In an effort to compete with both low-cost airlines and luxury services like the private jet service NetJets, commercial airlines used to pump up their frequent flyer programs, offering perks that made it easier for consumers to stomach the hefty cost of airfare. But now jet fuel costs 40% to 50% more than a year ago, and airlines are adding fees for previously gratis offerings like water, snacks and checking luggage.
Another service that’s been cut drastically? You guessed it, frequent flyer perks.
“While there are a few opportunities to use miles for non-travel awards, they generally represent poor value,” says Tim Winship, an editor-at-large at SmarterTravel.com. “Even with higher award prices and restrictions on available award seats, free tickets and upgrades remain the best use of frequent flyer miles.”
It’s important to be careful where you trust your miles, though. According to Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, a number of airlines are making promises that they can’t seem to keep.
“Right now, the best and worst frequent flyer programs are the same. Virgin America technically has the best frequent flyer program because you only have to have 4,900 points for a round-trip ticket. The bad news is they wont release the program for anyone to use,” she says. “They actually call it their loyalty program,” she continues, “but for those of us who have been loyal frustration is growing because they won’t release the miles.”
Both experts agree, the bar isn’t particularly high for airlines to impress consumers with their programs. In fact, for programs designed to reward loyal customers, none of the major commercial airlines do much to make their devotees feel appreciated.
“There is no best frequent flyer program. There are programs that work best for individuals, given their travel and purchase behavior,” says Winship. He adds, “The overall trend is toward devaluing the programs—raising award prices, adding fees.”
There is a break in all of this financial turbulence, however. Companies like Aeroplan allow members to earn points that can be traded in, not just for miles, but for magazine subscriptions, household appliances and even a Vespa scooter. Those in the know say that miles, which consumers should aim to get at least two cents for when cashing in, can be better used when spent on other items.
“There are all sorts of things you can cash in your miles to get” says Hanni. “There are plans and companies out there who, for your miles, will give you hard goods.” One such program is through American Express (STOCK QUOTE: AMEX) Membership Rewards. Earn points for each dollar spent on your card that can be transferred not only to partner airlines, but redeemed for concert tickets, electronics, jewelry and dining and a host of other items.
Whatever it is that consumers decide to do with their miles, Hanni suggests that they do it soon. “If I was holding onto frequent flyer miles right now, I would use them immediately,” she says. “If you use your miles [for travel], you're more likely to get bumped from a plane and they are actually looking—when they go to bump people—at what you paid for your tickets and how you bought them.”
And once you pick a program that meets your needs, stick with it. For better or worse, earning miles with one carrier will work out better than spreading the miles around. “One of the most common mistakes is participating in multiple programs,” notes Winship. “Because miles from different programs cannot be combined, miles spread across many programs are less valuable than the same number of miles earned in a single program. My advice: Choose a program that works for you.”