Airline loyalty programs are built on shifting sands. In recent years, no frequent flyer program has stayed the same for very long. In fact, there have already been major changes to several frequent flyer programs in 2015 with perhaps more to come.
As you might expect, changes are rarely to the customer’s benefit. Miles are devalued. Award tickets are harder than ever to find. Traveling families sometimes take years to acquire enough miles for everyone to fly on a free trip, and often those types of customers suffer the most. It is critical for families to recognize the downsides and limitations of frequent flyer programs and also do all that they can to protect the value of the miles they have.
Here are three steps you can take to protect yourself and your family against airline frequent flyer program changes:
Earn & Burn
Don’t sit on a large stash of miles in any program. Airline miles are like currency; their value goes down over time. Use your miles as soon as you can before your airline of choice makes it harder or gives you less for the same number of miles. Hoarding miles is just like keeping cash under the mattress. It seems safe, but it is rarely a secure choice in the long run.
If you often earn miles through credit card spending, consider earning points in more flexible awards programs rather than a single airline’s miles. To do this, you need to ditch your airline branded credit card and select a credit card that offers transferable points. These include cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Express Membership Rewards points, and Starwood Preferred Guest points.
I personally love the Ultimate Rewards points I earn with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which can be transferred to many programs, including Southwest Rapid Rewards, United Mileage Plus, and several hotel programs. Having flexible points allows you to use your points with different airlines or hotels if your loyalty program of choice devalues your miles more than its competitors.
Don’t Be Loyal
Consider dropping your loyalty to a single airline especially if you aren’t a true frequent flyer. Airlines haven’t been loyal even to their most elite customers in recent years. They certainly aren’t loyal to a consumer who only flies the airline a few times a year. You shouldn’t be loyal to them either if the program isn’t working for you.
If you don’t have the perks of elite status on an airline (or perhaps if you only earn low-level status), drop your airline loyalty. Instead, book whatever flight allows you to save your hard-earned cash or time now. If you pay more for a flight in order to be loyal and accrue miles, you are essentially investing that extra cash in a depreciating asset. You have no guarantee that you will be able redeem those miles later for what you actually want.
This doesn’t mean you should kick frequent flyer programs to the curb entirely. I still have accounts in every major U.S. frequent flyer program (and a few international ones) and so should you. Simply quit permitting loyalty to drive your purchasing decisions. Instead, fly what airline has the best combination of price, times, and amenities for each trip you take. Treat whatever miles you do accrue by flying as an incidental benefit that might be valuable later. Just don’t count on them.
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