The world’s most useless frequent flier programs revealed


Airline frequent-flier programs may be useless, but some are more useless than others.

That’s the takeaway from a new survey by website, which shared its results with me even though I’m America’s No. 1 loyalty-program critic. What were they thinking?

The research probably won’t change your mind about the folly of frequent-flier programs, but it is useful in one respect: It separates the loyalty schemes in which you can’t possibly win from the ones that aren’t half bad.

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MileCards crunched nine months of data for five programs representing 90% of U.S. frequent-flier membership, analyzing redemption rates in economy class for popular destinations and determining how much programs charged for them.

I consider this a real public service, even though I’m not thrilled that MileCards receives payments from credit card companies for some card sign-ups. Although it doesn’t seem to have affected MileCards’ integrity — the company says it ranks cards without bias — affiliate relationships have laid waste to the once-vibrant travel blogosphere.

If you’re focused on earning awards for domestic travel, the bottom line is this: Avoid legacy carriers such as American, Delta and United.

“You’re not getting the best value for your points, and you could pay over 50% more than (on) Southwest,” says Brian Karimzad, director of MileCards.

The findings echo an earlier survey by MileCards, which noted that customers were more satisfied with loyalty programs for discount airlines such as Southwest. It also concluded that passengers don’t trust airline programs to deliver on their promises. Frequent-flier programs, it added, are deemed less trustworthy than banks, cable and telephone companies.

For domestic flights — excluding Hawaii — United, Delta and American charge the most miles for their tickets (an average of about 35,000). The least-expensive tickets for domestic destinations belonged to Southwest (20,969 miles) and JetBlue (23,065 miles), according to MileCards.

Speaking of Hawaii, you’re better off not using your miles for a ticket to the Aloha State. Delta offers almost no award seats at its lowest advertised level. A safer bet? United, which offers only the lowest advertised award seats 37% of the time.

As far as international flights go, MileCards found that American and United are best for Europe, although fuel surcharges of hundreds of dollars on British Airways flights via its code-sharing partner, American, give United an edge. However, American miles take you the farthest in the Caribbean and Mexico, and United, thanks to its partner network, is the top carrier for flights to Asia. For Australia, MileCards recommends American because of its partner agreement with Qantas.

But “best” is relative. Take American’s relationship with Qantas, which offers more redemption options to Australia. Seats were available on only about half the days at the lowest advertised price.

Timing matters, too. For summer travel to Europe, you’ll shell out roughly 30% more miles than the rest of the year, and availability is limited in June and July. In the USA, summer award seats will cost about 10% more. Heading home for the holidays? If you plan ahead, it’ll cost about 15% more than the rest of the year.

You can increase your chances of finding an award seat by flying on Tuesday or Wednesday, the study found.

I wanted to run these numbers by some of the so-called experts in the field, but when I visited their websites, I found that they were so busy shilling for their chosen brand of mileage-affinity card — for which they were being generously compensated with referral fees — that I gave up.

Maybe it would be better to check with some actual passengers to see if their experiences reflected these survey results.

I didn’t have to look far. In my inbox was a complaint from Vedat Erbug of Boca Raton, Fla. He was trying to cash in miles for a flight from Boston to London in June — not the best time to visit Europe, according to MileCards. American wanted 100,000 miles for his ticket, plus $1,202 in taxes and fees. By comparison, a friend on another domestic airline was paying $223 in fees, he said.

“I feel that I am being taken for a ride,” he told me.

Of course he is. Loyalty programs aren’t intended to reward you for your business, but to compel you to spend more with an airline. While I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Erbug is being forced to cough up so many miles and so much cash, the important thing is that I get dozens of e-mails just like his every week.

Say it with me, my friends: Loyalty programs exist to reward your airline with your money. But some carriers are greedier than others.

Are loyalty programs a scam?

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Let rewards take you the extra mile

Want to make the most of your mileage?

• Be flexible. That’s particularly true for international travel, where flying during off-peak times and days or using an alternate airport can offer a better value.

• Check other airlines’ websites. British Airways’ site lists award flights on airlines that don’t display on American’s website, such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Iberia, but are bookable with your American miles. MileCards keeps a list of alternative sites to check.

• Earn transferable points. For example, the Chase Ultimate Rewards program lets you transfer points to both Southwest and United, giving you the ability to get more out of your points and more chances to snag a seat if one program is being stingy.

83 thoughts on “The world’s most useless frequent flier programs revealed

  1. Here we go again. Instead of teaching folks how to win with airline frequent flyer plans, all the article does is question if they are a scam.
    If my 87 year old parents flew on Delta Business Class Award tickets over the Pacific to visit us (right now), how can I call it a scam? My sister, brother in law, and their 2 kids are here too having also flown Delta Skymiles Award tickets.
    In my opinion, you just have to know how to work around reward programs.
    If not, then don’t call yourself the World’s Smartest Traveler.

