Frequent Flyer Miles: Currency, not Loyalty
Frequent flyer miles no longer have much if anything to do with loyalty: Instead, they've become a strange sort of currency that you don't really own and has value that is at the whim of the airline. Unless you fly a lot, it's time to re-think your frequent flyer plans.
The disconnect between loyalty and miles stopped me short recently when I tried to redeem some United miles for an upcoming trip to
What happened to those "eligible" upgrades? What the agent left out was, "We have upgrades, but only for travelers with more clout than you have." Actually, United is carefully doling them out -- not to anyone who has the miles, but selectively to travelers with high program status, travelers on expensive tickets, or -- best of all -- high-status travelers on expensive tickets. If I bought a nonrefundable economy ticket, I could keep checking to see if an upgrade became available close to flight time, and I might actually get it, but there was no way I could be sure in advance of scoring the seat I wanted. United is upfront about this rationing system: It's spelled out on United's Website. And although my objective was an upgrade, I suspect that all United's frequent flyer flight awards -- economy seats, premium seats, and upgrades -- are subject to the same sort of discrimination.
It wasn't always that way; earlier, the deal was that if you have the miles and seats are available in the relevant "bucket," you could confirm the seat or upgrade. But that's changed -- on other lines as well as United. As far as I can tell, all the big lines do about the same.
What's happening is clear: Miles, as such, now neither measure nor reward airline loyalty. Because so many of you "earn" airline miles through credit cards, an accumulation of miles no longer demonstrates -- to you or the airline -- any degree of reciprocity in loyalty. Instead, one way or another, you buy those miles, occasionally by direct purchase, but more often in the prices and fees you pay third parties, hoping you can use them for travel.
Airlines still use frequent flyer programs to coddle loyal customers, but miles, in themselves, no longer represent the loyalty reward. Instead, they're just a currency. The real rewards -- easy access to award seats and upgrades, extra baggage allowances, entry into special lounges, standby priority, and such -- are determined by frequent flyer status and the amount of money spent on tickets. Status still depends on miles, but only the "qualifying" miles earned by actually flying; those credit-card miles don't count. And the airline easily tracks spending. Agents have access to that information when they make decisions that affect any aspect of your trip. And the net result is that each mile held by a high-status traveler is worth more -- much more -- than each of your miles.
If you're looking for premium seats or upgrades, you have to stick with the airlines' miles, even though the deck is stacked against you. But if you want "free" travel in economy, unless you fly a lot, I now recommend that you switch from miles to some form of less discriminatory currency -- like cash back -- from your credit card.
Recent Vacation Ideas & Travel Destinations
- Holiday Survival Guide: 5 Things You Absolutely Must Know
- Taking the Kids - Rare Caribbean Resort That Works for the Littlest Vacationers Parents and Grandparents
- Singing for Freedom in Estonia
- What's Ahead in Travel: A Roundup
- Washington Trade Groups Want Their Piece of Pie in the Sky
- TSA to Conduct Full Review After Sensitive Information Leak
(c) 2009 Ed Perkins
World-renowned chefs with an extraordinary passion for food, share that passion. They make great cooking easier than you ever imagined. Each feature includes both an expert tip and an easy recipe - exactly what you need to transform your home cooking from acceptable to delectable.
Recipes Click Here
Movie Reviews, commentary and more. Plus Trailers from movies currently in theaters and available on DVD.
Movie Reviews Click Here