Wild About Miles: Inside the Mind of the Mileage Junkie

Wild About Miles: Inside the Mind of the Mileage Junkie

Cawker City, Kan., may not be on the typical frequent flyer’s itinerary. But there’s something there that could teach a lesson.

Looming on the main drag of the tiny hamlet of 595 souls is a 9-ton monument to eccentricity – the world’s largest ball of twine.

The ball’s story began in 1953, when farmer Frank Stoeber, like thousands of his rural brethren, found it tidy and efficient to roll spare bits of sisal twine into a small ball in his barn. But over the years, instead of re-using or disposing of the twine, Frank kept rolling. By 1961, when he turned it over to the town, Stoeber had over 1,600,000 feet of twine rolled into a sphere 11 feet in diameter. He had spent hours every day, for nearly eight years, collecting, absorbing, and doing anything but using a very common, and perfectly useful commodity.

Stoeber’s creation, not to mention his obsession with creating it, may have something to teach about value, about persistence, and yes, even about frequent flyers.

Since the inception of frequent flyer programs in 1981, the practice of earning miles has grown from the pleasant perk of a few fortunate business travelers into cult-like endeavor for thousands of members (and the basis of more than one regular publication, we might add). Beginning in the 1990s, many of the most dedicated earners earned a nickname which they not only accepted, but embraced: “mileage junkie.”

WebFlyer.com, a Web site devoted exclusively to the world of miles and points, defines a mileage junkie as “a frequent flyer who obsessively accumulates miles and points, and often does not redeem many awards.” And there’s the rub: the junkie tends to hoard, and not spend.

The typical users of Webflyer.com, among them plenty of self-avowed junkies, have nearly 400,000 miles each sitting in their accounts, and 25 percent have at least 500,000 miles saved up.

They’re passionate about the miles and points game, and spend hours every week sharing strategies and triumphs with other junkies on message boards like FlyerTalk.com. They invented and continue to engage in the infamous “mileage run” – the practice of taking extra, unnecessary flights toward the end of each year in order to qualify for elite status for the following year.

They’ll set up absurd itineraries just to earn more miles. As one FlyerTalker put it, “You know you’re a mileage junkie when you convince your family that the best available flight from Washington D.C., to any city in Florida connects in Chicago.”

And for most junkies, that’s where the obsession ends. The vast majority of mileage hobbyists burn almost as many miles as they earn every year. When you consider that the average WebFlyer user redeemed between three and four awards last year, and that the “cheapest” award ticket tends to run about 25,000 miles, even the elite flyers (who routinely rack up 100,000 miles in a year) are going through almost as many miles as they earn.

But where are the rest?

Travelers have amassed over 4 trillion miles between credit cards, hotels and airlines, according frequent-flyer guru Randy Petersen. “If everyone cashed in all their miles tomorrow, the American public could fly free for about 37 days,” he estimates.

Of these trillions, it would appear that millions seem to be stocked up in a relatively few accounts.

For some flyers, like Jeff T., the process itself is most of the fun.

“It’s not really about redeeming them,” says the consultant from Pennsylvania. “I guess I consider it like a retirement fund, but haven’t thought much about how I’d spend it. Right now, it’s about how I can get past that next 100,000-mile milestone.”

Jeff isn’t alone. Posters on FlyerTalk.com toss around their elite status and mileage-earning statistics the way football players boast about bench presses. There’s a palpable sense of one-upsmanship in the frequent flyer community, making the thought of amassing millions of miles that much more enticing.

But how much is too much? When does a hobby become an obsession?

According to some, it already has. Writer and travel expert Chris Elliott has actually called for a ban on frequent flyer miles precisely because of their addictive nature.

He recalls the experiences of two flyers. One, an information systems consultant from Denver, wanted a free ticket so badly that he went with an itinerary that called for layover in Minneapolis on the way from Albuquerque, N.M., to Orlando. Another, a project manager in California, has permanently reworked his typical route from San Francisco to Philadelphia in order to stop by Houston to collect more points.

On his Web site, Elliott.org, Elliot claims that fewer than 10 percent of travel-related rewards points are redeemed every year. “That’s probably because turning the miles into tickets is often impossible with all the blackout dates and restrictions that are placed on them,” he says.

He describes the programs themselves as “pushers,” and members as “strung-out” by the frequently false promise of free travel. Elliot points to programs like Southwest’s Rapid Rewards as examples of “healthier” programs. Without elite status to worry about, and credits that expire yearly, there’s simply less to obsess about.

Not surprisingly, Elliott’s proposal has not met with much support among mileage junkies. But again and again, he points to anecdotal evidence that there are flyers out there who seem to have lost control of their habit. They collect, and fly, and re-route, and play expensive games of aces-high with fistfuls of mileage-earning credit cards.

But why collect miles?

Aside from the obvious answer – that miles mean “free” trips – why go to the trouble? And, in the case of the mileage junkie, why do it if you don’t intend to spend them?

Why collect anything at all?

