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Answers to common frequent flyer questions

Whether it’s because of my recent report or the fact that summer vacation travel is in full swing, this week saw a handful of questions about frequent flyer hassles. Here are some of the submissions of greatest general interest.

How many seats?

“Trying to use miles is a joke. I was told that only four seats per plane are available for use. Is this true?”

Not really, although it may seem that way. According to reports required by the government, the big lines generally fill six to eight percent of their seats with travelers using frequent flyer awards. Even on smaller planes, that works out to more than four seats per flight.

But those percentages are averages, over each line’s total system and for a full year. That means no seats at all on some flights on popular routes at popular times, and comparatively more seats on flights that go places most people don’t want to visit.

Moreover, you find a significant difference among the big lines. According to various industry sources, among the giant lines, Delta is stingiest with its free seats; Continental, Northwest, and US Airways are somewhere in the middle, American and United are better, and Southwest is best. That certainly jibes with my experience.

Combining miles on partner airlines

“Can you combine miles you earn on different airlines that belong to the same alliance, such as Star Alliance or oneworld?”

In general, you can’t combine miles you earn on partner lines. Thus, for example, you can’t add Lufthansa points into your United account. You can, however, select one partner line in which you want to build credit, and earn credit in that line’s program through flights on most partner lines. Thus, you can elect to earn United miles when you fly Lufthansa or most of the other Star Alliance members.

There’s one potential problem with this approach, however. As noted in a previous report, foreign lines often do not give full mileage in their U.S. partners’ programs to travelers on the least expensive economy tickets—in some cases, you get no credit at all.

Combining miles on merged lines

“I heard that United is acquiring Aloha. Would I be able to combine frequent flyer miles from both airlines?”

I haven’t heard anything about that merger. Whether or not it happens, there are no “rules” about what happens to frequent flyer miles in a merger.

Over the last several decades, however, almost all airline mergers and acquisitions have included merging the frequent flyer programs and combining credit. That was certainly the case when America West merged with US Airways and when American acquired TWA. Possible loss of mileage would very low on my worry list about any future merger, including such rumored ones as Delta/Northwest.

Giving miles

“Can one give miles to another family member with United?”

American, Delta, Northwest, and United permit you to transfer a limited number of miles each year to another person. To make a transfer, however, you have to pay a fee of one cent per mile plus $25 to $35 per transaction. And since those miles probably aren’t worth more than one cent each, those gifts are a good deal only to top off someone’s account for a specific award. Basically, when you give miles, the airline gets away with selling the miles twice. I couldn’t find any information for Continental or US Airways, but those lines may have similar deal, too.

Bequeathing miles

“Can you will your miles to your heirs?”

Most lines permit you to bequeath miles to your heirs. Check individual lines’ programs for procedures and fees.

Redeposit certificates

“I redeemed miles for a two-week car rental before finding out that the kind of car I needed wasn’t available. Now, I’m stuck with a “free” rental I don’t and am not likely to need. The airline says I can’t redeposit the miles. Can I give the award certificate to someone else?”

There’s no general rule; the answer depends entirely on the fine print on the individual certificate. But if it says “no transfer,” you’re stuck.

Cancelled miles

“US Airways canceled my 130,000 miles because I did not fly for three years. Is this legal?”

Unfortunately, it is. In fact, the situation is even worse than your question indicates. Over the last few years, most of the big lines have reduced the time limit for account even further. If your account shows no activity within 18 months, the airlines will cancel your balance. The airlines claim they provided adequate notice of these changes, but obviously the message didn’t get to everyone.

The only upside is that you can keep your account “active” enough to preserve you miles fairly easily, even if you don’t fly: Buy a few miles or use a few miles for a non-flying award.

Upgrade with bank miles

“I recently bought two coach tickets. Can I use Capital One miles to upgrade the seats?”

No, that’s a big drawback to bank miles—they’re worthless for upgrades and almost worthless for paid premium-class tickets. See my recent report for more details.

Mileage trip insured

“If you buy travel insurance for a trip you take with airline miles, does the insurance reimburse you if you have to cancel?”

Trip-cancellation insurance refunds only what you can’t first get back from the supplier. Since you can redeposit the miles for a cancelled trip—for a small fee—insurance wouldn’t compensate you. However, it would cover any non-airline prepayments you may have made, such as for a vacation rental or cruise, no matter what kind of air ticket you use.

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