Why Frequent Flier Programs Aren’t Worth It (for Most People)

I recently received an urgent email from US Airways imploring me to join their frequent flier program. The friendly prod occurred not too long after I purchased four round trip tickets to Hawaii for this year’s family summer vacation.

The curiously brief message didn’t bother with the usual marketing hype. Instead, it simply got right to the point:

Thanks for buying a ticket with US. We owe each person on your itinerary 6,348 miles! There are miles of opportunities … Don’t miss out!

Of course, the first thought that crossed my mind was: Woo-hoo!

Then I immediately got onto the US Airways website and signed up for their program.

Not.

I know what you’re thinking: Come on, Len. Why on earth would you pass up all those “miles of opportunity”?

Because my personal experience has found that airline frequent flier programs only benefit, well … frequent fliers. That’s why.

The truth is, for the other 99 percent of the general public who fly less than 25,000 miles per year, there are very few rewards and virtually zero perks to be had.

Part of the problem lies with mileage expiration rules that come with most airline frequent flier programs. With US Airways, your miles are forfeited if you fail to redeem or accrue miles over a period of 18 months. Many other airlines wipe out your miles after only 12 months. And some airlines are really draconian — believe it or not, Spirit Airlines’ miles expire after just three measly months. I know. (I’ve already expressed my disdain for loyalty programs with inactivity penalties.)

Another disincentive for casual flyers like myself are the rules regarding miles purchased for kids. Typically, each flyer needs their own separate account to claim any miles flown — a rule that conveniently benefits the airlines at the expense of adults who buy tickets for their traveling minor children. In my case, such an exception would have allowed me to claim 19,044 miles for this summer’s Hawaii vacation, instead of only 6,348.

With US Airways, it’s possible to get a free economy class flight (subject to blackout dates and other restrictions) within the Continental US for as few as 25,000 miles.

On first blush, 25,000 miles may not sound too bad, but any geography nerd will tell you that it takes a little over five cross-country trips from Los Angeles to New York — a distance of 4924 air miles, round trip — to even qualify for that restricted perk.

If you think that’s a lot, folks who live in the central part of the country have to take even more flights to qualify. For example, Texas frequent flyers would have to take 10 round trips between Dallas and Los Angeles, assuming a one-way distance of 1251 air miles.

The thing is most people are casual fliers, and casual fliers are a very disloyal lot; that’s because they tend to choose their carrier based solely upon the cheapest airfare. And while that’s great for the pocketbook, it’s a terrible strategy for earning frequent flier rewards.

On the other hand, choosing to stay loyal to a particular airline — or even a multi-carrier airline alliance — often requires a traveler to bypass lower fares. So if you want the perks and rewards that come with being loyal, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Which begs the question: If you’re a casual flyer like most folks, what’s the point?

Photo Credit: Marina Avila



Comments

  1. 1

    says

    Completely agree with you. I do travel (or used to before I decided that Skyping with people you know is as effective as face-to-face meetings) and found another problem: it is really hard to book flight on FF programmes; only the waste of time makes it not worth it! There are always cheap (relatively) flights and we all move around too much anyway ;).

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      I know. The restrictions and rules for claiming free tickets are pretty annoying, Maria — even when claiming a seat upgrade.

      I’m going to quit talking about it now, because I’m getting irritated just thinking about it.

  2. 3

    says

    Delta recently eliminated the expiration on their miles, so you can keep them on ice for as long as you need. They still send some of the promo stuff to encourage you to use up your miles other ways (magazine subscriptions and such) but so far as I know, you aren’t obligated. In that case, I would sign up in an instant.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Yes, I am aware that Delta’s miles do not expire. For now. That could change however!

      When American Airlines started the industry’s first program in 1981, they didn’t have expiration dates either. Of course, that eventually changed for them and a lot of other airlines.

      They love to change the rules.

