Frequent-flier programs grow more stingy


The more, the merrier.

That's been the longtime philosophy of airline frequent-flier programs, but it's starting to change.

It's true there are more opportunities than ever before to earn mileage bonuses. Affinity credit cards featuring frequent-flier miles for purchases are proliferating. Long-distance carriers AT&T;, MCI Communications and Sprint have entered the fray with generous award programs. Hotels and nontravel businesses such as FTD Florists are serving up deals with selected carriers.

At the same time, however, airlines are becoming stingier with these attractive travel awards.

All of the large frequent-flier programs, with the exception of Trans World Airlines, beginning in 1995 will boost the 20,000 mile award required for a domestic ticket to 25,000. Since more than 90 percent of all awards are redeemed at the 20,000 level, this move will mostly affect people who don't rack up mega-miles each year.

In addition, program members are finding fewer seats allocated to frequent fliers on many flights. If those seats are filled, you don't get a frequent-flier seat, even if the plane is otherwise empty. This, added to the traditional blackout dates during peak travel periods and the greater number of program members competing for seats, makes it more difficult to use awards for trips.

Toss in the fact that a number of frequent-flier programs have "dated" miles that expire every three years, and it's obvious the consumer must be ever vigilant to get the most out of frequent flying these days.

"If you're quite serious about earning a free ticket and you're not a 50,000-miles-a-year flier, you definitely need to concentrate on one program," advised Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer magazine. "Figure out what you want from a program and choose the right one for you, based upon its routes, features and your likelihood of amassing the most awards."

(It costs $33 for a one-year subscription to the monthly InsideFlyer magazine, 4715-C Town Center Drive, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80916-4709.)

Develop a strategy and keep abreast of constantly changing program rules and deals.

"It's important to plan well in advance so that you know you've really got the frequent-flier seats before you make any additional arrangements for your trip, such as putting down hotel deposits," counseled Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "Next, keep your eyes on all frequent-flier program bulletins, for there are always specials and deals coming along."

Make your judgments based upon the actual value of your frequent-flier miles. It's estimated that each airline mile earned is worth about two cents, Perkins notes, and airlines sell mileage back and forth among themselves for about one cent. Keeping that in mind, you can decide whether one opportunity offering a specific number of frequent-flier miles is really a much better deal than one that doesn't offer miles.

(It costs $39 for a one-year subscription to the monthly Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Box 53629, Boulder, Colo. 80322-3629.)

Northwest Airlines WorldPerks is rated by the experts as one of the more generous frequent-flier programs, due to its liberal seat-upgrade policies, extensive international route system and affiliation with partners such as MCI Communications, Visa, Diners Club, Holiday Inn, Hyatt and Marriott.

"Because our international awards structure requires less mileage than some of the other carrier programs to go to places such as Europe and Asia, we've gained a lot of notoriety," added Donald Schmitt, marketing director for Northwest Airlines WorldPerks.

"Furthermore, this year we've got a special domestic promotion running in which the traveler gains an extra 500 frequent-flier miles each time he takes a connecting Northwest flight on his trip," he said.

The 23 million-member American Airlines AAdvantage program has gained attention with its Citibank affinity card, partnerships with MCI and Diners Club and the new FTD Florists program in which extra frequent-flier miles are awarded for flower purchases.

"The cardinal rule of frequent-flier programs is to earn miles in as many ways as possible, and we offer plenty of them," concluded Bruce Chemel, marketing director for AAdvantage.

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