As George Clooney’s frequent flier miles-hoarding character says in “Up in the Air,” “The miles are the goal.” But for real-life travelers accustomed to racking up as many miles as possible to earn heavily discounted (or completely free) fares, that goal is getting far more elusive. Last week United Airlines announced that starting next year, it will calculate loyalty rewards points, or miles, based on how much fliers pay per ticket, instead of how many actual miles they fly. Delta recently announced a similar change to its program.
United’s changes to its frequent flier program are expected to hurt budget-conscious travelers (Photo: Getty Images)
“It’s a net loss for consumers,” says Brian Kelly, founder of the travel blog, The Points Guy. He notes that the airlines’ new rewards policies will primarily benefit the big-spending business and first-class customers who pay top dollar to fly short distances. “But in general,” Kelly says ominously, “the flying public will earn less miles.”
But fear not, weary traveler. In the airlines’ new world order, loyalty rewards travel is still possible for the budget-conscious traveler who wants to boost their points totals but can’t afford to do so by buying $1,000 first-class tickets to Omaha. So as airlines continue to get stingy with their points, here are five tips on how to pad your frequent-flier balance, Clooney-style.
Time to fire-up those laptops! Free rewards travel under the new airline policies is going to require more time and effort than ever. “If you want to get a mortgage, you can’t just Google ‘best mortgage’ ‘give it to me now,’” Kelly says. “Sometimes you have to do work, people! And it’s the same with points.” As airlines get more creative in how they award their loyalty points, you need to get more creative in how you research, manage, and accrue them.
GET THE RIGHT CREDIT CARD
The first place to start is your credit card. While your ability to earn points by flying on your favorite airline has changed, your ability to earn points by using your credit card — points you can potentially use for air travel — has not. “To this day, the most lucrative way to earn points is to credit card spend,” Kelly says.
Credit cards are the key to maximizing your rewards points (Photo: Getty Images)
Many credit cards give you thousands of bonus points right off the bat just for signing up, plus additional points based on how much you spend in various categories (i.e., bonus points for using the card at gas stations, grocery stores, etc.). And credit card programs like American Express’ Membership Rewards allow you to transfer your points to various travel rewards programs. Says Kelly: “You’ve got to get into programs that allow you to accrue points into a central pool and then transfer to a number of different partners – including airlines and hotels.” That means finding the card that best lets you earn those transferrable points.
IT MAY BE TIME TO FIRE YOUR AIRLINE
When Clooney’s “Up in the Air” character wasn’t hoarding miles, he was firing people for a living. Similarly, it might be time for you to fire someone: your miles-stingy airline. “This is the time to reevaluate your loyalty and double down on the programs that reward you,” Kelly says. “Switch your airline if you don’t feel like they’re rewarding you.”
American will be the last of the Big 3 airlines to award points based on miles flown (Photo: Aero Icarus/Flickr)
Of course, finding a generous new airline may seem easier said than done. Not only have United and Delta announced plans to tighten up their rewards programs, so have Southwest and JetBlue. But Kelly isn’t one of those pessimists who believe it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the airlines follow suit. Take the chosen airline of Clooney’s “Up in the Air” character. American Airlines is one of the remaining airlines that still awards points based on the increasingly old-fashioned miles flown formula (Alaska Airlines is another). Kelly is cautiously optimistic that American will, for now at least, keep the status quo. “Consumers generally aren’t happy with [United and Delta’s] new rules,” Kelly says. “So I can see American using this as a competitive advantage.” Time will tell how long that lasts. But for now, if your airline of choice has tightened its rewards programs, it might be time to give other airlines a look.
SAMPLE THE ENTIRE REWARDS BUFFET
Just because they’re called loyalty rewards points doesn’t mean you have to be loyal to one single rewards program. A virtual buffet of options is available and you should take advantage of them. “If you just accrue points with one airline, you’re over-exposing yourself to what inevitably will be another negative announcement down the line,” Kelly warns. He suggests you make sure the programs through which you earn your points allow you to transfer to the widest number of partner airlines, hotels, etc. Consider it a hedge against draconian rules changes like the one United just announced. “Double down on a points program that gives you flexibility,” Kelly says, “and gives you airline partners so that even if one of them makes a bad change you’ll still have 30 other options.”
There are a lot of rewards programs out there and a lot of changing rules to keep on top of. Before you get overwhelmed and drop out of the frequent flier miles game altogether, remember that it’s still a game very much worth playing. United and Delta’s new policies change only how airlines give out points; the travel perks you can get with those points remain just as tempting as ever (in fact, United plans to offer additional perks, such as Economy Plus seats, that customers can purchase with their miles). Sure, it might be more challenging to hit the 10 million miles goal Clooney had in “Up in the Air.” But a free rewards ticket is still attainable for travelers on a budget, even as airlines get more miserly. “I’m not a doomsayer,” Kelly says. “Yes, the game will change. The game has always changed. But if you stay ahead of it, that’s how you win.”