Airline points are tempting for lovers of cheap travel, especially once you’ve heard their many success stories. Folks have enjoyed free first-class flights to exotic destinations for next to nothing after racking up miles — and sometimes after just signing up for a rewards-program credit card.
But there are horror stories, or at the very least common complaints, about airline points programs as well. They sometimes get a bad rap thanks to blackout dates, devaluation, loopholes, the amount of work it can take to cash in responsibly, and other concerns.
One front-and-center area of contention is the fact that the “big three” — American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines — have all been revamping their loyalty programs. The most commonly cited switch is from a mileage-based rewards system to a revenue-based one within the last year or so. As the names suggest, this means points or miles are offered in relation to how much customers spend on a flight, as opposed to the distance they are flying.
The switch has been shown to devalue airline points and, in a sense, also penalizes customers for finding great deals. The switch in the AAdvantage program, for example, resulted in general members seeing their rewards cut in half, and also comes as major airlines pare back privileges.
Smaller airlines still offer mileage-based rewards, but those often come with their own limitations. Many fly to limited destinations, for example. In such cases, it’s important to weigh how loyal you are to a particular airline and how well their destinations align with your travel plans or goals before committing to a program.
This is especially true if the program come with an annual fee and other perks. Travelers who actually use all the perks — like an airline-specific lounge, early boarding, free checked bags, and so on — naturally may find the rewards system more worthwhile. The best approach is to calculate what the costs would be out of pockets for all perks you plan to use, and then weigh the total for various airlines against their loyalty fees. Most airlines break out fees on their websites, which makes this process pretty straightforward.
The Virgin America Visa Signature Card, for instance, offers early boarding, airline points for general spending, and other perks for $150. But for travelers who wouldn’t opt to pay for those amenities out of pocket and who want a wider range of destinations that Virgin America’s 25 U.S. cities and limited partners, the lock-in may not be worth it.
The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan offers mileage-based rewards and boasts 16 partner airlines, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and British Airways. Participants can earn rewards not just by booking flights, but by spending on their rewards-program credit card and even staying with partner hotels. The airline even offers details on the best opportunities for finding available award seats, with popular destinations like Maui and Palm Springs making the list.
Even this top-rated program, though, is subject to blackout dates — another common complaint with regards to rewards programs. That said, one important factor to determine if airline points are worth the hassle is your frequency and flexibility for travel. If you tend to have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to exact arrival and departure dates, blackouts may not be a problem. But folks who don’t travel as much or who have a smaller window to squeeze trips into may benefit from the flexibility that comes from cash-back credit cards instead, for instance, or from programs that make it possible to apply flyer miles to other goods and services.
Speaking of credit cards, any travelers who opt for an airline-related credit card should make sure they have credit score of at least 700 to qualify for most cards and that they’re in a position to manage their credit card debt. Some travelers, if they’re extra savvy with spending, may opt to take out several different credit cards — especially since some offer substantial sign-up bonuses. This approach is not recommended if you’re planning to take out a major loan in the near future or if you have trouble juggling the various fees, spending requirements, payment dates and so on.
All in all, airline points can indeed lead to free flights and other fabulous perks, which is great for frequent or budget-conscious travelers. But don’t commit to a program without doing your homework. The devil is in the details, and not all rewards programs are created equal.
(This post was posted by Hipmunk on Hipmunk’s Tailwind blog on February 16th 2016.)