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Frequent-Flyer Status Changes

In recent months, giant airlines have made some big changes to their frequent-flyer programs, affecting earning and award schedules. Over the years, most changes have had a negative impact on ordinary travelers, and the recent ones are no different. 

American has just weighed in with its rules, effective June 1. American’s changes center on the award side, not the earning side. The big change is that the award chart goes from the original two levels—saver and anytime—to as many as five: saver level 1, saver level 2, anytime level 1, anytime level 2, and anytime level 3. Anytime level 3 awards, however, are “offered on a few select dates and will require higher number of miles to redeem,” and saver level 1 is available on only a few routes. New mileages for the most popular awards shown as thousands (K), for round-trip travel; half-mileage round-trips are available on all awards:

  • Domestic 48-state coach, saver level 2, 25K; anytime level 1, 40K, level 2, 60K.
  • Domestic 48-state first class on two-class planes, business class on three-class planes, saver level 2, 50K, anytime level 1, 90K, anytime level 3, 110K.
  • Hawaii coach, saver level 1, 35K, saver level 2, 45K, anytime level 1, 80K, anytime level 2, 100K.
  • Hawaii first/business, saver level 2, 75K, anytime level 1, 135K, anytime level 2, 180K.
  • Europe economy saver level 1, 40K, level 2, 60K; anytime level 1, 90K, level 2 130K.
  • Europe business saver level 2, 100K; anytime level 1, 220K, level 2, 270K.

In general, most mileage levels remain pretty much as before; the level 1 anytime 48-state coach award is actually lower than the previous anytime level. But business/first class anytime awards are up for travel to Europe.

The award chart for airlines in the Oneworld alliance and other partner lines generally parallels the new American chart. The Oneworld chart shows separate economy awards for off peak and peak rather than level 1 and 2, but the net effect is the same.

As with other lines, upgrading has become a questionable use of miles. Upgrading the least expensive qualifying domestic 48-state coach ticket requires 30K miles plus a $150 fee, compared with a first-class award for 50K miles. Still, upgrade seats may be a bit easier to score, and you earn the miles on the paid ticket.

One big change in rules: no more stopover at a U.S. gateway on international award travel—a loss if you like to break trips from the West Coast to Europe or from the East Coast to Asia. Other changes align minor differences between the former American and US Airways plans.

All in all, the result could have been a lot worse. American did not change the earning basis from miles flown to dollars paid—a big advantage for leisure travelers. The few saver level 1 options remain attractive, but only if you can actually score any seats at that level.

As noted, Delta previously announced a big change starting in 2015. Earning will be based on how much you pay for your ticket. And, like American, Delta will have five award levels. The new mileages for coach/economy are mostly the same as before for levels 1, 3, and 5, with new intermediate levels 2 and 4. The low-standard levels for business/first travel are slightly lower. But, as always with Delta, the question isn’t the miles, it’s about getting seats. Delta promises more seats, but I’ll believe that when I try it.

Southwest bases the credit you earn on the amount you pay and based award travel by exchanging points by “buying” award trips with miles at prices based on available fares. Southwest devalued its points last year, with nothing new for this year. United also updated earlier.

And, as always, the big question—unanswered, of course—is the extent to which saver award seats will be available on popular routes. But, at least for now, leisure travelers are certainly better off with American, Southwest, or United than with Delta, on both the earning and award sides of the question.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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