Psychology professor Gordon Emslie at Toronto’s Ryerson University says that there is no conclusive explanation for why people collect obsessively. He cites several theories – biological and psychological – but says none has been conclusive in explaining the phenomenon. The biological aspect suggests that there is something in our genes that makes us vulnerable to hoarding stuff to an extreme extent. Prof. Emslie cites studies that have shown a brain abnormality of those who have this compulsion, but says that many people have such abnormalities and don’t have this problem.

Then there is Freud’s theory that links obsessive collecting to childhood and the potty-training period. Parents force their children to train their bodies to accommodate a certain schedule, and then the child’s output is promptly discarded, suggesting that what they have produced is of no value; in fact, it is abhorrent and needs to be gotten rid of. According to Freud, adult obsessive collectors are merely hoarding things because they were accustomed to things being taken away from them during this potty-training period.

But resorting to Freud may be a bit of stretch to explain the mileage junkie phenomenon.

Still, Emslie goes on to say that some obsessive collectors may, in fact, suffer from a subset of obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Obsessive collectors who can’t control themselves from the next purchase and who become so attached to their collection that they can’t function in the outside world might do so, Emslie says, because they feel a lack of power in their lives. “You might not be able to control something in your life, but at least you can control something like your stamp collection, for example,” he explains.

Fellow Ryerson professor David Day agrees. “[Obsessive collecting] gets in the way of doing daily functions,” he says. “Those who don’t collect in this pathological way would be able to pass up on buying another item, but those with an obsessive compulsive personality disorder could not. It would bother them so much that they just couldn’t let it go.”

Compare that statement with this candid admission from a FlyerTalker who (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) said proof of junkie status was when “You are in a store and see an item you want, then run home to buy the item online to get the miles, even though you were five feet from the item in the store.”

Both Day and Emslie stress that collecting is a perfectly normal thing that reaches a negative connotation only when collectors can no longer control their actions. Everyone collects, in some form or another, both professors say, and it’s often done to surround oneself with things that are familiar. We are a culture of collectors, from baseball cards to teapots. Human beings have always felt the need to hunt, gather, and store.

Of course, no one is necessarily suggesting that your typical mileage junkie is one step from a room with padded wallpaper. Still, compulsive collecting behavior can be a problem.

The Bio-Behavioral Institute, a private treatment center in New York, describes a phenomenon known as “Compulsive Hoarding,” a complex psychological disorder that can significantly disrupt a person’s life:

“Hoarding occurs when a person acquires and saves possessions that have either little or no value (or have some perceived value), and the person then has great difficulty in discarding their possessions. Hoarding behavior can often lead to other problems. Often associated with OCD, OCPD and depression, hoarding can affect people’s lives across all levels of functioning, It is common for hoarders to have interpersonal difficulties, family tension, poor self-esteem, poor social skills, weak decision-making skills, occupational issues, and even legal issues. In addition, there are physical risks, such as falls and fires within the home environment.”

Of course the institute, and almost all studies related to compulsive hoarding, make the assumption that the object of a collector’s obsession is just that – an object. Most case studies involve newspapers, old clothing, bags, books, mail, notes, and lists.

Abstract concepts like miles have yet to be considered, largely because they pose no direct health risk. Your Mileage Plus account won’t pose a fire hazard, for example.

But many of the behaviors associated with compulsive hoarding are evident in the mileage junkie phenomenon.

Among the various characteristics of compulsive hoarding are collecting more than what’s needed; guilt or embarrassment about collecting; and high levels of anxiety when discarding or using the collected item.

Collecting More Than What’s Needed

What’s “needed?” The answer to that question is as individual as frequent flyers themselves. But let’s take a look at what a million miles could buy. One million miles is 40 economy-class trips in the U.S.; 13 first-class roundtrips to Hawaii; or 3.5 trips around the world.

Is any one person going to use that kind of travel? Of course. There are plenty of perfectly normal folks who look at a giant mileage nest egg as free travel for retirement, or a means to shuttle extended family around the world.

But again, some hard-core junkies consider the potential travel possibilities only in the abstract, if at all. In the case of Jeff T., for example, an actual “spending” plan is the furthest thing from his mind. So for the present, at least, many junkies clearly have more miles than they can even anticipate “needing.”

Guilt or Embarrassment

A hallmark of obsessive collectors is a feeling of guilt or embarrassment about their hobby. According to experts, hoarding tends to create a snowball effect: the collector is too ashamed to seek help, and thus allows the compulsion to grow.

Here’s where mileage junkies seem to buck the trend, at least publicly. Far from being ashamed, most wear their compulsion as a badge of pride. “Not at all,” said one FlyerTalker when asked about embarrassment. “Not everyone gets it, and that’s fine. I mean, I can bore people with my speeches and lectures, but if I do, I just shut up. I’m not ashamed. I get free stuff – who’d be ashamed of that?”

But guilt may make an end-around when it comes to mileage junkies.

A recent study at Stanford Business School examined how the amount of effort consumers must expend to get a reward – how many miles, points, or purchases they must accumulate – affects the types of rewards they prefer. The study found that the more effort required, the more consumer preferences shifted from necessity rewards, such as a grocery or gasoline voucher, to luxury items, such as spa certificates, gourmet dinners, or cruises.

