Are frequent flyer programs dying?

With all of the recent cutbacks in the airline industry, frequent flyer programs are taking a beating. While passenger loyalty rewards are a great perk to air travel, any freebies given away by the carriers cut into the bottom line — a mark that has fallen under intense scrutiny over the last six months.

To mitigate some of the loss from award mileage and ticket redemptions, airlines are making it harder and more expensive to use to earn and use your miles. Just last month, Delta Airlines instituted a fuel surcharge for booking an award flight; now in addition to taxes that you pay for that ticket you’ll have to pony up up to fifty dollars for the privilege of booking it. Others, like American Airlines, are increasing the number of miles that you have to redeem for certain tickets and charging an additional fee to upgrade your seats into a higher class.

All of these changes are provoking industry analysts to worry about the future of frequent flier programs. George Hobica, founder of, points out that some alternative reward credit cards are now more beneficial then keeping a miles card. Others, like Clark Howard point to the devaluing mile and wonder if it’s even worth accruing miles at all, saying “Don’t waste any effort chasing frequent flyer miles, which are like fool’s gold.”

Is the situation really this dire?For the casual traveler, it may be. Those of you who only fly once in a while and slowly earn miles up to a free ticket every five or ten years may see their award programs changed or their miles devalued from under their feet — such is the nature of business in a tight, evolving industry.

But for the acute traveler, there are many many reasons to still keep banking miles. Elite status, the key to getting upgrades, better seats and more miles is still a huge part of any mileage program and is still worth attaining. And there are still many uses for your miles — even if those avenues are harder to approach. Patience, timing and strategy play a critical role in making the correct award booking and with the right perspective it’s still possible — if not easy — to find award tickets.

If you want to bore down into the nitty gritty of making your miles work for you, here’s a tip: think about how much you travel and think about how much time you want to devote to working the system. If mile accrual is an every-so-often occurrence and you’re having a hard enough time finding a chance to cook dinner, you might want to relax, have a couple of bottles of wine and ask your neighborhood geek to look into your miles situation.

Alternatively, if you’re a 150k mile/year earner with some time at the airport lounge, orient yourself with Flyertalk, Airfarewatchdog and your local airline’s website. You’ll quickly learn how to best apply your miles.

Just don’t stop plugging your frequent flyer number into your reservations — trust me, it’s worth it.