Are frequent flyer programs a scam? I suppose not really, if you’re the heavy traveler, as you can redeem miles for upgrades, free flights, or merchandise discounts. I’m not a heavy traveler, and with the major programs having instituted an expiration date for mileage, you have less time to use it, or lose it. Both One World and the Star Alliance programs had set an expiration date of 18-months since the last activity, retroactive from June 2006, meaning the first chance to expire would have been December 2007, which is what happened to me.
I lost all the miles in my One World account, which included airlines such as American Airlines and Qantas, which are handy for Australian travelers. I still have the miles on my record, but they cannot be redeemed for anything. how many did I lose? 24,934 miles are gone. I was 66 miles away from the 25,000 mark, which is often the minimum for a free flight. I wasn’t about to take a flight just to keep the miles, and I don’t know when I’ll be heading back to Australia, so they may not have been that useful anyway. It seems that the main factor in deciding which airline to use is whichever offers the cheapest fares with reasonable flight times (no major layovers). For example, on the way home from Australia in January 2005, I flew with United Airlines, which flew direct from Sydney to San Francisco (Qantas offers this route now, but not at the time). Instead of the direct, 15-hour flight, I could have saved $150 to go from Sydney to Honolulu, to Vancouver, to San Francisco, which would have taken a total of 24 hours. 9 more hours to save $150 and risk losing luggage with all the extra transfers is unfeasible.
So now my main program is the Star Alliance, primarily United Airlines (I have more miles accrued here anyway). I used Air New Zealand to go from Tahiti to Auckland to Sydney, just to rack up more miles with that program, since I was using United to fly home after the trip. At time time, there was no other real choice for domestic flights other than Qantas, which is good anyway. If I ever get the chance to go to Europe, Lufthansa has some of the best fares, and comfort and amenities are not concerns for me. My as-yet-unplanned cross-country Canada trip around the Winter Olympics in 2010 may make use of Air Canada, as I’ve found that those fares are comparable with both bus and train tickets, and get you there in less time. Occasionally I get bonus miles from external programs, which resets the 18-month period.
I also have somewhat dormant account with Delta, Frontier, and Continental. That last one was used twice last year to go to Panama and Pittsburgh, but I started it after I got home from Panama, and they want $50 to apply retroactive mileage, no thanks. Other programs let you apply for credit for flights taken within the previous six months. Frontier Airlines was used once, to and from Austin, Texas in 2005. If I want to send/gift that mileage to a friend, it would cost more than the value of those miles when redeemed. For the most part, I join the program if I’m going to use their services, as it’s free and I’m on enough junk mail lists that they probably overlap by now.
But being that close and losing it all is unfortunate. I’m sure the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots know the feeling.