United follows Delta’s lead on earning miles based on spending

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In a move about as surprising as airline mergers leading to higher fares, United has announced a major change to its frequent flyer program.  It has essentially copied Delta’s move, announced earlier this year, where travelers will earn miles not based on how far they fly, but rather how much they spend.  This new way of earning miles begins March 1, 2015.

This idea has been parsed and debated thoroughly already, so I won’t go into further details here except to say that this hurts anyone flying on discounted economy tickets.  And that’s exactly what Delta and United intended to do.  The only beneficiaries of this change are elite members who fly on expensive economy fares or on paid business and first class fares.  Even elites flying on discounted fares will earn far less miles than before in many cases.

Remember that this change comes on the heels of both Delta and United gutting their frequent flyer programs in other ways.

So if you’re an average traveler and want to get the most value from these programs, what do you do?

  • First, run away screaming from the Delta and United programs. They may think they can live on selling paid premium cabin fares, but the reality is that they need the collective of leisure travelers just as much. Vote with your wallet.
  • American is still a wild card, so be cautious.  It currently has a great and competitive frequent flyer program, but with the US Airways merger underway there is change ahead.  At this point it’s just a question of what kind of change… will they copy the others, or go their own way to seek a competitive advantage?  We’ll have to wait and see on this one.
  • The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan has proven to be a great refuge. In addition to Alaska, you can fly AA and Delta and post your miles to Alaska.  They also have great international partners including Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qantas and others.

There is still tremendous value in frequent flyer programs, but to get the best deal consumers are going to have to really do their homework and understand the differences between the programs.  Choppy and confusing waters lie ahead.  Stay tuned.


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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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