United Months of Miles Update & Is The Points Community Eating Its Own Tail?

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Most everything to do with the United Months of Miles promotion since it started has been bad news (including most of this post), but I am going to start off with some personal good news related to the promo.  I am almost half-way to earning the maximum number of miles now allowed from this promotion – 25,000!  I count that as good news, because when I look back to the first few posts I wrote about this promotion, I was just shooting for 10,000 – 15,000 miles.  So, I am going to come out better with this promo than I originally thought.  All of my transactions have been for things I would have bought anyway, but I have been “splitting the check” at United Dining eligible restaurants with The Man so that we get two transactions instead of just one when we eat out.  He can’t wait for this promo to be done as he hates splitting the check – even though the money is all coming out of the same place! 

As a quick example of how that works, last night we went out to a United Dining program-eligible Cajun Seafood restaurant for dinner.  The bill came to about $50 and we split it 50/50 on two different credit cards registered with the United Dining program.  He put all of the tip on his card so that the total amounts would be different.  I’m not sure that makes a difference, but we do it just to be on the safe side.  For dinner we earned 300 miles ($60 including tip x 5 miles per dollar).  We also got two transactions for the Months of Miles promo.  Since we were targeted for the 3 transactions for 1,000 miles version of the promo, each of those 2 transactions is effectively worth 333 miles.  So, our yummy Saturday night dinner earned us roughly 933 miles.  It is just crazy to me how fast miles can add up just for doing things you were going to do anyway.  The crazy side of me wanted to run around to each table at the restaurant and make sure they knew they could be earning a good chunk of miles towards a free flight just for eating their dinner.

Okay, back to the bad news.  Aside from all the other million changes that United made to this promo since it started (here and here), many of my favorite United Shopping Mall retailers have now barred gift card purchases from earning miles.  By default the purchases then don’t count as transactions for this promo.  Some of the notable losses include Home Depot, Gap, and Best Buy.  All of those retailers were hit hard by people purchasing hundreds of small denomination gift cards for the Months of Miles (before the 25K earning cap was imposed).  I’m not interested in pointing fingers, but it makes me sad that these retailers are no longer part of the United shopping program, as I frequently bought gift cards from them to give as house warming gifts, birthday gifts, holiday gifts, etc…  Sam’s Club’s website also no longer sells $10 gift cards.  They do offer $25 gift cards, and do still award miles for gift card purchases.  I would like to think that all of these are temporary changes, but my more sensible side says that they are not.

I have said many times that I do not like to overly impose on others just so that I can earn miles.  I know that is a gray area, and it could be argued that asking a waiter or waitress to split our check so that we can earn extra miles is an imposition.  However, it makes me sad that likely as a very direct result of this promotion, no one can continue to earn United miles by purchasing gift cards at those retailers.  I know that the terms and conditions set this promo up for the onslaught of gift card purchases that ensued, but it still makes me a bit upset that this avenue of earning miles is now likely permanently ended for all of us.  While I don’t at all think it to be similar in terms of world-wide impact, the concept reminds me of over-farming/over-fishing/etc…. You take too much advantage of a good situation, and it ends of being destroyed for everyone.  I don’t think the outcome would have been different whether I posted about this promotion or not, I do somewhat shake my head some knowing that I promoted those sites as eligible retailers that sold gift cards.  It could be described as a snake eating its tail, I suppose.

One more bit of bad news is that there still has not been a response from United about dining transactions that were less than $10 prior to the change in terms and conditions still being honored as eligible transactions.  I know that there are several on this Flyertalk thread who have contacted United about this, and I am hoping that United will respond shortly.  I am not holding my breath!  In my own tally, I am just assuming that those transactions less than $10 will not count, and I will essentially be “redoing” those transactions over the next couple months.  While it won’t make a difference to my total mileage earning in the end, I continue to feel it was very crummy on United’s part if they don’t ultimately honor those transactions as valid for this promo.

Back to good news…..there are still some retailers on the United Shopping Mall that do sell gift cards that are eligible for earning miles.  Since the unlimited mileage earning feeding frenzy for this promo is over, I feel comfortable sharing a few of them in case you are actually in the market for a mileage earning gift card: Petsmart, Kmart, Sears, and Kohl’s (physical gift cards only – no e-gift cards) all still sell gift cards that earn miles when you purchase them.  As I mentioned earlier, Sam’s Club does as well, but the minimum denomination is currently $25.  Though if you are actually shopping for a gift card to give someone, that minimum denomination would usually be just fine.

I’ve been earning miles and points for years by being strategic about the purchases I was going to make anyway.  My way of doing things isn’t fancy, it isn’t quick, but it also isn’t going to lead to its own demise.  I know it seems counter-intuitive for a points blog to say “don’t go crazy earning points”, but I want some of these great earning opportunities to be around for years – not rapidly killed off because companies aren’t good at writing their own terms and conditions.  I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sad to see some of my go-to purchases off of the mileage earning list.