      1. We flew 6 of us in first class just two weeks ago using our miles on UA, along with last fall flying in Business and First Class to Europe with our miles, only paying the taxes. Our cards are used for our business so we accrue thousands of miles a month. Have to say that the benefits we have enjoyed have not been a scam. So I guess if Milecards wants to scare people off, so be it if you wish to play Chicken LIttle on their behalf. That means more space for me to book for the next trip!

      2. “Also, where do I call myself the world’s smartest traveler?”

        Well, if you’d *like* to call yourself the World’s Smartest Traveler, there’s a book you ought to read. 😉

      3. ” Loyalty programs are a scam.”

        I have been part of USAirways program for years. I never get beyond Silver status each year so I’m not an elite flyer. I also use their Mastercard to accumulate miles.

        With my miles I’ve flown to NYC, Vegas, Orlando, Alaska (first class) and now I have one booked for Honolulu in October (first class). I’ve never had any problems cashing in my miles and the fees are minimal.

        I use their airline and in return I get to fly places I want to go for nothing more than a small fee. Exactly how is that a scam?

      4. Yes, we’ve attended this play before and had front row seats.


        I’m still waiting for some numbers specifically, the average person who participates in a loyalty program spends on average $XYZ more than if he or she were to simply book the cheapest option.

        …How much extra would one save if one booked the cheapest comparable flight instead of sticking with one airline

        ..How much would one save if one booked the cheapest comparable hotel, instead of sticking with one or 2 chains

        …How much would one save if one rented from the cheapest car rental agency.

        A couple real apples to apples comparison numbers would make the position persuasive.

        1. I actually had that analysis ongoing in a previous position I held. When travelers were removed from the decision making equation, the cost savings to the company were tremendous. It MORE than covered my salary and that was just one part of my job.

          Unfortunately, I don’t have it anymore, it’s been years since I did that.

          We did allow travelers to pay the difference if they wanted their preferred carrier/hotel etc in order to bank miles. Never had that happen.

          Please keep in mind that we would use the traveler’s preferred carrier if all things were equal.

          1. If it was anything like my company, it wasn’t a matter loyalty programs but rather, the company picked the cheapest flight, even if it was very inconvenient, e.g. 6am flight that meant waking up at 3am, rather than the expensive 12pm flight.

          2. I think the key phrase is “years since I did that” I wonder how much the landscape has changed?

          3. Probably not much. Compare the price of the requested flights to cheaper options and go from there. Not too hard.

        2. We did just that this winter on a trip to India, using Visa points.
          We checked several airlines, routes, including some from U.S. near the border, & came up with B.A. Still cost over $1500 in taxes & fees for both tickets, but a darn sight cheaper than buying tickets on any airline.
          We use the Visa for purchases we would normally use anyway, so no big deal.
          Now however we have a lot of B.A. points we’ll never use – this is a waste. And don’t try transferring points, we tried to transfer airline points to our son in Charlotte, N.C.( U.S. Air) & cheaper to buy a ticket.

        3. As you say in a later post, cheaper isn’t always the best. Doing a detailed analysis would be just about impossible, and when completed the rules will have changed.

      5. A scam? No. Hard to use for some folks? Yes. Airlines changing the programs to make it harder for the infrequent flier, particularly this year? Yes. Just understand the rules; don’t try to use points during high season, especially to Europe or Asia; don’t buy tickets on your favorite airline just to add to miles, even when the same routing is cheaper on a competitor. And I guess the guy who accused Chris of being the world’s smartest traveler was thrown off by the title of Chris’s book “How to be the World’s Smartest Traveler”. The commenter probably thought it takes one to know one. 🙂 A lot of folks commenting here are reporting success stories about using loyalty programs. I have numerous success stories to tell. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, I suspect.

        1. All fine ideas, but I have to schedule my personal travel time far in advance, and since I have to work the same corporate calendar as my clients, I really only have the summer available for personal leisure travel. I can’t, as a practical matter choose to leisure travel in October.

          1. All destinations are not equal. I dont just want to go somewhere, I want to go to a specific somewhere.

          2. The point is that like many people you have a specific window when you can leisure travel. Unfortunately, if your desired destination is a highly desired one at that time of year, e.g. the Caribbean in winter, award redemption may be understandably limited, if available at all.. To me that seems fair as cash prices increase as well.

            You have a very specific set of options.

            …Redeem an unrestricted award, if applicable
            …Change your destination
            …Change your calendar

            and if all else fails, pay cash. Which option you choose is of course, up to you.

      6. We’ve used our Alaska Airlines miles to fly business class twice to Europe and twice to Asia. The Asia trips would have cost us $6,000 a pop. Since I live in Alaska, I pretty much fly Alaska Airlines everywhere since they are usually the cheapest and most convenient. Plus we earn miles with a credit card. So doing the things I would do anyway earns me free travel. Not a scam in my book.

