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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Frequent Flyer Programs

According to the ATA, a relatively small group of travelers (the frequent flyers who take more than 10 trips a year) account for a significant portion of air travel. Although these flyers represent only 8% of the total number of passengers flying in a given year, they make up about 40% of the trips. To entice these heavy-spending customers, the airlines have created incentive-based frequent flyer programs.

Almost every airline has some sort of frequent flyer program. These programs range from the incomprehensibly complicated to the sublimely simple. At their most basic, these programs award miles or credits based on the amount you fly—or, in some cases, on the amount you spend. (That is, discounted fares receive less credit than full-priced fares.) At publication, Continental and Delta's programs were structured this way. You can use these miles or credits to "purchase" free travel or other awards.

In our review of each airline we provide a summary of the basic features of the airline's frequent flyer program. In the case of the major airlines, this information is just the tip of the iceberg. This information includes

  • Earning miles or points—The basis on which the amount of mileage credit awarded is determined.

  • Awards redemption—The number of miles or points required to redeem a round-trip domestic coach class flight award.

  • Elite level programs—These programs require travelers to fly a minimum number of miles each year and in return give their members succulent benefits that disappear if the traveler wanes in his or her loyalty to the airline. These elite member benefits often include

    • Reduced fees for airline club membership

    • Mileage bonus awards

    • Priority boarding

    • Special check-in privileges

    • Earned upgrade points or complimentary upgrades

    • Preferred seating

    • Priority wait listing

    • Waiver of change and cancellation fees

  • Partners—Companies that participate in the airline's frequent flyer program by allowing travelers to earn mileage credit by using their services; these partners also offer awards for redemption, such as free hotel stays or merchandise.

  • Rules and charges—The most important of which are mileage expiration time periods and award redemption service charges. (For example, Delta miles expire in three years if your account does not show activity, whereas credits earned on Southwest expire after one year.)

Numerous publications and Web sites provide information and advice about these programs. These include Inside Flyer magazine (http://www.insideflyer.com) and its affiliated Web site (http://www.webflyer.com). Inside Flyer also sponsors the annual Freddie Awards (http://www.freddieawards.com), which ranks the airlines' frequent flyer programs. Consumer Reports recently published a Feature Report on frequent flyer programs that is highly recommended. You can find this report on http://www.consumerreports.org. One of the report's conclusions is that airlines have begun to make it more difficult to use miles—or, in other words, miles are less valuable than they used to be.

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