The world’s most useless frequent flier programs revealed

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

That’s the takeaway from a new survey by website MileCards.com, 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.

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.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • whatup12

    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.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    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.

  • whatup12

    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…

  • whatup12

    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.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    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.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    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.

  • TonyA_says

    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? :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    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.

    Sometimes.

    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.

  • TonyA_says

    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.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    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.

  • jerryatric

    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.
    Cheers

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    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.

  • TonyA_says

    Oops I was looking at Virgin Atlantic, sorry :-)

  • BMG4ME

    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.

  • bodega3

    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.

  • bodega3

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

  • bodega3

    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.

  • whatup12

    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!

  • whatup12

    interesting–doesn’t delta own 49% of virgin atlantic now?

  • Travelnut

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

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  • FQTVLR

    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.

  • FQTVLR

    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.

  • Lindabator

    If far enough in advance, you CAN get the best deals on FF miles

  • Mel65

    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!

  • FQTVLR

    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.

  • ShrimpBoy

    ““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.

  • Mark Carrara

    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.

  • Mark Carrara

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

  • mikegun

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

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    people in general expect too much form 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 US 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.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Jim, after following up with you on this, I’ve published your story: http://consumertraveler.com/columns/thats-ridiculous/why-wont-american-airlines-take-my-money/

  • sunshipballoons

    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.

  • katie

    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.