    1. To be fair, Chapter 7 of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” by Christopher Elliott is “Manage Your Travel Loyalty Program: The real reason frequent flier programs are so addictive and how to make the most of them now”, pp. 82 – 95. I thought it was a pretty well written chapter and actually gives hints on “how to win”, while warning the very casual flyer (like me) that programs are stacked in the company’s favor. That’s true of every loyalty program out there, but while I can figure out the grocery program’s bias, since I’m a very savvy and frequent grocery shopper, airline programs are more of a mystery to me.

    2. I share your view. Loyalty programs are only a scam for people who let themselves be scammed. If you buy your tickets based on best available price, take whatever rewards happen to come with it, and use the miles if/when it makes sense, then you didn’t get scammed.

    1. When looking at a miles program to join, you should consider your other travel destinations, be it for work or pleasure, and pick one that would give you the most options in partner carriers that fly where you do travel, or wish to travel. Is Hawaii your only travel destination and you fly there often? If so, so for it. It doesn’t cost you.

    2. It is great if you fly back and forth to Hawaii frequently or between the islands frequently. Note I said “frequently.” Saving for a single vacation flight with their credit card it is probably not so good.

      I never got a free flight for myself from the points I accumulated, but I did get my mom there and back in 1st from the points I got. I also got a year of airport club membership. I think this was the best value because in airports like Kona where everything is outside, just being able to wait in the air conditioned clubroom with free cold drinks was worth every mile spent.

  2. I love my loyalty programs. Last May my wife and I flew business class to Greece on Delta. Since it was already into the busy season and we booked just 6 months out, instead of costing 100,000 miles each it cost 150,000. Seemed fair to me. This summer for 105,000 miles each we are flying on an Air Canada partner to Russia business class. Those miles came from American Express points transferred years ago for a trip cancelled as a result of illness. Using Air Canada meant fuel surcharges and taxes of $1,025 per ticket vs less than $300 had we used a US based carrier but we were dealing with orphaned points. Even after the fuel surcharge we received value of over 3 cents per point.

    I enjoy early boarding. Last week my wife and I were upgraded to first class on a short Delta flight even though her only status is with me. The free bag saved $50 round trip.

    Loyalty programs are scams to those with unrealistic expectation. Having also flown to South American, England and Australia business class for minimum points as well as cross country several times, you’ll never convince me otherwise.

    1. I agree. You can find issues with anything, but my experience is that the benefits outweighs anything negatively written about on this site!

  3. The pro loyalty crowd tends to cite examples of how they USED the miles, but I rarely see examples of how they earned them, and at what cost.

    I know many people, who as employees, would game the system at their employers’ expense to maximize mileage earnings. Circuitous routes, more expensive flight options and undesirable times (which led to more time out of office) were common practice. (I recall one person who would game two nights hotel out of a quick trip that could easily be done in a day with no overnight.)

    Once many of these same people started their own companies and worked for themselves, their perspective changed. Retaining status on a carrier that did not have the best service became less of a concern and maximizing cash flow and the bottom line ARE now the focus.

    The guy who did the two night trip? Those trips became quick one day in and outs when he started paying himself.

    1. I’m a self employed person who has used the UAL program for over 25 years. I’ve received tons of upgrades, I get lifetime free luggage and preferred boarding, I’ve used miles for many trips, either for seats, or for upgrades.

      I’ve never paid higher prices to fly UAL, not when I factor in the value to me of the miles. And I’ve rarely had trouble finding reward flights when I’ve looked.

      1. Don’t get me wrong, I HAVE membership in all majors carriers frequent flyer program. Membership is not part of the decision making process, other than maybe a tiebreaker.

        I pick the combination of the most convenient flight that meets my desired schedule and fare. (I avoid Spirit though!)

        If I were to regularly fly a route that is served by more than one carrier with similar schedules, I would stay with that carrier as well. (Think LGA-DCA Shuttle options)

        What I hear way too much is how people gamed the system at their employer’s or client’s expense to rack up miles.

        Just curious, when you say you’ve never paid more when you “factor the value” of the miles, how much do they cost you?

        1. I factor the UAL miles as worth 2¢ each.

          I also live in a small town and we don’t have access to discount airlines. But for trips particularly to Asia, I can drive to a larger city 2 hours away and have an assortment of carriers.

        2. Here’s my math.

          I used to stay at Marriott a fair amount. I accumulated about 150,000 miles which is about 10k spent. I redeemed them for 7 nights at the Marriott Champs-Elysees in Paris. The hotel’s cheapest rate for cash on that trip was 350Euro, about $525 per night. That’s $3,675.00 in redemption value. So I
          spent 10k and received $13,675 in value, or 37% return.

