Dining Out on Airline Miles: A Good Deal for Everybody?

When airport restaurants let you pay in airline miles, how do you make sure your servers get the tip they deserve?

Photo credit: Vige, CC BY 2.0.

I arrived at Newark hungry, which is never a good way to arrive at the airport. I usually pack a sandwich and some snacks at home so I won’t have to shell out for overpriced and mediocre food, but that Friday afternoon in June my cupboard was bare. I had spent most of the previous month on a business trip to Asia, returned to New Jersey on Sunday night, and then worked a succession of 12-hour days, with no time for the two-mile walk to my local grocery store. Breakfast that morning had been a pouch of ready-made tuna salad and a string cheese.

Much as I hated to admit it, I wasn’t going to make it from Jersey to my friends’ house in Indiana without having a proper meal at some point. I passed through security and started scoping out Terminal C’s dining options, trying to determine which offered the best value for my money. In addition to the restaurants, though, I noticed signs announcing that United frequent flyers could pay for food and drink in the terminal with miles. Interesting. (I later learned that this option was first rolled out in 2014, but the program now seems to be newly expanded and more intensely promoted.)

Passengers can pay with miles at Newark airport

Through a combination of work and personal travel, plus a United Visa card, I always have tens of thousands of miles in my account. While I had planned this weekend with friends in Indiana months prior, in the meantime I’d accepted a job offer that meant I’d be salary-less and moving in July; I knew I needed to conserve cash. Using a few thousand frequent-flyer miles to purchase what I anticipated would be a sub-par meal sounded like a good deal.

Lured by the description of the kale salad on the menu outside, I grabbed a seat at the bar in Abruzzo’s Italian Steakhouse. I picked up the iPad resting on a stand in front of me and scrolled through the menu; sure enough, the price of every item was listed in both dollars and United miles. An ad at the top of the screen announced that I’d get a 20 percent discount at checkout if I chose to pay in miles. It was almost too easy: I selected the kale salad (1,660 miles, with the discount) and the next screen suggested that I might like a diet Coke (400 miles) with it. Sure — what’s 400 miles? Knowing that after I landed in Indianapolis I faced a 90-minute drive, I added a half-order of the penne with vodka sauce (1,140 miles).

I expected that at some point I’d be prompted to enter a credit card so I could leave a gratuity, but no; I simply signed into my United account and confirmed my food order. No problem. I would just ask my server if she could break the $20 in my wallet for a tip. A second later, however, my phone buzzed with an email containing my receipt. Opening up the message, I saw that United and Abruzzo’s had already taken care of the tip: on top of the 3,200 miles I had spent on food, the restaurant had automatically added 230 miles for tax and another 570 for a gratuity.

As I ate my over-dressed kale salad and under-cooked penne, I wondered if a tip of 570 frequent-flyer miles was enough for my friendly and efficient server (whose name I regrettably failed to write down and now can’t remember). What was the conversion rate? How often were the tips paid out? Should I still get change for my twenty so I could leave a few actual bills and ensure that she’d see real cash that day? What’s the etiquette when you’re paying with miles, not dollars?

Finishing the last sips of my diet Coke, I decided that a forthright approach was the only way to get some answers. I waved the server over.

“I have a question. I paid for my meal with frequent-flyer miles and saw that they automatically added a gratuity in miles to my bill. Do you get that tip?”

She smiled and assured me that yes, she would get tipped for serving me. I stumbled over my next question.

“Is it a fair amount? Like … it it enough?”

“Yes, yes, it’s fine,” she responded, and thanked me for asking.

“Okay, well, I just wanted to make sure that it’s fair to you … because it seems like … paying in miles … I wasn’t sure how it worked …” I am doing this badly, I thought. I wanted to talk more, ask more questions, reassure myself that she wasn’t just saying what the restaurant required her to say. But it was busy and I knew that she needed to move on from my awkward probing, so I just said thank you and picked up my things to go.

I’ve thought about that airport lunch a lot in the past two months, and I’ve decided that I should have left a cash tip, regardless of what my server said. For me, paying with miles wasn’t a bad deal; I’m not saving them up for anything specific, and I knew I needed to conserve cash given my upcoming job transition and move. I won’t miss the 4,000 miles my lunch cost. But I wonder if the exchange rate for miles yielded a tip as large as the one I would have left if I’d paid with real currency (I tend to do 20 percent and then round up to the nearest dollar). Did I shortchange a server in the interest of conserving my own cash? I suspect the answer is yes. United might want us all to start paying with miles, but I’m not sure it’s a good deal across the board.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a historian and writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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