Airline Miles Programs – Some Passengers More Valuable than Others

Anyone who follows the recent changes in airline frequent flyer miles programs might be tempted to paraphrase George Orwell’s famous line from Animal Farm: “All passengers are equal but some passengers are more equal than others.”

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More Valuable, Less Valuable Flyers

If you travel a lot on business, you win the “more equal” honors as airlines show less and less interest in the loyalty of the occasional flyer or leisure traveler. It all comes down to money: Business travelers usually pay top dollar for last-minute tickets while once-a-year vacationers shop carefully, peruse deals blogs, compare prices and pay as little as possible. The latter is a great recipe for saving money but will not engender airline loyalty.

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How Airline Miles Programs have Lost Value

Some of these changes have already occurred, some are coming. Stay up to date with your miles program (might as well read all those emails they send you).

Complexity has increased: Once upon a time all you needed to know was, fly X amount of miles, get a free flight. Now it’s far more complex with regulations that could drive a CPA crazy. All those tiers of elite memberships with arcane rules governing every level can be hard for anyone to fathom outside the most devoted hobbyist .

Pay more, get more: Next year, Delta switches to an increasingly popular model of rewarding miles members who buy expensive tickets. The business traveler who grabs the expensive last-minute fare from LA to O’Hare will earn significantly more miles than the leisure traveler who prudently shopped in advance.

Lack of most-wanted flights: Capacity-cutting by airlines means fewer empty middle seats available for award seats. This is especially true for most-wanted destinations like the Caribbean, Orlando or Las Vegas at peak travel periods (such as holidays or summertime).

Fees on the freebies: Even those lucky enough to snag a free trip will find out free isn’t totally free. Travelers still have to pay for such things as the Sept. 11 security fees, sometimes fuel surcharges and other assorted extras that can add up to hundreds of dollars on long-haul flights.

Miles with expiration dates: Remember the days when miles  – like diamonds  – were forever? That’s rare these days although JetBlue is among those still keeping the concept alive.

What Less Valuable Flyers Can Do

Reconsider loyalty: If you have a choice of airlines, always compare prices; it may not pay to be loyal to one carrier.

Play the game: Get as much out of your miles as possible by doing your homework and studying the rules. While this will take time, you can find help over at FlyerTalk and ThePointsGuy.

Choose destinations carefully: You’ll have a better shot at getting a free flight if you’re willing to consider off-the-beaten path destinations instead of perennial favorites, or fly during less popular times of the year (including, alas, those periods when the kids are in school).


Published: April 18, 2014