          Did I ever choose a Marriott when there was a comparable
          hotel that was 37% cheaper. Absolutely, for sure, never, ever, ever.

          …OR during the recession, the Los Angeles Marriott rates
          fell to $109 per weekend night. Golds and Platinum received a coupon for 1 second free weekend night. Effectively making a 2 night stay $54.50 per night. Plus, wi-fi at no additional cost ($10 value). To get a comparable hotel, I would
          need to find a 4* downtown LA hotel for $44.50. I’d be terrified to stay at a $44 downtown LA hotel. 🙂

          Then to sweeten the deal even more, as a platinum, breakfast
          was included (say $10? value)

          So that’s how my math works out.

          1. The $44.50/$54.50 hotels would probably offer free wifi. It’s the Marriotts of the world that charge.

    2. It would be unethical and immoral to “game” the system. My rule of thumb when I worked for others was, what would I do if I was paying for this travel myself. When I became self-employed I stayed at the same places where I stayed when I worked for others and flew the same airlines.

      I personally only knew two people who actively gamed the system. One is in a federal penitentiary, the other is disbarred. It spoke more about the character of these folks than the nature of the programs.

      1. Take a look at the flyer talk crowd sometimes. That’s the people I had to deal with. Routing themselves with two or three stops to get to Hong Kong…and paying a premium for it just to get more miles than the non-stop.

        That’s why I’ve stated in the past that with no loyalty programs, how would an airline compete to get your business? I suspect many other service factors would substantially improve.

        1. The flyertalk folks are not a representative sample of anything. They represent a very specific and infinitesimal share of the traveling public. We cannot glean much about the traveling public from that group.

      2. I suspect these 2 just didn’t stop in gaming frequent flyer plans using their clients money. To be in jail or disbarred they have had to do something a lot more “criminal” in nature, right?

        1. True

          The imprisoned one routinely forged checks. The disbarred one, a former colleague, would take money from clients and perform few if any services.

    3. I get my miles from flying. I have a UA credit card which I use to buy my UA tickets so I get miles from that. Since I have a higher level of status on UA I also get bonus miles when I fly them. Just from that, I get more than enough miles to fly myself on 2 1st class round trips yearly. And this is all personal travel, or at least travel I pay for out of my own pocket.

      For business travel, I take what the company provides me. I have no choice in airline, hotel, car rental or anything else. Most of the time we end up on UA since my main office is in a UA hub. I do get the miles for business travel.

    4. I agree, but those problems was a lack of controls with the companies travel department, not an issue of the loyalty program.

    5. The company also has responsibility for employees gaming the system. There should be an established and published travel policy. This policy should also spell out consequences for violation of the policy. A specific number of violations should prevent the employee from traveling and require reimbursement. Companies do not have and enforce policies regarding business travel are simply reaping what they sow.

  4. What is missing from the analysis is that points are not the main goal
    of heavy frequent travelers. They are a nice perk, but status is the
    main goal. The privileges which make traveling less onerous include:

    …Shorter Security Lines
    …Shorter check in lines

    One of my favorite perks was the reduced cost of membership in the airport lounge. When I am laden like a pack mule, it was awesome to
    have a place where I could actually charge my computer, tablet, and cell
    phone, and leave then along with my luggage, unattended while I went to
    the restaurant, restroom, wherever. Outside of the lounge, you have to lug everything with you every time you need to number 1.

    For me, a loyalty program is like any other investment, one that is managed, and retained only as long as it serves your purposes. When I traveled extensively, 100,000+ miles a year, I received certain benefits from flying one carrier, not the least of which was that I flew exclusively in first class for years but only paid for coach. It also meant that that my family and I flew to Europe numerous times in business or first class but only paid for coach. It also meant that I was always amongst the first people to be re-accomodated whenever there were issues with the flight. The math works out very well.

    When I took a position as an employee of a high tech startup, my travel was substantially reduced and the math no longer worked out so I ditched American airlines loyalty program. Thus, for the first time in over a decade, I no longer have any elite status on American airlines.

    Simple dollars and sense.

    1. Status and the associated perks/benefits are far more important and valuable to me then award tickets or any award transaction. Though I pack pretty light and pretty much take my personal item and carry on with me whether I’m in the lounge or not. Lately though I’ve found that at the major international airports (the ones I move through the most), there is better access to outlets and USB ports in the main terminal then in the lounges, since it seems that everyone though one way or another got comped access or a reduced price access, so much so that Ive been in the lounge without any power outlets. Though the WC facilities are nicer and cleaner, and the comped beverages almost pay for the cost of lounge access on a long enough layover. The internet access I have found though relies on the same data lines that service the general airport facility, they may have separate wireless AP’s but if the network is congested outside, its congested or not much better inside the lounge.

