“Frequent” Is Out of Frequent Flier Programs

I remember the “good old days” of frequent flier programs. In the 80’s, there were lots of promotions, including “triple miles.”

I manipulated that to turn what would have been 2,000 miles for a trip into 12,000 miles by stopping at an intermediate city for an hour, then flying on to my destination on another flight rather than flying direct. So it was 3,000 miles to the first city, another 3,000 miles to the destination and the same on the return trip. At the time, 30,000 miles got you a roundtrip ticket to Europe fr0m the US. Using those promotions, I racked up enough miles for Susie and I to fly to Europe roundtrip twice and I still have about 50,000 miles.

Those were the days of 1,000 minimum miles per flight. If the actual distance was more than that, then you got the actual distance. In the example above, I was flying about 250 miles to Orlando and then maybe another 350 miles to the Ft. Lauderdale or Miami area.

These days, “frequent” has been removed from almost all US airline award programs.  Now, it isn’t how far you fly and certainly not how frequently you fly. It is all about money – how much you paid for the ticket.

The airline I fly most is Southwest. At one time, when it was a “short haul” airline, it did not even use “miles.” Awards were based on “flight segments” regardless of distance. When you achieved 16 flight segments within two years, you received a round trip ticket to any of its destinations.

Southwest now has transcontinental flights. I’ve flown from Florida to Las Vegas, either non-stop or with a change in Nashville, over 25 times. It makes some sense that folks on those long distance flights deserve more recognition than folks flying a short “commuter” flight.

So a few years ago, Southwest did away with flight segments as the basis of awards. But, it still doesn’t use miles, as all other airlines do. Southwest’s system is based “points.” And points are based on ticket price.

Southwest has three types of fares. The bargain fare gets you six points per dollar; the middle fare gets you 10 points per dollar and the top fare gets you 12 points per dollar. So if you buy the bargain fare at a sale price, you don’t get many points.

Presently, Southwest has a $73 sale fare I’m probably going to book. That will get me slightly less than 500 points. The middle fare for the same destination on the same date is about $275, which translates to 2,750 points. Big difference. But I’m not going to pay $200 more for the points. That $200 is almost a one way, non-sale fare to Vegas from Florida.

But there is a “back door.” And that is the points for Southwest’s “partners” such as hotels and rental cars.

The two hotels I stay at most frequently are Southwest partners and points for them are not based on price but on a “stay.” Each stay is worth 750 points and I can often get a price of about $65 a night based on “senior” rate. Which is why, on the way to an upcoming high school reunion in Sarasota, I am going to “stay” one night at one hotel and another night at another hotel. That gives me another 750 points which I’d not get if I stayed at the same hotel two nights in a row because a “stay” is check-in to check-out, regardless of number of nights.

Same with rental cars, although they cannot be manipulated as easily as hotel stays. Eight rental companies are Southwest partners, including the two I use most – Dollar and Alamo. Each rental gets me 600 points. So for that Sarasota reunion, I’ll earn 1,500 points for the two hotel stays and 600 points for the car rental. That’s a total of 2,100 points.

So now we come to redeeming points for free flights. As with earning points, awards are tied to the fare category. For my favorite flight (Florida to Vegas), the points needed depend on when you book compared to when you’ll travel. But Southwest has historically been very good about awarding those free tickets. Unlike most US airline which restricted the number of “free” seats, Southwest’s policy was “if there’s a seat, you’re on the flight.”

Now, you can still get a seat on a non-sold out flight and while there is a points difference it’s not huge. If I want to go to Vegas in October (and I do), I’ll need about 10,000 points if I book now. For a May flight, it’s about 11,000 points but depending on what time I want to depart, it can also be between 12,500 and 15,000 points.

Vegas Strip looking north to center Strip (Paris' Eiffel tower). After 25+ trips, it's my second home.

Vegas south strip looking north to center strip (Paris’ Eiffel tower).

I suspect the other US airlines still have a limit on the number of free seats per flight. Plus, they regularly change the number of miles needed for a free flight.

One airline (Delta) has removed the chart from its website showing how many miles are needed to a destination. To learn that, you need to try to book a free flight on the website. Delta says this procedure gives it flexibility to adjust miles needed for a free flight based on when you want to travel.

So if a flight isn’t filling up, you may get a seat and for lower miles. Which means if you want to travel in the popular summer season, forget it. But if you want to visit Moscow in the dead of winter…welcome aboard!

I’ve done a cost analysis on whether I should continue using hotel stays for Southwest points or for hotel points. I have credit cards tied to hotels and I earn additional hotel points by using those cards at the associated hotels. So I wondered whether I can rack up hotel points for free hotel stays faster and which will be worth more than taking the airline points. And the answer is…

Stay with airline points if the hotel stay is less than three nights. My calculation was that I need 14 stays averaging $70 for a 10,000 point ticket to Vegas. That ticket is worth at least about $225 (non-sale fare)  for about $1,000 in hotel cost. Those 14 hotel stays will earn me about 14,700 hotel points. That’s just short of two free nights and at $70 a night the value is only $140. So I’m ahead by about $80 with airline points.

But if I stay longer than one night, then the hotel points become worth more since I earn more hotel points but no more airline points. Each hotel dollar used for airline points is worth about 2.25 cents if it is just a one night stay. But at three nights, those hotel points are now worth 2.4 cents towards a free night.

Of course, as airline prices and/or points for a free ticket increase, and as hotel prices increase, the cost analysis will need to be updated. Who said flying or staying free was easy? But I’m retired. I’ve got lots of time!

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One response to ““Frequent” Is Out of Frequent Flier Programs

  1. Sadly, this is not only true for US, but also for European airlines. All frequent flyer programs got something like “get revenue back for your money” programs. Especially Lufthansa made many efforts to make its program way less attractive for customers 😦

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