Yes, loyalty programs are rigged — but what are you going to do about it?

Remember how easy it used to be to earn frequent flier miles? You’d book a flight on a major airline, go on that trip, and earn miles based on the distance flown — usually one award mile for each flight mile.

It’s not that simple any more.

First, airlines added a class-of-fare bonus so that a purchased first class ticket would earn double miles. Then they started offering their own branded credit cards so you’d earn miles when you purchased your airline ticket on the card, one mile per dollar spent on a ticket on their flights. And then they upped the ante to two miles per airline ticket dollar (their airline, of course) and one mile for every other dollar charged on the card.

Those of us who are frequent fliers knew the rules for earning miles, so no worries from here on out, right?

Wrong. Just when we thought we knew the rules, they changed them, and in ways you may not yet be fully aware of. It’s enough to make you wonder if this game isn’t rigged. And it begs the question: What now?

The major carriers decided to then reward their best customers; that is, those who’d earned “premium status” by flying anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 miles or more in a given year. These passengers were able to earn even more bonus miles, thanks to a multiplier based on their status level.

OK, that’s about when the Excel spreadsheet became necessary to keep track of all the activity, the miles and the bonuses.

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But wait, there’s more!

Just like the infomercials that know you have to have that sweetened deal, the airlines have one for you, too! Take a look at this page that shows you dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to earn award miles on United Airlines without ever leaving the ground. So, you can go shopping, read the newspapers, have dinner — and all the time you’re earning valuable (snicker, snicker) award miles for future flights.

It used to be that all travelers were equal — well, except for those who didn’t buy a premium ticket and those who hadn’t earned their airline “status.” Aside from those picky details, we all could earn the same number of miles. Get ready — it’s all changing again.

Do you have to keep putting up with all these changes?

Some airlines are switching the rules that penalize the bargain shopper and reward the business traveler who lets the company foot the expensive bill.

Let me pick on United Airlines again since I have my Million-Mile Flyer card with them. As of March 1, this page shows that award miles are now earned by taking the ticket price and multiplying by the flyer’s status level.

This means that the $1,500 San Francisco to Sydney flight (you know, that awful 15-hour flight on an aging 747) that used to earn a minimum of 7,417 miles each way (14,834 round trip) will earn the average (non-status) flier 7,500 miles. That’s $1,500 times a multiplier of 5. If you’re at the top 1K tier, while you’re sitting next to that poor chap who’s only earning 7,500 miles — you’re earning 16,500 miles.

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And that’s not all

The business traveler whose company shelled out $7,000 for a comfortable business class seat will earn from 35,000 to 77,000 miles for that flight. Is that really fair? He or she is on the same flight as you and is earning enough miles for one to three “free” tickets. Just so people don’t think I’m only picking on United (at least they waited until March 1 to do this), a look here will show that Delta implemented the same thing on the first of the year, two months before United.

It seems pretty clear that the airlines don’t care about the average traveler any more. They seem to be more interested in the passengers, business travelers and others who aren’t as price conscious.

So what can you do about all these changes? You already know that the airlines have all those fine-print terms and conditions that say they can do whatever they want with their programs, including canceling them completely.

Does that mean you’re at their mercy? The short answer is “Yes,” unless you’re willing to find alternate means of transportation or give up on the whole “earning miles games” and just pay for everything.

It is a one-sided game, and it’s not tilted in your favor. So what are you going to do about it?

Should airlines be able to change their rules for earning miles?

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Stuart Gustafson

Stuart Gustafson is a writer, world traveler and professional speaker. He's channeled his love of travel into writing travel-based mystery novels.

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