  5. This statement needs clarification:

    Take American’s relationship with Qantas, which offers more redemption options to Australia. Seats were available on only about half the days at the lowest advertised price.
    Is this referring to using miles to upgrade or using miles for a full reward ticket? To upgrade you use ‘x’ amount of miles and certain dollar amount to upgrade. This is based on the fare basis your initial ticket was booked in. But for full reward tickets, there is no advertised price, and depending on if it is domestic or international you have may have a booking fee and tax to pay.

  6. Something doesn’t jive with this:

    In my inbox was a complaint from Vedat Erbug of Boca Raton, Fla. He was trying to cash in miles for a flight from Boston to London in June — not the best time to visit Europe, according to MileCards. American wanted 100,000 miles for his ticket, plus $1,202 in taxes and fees. By comparison, a friend on another domestic airline was paying $223 in fees, he said.
    To fly from BOS to LHR, AA doesn’t fly nonstop, only via connections. Nonstop flights are codeshare with either BA or US. Taxes on US are, as of the dates I picked, $250.50 and $708.50 with BA. Where is the other $500 in fees coming from that he claims he was quoted? That is questionable. Also why out of BOS when AA flies nonstop from MIA???

    1. Maybe he was meeting that friend in Boston and then they were flying to LHR? Or there was no award availability from MIA?

    2. I suspect he was going after a business class award ticket for 50K miles each way and selected BA metal on AAwards. That way, the round trip ticket cost him 100,000 miles plus the regular BA taxes and fees. On BA metal those taxes and fees are approximately $1200. If he was the World’s Smartest Traveler (or close to even being smart), I believe he could pick to fly on AA metal and avoid BA’s fees. He can even return from PAR or DUB to avoid the pesky LON APD taxes.

      1. I looked at coach, not thinking of the other cabins. Duh! Why wouldn’t he have just flown out of MIA and met his friend there? He still had to get to BOS? Oh well, he got his name in print.

      2. The UK has Passenger Duty ( a tax) on all departures out of the UK. The amount a passenger pays depends on the class of service and destination. Business class and a flight to the US results in higher taxes and fees. Coach class lowers those fees. I have frequent business in Edinburgh and always fly via AMS to avoid those higher fees. Since AMS is just a short hop away then the Duty is much lower than flying out of London to the US non stop.

  7. I’m fortunate enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area and since United serves many of the destinations I’d like to travel to belonging to its loyalty program has paid off for me. I earn most of my UAL miles with a branded credit card and I pay the bill in full each month. Alaska Airlines is my secondary airline loyalty program, again earning most miles from using a branded credit card. I’ve had good luck redeeming miles for travel on both airlines.

    I like Southwest and my first experience (this week) flying on JetBlue has been good. But neither fly to enough places that I’d likely travel to, especially for international travel, so while I belong to their loyalty programs I don’t expect to earn enough credit through flying to get a free ticket, nor does it make sense for me to have their branded credit cards. So when I travel on those two airlines I’ll be buying tickets rather than using miles to fly.

    Loyalty programs may not work well for some travelers, particularly those who are travelling with multiple companions or whose dates of travel are inflexible. But I’ve been pleased with the programs I’ve belonged to and plan to continue to participate in them.

    1. I have the same problem, I would LOVE to fly Jet Blue more often or as a second choice Southwest, but I travel mostly international and neither of those carriers have enough of the right partner airlines to get me where I need to go at a comparable cost of the legacy carriers. The domestic portion is good value but then I end up paying either substantially more for the international segment of the flight or I have to book separate tickets. Lastly, I can’t depart locally, I have about an hour drive to the airport that JB/SW services.

  8. I live on Maui and am therefore dependent on airlines with the most flights in and out of here. My credit card gives miles on American and my wife and I charge absolutely everything … all the way from a $5 co-pay for a medical prescription to $18,000 for a new water line. Obviously, we pay off the entire balance every month … but we fly free a lot. My complaint is that American has a policy of refusing to sell me an upgrade if I’ve bought my economy seat with miles. On a recent trip to the mainland, that meant they didn’t get $325 from me for the upgrade and they lost the revenue from a standby passenger who would have occupied my economy seat. After we took off, I took a peak up front: there were two empty first class seats. Go figure!

    1. American did the right thing. When an Airline sells you an upgrade, they are not just selling you a physical seat, they are selling you the prestige and status that goes with it. The $325 you would of paid, was simply not worth the potential loss of a last minute fare paying passenger, or the perceived loss or diminishment of value and the experience to the rest of the first class cabin passengers. Your likely to be offended by this, but to real elite travelers, those who wiggled their way to the front of the cabin on a “borrowed hat” grinds a good many of us.

