upgraded twice.

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I am a third-generation Mileage addict. My father, a consultant, flew about 150,000 miles a year. My grandfather, a nuclear chemist, hit million-miler status on American sometime in the 1980s, securing him free upgrades for life. (He’s 89.) Neither of them engaged in the hunt like I do now, but that’s not to say they didn’t appreciate it. Both of them — maddeningly frugal, coupon-clipping executives — saw the frequent-flier game as another set of discounts they might as well exploit.

But that was a different era. For my grandfather, especially, who did the bulk of his flying in the freewheeling early days of airline deregulation, basic mileage accrual was enough to send him and my grandmother on half a dozen first class trips to Europe. Even his business trips — to Germany and Paris, to Tokyo and Brazil — had a greatest-generation gleam to them, a kind of peripheral beauty. My dad's — Tallahassee; Hartford; the sprawling business parks of greater Los Angeles — were simply a pain in the ass, a series of tarmac delays on the long subatmospheric highway to an office tower on the other side of the country.

A few years later, I book tickets just to keep my average up. About half my flights are work-related; the other half, visiting friends and family. I wouldn't say I like flying, exactly, but I don't regard it with the same exasperation that my dad did. The best flights still offer a momentary hit of the glamour of his father’s era: a leather seat and a strong drink way up in the sky on the way to somewhere kind of cool. That is the promise of status. What would I need to do to feel that successful on the ground? How long would it take me?

Stare at it long enough, and you’ll see the outline of that old boomer saw about my generation: that I crave the trappings of my father and grandfather but am unable — not smart enough, not willing enough to take a job I don’t love, take your pick — to get it the honest way. But in the strange, distorted world of frequent-flier programs, flying nearly 100,000 miles in a year — earning status one physical mile at a time — is the honest way. It might not qualify as labor, exactly, but it does take effort; I'm not expecting to get something for nothing. And surely it’s a more legit way to live the high life than being a derivatives trader.

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While I was taking those trips and chasing Gold, Delta was busy scaling back the perks of its frequent-flier program. (They would later scale back the scale-backs, a series of reversals that only fed my addiction.) Their credit-card offer had worked too well: Now there were a dozen of us on every flight, competing for a handful of free seats up in first. For the financial health of the airline, they need to start encouraging people to pay for first-class seats again.

Their first change was to introduce Medallion Qualifying Dollars, to recouple miles flown with the actual cost of a ticket. This was meant to discourage mileage gamers from booking cheap, inconvenient flights with a lot of connections just to artificially inflate the quantity of miles flown. So, in addition to 50,000 miles for Gold status, one also needed to spend $5,000 overall on tickets.

The other change was to disallow free upgrades on flights between New York and the West Coast hubs (LAX, SFO, and SEA), meaning even card-carrying members of Gold status were stuck in coach. You can imagine how this bruised our fragile sense of accomplishment. It did not seem entirely worth it to have flown all those miles; it certainly did not seem worth it to fly them all over again next year.

But the idea of worth was distorted from the beginning. We're talking about a slightly wider seat on the same turbulent plane. So you make a promise to yourself on Day 1 of the new calendar year: I will not go out of my way for status. And then you see if you can keep it.

At the beginning of last year, I flew to Cape Town for work, which earned me a staggering 20,000 MQMs right off the bat. By the time I booked the tickets, I knew for sure I'd hit Gold that year. Then I realized that I'd also hit a "card-spend bonus" on that Delta AmEx, which would throw me another 10,000 MQMs. Suddenly, Platinum status (at 75,000 MQMs) seemed doable, too.

To earn Platinum would only marginally increase the chances that I'd be upgraded to first class on any given flight, and I'd still be excluded from the upgrade list of flights from JFK to LAX, SFO, and SEA. But say it out loud: Platinum. It seemed like a password; I convinced myself that, upon hearing the word, gate agents would occasionally buckle and put me on the JFK-LAX upgrade list. On the mileage blogs, which are a real thing that exist, I read that this sometimes happens. It was far-fetched, but the mind goes to strange places when the oxygen is low.

And what if I just barely missed it? What if, at the end of the year, I had flown seventy-five-fucking-thousand-miles in those tiny airline seats, and all I had to show for it was a sizable dent in my bank account?

Sure enough, at beginning of last December, I logged in to Delta.com and realized that I had 72,000 miles logged and no upcoming flights before December 31. So I figured out the cheapest weekend to fly to a West Coast city where I happened to have friends, and I booked a flight.

This is what it took to get me 3,000 miles away from Platinum status: Jamaica, Cape Town, New Orleans, Miami (twice), Nashville, Nantucket, Chicago (twice), San Francisco, Milan, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Thirteen flights — six for work, seven for fun.

This is what it cost to push me to Platinum: New York to Los Angeles, $290, a steal. I picked my favorite seat, 19F, a window seat that benefits from an odd exit row ahead of it: Row 18 is the bulkhead and there is no 18F, so you have a window seat, an extra row's worth of legroom, and an easy route to the aisle. I knew I wouldn't be upgraded, and I wanted to stretch my legs.

Then, the day before the flight, I opened the FlyDelta app to check-in and discovered that I had been moved to 19E: a middle seat, with a seat in front of it — a grossly worse arrangement than the one I'd booked.

I called the dedicated Medallion line at Delta. They answered right away; the agent knew my name. She had my flight pulled up on her computer.

"There must be some mistake," I said.

"It's an equipment change," she said. "It happens."

"Is there any other bulkhead seat available?" I said.

"No," she said.

"I'm six-four," I lied.

"I'm sorry, sir, all I can say is that this happens. It's in the service terms."

"Can you upgrade me?" I asked. But I already knew the answer.

"We don't do that," she said. "Unless you’re Diamond."