The research was based on surveys of 3,100 consumers. Participants were asked to choose among different rewards or decide whether they would join various frequency programs. All were based on actual programs, including a car rental program, a department store program, and an online shopping scheme. Various participants were offered different program requirements: 10 versus 20 car rentals, $2,500 versus $5,000 in store purchases, or 12 versus 24 online purchases. In all three cases, more consumers chose luxury items when program requirements were high. For example, when the frequent Internet shopper program required only 12 online purchases to receive a reward, 51 percent of the participants chose the luxury item. But among those who were told they had to make 24 online purchases for a reward, 73 percent chose the luxury. “Consumers seem to feel more entitled to luxury goods when they ‘earn’ the right to indulge by exerting effort,” said co-author Ran Kivetz.

In examining the psychology behind their findings, the researchers discovered that guilt about consuming luxury items plays an important role in consumer preference toward rewards. Participants in one survey rated themselves in terms of how guilty they felt about purchasing luxury items in general. The effect of effort on which rewards were chosen was strongest among people who reported the most guilt about purchasing luxuries. It was also stronger among consumers who said their efforts to earn rewards were usually made in the context of work rather than pleasure, such as renting a car for work rather than vacation. “Some people need to justify luxuries,” said Stanford professor Itamar Simonson. “They feel guilty, and investing more effort in the program helps them reduce this guilt.”

Is award travel a “luxury?” Not if you’ve spent any time in coach lately, it’s not. But junkies scoff at economy class. “I never redeem for coach,” says Jeff T. “You’ re too invested in elite status, perks, upgrades.”

High Anxiety

What constitutes “high anxiety” may best be left to the likes of licensed professionals and Mel Brooks. But according to psychologist Fred Penzel, “One of the main reasons for hoarding is a fear that if things are thrown away, they will almost certainly be needed one day, but will be gone for good. This loss will then lead to some kind of serious hardship or deprivation.” Penzel ascribes the fear to the chronic doubt inherent in many obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Without making any sweeping assumptions about frequent flyers and OCD, however, it’s still perfectly true to say that some junkies feel intense anxiety if and when it’s time to cash in.

“It’s silly, I know,” said Allen F., an IT professional from California. “I don’t know if I’d call it anxiety, but you kind of hate to see them go. Even though I know I’ll earn them back.”

Allen suggests the loss of miles isn’t the only factor. Like many FlyerTalkers, he admits he’s “competitive” about the miles game, and doesn’t relish the idea of losing ground to more miserly hobbyists. “You’ve got people you’ve been competing with for a year or so – who found the better deal, who did this and that – and you don’t want to admit you cashed in, especially if it’s for some humdrum economy-class trip.”

Allen has a solution for that. “I just don’t tell,” he said.

What’s the Problem?

There isn’t one, necessarily.

Even Chris Elliott, who refers to miles as the “crack cocaine of the industry,” couldn’t find a psychologist who’d call junkiedom a problem. Kathleen Mojas, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif., told Elliott, “I think that in general, collecting airline miles represents a socially acceptable addiction. It isn’t a problem that requires treatment unless it’s interfering with your life.”
Mojas suggests three ways to tell if a problem exists. First, if you are booking long detours that take away from time spent with your family, you may be hooked. If you’re spending money you don’t have in order to collect miles, it may be time to self-evaluate. And finally, “if you spend money just to get the miles, you may have a problem,” says Mojas.

Spending money, of course, is not quite the same as putting all your spending on a mileage-earning card. Since most such cards require a paid balance for mileage to be recorded, junkies are almost religious about paying their bills on time.

Neither should mileage junkies worry too much about not having a specific plan for their hoard. Mark R., a sociologist himself, says the goal of saving millions of miles isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if the junkie has no specific idea what to do with the miles. “It’s a hobby like any hobby,” he says. “You don’t ask a model train enthusiast what he plans to get at the end. In fact, it may not even be a good idea to plan ahead too far in advance. Award levels change, programs change, people change. Have fun with it.”

Most psychologists agree that a hobby, even a compulsive one, isn’t really a problem unless family, friends or work are negatively affected. And most mileage junkies will tell you that the tips and tricks they’ve picked up along the way have made for better work and family relationships. Leslie T., of Massachusetts, says the mileage portion of her travel habits is minimal. “My husband and I have to fly on business anyway. A few hours spent on a roundabout way home doesn’t really impact it. And we’ve been able to take the kids places we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.”

Mark R. agrees. “It’s all about time management, really,” he says, “and most business travelers are pretty good about that anyway.”

In the final analysis, the claim of mileage “addiction” is, in almost all cases, simple hyperbole to describe what is an increasingly popular hobby. And if denial can be a strong indication of addiction, it’s instructive to look at just how many mileage junkies will shout their “addiction” from the rooftops.

And while banks of miles may be worth more to the confirmed “addict” than the average earth-bound joe, value is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder. What appears to some to be a nonsensical waste of effort can be a source of pride and entertainment to others.

Frank Stoeber and the citizens of Cawker City might agree.

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