Money Saving Mondays: Frequent Flyer Plans

Big changes are underway at two of the world’s biggest airlines for their frequent flyer plan members

Big changes are underway at two of the world’s biggest airlines for their frequent flyer plan members, and unless you’re a big-spending frequent flyer, they’re likely to make mileage rewards often harder to collect.

Starting Jan. 1, Delta Air Lines moved to a system of crediting frequent flyers with miles according to how much they spent on their ticket, not the distance of their flight. United Airlines is following suit on March 1. And it’s not just that how many miles you get for your 1,200-mile round-trip depends on whether you spent $300 or $500 for the ticket – both airlines are moving to give much richer rewards to their silver, gold, and elite level members, up to 120 percent more miles per dollar than basic economy-fare travelers.

The changes have generated some backlash from travelers. “Realistically, I’d like to keep it the old way,’’ Clint Gharib, an investments expert from Atlanta, said in an interview Friday as he was flying back home from Boston’s Logan International Airport. “I can see the logic behind it. You reward those who pay more for the flight. They get a better reward. So from Delta's standpoint, I see it. From a traveler's standpoint, you'd prefer it the other way, I think,’’ Gharib said.

Delta and United say they are trying to offer more ways and options for passengers to redeem mileage credits – something flyers like Derrick Ogletree of Atlanta, a member of its Sky Miles plan, said he has found means navigating around blackout dates and other restrictions when trying to use Sky Miles to fly to his wife’s family in Montana. “You have to do it pretty far in advance, because if you do it like a month or so before, for whatever reason, seats -- you can't get the seats,’’ Ogletree said.

Melisse Hinkle of the travel website said the bottom line with the Delta and United moves is: “The reality for the casual traveler is that the value of frequent flyer miles is changing. It’s becoming harder to cash in on them.’’

Unless you’re a big-spending road warrior, Hinkle said, you generally should abandon hope as an occasional recreational flyer you'll amass enough miles for a free flight. Instead, plan on using what miles you get for smaller scale freebies – “discounts and perks, things like priority boarding, free checked bags. Even if you don't get status, you can still use your miles for potential upgrades’’ to business or first class. Discounted magazine subscriptions and even donations to charitable organizations like Make A Wish are also options for using miles you accrue.

“These programs are starting to become more about discounts and perks,’’ Hinkle said, “than getting a free flight.’’

With video editor Lauren Kleciak and videographer Nik Saragosa.

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