Travelers are often bombarded with requests to join loyalty programs when they fly with a new airline, and these programs sometimes seem like a great way to claim a status and earn flights with an airline. But, are these perks worth it? Does it cost more in the long run trying to earn enough points with an airline for the free flight than if you just booked a cheaper flight to begin with? Are the free flights worth the aggravation of trying to find availability? Read on for our take on whether or not frequent flyer programs are a bargain or just a scheme airlines use to gouge their loyal customers.
How loyalty programs have changed over the years
Loyalty seems to be an arcane idea when it comes to businesses. Where loyalty programs used to reward travelers for the actual miles they flew with one particular airline (hence the names frequent flyer miles and loyalty miles,) now it’s all about the money. With many programs newly revamped, you now earn points based on how much you spend on your flights, not how frequently or how often you fly brand loyal. This tactic rewards high spending business travelers and tends to make it more difficult for the average traveler to earn much, if anything, at all. Families used to be able to fly together just a couple of times a year and earn enough miles to get a free flight. But now a family would have to spend up to four to ten times more on flights annually (with just one brand, mind you) to earn that same free ticket. Not all loyalty programs have switched to this format, fortunately. Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and Southwest are still good at making their customers content with their loyalty programs.
Loyalty vs. best individual flight price
If you’re a business traveler or you’re able to always fly one of the above-mentioned airlines (Alaska Airlines, JetBlue or Southwest) then you’ll probably be pretty satisfied with joining a loyalty program. If you only fly a handful of times a year, though, experience has proven that you’re better off scouring the web for the best prices with whatever combination of airlines gives you the best deal. When you are tied to a loyalty program, you’ll tend to remain brand loyal, unfortunately. Which boils down to the fact that you’ll probably pay more for your flight and then possibly never accrue enough points to redeem them for anything worthwhile before they expire. There’s also the fact that if you do earn a free flight, working around blackout dates can be frustrating, to say the least. So much for loyalty, am I right? But, remember that these frequent flyer programs are free to join, so if you find that you’re loyal to a particular airline anyway, it couldn’t hurt to sign up with them just to try and earn as much as possible.
Are travel credit cards the same thing?
Some airlines have partnered with credit cards to offer perks to brand-loyal customers. They promise huge sign-on bonuses and perks for being a cardholder, like free baggage check or priority boarding. Like most things in life, though, these are a good fit for some people and not for others. I’m a huge advocate for credit cards that offer miles and points redeemable for free travel, especially those that offer substantial sign-up bonuses that equate to a free flight right off the bat. But, I always caution that you do your due diligence. Research a few cards first and make sure you understand the requirements for earning points. Some cards stipulate that you must spend at least $3,000 in the first 60 days in order to earn your bonus, so please read the fine print. But, if you find that this option is for you, the earning scale and bonuses are leaps and bounds beyond that of loyalty programs. There are fewer restrictions when it comes to redeeming credit card points and with some programs, you can accrue points for hotels and other traveling expenses instead of just flights! If you have good credit and you’re not going to go into debt opening a new credit card account, I truly think that rewards credit cards are the way to go.