By Ed Perkins

Frequent flyer miles no longer have much if anything to do with loyalty: Instead, they've become a strange sort of currency that you don't really own and has value that is at the whim of the airline. Unless you fly a lot, it's time to re-think your frequent flyer plans.

The disconnect between loyalty and miles stopped me short recently when I tried to redeem some United miles for an upcoming trip to New York. My expense allowance covered an economy ticket, but I wanted to upgrade it with frequent flyer miles. It didn't work: (1) I found a good itinerary, with reasonable fares, for flights tagged as "upgrade eligible." (2) But the Website wouldn't tell me if any upgrade seats were available at the time of booking; instead, I had to book first and then try for an upgrade. (3) When I called an agent to ask about flights on which an upgrade was actually available, the agent told me "we have no upgrades on any flights between Medford and New York on those dates."

What happened to those "eligible" upgrades? What the agent left out was, "We have upgrades, but only for travelers with more clout than you have." Actually, United is carefully doling them out -- not to anyone who has the miles, but selectively to travelers with high program status, travelers on expensive tickets, or -- best of all -- high-status travelers on expensive tickets. If I bought a nonrefundable economy ticket, I could keep checking to see if an upgrade became available close to flight time, and I might actually get it, but there was no way I could be sure in advance of scoring the seat I wanted. United is upfront about this rationing system: It's spelled out on United's Website. And although my objective was an upgrade, I suspect that all United's frequent flyer flight awards -- economy seats, premium seats, and upgrades -- are subject to the same sort of discrimination.

It wasn't always that way; earlier, the deal was that if you have the miles and seats are available in the relevant "bucket," you could confirm the seat or upgrade. But that's changed -- on other lines as well as United. As far as I can tell, all the big lines do about the same. Alaska, for example, doesn't even pretend to offer upgrades to travelers on cheap tickets.

What's happening is clear: Miles, as such, now neither measure nor reward airline loyalty. Because so many of you "earn" airline miles through credit cards, an accumulation of miles no longer demonstrates -- to you or the airline -- any degree of reciprocity in loyalty. Instead, one way or another, you buy those miles, occasionally by direct purchase, but more often in the prices and fees you pay third parties, hoping you can use them for travel.

Airlines still use frequent flyer programs to coddle loyal customers, but miles, in themselves, no longer represent the loyalty reward. Instead, they're just a currency. The real rewards -- easy access to award seats and upgrades, extra baggage allowances, entry into special lounges, standby priority, and such -- are determined by frequent flyer status and the amount of money spent on tickets. Status still depends on miles, but only the "qualifying" miles earned by actually flying; those credit-card miles don't count. And the airline easily tracks spending. Agents have access to that information when they make decisions that affect any aspect of your trip. And the net result is that each mile held by a high-status traveler is worth more -- much more -- than each of your miles.

If you're looking for premium seats or upgrades, you have to stick with the airlines' miles, even though the deck is stacked against you. But if you want "free" travel in economy, unless you fly a lot, I now recommend that you switch from miles to some form of less discriminatory currency -- like cash back -- from your credit card.


© Ed Perkins

Travel | Frequent Flyer Miles: Currency, not Loyalty