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.

  • Ward Chartier

    Earning miles is not an entitlement, and Yes votes might imply that belief. In addition, loyalty programs are owned by the airlines that create them. They can make whatever rules they want for using their property. We consumers always have the choice whether we want to participate or not. If we participate and the rules change in a direction we do not like, we can always quit.

    I would be curious if Mr. Elliot, or any of his staff or guest readers are aware of loyalty programs of any kind with any company are exemplars of a good loyalty program. If so, please write about one.

  • John Baker

    Wait you mean the airlines final setup their FF programs to reward their best customers instead of the ones that simply use their product the most (yes, there is a difference)? Shocking that a business would want to take care of those that spend the most. In fact, I think the airlines were the last to make the change. Even my local supermarket rewards me based on the money I spend with them instead of the number of items I buy.

  • Joe

    An important point to remember above all: These frequent flyer programs are voluntary in nature – not only is the company free to offer (or not offer) the program, but the consumer is free to participate (or not participate) in the program. Most folks appreciate the fact that a company recognizes and rewards its most frequent or highest paying customers better than a one-off, infrequent, or bargain hunting customer. I like this model. Frankly I think most of the indignant responses are merely jealousy at not being provided the same privileges and proclaiming loudly “it’s not fair!” and “somebody ought to do something about it!” as if that’s a reasonable and mature response.

  • Nathan Witt

    In order to realistically answer this question, I think it’s necessary to know some of the back-end cost structure that the airlines face regarding loyalty programs. I know that I can get 50,000 miles by signing up for a particular credit card and spending a given amount with that card. What I don’t know is how much money the airline in question receives when I do that. When I book a super-discount economy ticket and get miles awarded for having taken that flight, I don’t know what the airline’s profit margin is for that ticket. When I redeem those miles for an award seat, I don’t really know what that costs the airline. If average of all the ways I earn miles gains the airline very little money, and my redemption of award travel costs the airline more that it gained, at some point, the system will collapse or get revamped, because if earning and redeeming miles is easy for me and expensive for the airline, that’s not a sustainable practice.

  • They can change the rules all they want. It’s their “game”. I just don’t play it.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    I didn’t read the article, I only clicked on it so that I could comment that there is a grammatical error in the title. “…loyalty program are rigged.” Very unprofessional that with a staff of writers and editors no one caught this.

  • Thank you for the catch. Fixed dat. Good grammar important.

  • MarkKelling

    Things change. Prices go up, mileage for “free” flights goes up, so what? All of the changes to FF programs were well communicated and equally implemented, and while I don’t necessarily like the changes, it is what it is.

    If I don’t like the changes to the FF programs, I have several choices:
    1. Quit their Frequent Flyer program to show them!
    2. Choose a different airline with more appealing FF rules.
    3. Stay home.

    Should I be upset that the cash price for a flight to Europe on United has tripled (or more) since I joined their frequent flyer program? After all, when I joined I planned on taking that trip to Paris in 1st class and the offered price was only $2500. Now when I look, that same flight is $7500!! The nerve of them changing the prices! If I shouldn’t be upset over this, why should I care that it is more difficult to earn points/miles from flights?

    Back when Continental was still an airline they code shared with Qantas. Since I really wanted to go to Australia and make the trip in 1st class, I saved my miles until I had enough. But then CO cancelled their code share. No trip to Australia for me! Guess I should have sued them for breach of contract because they waited until I collected those last few miles needed before announcing the code share cancellation. They knew I was close and did it just to annoy me!

    The programs are not that hard to understand. Fly, get points/miles, and eventually get enough to use for a flight. The flights I have been able to get from my most used airlines usually line up with my needs. But then I am a top tier flyer with both of those airlines which means there is more availability shown than for those who only collect miles through credit card offers and don’t fly much.

    The FF programs are a nice benefit for those who fly. As long as we don’t spend on things we don’t need or make a full time job out of trying to maximize point accumulation, enjoy the (rare) rewards.


    People have been complaining about frequent flyer programs since the first changes were made. Do you remember the huge outcry when the airlines, faced with the burgeoning popularity of these programs, changed how award travel was done? And every change since then has met with hatred from many frequent flyers. I am platinum with Delta. Was I happy with the changes? No, but it is their program and they can do what they want with it, including ending the program. Many companies reward their biggest spenders and there is no reason why airlines should not as well. (And I am not one of them as I travel in coach, but usually on long haul flights.) We are not required to join a frequent flyer program. Nor does our membership require us to fly a particular carrier. (I flew to Asia last year on a non-Delta partner as i wanted true premium economy–something that US flagged carriers lack. No miles but I was happy with the space and service.) Ward Chartier says it best—earning miles is not an entitlement. So airlines are changing their programs. Just deal with it or quit.

