Travel

Frequent-flier changes need not ground leisure travelers

Air Transportation IndustryCredit and DebtUS Airways
Many leisure travelers earn airline rewards via credit cards with ground-earning options
If you're a low-level awards flier, skip the 'mileage runs' to boost your account, expert says

This column is called "More for Your Money," but this week we're going to tell you why you'll be getting less for your money when it comes to some airline awards programs and what you can do about it.

Delta and, more recently, United have announced changes to their frequent-flier programs that put the average leisure traveler at a distinct disadvantage in accumulating enough awards capital to get a free ticket. Instead of awarding points or miles based on how far you're flying, beginning next year, these programs will award miles based on how much you're paying for your ticket.

As a leisure traveler, I said ouch. At least, I did at first.

But after speaking with frequent-flier experts, I realized that leisure travelers can still be rewarded for their loyalty even if they're not paying 1,000 smackers for a ticket. Here's what the experts say:

— Get a card that gives you a chunk of miles. That's how many people are earning their miles, said Brian Karimzad, director of Milecards.com, a website that lets you compare travel rewards cards. If you're a leisure traveler, you may fly only a few times a year, so although these changes to frequent-flier programs hurt, they're not fatal because that's not how you're accruing your miles, for the most part. "It's probably never been easier to earn miles on the ground than today," Karimzad said.

Most of these cards require a certain amount of spending, and some have an annual fee. If you do open several credit card accounts, make sure you pay them off; if there's an annual fee that you don't want to pay, cancel the card before it comes due. You may want to create a calendar/spread sheet to keep track.

— In the shorter term, consider the airlines — American and Alaska, among them — that still offer rewards points or miles based on miles flown. Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, emphasizes that this solution won't last forever, because it seems likely that airlines that haven't yet followed in Delta's and United's footsteps soon will. "I think the handwriting is on the wall," he said. "It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that American will do the same." But until then — and remember, American is in the middle of its merger with US Airways so it may take awhile — your $300 ticket reaps the same amount of miles as the business traveler's $4,000 ticket does.

— If you're a low-level awards flier, don't knock yourself out to improve that status by going on "mileage runs" to boost your account. "Time is valuable," said Brian Kelly, whose website, ThePointsGuy.com, helps readers navigate the world of loyalty rewards. "The days of hopping on flights to accrue points … are becoming obsolete."

If you do want to stay loyal to an airline, take out its affiliated card, get the points, put up your feet and be glad you're not hassling with airport security. Another upside, Karimzad pointed out: Some of the perks of airline cards include rewards that are similar to what you'd get for low-level elite status: free checked bag, earlier boarding.

— But stay loyal to yourself and your time and budget. Maybe you have twisted your budget and time like a pretzel to fly on the airline that gives you miles. Give yourself a break and stop that, Kelly said. Instead, use credit cards that give you cash back or cards that provide convertible, or transferable, points that can be used to buy airline tickets or other travel. You still reap a reward, but you're not tied to just one airline.

Diversify to maximize, Kelly said, which may mean having cards that provide different rewards. The game may be changing, but so can you.

travel@latimes.com

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