      1. Sorry, I still don’t get it. American — an airline in bankruptcy, by the way — turned up its nose at $7-800 in revenue. Besides, how would the rest of you elite travelers know who paid their full first class fare and who were the riffraff who bought the upgrade? And I don’t know where you’re flying, but on the Maui-mainland flights, most of the folks sitting up front sure don’t look very “elite” in their rubber slippers, shorts and tank tops!

        1. I’ll take a different approach. The $325 makes sense in the short term, but overall, they want to encourage fliers to pay for their seats with cash, not miles. This is one way of doing so.

          1. Do you know of any airline that allows you to upgrade to BC using money from an Award Ticket in coach?

          2. Delta will upgrade me on award tickets (even for companion) domestically. United will not unless you are a legacy holder of President’s Card from Continental. But agree that airlines prefer not to do this given that it may encourage some to not buy business in the future with hopes of an upgrade…

          3. Virgin will allow you to upgrade a coach ticket purchased as an award ticket. But, as one LW here learned, you won’t get a complimentary upgrade to main cabin select on an award ticket.

          4. Correct me if I am wrong, Virgin America will allow you to use (Flying Club) miles to upgrade to a higher class cabin, but can you actually BUY that upgrade with MONEY (like JimLoomis) wants to do coming from an Award ticket in coach?

            Also I think some of the upgrade examples given here are complimentary and NOT paid with money.

          5. Virgin America uses elevate. Flying Club is one of the other Virgins. Each has different program rules.

            On Virgin America you can basically buy anything with points, except that you cannot use points to upgrade.

    2. AA’s reaction made sense. Let’s say you were flying No AM to EUR and your seat in coach cost you 60,000 miles one-way on AAnytime Awards. If you had to get a Business Class Award seat for the same flight it would have cost you 100,000 miles outright (assuming an award seat was available). So the difference in cabins would have cost you 40,000 miles extra. If they agreed to upgrade you for $325, then it means they were willing to sell you 40,000 miles for $325 or about $0.008 a mile. So why would AA sell you a mile for less than one cent?

  9. Thanks to these programs I have flown on Concorde four times for free, had a wonderful vacation in Australia and New Zealand for free, Business Class both ways, had many free flights to and from Europe, attended weddings I would never have been able to otherwise, renting cars at no cost and staying in hotels for free, sometimes in Suites (at no cost). I love scams like these!

    1. I think at some level, anyone who claims they received a “free” flight or stay knows that can’t possibly be true.

      Someone down the line is paying for it — maybe an employer, by shelling out more for a ticket with a preferred carrier; or you, by boosting your spending with a pricey affinity card.

      To me, this myth of “free” is not the most objectionable thing about loyalty programs. It’s just marketing-speak. And I admit, I engage in a fair amount of hyperbole every now and then (see the headline on this story if you have doubts).

      In order to get to the heart of the problem you need to take a hard look at how loyalty program apologists react — at how aggressively they defend the moral low ground on which they stand — when they’re challenged by me.

      They believe the fact that airlines take our business for granted is an excuse to game the system, to rack up points they haven’t earned, to churn a card, to exploit a far error.

      I both agree and strongly disagree. Has the airline industry — indeed, the travel industry — lost its way, when it comes to customer service? Absolutely.

      Is that a valid reason to lie, cheat and steal? No.

      We are better than that. We owe it to our fellow travelers to fight for humane treatment for every passenger, not just the entitled elites sitting in the front of the plane.

      And that, my friends, is why I’m America’s number-one critic of loyalty programs. Frequent flier programs bring out the worst in us. There’s just no two ways about it.

      1. There are scenarios when you are right of course–people booking YBM international fares to be able to use Delta upgrades. However, these are also the changeable fares and that is often the justification used rather than saying that these fares are being booked to allow one to use an upgrade. United allows you to use any fare to upgrade though you are lower priority with lower fare classes. Companies like Air Canada have a point system and in effect, the cheaper the fare, the more points you use to upgrade. However, for international fares, they don’t allow upgrades from super low fare tickets. The question is always what is the difference in price–sometimes the different fare classes are not a huge difference in price and I will pay the difference myself if i can secure the upgrade using a certificate as a result.

        1. Yes. Several programs do not allow upgrading on the lowest class or classes of service. Those that do, the miles needed are higher and drop as you move up the fare ladder plus some programs require you to pay an additional fee, which also drops according to the class of service. If you travel enough (hence being a true ‘frequent traveler’) you get to figure all this out and participate in the ones that give you the best benefits.

          1. Right–when I was United Platinum (75k), I needed to pay $350 and 15k miles for international upgrades. Now with 1k, it is just a certificate or 15k miles and the $350 copay disappeared. My wife is super elite on Air Canada and she uses the points system and is allowed to name two people per year to give points to when booking on AC (ie her parents :)). Delta is changing their system with their SWU that were not actually system wide at all to giving their diamond folk less of them per year, but eliminating the YBM fare criteria. United actually has a nice system where by you get an additional 2 global certificates and 2 regional certs for every 50k or so miles after qualifying whereas Delta doesn’t really incentivize flying after making diamond. Anyhoo, all to say–these programs can really work for you if you take the time to learn them!

