Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Frequent flyer programs keep changing

Years ago airlines encouraged loyalty from customers by offering miles or points for every flight you took and for purchases made on their branded credit cards. It was a good deal—you could fly almost anywhere in the U.S. for 25,000 or 30,000 miles. Earning a free trip wasn’t too hard to accomplish—and there were actually seats available for booking.
The original premise was simple, but now the airlines are making it hard. Not just hard to get that free flight but hard to understand exactly what the benefit is to you for being a loyal customer.

Business travelers who book the most expensive tickets and fly the most often have an advantage. Travelers who fly only occasionally lose more in the watered-down programs now being offered.
In the past, you earned miles according to the distance flown, no matter whether you booked a seat in first class or coach. Since March, United changed its program to award points based on the cost of the ticket. Elite-level frequent fliers earn trips and upgrades even faster.

Delta no longer has award charts on its website, so travelers can’t tell what a trip will cost in miles/points. You really have no way of knowing what the value is for your loyalty miles or what a “free” trip might cost. Instead of a flat rate to fly to Europe, for example, the value of those miles changes according to when and how you want to fly.
Southwest Airlines is in the game, too, changing the number of points needed for certain flights. So far, American and Alaska Airlines sill use miles as currency, although American awards increased miles to business/first class passengers.

Airlines are also offering more ways to redeem those miles or points, like purchasing luggage, cameras, jewelry, or cruises. Customers who do this help the airlines reduce their huge liability—nearly $100 billion worth of unused miles are currently held by passengers, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Imagine the hit airlines would take if even a small percentage of those were redeemed at the same time.
Of course, these days flights are full or nearly so, and redeeming miles is trickier than it used to be. Availability is scarce, and there is often a hefty charge to reinstate miles if your plans change. About seven percent of all trips taken use rewards, but that still leaves many unused miles on the debit sheet.

So, is it worthwhile to book your next flight on a specific airline in hopes of accumulating enough miles for a free flight? Probably not, the experts say. It makes more sense to purchase tickets based on price, convenience, and comfort. If you eventually earn a free flight in a reasonable exchange rate (50,000 miles for a three-hour flight is not a good value), you’ll feel like a winner.Otherwise, use those measly points to buy flowers for your spouse.
Photos from free sources


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