    • 5

      Jermo says

      I used 3000 Delta miles for an subscription to The Economist. Not bad for free. I never come close to getting 25k miles, but I travel enough to keep free magazine rolling in.

      • 6

        Jermo says

        You can also donate your miles to The Hero Mile Program (just Google it) and help our military families out.

  3. 7

    says

    I have had a couple frequent flier accounts for over 20 years. I usually use the miles for overseas flights where I get the most for my miles. Many airlines do not make it easy to cash in those miles, but I try to travel at off times.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      I have accounts with almost all the major airlines, but I never use them anymore. When I fly, I just don’t bother because the points/miles expire before I can accrue enough to earn anything.

  4. 9

    Frugal pediatrician says

    I had 21000 on aa with no plans to accrue more and they expire in 2 months. Was able to get a free hyatt room in Monterey for summer driving holiday for 15000. Only cost is $10. Never thought to do this before. Love your posts.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      That’s cool! I’ve stayed at the Hyatt in Monterey on many occasions. In fact, I was there for a whole week this past January.

      And I’m glad you enjoy the posts. I hope you’ll become a regular reader here!

  5. 11

    says

    The only reason why I’d consider signing up is if I got a free sign up bonus of a free ticket or upgrade or something like that. Otherwise there are too many actual frequent fliers who would always outrank me and I’d never accumulate enough miles for a trip.

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      “there are too many actual frequent fliers who would always outrank me …”

      Tell me about it! Ever notice, at boarding time, after the gate agents are done pre-boarding the Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and other elite members, the plane is 60 percent full?

      I’m not kidding. It’s really kind of comical.

  6. 13

    says

    I’ve been a Delta member for 25 years. I’ve taken a couple of first class trips courtesy of Delta.

    They are only worthwhile ’cause I build up miles with my credit card. It has an annual fee, but if I take advantage of a free companion fare every year (which I do) it more than makes up the cost. I’ll be using a free ticket to Fincon12!

  7. 14

    says

    I agree. Frequent flier programs don’t even always benefit frequent fliers such as myself. Unless you find yourself flying out on a daily basis, you’re not going to benefit from such programs.

    I travel every two weeks, mostly from Central USA to the East or West coasts, depending on my work. I haven’t signed up for any frequent flier programs because I feel it would result in me becoming loyal to a particular airline. Since prices are so flexible, I just look for the cheapest fares, regardless of the airline.

    BTW, Delta’s miles don’t expire ever, but their value is much less than American Airlines.

    Regards,

    Pat

  8. 15

    says

    If your program is not attached to credit card, isn’t it free of charge to join? Why wouldn’t you join a free program where you may happen to use your miles. Flights are not the only things redeemable.

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      For infrequent fliers, Romeo, the miles expire too quickly. So in the end, it becomes extremely difficult to redeem for anything decent. Believe me, I speak from experience here.

      I realize people who appreciate redeeming their expiring points/miles for one-year subscriptions to second-rate magazines will disagree with me, but for me it’s not worth the hassle — or the junk mail that often results from signing up for these programs.

  9. 17

    says

    I set a Google Calendar alert to remind me about 2 weeks before my miles are about to expire. Then I simply log in to the frequent flier program’s website, click on “earn miles,” and use their mileage shopping program to buy something small that I would have needed anyway, like a Target gift card. This keeps the miles from expiring, and it only takes a few minutes.

  10. 19

    Phil says

    You have to sign up for one that has miles that do not expire like southwest. I don’t fly much for work, but I do stay in hotels atleast two nights a month and I get flight miles in addition to my hotel points whenever I stay.

  11. 20

    Daira says

    How can you book a free hotel with FF miles? I have USAirways FF miles, but no clue how to pay for hotel with them. Do I need to call the US air (but they’ll charge for booking on the phone) or can I do it online cheaper?
    Thanks

    • 21

      Len Penzo says

      I don’t know, Daira. Try the US Airways Dividend Miles Service Center. Their number is 800-428-4322.

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