Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How to Navigate Frequent Flyer Programs Now
July 7, 2016 -- From the moment frequent flyer programs burst onto the scene in 1981, the advice from experts has been essentially the same: be loyal to one carrier, concentrate your travel on as few airlines as possible and strive for elite status to maximize your perks.
You can toss all that advice away now. The airlines don't care about your loyalty anymore. You won't win if you concentrate your flying. And elite status is useless because the carriers sell most of the perks they promise you before you ever get to claim them.
Frequent flyer plans have always been an unregulated lottery, but now they are rigged, too. As Delta Air Lines explained to a compliant U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, no law and no authority could "superimpose a duty of good faith and fair dealing" on the airlines' administration of their frequent flyer schemes.
In recent years, airlines have gleefully, purposefully and with malice aforethought devised ways to screw you. Delta has even eliminated award charts. You literally have to guess how much a flight award may cost, then throw yourself on the mercy of what can only be called Delta's pricing roulette wheel.
How do we cope in this new world? Simple. We take care of ourselves first and foremost. We go where the rewards are and the best payback for our business is. We stop fretting about status and earnings and making nice with airlines that don't care about us.
Here are five ways to do it.
1. Buy price and schedule
It may seem strange at first, but it's now useless to throw your business to one airline on a regular basis in an attempt to build up a mileage or points balance or chase elite status. The payoff is simply too low. Instead, buy the flights that best fit your schedule and pocketbook. Besides, you won't sacrifice too many miles or points when you buy this way. Only about a third of all the credits piled up in the now-misnamed "frequent flyer" programs come from actual flight activity. The rest come from credit card purchases. (More on that in a moment.)
2. Purchase your upgrades
Unless you think you can reach the very highest level of elite status in any particular airline program, forget about status altogether. Why? Upgrades, long the primary perk of elite status, are now an impossible dream for most travelers. This is no accident, either. Airlines are intent on selling first class domestic seats and international business class seats rather than "give" them to us as free upgrades as a reward for loyalty. Naturally, very few flyers will pay the inflated premium class fares of old. As a result, airlines now routinely sell discounted first and business class seats, sometimes at prices lower than full, unrestricted coach fares. Look for the discounted premium prices when you make your reservation. Then be on the lookout for cheap "buy up" offers when you lock in your seat or when you check in for your flight. Some airlines even allow you to "bid" for an upgrade. You'll be surprised how affordable premium class travel has become.
3. Charge your perks
Airlines aren't only selling the upgrades that once went to their elites. They are selling the perks, too. You can buy these perks a la carte or, even better, get them free as part of the benefit of carrying the airline's credit card. The $95 United MileagePlus Explorer from Chase Bank, for example, entitles flyers to a free checked bag and priority boarding when flying United. It's also bundled with a pair of guest passes for entry into United's network of airport clubs. Having the card also ensures your United miles don't expire and that you have a greater choice of award availability. Credit cards fronted by other airlines have similar perks.
4. Bank your points
The Big Three airlines — Delta, United and American — have all switched to "revenue-based" programs that reward dollars spent instead of miles flown. In making the switch, they also devalued their programs by about 20 percent. Why risk these kind of bait-and-switch games when there is a better option: the frequent spend programs sponsored by three big banks: American Express, Chase and Citi. Amex Membership Rewards points transfer to Delta, Virgin America, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines and several international carriers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United and Southwest as well as several international airlines. And Citi ThankYou Points transfer to Virgin America and a deep roster of foreign carriers. Each program also has a card that helps you pile up the points thanks to so-called "accelerators." The Amex Premier Rewards offers three points per dollar spent on some airline spending and two points at gas stations, supermarkets and restaurants. The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers two points per dollar spent on all travel and entertainment spending. And the Citi ThankYou Premier offers three points per dollar spent on travel and two points on dining and entertainment.
5. Go international
I've never been a big fan of international frequent flyer programs. Not because they aren't good, but because they have been more complicated. And, obviously, for U.S.-based travelers, most international programs don't have the domestic flight component. But now that miles and points are more frequently generated by credit cards and the cards have programs that allow you easy transfers to international programs, the game has changed. For example, Flying Blue, the combined program of Air France and KLM, permits 1:1 transfers from Amex, Chase and Citi. Examine the transfer options available from the three big bank programs and make sure you've joined the international airline frequency plans so you can shift points quickly when you want to claim an award.