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Using — and losing — frequent flyer points

Rolling up frequent flyer miles is easier than ever. You can earn miles by shopping for groceries, glitz or gadgets, eating in selected restaurants, staying in designated hotels — heck, even by flying.
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Rolling up frequent flyer miles is easier than ever. You can earn miles by shopping for groceries, glitz or gadgets, eating in selected restaurants, staying in designated hotels — heck, even by flying.

But here’s the rub: Redeeming miles for a coveted seat on the flight you want, departing at the time you want from the airport you prefer directly to the destination you desire, is getting ever-harder.

By putting prime seats off-limits, packing passengers onto smaller planes and shorting expiration dates for using miles (or otherwise activating frequent-flyer accounts), airlines are making it tougher to use miles for flying than any time since frequent flyer miles were introduced a quarter century ago.

Or at least many consumers are convinced it’s tougher. Airlines riposte that they give out more reward seats than ever. Even some consumer advocates say that frequent flyer miles can still be profitably used, provided travelers are creative and flexible. But most aviation-watchers agree that the golden age of transparent, easy-to-use miles programs is as by-gone as the age of biplanes.

"Airlines are crack dealers, and miles are the crack we are addicted to," says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst for Forrester Research in San Francisco. Even as airlines pile on restrictions —United Airlines on Dec. 31, for example, began requiring travelers to activate their Mileage Plus accounts within 18 months, down from 36 months — they continue to flood the mail with new frequent-flier pitches.

Getting flights and upgrades is more difficult
Terry Trippler, an airline analyst and travel consultant in Minneapolis, agrees that using miles as originally intended — i.e., to fly for no additional charge and to secure comfortable upgrades — is getting harder to do. He blames the squeeze on U.S. carriers’ decreased capacity following 9/11.

Indeed, the load factor on U.S. carriers — the percentage of seats filled — hit 79 percent in 2006. That’s up from 70 percent in 2002, making airlines, battered by the soaring cost of fuel, loath to hand out as rewards seats that they can sell.

Even as they tighten rules for using miles to fly, airlines are diversifying their programs by selling miles and cutting deals with credit card companies, rental car agencies, hotels and other corporate partners. That makes the programs more lucrative for the airlines.

Although both American Airlines and United have publicly discussed selling their frequent flier programs to raise quick cash, neither has done so, and observers such as Trippler think the programs’ deal-making qualities make sell-offs unlikely.

Redeeming doesn't have to be hard
Airlines and some travel pros contend that redeeming miles doesn’t have to be hard. Adding corporate partners offers more options to consumers who are willing to read the fine print and shop around.

American — whose AAdvantage program, introduced in 1981, was the first frequent flyer program — said that, in 2006, "Members redeemed miles for travel to their desired destination over 90 percent of the time, and over 60 percent of the time were able to travel on their desired dates."

American urges travelers to be flexible, plan their trips as far ahead as possible, and check its Web site, as ticket inventory — and thus chances for ticket redemption — changes constantly.

Some travel pros support airlines’ protestations that they redeem a staggering number of reward seats.

"If we look at a bellwether airline like Continental, we’ll see from their numbers that they (Continental) actually gave away about 7.4 percent more free tickets in 2007 versus 2006," said Randy Petersen, a specialist on frequent flyer miles.

Petersen argues that there is a disconnect between the growing public perception that miles are harder to redeem for flying versus the reality that millions of travelers are redeeming them to do just that.

"Perception can be reality," he said. "But let’s remember that it is also true it is getting harder to actually buy a cheap ticket any more, with sold-out flights becoming more common. Award inventory is nothing more than a subset of the ticket-buying process."

What should you do when redeeming?
So, what to do when redeeming miles to fly the confusing skies?

Petersen recommends telephoning an airline reservation agent, as agents can offer greater creativity than online booking. He also recommends flying mid-week, when seat inventory is higher.

Other industry experts tip credit cards such as American Express Blue Sky or Capital One No Hassle Miles, which aren’t tied to any single airline program.

Harteveldt says consumer flexibility is key. He suggests flying to an alternative airport near your destination — or simply using miles for the variety of non-flying rewards out there, from fine-dining to discounting a room in a posh hotel.

Focusing on one program and earning elite status there is a good idea, travel pros say. Caching miles in scattered accounts makes it tough to stockpile enough miles to earn elite flyer status.

In any case, Trippler says, recent changes, such as requiring a higher number of miles for, say, a first class ticket, is taking frequent flyer programs back to their roots, when airlines targeted truly frequent, elite flyers. "The airline’s best customers are being rewarded," he said.