Are Frequent Flyer Programs Worth It Anymore?
In an upheaval of frequent-flier programs, major domestic airlines will soon be basing your benefits on the amount of money you spend with the carrier rather than on the distance you fly—a move that privileges front-of-the-plane travelers over those who are more price-sensitive.
Delta led the charge in February, saying that beginning next year it will calculate your award miles according to ticket price, rather than miles flown. United made a similar announcement in June. (They also both instituted minimum-spend requirements for elite status with their programs this year.) JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America already have similar models in place.
What does this shift to so-called revenue-based loyalty programs mean for travelers? The days of racking up miles sitting in the back of the plane (and on mileage runs) are drawing to a close, making both elite status and award tickets harder to come by. This doesn’t mean you should give up on loyalty entirely—but you may want to rethink your approach.
Get airline perks through co-branded credit cards. Having the right cards is essential—and not necessarily to earn miles. If you can’t spend your way into elite status with an airline, you can at least get some of the same benefits through its credit cards, says Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy blog.
American, Delta, United, and US Airways all offer cards that come with free checked bags, priority boarding, and, in some cases, lounge access. The annual fees can be significant—up to $450 for the Delta Reserve card with American Express and the AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard (which both offer lots of other benefits). But at $100 or so a year, the lower-priced ones practically pay for themselves after a few flights. Some of these cards also offer opportunities to earn elite-status-qualifying miles with an airline if you reach certain spend thresholds. But you might want to get a couple of different ones simply for their perks. “You don’t have to put a single dollar on them to earn the benefits,” Kelly says.
Bank points with a flexible rewards program. Instead of trying to accrue airline miles with a single carrier, consider amassing points with a credit card that allows you to transfer them into a variety of frequent-flier programs. Kelly recommends looking for cards associated with Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, American Express Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou Rewards, which each have different airline partners. (For a breakdown of the benefits of these programs and their related cards, see thepointsguy.com). Most of these cards don’t charge much (if anything) for transfers into mileage programs and often offer bonus points when you do move them around.
The key here: unlike airline miles, points are as easy as ever to collect, so you’ll have a better chance at securing award seats with them. It’s just a matter of picking a credit card with the right airline partners based on your travel profile.
Switch to more generous airline programs. Not all carriers are embracing the revenue-based model for frequent-flier programs. American Airlines will likely continue to base AAdvantage awards on distance rather than price—at least until after the merger with US Airways is complete next year. And even then, says Gary Leff, founder of the award-booking service bookyouraward.com, the combined carrier may not follow Delta and United down that path, especially if it sees a competitive advantage to keeping its program different. Alaska Airlines is another domestic holdout. The good news: it partners with Delta, so you can get more miles by crediting your Delta flights to Alaska’s plan instead. (You can also earn and book award travel on a dozen other airlines, including Emirates, British Airways, and Qantas.) The relationship with Delta may change, Leff warns, as competition between the two carriers heats up. But until then, it’s worth considering. Another approach is to house your miles with international alliance partners, which also allow you to earn and use miles across a wide array of carriers—including domestic ones. Leff advises looking into the KrisFlyer program from Singapore Airlines, part of the 27-member Star Alliance (with United). He also recommends Skypass from Korean Air, one of 20 members of SkyTeam, which includes Delta. For both programs, you’ll have access to the same award-seat inventory that you would if you were banking miles with a domestic partner, though you will have to book the seats with the international carrier—a minor hassle that seems increasingly less important by the day.