      2. Just like any government program, frequent flyer programs will have some who will get more than others, some less than others, some with nothing.
        Would you call Social Security and Medicare a scam? 🙂

        ADDED: After re-reading your post, it seems to me that it is SOME of the members of the programs that are MAYBE trying to ‘scam’ their employers, the system and other participants rather than the program itself being a scam.

        1. Having worked in corporate travel for awhile, you hit the nail on the head regarding business travelers traveling on someone else’s dime.

      3. Someone down the line is paying for it — maybe an employer, by shelling
        out more for a ticket with a preferred carrier; or you, by boosting
        your spending with a pricey affinity card.


        IF the assertion is that there is a necessarily an additional cost to the traveler, employer, etc., of using a loyalty program, that assertion is demonstrably false.

        Simple scenario. I lived in LA, I was asked to consult in San Jose. . They told me when and where they needed me and they purchased the ticket. I merely showed up at the airport and hopped on the plane.

        I submit, that as the employer made “0” changes to its travel policy, there was “0” additional cost to me or to the employer by me adding my FF number to the reservation.

      4. We are better than that. We owe it to our fellow travelers to fight for
        humane treatment for every passenger, not just the entitled elites
        sitting in the front of the plane.

        Hmmm. That begs the question, suppose I’m happy for substandard treatment if I can save a buck.

      5. Chris, in my job it would be hard for this to be added expense to my employer since we are required to choose the cheapest flight (which usually seems to be with my preferred airline).

        There are two issues here, one is regarding loyalty programs and one is regarding quality of service. I don’t believe they are connected. Airlines have an obligation to treat passengers well regardless of their status or where they are sitting. The service we receive is reflective of the employee providing it. Do you think that an airline employee gets up each morning and says “How can I make life as miserable as possible for each of my customers?” Of course not. On the other hand, some airline cultures are more customer friendly than others. Take Delta for example, the only legacy US airline I have encountered that cares enough about their passengers to ensure that everyone can eat on their flights regardless of their dietary needs, this more than makes up for the fact that their award tickets seem to be harder to redeem than American, where they have exactly the opposite attitude to Delta in terms of dietary needs.

        Also the way we see airlines is a reflection of its employees. There are bad employees that give the airlines a bad name, but most people, like you and me, want to be as nice as possible to everyone we meet. By the way, as you know, there are passengers too that don’t treat other people nicely, this is shown by the tone of some responses in these forums.

        Even when I don’t get upgraded and the flight crew is unlikely to know that I have elite status, I generally find the service I receive from Delta, American and Southwest (the three airlines I use most) to be pretty good.

      6. I think at some level, anyone who reads your articles gets a clear picture that you don’t understand or wish to understand that many actually are fine with the programs and the benefits they get. Not sure if you have been burned by a loyalty program, or just like to take the low road to get reactions. Disappointing to constantly see the negative in your articles.

  10. Full disclosure: I am a Delta Diamond and United 1k.
    I do have to manage my travel so as to ensure that I make status on each airline and that has gotten a little more complicated since the MQD qualification criteria on top of the MQM criteria. HOWEVER, the incentive for me to manage this is clear given that as an academic, i rarely book business (unless another entity is paying my way). Thus, to get priority lines/boarding/phone access, lounge access, etc all more than make up for any work that i need to do to manage my travel. I will also say that i could care less about upgrades on domestic legs given that anything less than a 5 hour flight to me feels like i barely had time to sit down and pull out my computer before I need to turn off my electronics as we are getting ready to land. I know that I don’t represent the average traveler, but these programs have allowed me to send in laws to Hawaii multiple times, book my wife free trips around the world to meet me, get upgraded even on vacations, etc. And yes, I love love love using my certificates and miles for international upgrades when the stars align. I like Chris’ blog, and indeed, the changes to make these programs more exclusive will benefit people like me (for the time being), but just don’t see how these programs are a scam. This is no more a “scam” than any free rewards program whether it be CVS, Subaru, Costco, whatever–ie, anything that incentivizes you going back to the same place for more. If people spend 2 bucks in gas to save 1 buck at the store, i wouldn’t blame the store. Would you? And I used to travel with One World a lot and had serious issues using the miles, but then planned ahead and my wife and I got two tickets in business on Cathay from London to Hong kong to Seoul and burned 320k miles and never looked back. Those were 14000 tickets each….and we spend 300 in taxes/fees on each. We had also flown to Europe on Delta miles and spent 2 weeks flying from place to place on Ryan Air. Ie, it is all about being a smart traveler. But no, don’t see any scam here.