What do you think about how United handled this promo, and how the miles and points community handled the promo?  Is the snake eating its own tail here, or is this just a fluke?

And because I don’t like to end anything on a down note – here is a shot of what we did this weekend.  Little C having a fantastic time going down two of the “big slides” at a local park – no points or miles required!  Mommy even got to join in some of the fun.  🙂

Comments

  1. The points community always eats its own tail in promos like this. They view them as chances to exploit the program, and unfortunately they hurt the rest of us that do not want to dedicate our lives to exploiting these programs

  2. When did HD stopped GC as eligible purchase for United miles. My last big shopping was on 9/13/11. Please don’t tell me it happened before that. Do you know anything about staples. Is that in or out

  3. United/Continental probably ran this promotion as a response to the then upcoming USAir Grand Slam. They didn’t think it through, it was half-assed and half-baked. The people running the promotion aren’t mileage-running, mileage-hoarding experts – – they’re marketing people who are reacting and don’t really know what they are doing.

    This is, of course, all conjecture, but let’s face it – – the USAir promo is gaining steam year-after-year, and the people running the mileage programs don’t miss this. Even AA came out with a “double your miles” promo the other day for shopping on their shopping space, as a result, I guess, for the same reasons.

    Airline loyalty marketers aren’t particularly savvy and don’t really understand the power of “this new social media thing” . . . resulting in promotions that are modified, and modified, and modified again as they go along, whilst chipping away at their brand equity and credibility.

    USAir did/does a great job (as far as the consumer receiving the miles is concerned – but think about it – get up to or over 100k miles without ever stepping on one of their aircraft??) with their promotion, and those who are watching (UA/AA) can only react.

    Too bad for United/Continental — they look like fools!

  4. I think you are right about the snake eating it’s own tail. I try to play the points game in the spirit of which it is offered. When I get a card that requires a certain spend, I do that spend via normal methods, no mint purchases, no gift cards etc.

    The FF community can be it’s own worst enemy when the need to publicly declare any loophole far and wide can only have one result.

    I am playing the US Airways GS for the first time ever and have to say I am enjoying it. It is a well thought out promotion for the most part, however do wish there were hits for flying. It’s a pity more airlines/hotel chains couldn’t be just as creative as US Airways and make us work for it and have a bit of fun at the same time. Though you can see that US Airways have learnt from previous years and have tightened some of the previous easy earning opportunities.

  5. It’s not ‘the frequent flying community’ to blame and it’s naive to say that we all should be earning points/miles on promotions ‘in the spirit in which they were intended’. And, most important of all, naive on the part of the airlines, hotels, etc. that create these promotions without really knowing what they are getting in to.

    Take several of these Facebook ‘like us’ deals for ‘x’ amount of points. Sheraton Madison, for example. 3,000 SPG points for liking the Sheraton Madison. They probably though ‘let’s do a Facebook promotion’ and figured that a couple dozen or 100 at most would ‘like’ them. On the other hand, they also wanted to increae exposure to their property, so you figure an overwhelming response would be good, right?

    Well, I don’t know how many total ‘likes’ they got, but being that the promotion ended very quicky after it was launched, that it required a Facebook direct post and/or an e-mail direct to the propert to get credit seems to tell me that these guys were in over their head.

    The ‘spirit’ of this promotion? I don’t know. Was it to engage a handful of local, regular business travelers and provide them exposure to the hotel? Was it to raise awareness overall of the property to people who’ve never stated there?

    Can’t say, but did the lack of follow through on the part of the property due to the ‘success’ of the promotion hurt the brand and the reputation of the hotel? Damn straight it did! The ‘spirit’ of the promotion is BS – and it wasn’t the frequent flyer/frequent stayer community that ‘ate it’s own tail’ as you say – – it was an inexperienced ‘marketer’ that didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t know how to handle things once they went viral – – someone that didn’t think things through and didn’t plan on success.

    That’s NOT the fault of the community that participated in these things!

  6. I see nothing wrong with splitting the check with different forms of payment. This is common and customary for dining establishments. Good work on the blog.

  7. Very interesting and longstanding dilemma. Share ideas so that others can get in, but risk it being shut down quicker.

    Or keep the idea to yourself, but perhaps the deal will last longer.

    I prefer the first option, but I can see both sides of the argument.

    I absolutely agree with the other commenters that UA/CO have NOT run this promotion very well. They had a loophole, but instead of honoring their badly written terms and conditions, they changed it midway.

    Compare this to US Air, which closed loopholes such as renting multiple cars in the same day, not midway through the promotion, but during the next year’s promotion.

  8. @Darren, I hear you!

    @mowogo, you are right that this promo is by no means an isolated incident of this phenomenon.

    @caveman, I don’t know the exact date, but it would be in that date range. I really hope you are on the “good” side of the date change. I will have to double-check on Staples.

