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By Ed Perkins, SmarterTravel.com | September 16, 2015
If you’re reading this you’re most likely involved with at least one, if not multiple, frequent flyer programs. You use credit cards, promotions and of course, actually flying, to acquire airline miles that promise you free flights, upgrades and vacation packages.
Like us, you brand about your “free” flights and your “free” upgrades. But as time goes on, you might find yourself getting savvy (or cynical) about frequent flyer programs. You’re starting to understand that they’re really not as great as we think they are and that the uphill climb towards a free flight keeps getting steeper and steeper.
As a leisure traveler, you’re more likely to get the raw end of the deal on a frequent flyer program. If you’re a road warrior business traveler, you’re facing the same battle that everyone else does. Here is our warning about frequent flyer programs.
It’s Almost A Completely One-Sided Contract
If you have 12 hours to read the fine print, you should. But most of us don’t. Once you hit “agree,” you’ve just committed to the most one-sided contract you’ll ever be a part of. Worse than cable of cell phone contracts, you’re agreeing that the airline can change their rules whenever they want without even telling you.
You Don’t Own Those Miles, The Airline Does
One of the worst parts about frequent flyer programs is that you don’t even own the airlines miles. Yes, they offer the option for you to “buy” more miles in certain promotions. In real-life, the word buy implies that you own something once you pay for it. But not here. You can’t transfer them, you can’t pass them on if you die and if you try to undercut the airline by using the throw-away ticketing method, they can take your miles and kick you out.
Best Frequent Flyer Programs Favor Business Travelers
Yes, these are considered loyalty programs, but some loyalties are better than others. The big airlines understand that they get about 80% of their business from 20% of their customers. These road warriors travel a lot and pay whatever they can for a flight because their companies usually pay for it. Their loyalty is much more important than the average bargain hunter.
“Free Flights” Play Hard to Get
According to IdeaWorks, reward seat availability among major North American airlines are as follows:
That might not seem too bad to the naked eye, but consider that most of those free flights are from major airport to major airport. Try to use those on a connecting flight with a favorable itinerary and those percentages go way down.
There’s A Reason You Can’t Find Rewards
On most airline web portals, award travel on partner airlines can be hidden. What’s more, airline miles required for a seat could vary depending on which booking engine in used. The best way to get a straight answer is to call the airline’s frequent flyer program office and speak with a representative. If you get told no, wait a couple of minutes and try another agent.
In the past, if you had your award confirmation, you could change flights, dates, etc. whenever you wanted as many times as you need to as long as the destination and the origin didn’t change. Today, even a small change could cost you between $75 and $150. If you change a flight, $75. If you cancel altogether, $150 to replenish the airline miles you spent back into your account. Not such a free flight anymore, right?
Outrageous Fuel Surcharges
Most international award trips on most every airline based outside of the US imposts a high “fuel surcharge” or an “airline-imposed fee.” Some of these fees can range from a couple hundred dollars to as much as over a thousands for a premium class flight.
As for domestic flights, that doesn’t happen. At least not yet.
Airline Miles Aren’t Worth as Much as the Ask
According to some independent observers, the value of a frequent flyer program mile is somewhere between a penny to a penny and a half. That’s about what airlines get from banks when they sell miles to credit card programs. However, when they try to sell them to you, it can cost you almost three cents. Some of them will even charge up to one and a half centers to transfer airline miles you’ve already earned or bought.
Buy A Coach Seat Rather than Use Airline Miles
If you use a credit card to get most of your miles, you’re better off buying a domestic coach class seat. In today’s travel world, you can usually buy a domestic ticket, roundtrip, for around $500. A long-haul trip usually requires you to use at least 25,000 miles, which means you’d have to charge around $25,000 on your card.
The best use for airline miles is for premium cabin travel. So your first classes and business class upgrades are worth it, but that’s about it.
Elite Status? You’re Not So Special Anymore
The most important reward from frequent flyer programs for business travelers is the elite status. That can get you special check-in, free checked bags and, most importantly, free upgrades. However, all of that is slowly ending.
As airlines hand out “elite” status to more and more travelers, the number of first-class seats on domestic flights has been falling since most people can’t afford them.
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