Frequent flyer programs may be changing

June 18, 2009 2:48:14 PM PDT
If you have a bunch of frequent flyer miles just sitting around, you may want to use them. Reward programs are being cut or pared down by credit card companies, and miles programs have some changes coming their way too.

Beginning in July, some airlines will start charging you when you use frequent flyer miles to upgrade a ticket. In some cases, that charge will be up to $500! And if you're using your miles to book a free flight, Consumer Reports Magazine says, "Not so fast!" Sometimes you're better off just paying cash.

Frequent flyer Brett Perrine's family enjoyed their trip to California, and most of them flew there for free.

"We had 15 of us, and I utilized probably about 10 trips with miles," Perrine said. "It was fantastic!"

But the value of frequent flyer miles is falling. Consumer Reports crunched the numbers and found it's a waste to use your miles on certain flights.

"It's only really worth it to use frequent flyer miles on flights that cost $300 dollars or more," Consumer Reports representative Greg Daugherty said.

Unfortunately, taking a trip with frequent flyer miles is still a real challenge. According to webflyer.com, travelers are most likely to have success redeeming miles with Midwest Airlines at 69 percent, followed by U.S. Airways at 67 percent.

In order to get the flight you want, Consumer Reports says book early and have flexible travel dates.

And if you don't have enough miles to travel, most airlines allow family and friends to transfer miles to one another, but that can cost you, so be sure to check the airlines' rules. And what happens to your miles if the airline goes bankrupt?

"If it's a major carrier, your frequent flyer program will probably be bought by another major airline and you won't lose your miles, so it usually makes sense to join the big carriers' programs," Daugherty explained.

With frequent flyer programs, if you want to get a seat on a domestic flight without worrying about blackout dates or getting bumped, you can use twice the usual miles. But Consumer Reports says this option makes sense only if the airfare is over $600.

For Perrine, a wisely used frequent flyer account is a great thing to have.

"I used it for many vacations," he said. "I used it on business travel. [There are] countless things I utilize miles for."

Webflyer.com found that Continental Airlines passengers report a 42 percent success rate for using frequent flyer miles, and Southwest Airlines passengers report a 62 percent success rate for using frequent flyer miles.

Only about five percent of seats are typically available for frequent flyers, so your success rate may vary. You may have success by going to a different airport. For instance, if you are going to Disney World, look at flying to Tampa rather than Orlando.

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