  11. It is up to the individual to decide if a frequent flyer program is a scam. I live in Atlanta and am a platinum with Delta. I use my miles frequently and do not have the issues some people are reporting. But I am on off-season leisure traveler. I also look at other airlines to make sure that I am not paying more than I should and fly them when there price is substantially lower. I recently flew to Australia and did not fly DL except to and from LAX. I could not afford business but needed extra room so chose a carrier with true premium economy.
    But I will choose to pay more for a non-stop if the cost is not significantly higher than a connecting flight. My time is valuable to me. I do not take mileage runs, I do fly other carriers when it makes sense, but still fly Delta most of the time. So it makes sense for me to join their frequent flyer program.
    I am a very savvy traveler. I shop around, book wisely and take advantage of things that airlines offer me. I also know that the airline is not loyal to me. But neither is a grocery store or drug store that requires a frequent shopper card to get sale prices. And let’s not forget the clothing stores that have loyalty cards–they want my loyalty but will not give me theirs. I can go on and on.
    So for me–the frequent flyer program is not a scam. Because of location I fly one airline most of the time. I may as well get something out of it as I would fly that carrier with or without the program. (I did not join the program for many years after it started.) I feel more of a scam victim at a national grocery chain that will not give me the advertised prices unless I part with a lot of personal information to obtain a card.

  12. I have all the FF/loyalty programs loaded into my Concur profile. As a federal contractor, our policies require lowest priced fare for business travel, so I’ve never paid more for a ticket or stayed at a hotel “just” to get miles. But, over time they’ve added up and I don’t have to contort myself or create convoluted itineraries/plans to get miles. Using miles I brought my (military) husband home First Class from Korea, and brought my college student son home from Hawaii. (It was an awful 14 hour itinerary with 3 connections but it was *free” and he’s young enough to deal with it, sooo ). Those were pleasant surprises as I wasn’t consciously accumulating miles. That’s how I use loyalty programs–by being loyal to what’s best for me and my government clients at any given time and letting the points fall where they may!

  13. ““I feel that I am being taken for a ride,” he told me.”

    Really. Maybe he should go back and get the guy who held that gun to his head and made him sign up for the program, and then take all those flights. Blackout days and fee stories have been around for decades. Stepping out of the bubble might be a great idea.

  14. people in general expect too much from something that cost them very little. Most people earn their points/miles from credit cards not flying & I think majority of people would not be stupid enough to pay a surcharge to use a credit card, so in effect, points/miles earned this way are “FREE.” We use most of our Qantas ff points on domestic U.S. flights, as no fuel surcharge, whereas if try to use them to fly Australia to LAX return a massive $900 in taxes & charges is payable in cash, on top of the 96,000 Qantas points. This when cheap tickets to LAX return start at only $1100 or so & guess what their are plenty of frequent flyer seats ?When there are these cheap fares & stuff all in peak season when most people want to fly.
    Part of the problem is basic misunderstanding of how programmes are designed to work.
    They are designed to fill seats when airlines can’t sell them at any price, not in peak season.

  15. I have 325,000 Alaska Airline miles and my husband has 100,000. In years past we have used our miles for business class international flights and had no problem booking the flights. Now we are planning my husband’s 70th birthday and we were very excited about using my miles to fly business class RT to South Africa. Got all the guide books, started picking hotels and game viewing safaris. But when we started to purchase the tickets it soon became apparent the mileage game has changed. You are led to believe you are purchasing business class tickets (at a tune of about 150,000 miles each plus about $1,500 each for the British Airways legs between Dubai and Johannisberg) but when you look closely you see the tickets are “mixed cabins”. In our case this meant first class on Alaska from Seattle to LAX, a 2 hour flight I make several times a year usually with a complimentary upgrade, then the rest of the very long legs in coach. When we called Alaska we were told their partner airlines no longer release the business class seats until immediately before the flights and the chances of actually being upgraded are pretty small. If you are not upgraded then there is NO REFUND of miles or cash. We are unwilling to take that chance and unwilling at our ages to fly long international journes in coach. So our miles are useless to us and our dream of a South African vacation is trashed.
    Alaska should have notified us that our miles would be severely devalued effective January, 2014, so that we could have used them for something special in 2013, but we received no notice.
    We feel scammed and betrayed by Alaska airlines which we have flown for decades.
    Alaska says it can’t control the partners but at the least it controls the refunds. And it seems they are running a similar scam on miles for first class flights to Hawaii.
    My husband was with the state attorney general anti-trust division during the oil company price fixing scandals in the 70’s. One sure sign of collusion was all the oil company prices increasing at the same time (there’s no honest economis model that accounts for such precision) – and that is exactly what happened with the mileage programs this year.

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