Frequent fliers: Navigating airline rewards programs
“We all dream of flying in first class, glass of prosecco in hand, away from the screaming children and armrest battles,” said Lucas Peterson in The New York Times. Frequent flier miles are the most likely pathway to the front of the plane for most travelers. “But negotiating the world of airline rewards can be onerous.” Rules change often, and many flights aren’t eligible for rewards. Even if you don’t have a favorite airline or route, your best bet is “signing up for an airline-specific frequent flier program.” Alaska Airlines, “once somewhat niche,” has recently become a favorite beyond the West Coast, thanks to its acquisition of Virgin America, which vastly expanded its national footprint. Alaska offers generous perks for even medium-level fliers; it still confers miles and status by actual mileage flown. Delta’s SkyTeam global alliance is solid, but its “opaque” SkyMiles program frustrates loyalists. The popular low-cost carriers Southwest and JetBlue have widespread domestic networks and robust loyalty programs, but redeeming an international flight can be more difficult than with legacy carrier networks.
“Travelers have complained for years about skimpy or nonexistent availability of award seats and big increases in the number of miles needed for awards,” said Scott McCartney in The Wall Street Journal. But remarkably, in the past 12 months some carriers have actually been “opening up availability and cutting the number of miles needed for tickets to places people really want to go.” American Airlines in particular has “significantly relaxed its grip on award seats,” especially for wanderlust-worthy destinations like Hawaii and Europe. Last year it had reward seats available on 71 percent of its trips longer than 2,500 miles, a vast improvement from the 17 percent it offered in 2012. United has also upped the number of rewards seats by 10 percent. But excluding long-haul flights, low-cost airlines have the highest number of available tickets. Southwest and JetBlue make more than 90 percent of their flights available for rewards redemption.
Once you sign up and start earning, check your airline reward account’s points balance as you would your bank account, said Catherine Hamm in the Los Angeles Times. Americans currently hold roughly $48 billion worth of miles and rewards. The website AwardWallet.com allows you to track your various travel rewards accounts and monitor any fraudulent use. Make sure you don’t sit on your miles for too long, said Patrick Allan in Lifehacker.com. Holding a large mile count is risky, as carriers notoriously set an expiration date on each mile you earn, and miles and points can “devalue massively” faster than you expect. The longest you should bank points is for a year. Beyond that, “you’re running the risk of the dreaded devaluation demon coming and wrecking everything.”