Frequent-Flyer Miles: Harder To Earn, Easier To Spend

Many airlines are making it a lot harder to earn miles. what seems like forever (well, the last 30 years), earning frequent-flyer miles for free flights was the concession prize for road warriors. Until now. As of this Thursday — the first day of the 2015 — some airlines will make it harder to rack up miles via the one-mile-earned-for-one-mile-flown formula. For instance, Delta SkyMiles will be now be awarded based on dollars spent rather than the distance flown — so that booking more expensive business- or first-class flights will earn more miles than flying the same route in economy, and travelers at higher status levels (such as Diamond Plus) will earn miles faster.

When Delta’s changes came to light last spring, they kicked up a fuss among Delta frequent flyers — as well as generated some humorous asides. Then United Airlines announced that they, too, would follow a revenue-based model beginning in March 2015. With miles harder to earn — short of shopping with co-branded airline credit cards — it behooves travelers to be wise when spending them. According to Consumer Reports, flyers hoping to redeem miles for airline tickets should shop for flights as early as possible (as miles needed can surge closer to takeoff time) and shouldn’t hoard miles, as the rules for earning and spending those miles are constantly shifting.

Case in point: In November, United Airlines launched MileagePlus X, a shopping app that lets users earn up to 24 frequent-flyer miles for each dollar spent. Though the app is still being tested among a small group of elite MileagePlus members — and so far only connects to 50 or so major retailers, as well as a host of small businesses — the airline plans to expand its reach in 2015. The airline is also encouraging travelers to use their miles to pay for food and drink, a program which is being tested out at New Jersey’s Newark Airport.

There are still a few bright spots on the frequent-flyer miles horizon, though. When American Airlines and US Airways merge their frequent flyer programs in 2015, they’ll keep the current distance-based structure (even if they do make some of the perks, such as upgrades, harder to come by).

On the eve of the program changes, frequent flyers concerned about earning miles, especially on Delta, can make a radical move during these last two days of 2014: Pony up for MQMs (Medallion Qualification Miles) to up their status level at Delta, ensuring that they’ll earn miles faster in 2015. Beyond 2015? It’s anybody’s guess.


Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.