June 17, 2007

Are your frequent flier miles at risk?

To add the program of the advantage of American Airlines to the list every greater time of the programs of the frequent-aviator that are confiscating miles of their less frequent clients.

One by one, the major carriers have been changing their rules, first wiping out accumulated miles on accounts with no activity for three years, and now cutting that deadline to 18 months.

The saying use 'em or lose 'em, refers to vacation days, but it is equally appropriate now to describe frequent-flier miles.

When these programs started in the early 1980s, miles had no expiration, so occasional travelers could participate and they had as much time as needed to accumulate enough points for a trip to Europe or Hawaii.

All that is changing as the major airlines attempt to reward only their most loyal customers and to clean occasional travelers out of their files. That means if you have miles squirreled away for some future trip, and your account has had no recent activity, check with the airline immediately to see where you stand and what you can do to preserve those miles.

Unfamiliar with frequent-flier programs? The rules are simple.

Sign up, and for every mile you fly on a specific airline, you get a point; business- and first-class tickets earn bonus points. You can also add points by patronizing rental car companies, hotels and other businesses that partner with the airlines.

In addition, most programs have tie-ins with credit cards, so each dollar charged earns points.

When you get enough points, you trade them in for free flights or upgrades on the airline.

You can also earn miles through dozens of corporate partners and co-branded credit cards, to amass frequent-flier points without getting near an airport.

"For people who are genuine frequent fliers, the new rules are not going to cause any particular problems," said Tim Winship, publisher of Los Angeles-based FrequentFlier.com, which tracks loyalty programs.

For others, the key will be cashing in by patronizing any of the participating partners, he said.

A constant since the programs began, as the small print says, is that rules and miles needed for specific awards are subject to change at any time.

That's not always bad. At one time you needed 50,000 or 60,000 miles for a free domestic flight, but that has been lowered to as little as 25,000.

But the recent trend has been to oust not-so-frequent fliers. That is certainly their right, but some carriers need to do a better job of informing customers.

That's especially true at United Airlines, which notified participants in its United Mileage Plus program in February that "accounts that have not earned or redeemed miles since July 1, 2006, will have associated miles expire on December 31, 2007.

That it looks like direct pretty, but it is not, as one of my colleagues discovered recently.

Expecting that the miles would expire at year's end, he decided to cash them in to fly to Chicago to watch a Cubs game this summer.

Fortunately, he made the call on May 31, because miles he accumulated before July 1, 2006 – his last flight was on May 31, 2004 – were due to expire on that very day. That change was made under an earlier rules change that imposed a three-year limit on inactive accounts, but there was nothing in the February message about that critical fact.

Now United is down to 18 months as has happened previously with US Airways and, as of this month, American. At least American did a good job of spelling the rules out clearly, so customers know exactly where they stood.

Delta Airlines started the latest round of cuts when it imposed a two-year limit last year.

One major holdout, at least for now, is Continental Airlines, the biggest carrier at Newark Liberty International Airport. The airline "does reserve the right" to cancel inactive memberships, spokeswoman Julie King said.

"It's part of the official program rules, but it has never happened, never been implemented -- it's not a practice," she said. If there is a change, there will be "significant communications to members."

If you have soon-to-expire miles with any of the major carriers, act now to protect them.

The most obvious way is to fly somewhere, but that's not required. The new rules say only that you need "activity" in your account and that can come by doing business with one of the airline's travel partners.

Initially that included related industries, such as a hotel or car rental company, but you'll now find everything from mortgage companies to florists participating.

Included are Macy's, Overstock.com, FTD, Staples, Best Buy, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble, Lands' End, Netflix, and Toys "R" Us. Enter your frequent-flier number when making a purchase and you'll get extra miles while activating your account for another 18 months or more.

One critical reminder: These are online merchants, not their bricks-and-mortar cousins, and you must access them through your carrier's Web site to earn miles, Winship said.

By Kevin Demarrais, Record Columnist
The full of this article's can be read on the source at: www.northjersey.com

No comments: