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How many miles does it take to get an upgrade? Nobody knows. 

Melanie Lieberman
June 27, 2016

There’s a lot of information out there about airlines’ frequent-flyer programs: websites and apps to help you manage your miles, and experts devoted to untangling the technicalities of the different programs and their corresponding benefit (thanks, Points Guy!).

If you’re confused by your frequent-flyer programs and what it all means, you’re definitely not alone. As Quartz reported yesterday, even the U.S. government is scratching its forehead about the chaos.

In a letter to the Office of Inspector General (i.e., a watchdog) the Department of Transportation expressed concern about the “complex algorithms” used to “determine the availability of award tickets.” Basically, the DOT says there’s no clear or easy way for airlines to communicate to travelers what the heck is going on in their frequent-flyer account.

The Office of Inspector General responded by urging the DOT to more closely regulate airlines’ frequent-flyer programs. In particular, this watchdog office wants to be sure airlines’ policies aren’t intentionally misleading passengers. You could be taken for a ride, (and we don’t mean the flight itself) and you may not even know.

A recent audit of Virgin America, Delta, and American Airlines showed their frequent flyer policies were, in fact, compliant. Of course, that’s only three out of many, many airlines with complicated frequent-flyer programs.

You may have thought the fine print of your loyalty program was confusing, and chances are, it’s only gotten worse. Think: American Airlines’ recently devalued AAdvantage program. Across the globe, airlines are shifting from miles-based programs (how far you fly) to revenue-based programs (how much you spend). Basically, that First Class seat is going to go way farther in terms of points and miles that a long-haul flight in coach that you bought on sale.

Whether or not this uncovers any dishonest behavior from airlines probably won’t change how convoluted their programs are. If anything, we can hope that the rules are written in more straightforward language. But such language—and the variables that contribute to how many miles you must deplete to score an award seat—won’t likely get any simpler.

Melanie Lieberman is the Assistant Digital Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melanietaryn.

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