Home & Leisure

Around the World: Are Frequent Flyer Tickets Really Free?

Jennifer Merin on

Airlines are often offer irresistibly low discounted fares to many popular destinations, but the best deal is still travel for free--using frequent flyer tickets.
But are frequent flyer tickets really free?  No, sad to say, not really.
You earn frequent flyer miles by meeting airline specified behaviors. They’re rewards for purchase of tickets, for using airline credit cards or buying affiliated products and/or services.

Airlines even refer to earning frequent flyer miles when they tell you what you must do to acquire them.

You use your earned frequent flyer miles to purchase free tickets. Why do we think of frequent flyer tickets as free? Because that ís how the airlines refer to them.

Currently, the cheapest free round trip frequent flyer ticket costs 25,000 miles. Most people who don’t rack up miles with business travel have to work hard to save 25,000 miles. They combine the miles earned from previous ticket purchase with those earned from credit card use and other behaviors--in order to accumulate enough miles to put their families on airplanes for free. 

It is true that when you use frequent flyer miles, you get from point A to point B without paying additional monies--except, that is, for taxes and for whatever fees airlines charge for redeeming the frequent flyer miles you’ve already earned, and for converting them into tickets.

The airlines charge you fees for using something that’s already yours?  Yes, they do.

It used to be that you could consider your frequent flyer miles to be like money in the bank. You earned the, saved them, withdrew them as you wanted or needed to use them.   

But things change and, as we’ve discovered, what airlines giveth, airlines can taketh away.  Even frequent flyer miles.

In fact, airlines keep changing rules regarding acquisition and use of frequent flyer miles. The minimum number of miles required for travel has been raised from the original 20,000 for a round trip coach class ticket to 25,000, and the cost for you to change your frequent flyer ticket once it has been issued has increased from none to a range of charges payable in real money (not in additional frequent flyer miles), and other rules revisions restrict your use of your frequent flyer miles.
Back to the notion that frequent flyer miles are like money in the bank: Banks allow you to withdraw money without paying a fee, and you can redeposit that money without paying a fee, too. Frequent flyer miles are not like money in the bank.
Airlines control allocation of frequent flyer seats on any given flight, and aren’t required to provide a minimum number of frequent flyer seats on any flight. So, even if you meet the requirements and use your miles to buy a frequent flyer ticket, you may not be able to use it. That’s especially true because airlines are cutting back on daily flights, and when fewer seats from point A to point B are available, the number of frequent flyer seats on that route gets cut drastically.

As a solution, airlines offer you the opportunity to spend more frequent flyer miles--40,000, for example--to get a frequent flyer ticket on a flight where there are no frequent flyer seats available for 25,000 miles.

Does that solution redeem airlines’ reputations with frustrated frequent flyer customers who’ve earned their miles through ongoing loyalty to the airline and its credit cards and partners? Not.

When you joined your frequent flyer programs, wasn’t it the airlines’ promises of rewards—their ‘earn free travel’ come on--that lured you into passenger loyalty towards those airlines and their credit cards and other partners? Didn’t you receive documents detailing responsibilities and privileges for participants? Haven’t you fulfilled your obligations as a program member?

Well, in case you haven’t yet realized it, the airlines treat the well-documented rules that govern their frequent flyer programs as one-sided contracts. They can change the rules whenever and however they please, and you can comply--or lose the benefits you’ve earned with customer loyalty.

Unfortunately, not much has been done to cause airlines to behave differently and to honor their promises to the vast numbers of frequent flyers who’s flight plans have been derailed (hint: maybe you’re better off taking the train) by the revision of these one-way contractual commitments.

Not even the Passengers’ Bill Of Rights, designed to protect travelers against misrepresentation and abuse, has resolved ever-increasing frequent flyer discontent.

If frequent flyers haven’t been very assertive in resisting airline changes in their program benefits, maybe it’s because they still think of frequent flyer travel as free. It's harder to complain about something you’re getting for free.  But, again, you’ve earned your miles, and that which is earned is not free.

Just as in ticket pricing, the U.S. airlines are like a flock of pigeons when it comes to frequent flyer program rules. When one takes off, others follow in the same direction. 

American Airlines initiated frequent flyer flight by inventing the first passenger loyalty program. American AAdvantage offers an option to book: one way tickets for half the frequent flyer miles charged for round trip tickets.

Ah, there’s that one way ride, again. This time, it’s to the frequent flyers’ advantage, but the airline also gains. By allowing frequent flyers to empty their accounts at a lower mileage threshold, American Airlines can reduce its outstanding frequent flyer debt.

Frequent flyer debt? Well, in fact, outstanding frequent flyer miles are airline consumer debt. And, airlines opt to change their program rules in ways that assure the reduction of their debt without paying it down--or, in some cases, without paying it at all.

For example, airlines actually foreclose frequent flyer accounts that have not shown activity during an 18 month period. If you don’t fly or buy an airline affiliated product, you forfeit the miles you’ve already earned--even if those miles were earned while following frequent flyer program regulations.
For some airways, it’s frequent flyers, miles today, gone tomorrow--without your ever having set foot on an airplane. The airlines defend their behavior by informing you that you’ve had many opportunities to keep your frequent flyer account active, if not by flying, then by buying from the program’s affiliates. Aside from booking a frequent flyer trip or adding to the balance of your account by purchasing a ticket, you can keep your account from being drained by sending flowers to you mother or dining out. Which would, of course, require you to spend more to be able to retain what you’ve already earned.  And, isn't that nice?

Sponsored Video Stories from LifeZette

Copyright 2018 Jennifer Merin


blog comments powered by Disqus

Social Connections


Zack Hill Nick Anderson Dilbert Intelligent Life Ask Shagg Luann