    @erndog, I agree that the marketing folks aren’t thinking many of these promos through very well. They are setting themselves up for what ultimately happens. While the Grand Slam does tweak its rules year over year, they do seem to have a better grasp on how to run one of these type promos. My main issue is, regardless of “who is to blame”, the outcome is that some non-promo related avenues of earning points and miles (like occasionally buying gift cards to several popular retailers) have likely been permanently destroyed.

    @Carl, I agree splitting checks isn’t that big of a deal, so we went ahead and did it (and have been doing it since this promo started). However, since we were splitting for the sole reason of earning more miles, I could see how someone would argue it was a little more work on the waiter’s part solely for our mileage earning benefit.

    @MMS, couldn’t agree more about UA’s failure on this promo. They should learn a thing or two from US Airways in this regard. I also am a “sharer of information” (hence this blog), but when short-term promos destroy long-term opportunities of earning miles via normal activity (such as purchasing gift cards), it does cause me to wonder what role we as bloggers and as points collectors play in the destruction of some of these opportunities.

    Even if it isn’t the points communitiy’s “fault”, marketing folks that work for these companies won’t care in a few weeks that we can no longer earn miles while purchasing gift cards from Baby Gap to send to our friends’ baby showers, but I will care for a while to come. That being said, I am still a sharer of information, but it is an interesting dilemma for sure!

  9. Does anyone know when they stopped letting HomeDepot gift cards qualify? Where can we find this information? There goes all my miles…

    • @Fernando, at least through the United Shopping portal Wal-mart gift cards are listed as not eligible to earn miles. Let me know if you see something different. Don’t want anyone to buy gift cards from Wal-mart thinking they are earning miles when they really aren’t. Thanks!

  10. Yes, it’s true that some of the blame lies with those improperly marketing the promotions. But pointing out the facebook like this hotel type promo blunders isn’t really engaging with the issue that is being raised in this post. The gift card purchases is what was front in center in this post. And some people were buying thousands of dollars worth of these things and then heading back to the retailer to exchange them for cash. Some people were even contemplating buying thousands of dollars and then flying to California to take advantage of a California law allowing them to exchange the cards for cash.

    You have to realize that you’re taking advantage of the retailer if you are doing something like that. There are transactional costs to issuing those cards. The policies that allow you to return the cards for a cash exchange whether implemented at the retail level, or enacted by the State, were not done with this promotion in mind. There were completely separate issues in mind regarding customer service or consumer protections.

    The promotion comes later, and as much as you can expect them to craft decent T&C, the idea that they’re going to seemlessly roll out a promotion on a national scale that will overlay with existing laws and store policies without some problems is ridiculous. You can be frustrated when the Shertaon Madison bungles a facebook like this promo. But you know exactly what you’re doing when you purchase thousands of dollars of cards solely for miles with the intention of returning those cards. Anyone who thinks the stores wouldn’t be rightly upset over this is foolish.

  11. @Sara, I am pretty sure it worked at least through 9/9 and ended sometime before 9/18. I’m not sure exactly what day in that range HD gift cards stopped counting. Hopefully someone else can chime in who knows the exact date.

    @Walt_K, I think you make some very valid points and I agree the stores have a very valid reason to be upset over people purchasing $1000s in gift cards and then trying to cash them out for cash.

  12. Gaming the system is gaming the system. Splitting a check is not ‘normal’ behavior for you and your husband, so you were gaming the system. Nothing wrong with that — virtually all of us are gamers at one time or another. Just admit it, and all is fine.

    • @hobo13,you are right it is not normal behavior for us and definitely is occurring solely because of this promo. That is why I feel there is a gray area for me in terms of “gaming” promos. It is interesting to see how what falls within the realms of acceptable behavior to acquire miles and points varies from person to person.

  13. While I agree to about people going too far, the notable thing about this promo is United’s behavior, not the people who participated. I’m surprised you’re choosing to focus on the participants rather than United’s repeatedly deplorable behavior.

    United invited us to participate with a big selling feature of “Unlimited Miles’.

    They failed in their database management which resulted in confusion about whether or not people were registered.

    They miscommunicated repeatedly about the $10 limit for dining. In fact, their communication overall was horrible.

    Finally, they dishonorably retracted their “unlimited” offer and changed it to a 25K cap.

    I’d be embarrassed to work for United’s marketing department.

    Anita

  14. @Anita, I agree completely (and have posted repeatedly) about United’s failure on this promo. I couldn’t agree with you more about that. In this post specifically I also talked some about the role that we as point collectors have in causing the end of some routes to mileage earning (ie gift card purchases from several retailers). No doubt United more than dropped the ball on the way they handled this promo (and I would also not want to be a part of heir marketing department right now), but I can’t help but ponder the role that we have all played in some retailers’ decisions to no longer offer mileage earning gift cards. Thanks for the comment.

  15. It’s probably likely that they won’t retroactively honor the <$10 dining purchases, but that customers who call and complain will have bonus points awarded to placate them.

    • @Bill, you may very well be correct. It is at least worth a phone call, especially for those who have many <$10 dining purchases.

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