  • BMG4ME

    I’ve been with the American Airlines AAdvantage program for 25 years, and I first got Platinum status in 1991. You make it sound like this is a progression of decline but most of the changes you mention happened more than 20 years ago, such as the class-of-fare bonus, branded credit cards and “premium status”. When a company is allowing you to fly for free (or a greatly reduced price) I just say “Thank you” and enjoy it, since I would never have been able to have flown on Concorde (as I did 4 times) if I had needed to pay money for it.

  • Mel65

    I do NOT get the animosity toward ff programs. The airlines don’t have to award any miles at all; my grocery store doesn’t have to give me cents off of gasoline for my purchases and my favorite Mexican restaurant doesn’t have to give me a free meal for every 10 purchased. They do and I’m grateful when it happens; but I don’t feel owed and I won’t feel cheated if they stop. The only perk of flying could simply be getting your destination. I don’t judge what I’m getting based on what the guy next to me may be getting. Who has that kind of time and energy to care? Sign up for all the programs. Fly or drive or shop who and where you want and earn whatever perks are given for that program. If you eventually earn enough to get something for free, great, but I don’t waste any thought on feeling owed anything for buying a ticket other than transporation to a destination.

  • Darth Chocolate

    Let me guess. Auto manufacturers who give different dollar values of rebates based on the model also “rig” their game.

    These are not “loyalty” programs, they are “rebate” programs: the more you spend, the more you get back in “rewards” (i.e., discounts on travel). The difference is that there are many ways to earn rewards with the programs. And there are many ways to “game” the systems, some of which border on unethical.

    So, please tell me, what is so inherently wrong about a company giving you some consideration for spending money with them?

    Last year, I spent almost 6 months outside of the US for business (it is currently 4:40 AM while I am typing this from a hotel room in China). Yes, my company foots the bill, but I also have a budget to adhere to. If I get some sort of reward for flying with company “X” such as a discounted ticket to use on vacation, I would bee a fool not to sign up. If I spend enough so the airline recognizes my business (that I am required to do) by giving me upgrades, waived baggage fees, etc. again, I would be a fool not to sign up.
    Now do I look for best fares with company “X”? Sure, but if they are not available, I am obligated to find a better price with company “Y”. So it’s not as if I am costing my company extra for these programs.

    But they do make my life easier.

  • LostInMidwest

    OK, guys, all of pro airline loyalty points programs comments are correct. If they existed in vacuum. Or Europe.

    I would like to remind you all of some points:

    – you cannot take high-speed train and not fly
    – you cannot take unrestricted-speed World class road like Autobahn instead of flying

    When you DO fly because it is the only reasonable choice in US:

    – you cannot fly British, Lufthansa, Etihad, Singapore … and so on
    – there is no difference in price or service anymore for the 3 airlines you are allowed to fly. Please, don’t come back with Alaska, Hawaii, BlueJet, Frontier or even Southwest … for most markets these are not even choices.

    So, first things first … first we need free market where customer can really decide and has ACTUAL choices, then we can talk everything else. So, yes, airline industry needs a heavy-handed regulation. And if airline industry doesn’t like it, then let them invest and open high-speed rail or build proper toll roads where average speed of travel is 100 mph or better.

  • DavidYoung2

    The flaw in your analysis is we CAN’T decide if we participate or not.

    These programs have cost structures that have to be paid for by every flier. So a portion of every ticket price goes towards that ‘upgrade’ for the top tier flier, or the ‘free’ ticket for the top tier flier. Even if I choose not to participate, part of what I pay for my cheapo ticket goes to reward the top tier flier and cover these program costs. The free drinks at the club? Yeah, I helped pay for that.

    It’s funny (not really) how the airlines want to ‘unbundle’ the fares to make Joe Flyer pay for reserved seats, checked bags and a beer because those are ‘costs’ that some people don’t want. But the champagne and first class upgrades are free, right? Sorry airlines, it can’t be both ways.

    How about unbundling those program costs, so if I choose to decline to participate in your program, you knock $35.00 off my ticket price?

  • Joe

    Which is it? Free market or heavy-handed regulation? Those two options are mutually exclusive.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    I said nothing about “regulation” in the article.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    My parents live 10 minutes from an airport serviced by Southwest. I went to college about 30 minutes from one. Back when a one way flight earned a point and 16 points earned a free reward ticket I was happily a member of their Rapid Rewards program. I rarely paid for flights that were over an hour, but I flew for free across the country four times. I have their credit card, I’ve booked hotels and rental cars through them (when their price was the best) and earned more flights that way. Since they switched to a points-per-dollar spent system I haven’t redeemed any flights, but I also haven’t been traveling as much or earning as much. I’ve held onto the points as sort of an “emergency fund.” You never know when you’ll need to take a last minute flight. Well as of April 17th Southwest is changing how many points are required to redeem flights. So I went ahead and booked trips to use up all my miles. And guess what? I’ll no longer be tied to their airline! Will I still fly them? Probably, as long as the cost of their flight is comparable to other airlines. I’ll also factor in travel time, schedule, additional fees, etc, but all things being equal, I no longer have any reason to choose Southwest. The change in the rewards system doesn’t bother me. Somehow I doubt that the loss of my loyalty bothers them either. And that’s ok.

