To really get some value from your frequent flyer miles, it helps to have a lot. More miles means you can redeem for business class instead of economy class, fly international instead of domestic. And while cash prices might be 3X, 5X, or even 10X more, with miles it may be just double.
The catch is accumulating that many miles in the first place. Twice as many miles means twice as long. Less frequent travelers or those without a lot of credit card spend might struggle. And eventually… those miles expire from inactivity.
Delta Air Lines made the move a few years ago, saying that its SkyMiles would never expire. JetBlue is the same way. Now United Airlines is following suit. Yesterday the airline put out a notice to its members that miles earned with its MileagePlus program will no longer expire. In fact, any miles that already expired in June or July will be reinstated for free.
Don’t get too excited. All of these airlines share a common feature: dynamic award pricing. JetBlue has long tied the cost of an award ticket to the price of that ticket in cash. Delta made a surprise move to remove the award chart from its website a few years back and declare that the cost of an award would be whatever the computer felt was fair. Some people have seen award tickets for eye watering prices.
And United, well, they’re adopting dynamic pricing later this fall.
I’m not saying all dynamic award pricing is bad. It usually means more availability. Southwest Airlines has dynamic pricing, too, and people love them. (Not me, I’ll admit.) But more availability is usually code for “whatever the market will bear.” More demand = more miles. You can also get lots of availability if you’re willing to pay with a credit card.
In a sense, you might say that these programs are anticipating higher award costs in the future that will require more miles and more time to earn those miles. If the miles were to expire during your decades-long quest to get a free flight to Tahiti, then maybe you’d give up. The loyalty program would cease to serve its purpose, and loyalty programs earn big bucks for some airlines given all the miles they sell to partners like credit card issuers.
The president of United MileagePlus even gives ammunition to this argument, though perhaps not in the way it was intended. Here’s a quote provided to Live and Let’s Fly:
We want to demonstrate to our members that we are committing to them for the long-haul and giving customers a lifetime to use miles is an exceptionally meaningful benefit.
That’s right. Now you have a lifetime to earn enough miles for your next award. Good grief.
I’m still a fan of the rules and restrictions at other carriers. Miles don’t have to expire as long as you have some activity in your account every 12 or 18 or 24 months. A simple purchase through an online shopping portal will do and earn more miles to boot. Limited availability for cheap awards simply means that I can revel in getting a good deal. Other people’s failures allow airlines to write off the value of those miles, delivering the remaining value to you and me.
I’ve never had to cancel my vacation plans because I didn’t find a ticket; I simply decided to be flexible, maybe going to Bali instead of Berlin. I’ll go to Berlin next year.
If you are a fan of what was once called “travel hacking,” then you should also bemoan the shift to easier, friendlier, always-available awards. Travel hacking is all about finding the holes in a broken system so that you get the cheap awards others overlook. There is no game to win when the bowling alley puts up bumpers on your lane.