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The trouble with miles is…

“I can’t find any award seats at the basic level!” That remains the top complaint many of you have with airlines these days, and as far as I can tell, the situation is getting worse, not better. The scarcity is bad enough for “free” seats in economy class; it’s even worse for business and first class.

Since I first looked at this question, about a year ago, airlines have continued to tighten the screws on frequent flyers. They’ve increased the mileage required for a few awards. They’ve shortened the time you have to “reset the meter” before your accumulated miles expire. Overall, they’ve made it clear that if you aren’t an elite-level frequent flyer, they really don’t give a damn about you. They’ll take your money, but they have no interest in providing access to the rewards you’ve earned. Given those problems, it’s time for another look at the award situation.

The Fine Print

After losing a few early lawsuits, airline lawyers made sure the airlines obtained and retained full control of frequent flyer programs: Regardless of implied promises, they hold all the cards. They can change award levels and requirements at will; they can and do change other rules whenever they choose. As a frequent flyer, you don’t really “own” your accumulated miles, so you can’t sue to recover them no matter what your airline does. They have no cash value other than the value the airlines choose to give you in any given transaction. Moreover, when you enroll (or renew) in these programs, you sign away any rights you might think you have.

Getting to Be a Scam

In their numerous mileage promotions, the airlines almost always feature the wonderful trips you can get at their basic award schedules. However, they seem to be offering fewer and fewer seats at those levels, at least for popular routes.

To me, the scarcity of base-level award seats has reached the level of a scam. Highlighting base-level awards, even with references to the fine print, is misleading when hardly anyone can claim them. The big lines shower you with offers of miles but shut off the supply of seats to, at best, a trickle. No wonder so many frequent flyers are angry, and no wonder so many of them have switched to collecting other sorts of loyalty rewards.

Double Trouble

For years, the standard basic coach/economy awards have been 25,000 miles for 48-state trips (some lines let you take shorter trips for fewer miles), 35,000 miles for Hawaii, and 40,000 to 60,000 miles for Europe. For the most part, those awards remain as before—and hard to get.

When challenged about stingy seat allocations at the base award levels, the airlines self-righteously refer you to the provision that you can claim any available seat, provided you use double miles—or more than double miles for some trips.

In most cases, the credit required for an any-seat award is double the credit for a limited-seat award. However, there are at least three key instances where that isn’t the case. Continental, Delta, and United all ask for more than double the limited-seat award for a business class any-seat award to Europe. United’s premium is small, but the 250,000-mile requirements on Continental and Delta are really onerous. Other changes:

  • Delta recently announced that it wouldn’t provide even “any seat” awards on some flights.
  • US Airways offers temporary “off-season” base-level mileage reductions to Europe—35,000 miles for economy, 60,000 in business class—but those awards expire February 29.

Partner Lines

For the most part, base-level awards are the same on partner lines as on the program-sponsor lines. As far as I can tell, no program provides double-mileage any-seat awards on partner lines.

The main advantages of partner lines are (1) they typically fly to many places the sponsoring line does not serve and (2) on overlapping routes, they sometimes offer seats when the sponsoring line does not. Any time you’re looking for an award, be sure to check on partner lines—which usually means you have to call rather than book online.

Dealing With It

No matter how “unfair” you might consider the big lines’ frequent flyer policies, the only thing you can do about it is vote with your feet—and forget the miles. Switch from legacy lines to low-fare lines. Switch from airline-sponsored credit cards to cards that earn cash discounts, buy tickets, or give better deals on gasoline or other purchases.

As to using the miles you already have, unless you’re willing to be extremely flexible, figure on using the any-seat award levels. In effect, that choice devalues your mileage accrual by 50 percent or more. But if you can’t find any limited-seat awards, your credit is effectively worthless, so half-value is better than nothing.

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