  • taxed2themax

    I don’t see a whole lot here.. Yes, the airlines changes the rules — and the terms of the program allow for that.. To me, so long as their changes are permitted via Terms and Conditions, *and* don’t run afoul of any consumer laws, then they are free to make any changes that are permitted…

    In the same stroke, consumers are free to participate, or not, as they see fit.

    Yes, The program is “paid for”, in part, by all passengers, those who do participate as well as those that do – true.. However, I don’t know that it would be operationally and/or logistically to separate out whatever that amount was, or was not, from those who bought tickets and did participate, and those that did not. but I do cede that there is a cost to be borne by all.

    The part that I find interesting is this.. the move by the carriers to change exactly *who* the define as “valuable”

    I get it.. why all the backlash.. It’s like someone who you’ve been dating all of a sudden says, “I’ve found someone new” …. but I think if it were possible to take an objective, unemotional and financial-based look, this move makes sense.

    In the end, it IS about revenue.. sure, how much you fly is a part of that — true — but I think it makes perfect sense that they look for their highest yielding passengers

    But I get it why those that used to get the ‘love’, now feel left out for someone new.

  • BobChi

    What am I going to do? I’m going to continue enjoying my free flights. Travel is my hobby. To be good at any hobby takes a little study and effort. If your hobby is piano, you will need to devote plenty of time to be any good at it. If your hobby is gardening, you have a lot to learn to be good at it. If it’s woodworking, you’ll learn with a lot of trial and error. If you study the loyalty programs and work at it strategically great rewards are still there.

  • BobChi

    They’re not paid for by every flyer. The loyalty programs are highly profitable in their own right, or they wouldn’t exist. The airlines sell billions of points to the credit card companies, which in turn use them as incentives. The seats that are filled are more often than not seats that would have gone unsold anyway. The person who buys that expensive first class flight or lounge membership is paying for the costs of operating a first class section or a lounge system. Those passengers are immensely profitable to the airline. We aren’t subsidizing them when we buy the cheap seats in coach. We are benefiting from their profligacy.

  • +1. The term “loyalty programs” is a misnomer anyway. They are moneymaking programs. And there are still plenty of opportunities to make money on both sides of the eqaution. If you want to be efficient in earning and redeeming your miles for free travel, stop complaining and learn how to play the game.

  • Peggy White-Davis

    It’s indeed frustrating. I remember actively tracking my frequent flier miles (and I’m by no means a “power” user) but being so excited when I tallied enough to actually DO something with. A real plus is that some mobile e-commerce wallets are starting to build in functionality that allows for tracking of loyalty points AT THE TIME OF PURCHASE in a format that the consumer can have them there, at a glance, tracked. How simple! The sad part of that equation, though, is that industries (airlines) have made the loyalty process so complicated that even simplifying the tracking doesn’t seem to help.

  • LostInMidwest

    OK. Right now, there is no “market” – let alone FREE market when it concerns airlines. So, Roosevelt-Rockefeller match is long due again. Break them into small companies and let them compete for real. That’s Government intervention allowing the free market to re-appear.

    You don’t like it? OK, then, let the competition fight for customers. There is no reason why you couldn’t fly Singapore between DFW and JFK, for example. That again is Government interfering and letting free market to re-appear.

    You don’t like that solution either? Good, how about Government creates Best-In-The-World road network where we can travel at 100 mph or better average speed (and pay for the privilege, of course) in alternative to flying for up to 600-700 miles trips? That Government intervention will force airlines to compete on free market.

    Get it? Right now, you don’t have market, let alone free market when you need to travel and experience is MISERABLE. The only way to make that experience minimally acceptable (not good, just acceptable) is to be Gold or better on airlines’ frequent flyer totem pole. And that needs to go. ASAP.

    Better now?

  • Fishplate

    As “Loyalty” programs become less useful, the casual traveler has less reason to join one. So, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: as we become more aware of the lessening utility of such programs, the airlines reward casual customers less, in order to concentrate on the shrinking pool of travelers who still have a choice.

  • Fishplate

    In fact, the more I think about it, merely belonging to a frequent flyer program is a disadvantage, in that it gives an airline an easy way out when you complain. Instead of real money, or even a voucher, it becomes a place to dump a few miles on you so that you think you’ve been heard and compensated.

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