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Airlines, Frequent Flyer Program

Delta and United FF Grinches for the New Year

Bad news for United and Delta Frequent Flyers hoping for “aspirational” awards.

3 United planes and 1 Delta plane at adjacent gates - tailfin view

United and Delta planes – click for the linked Businessweek article.

If you’re still undecided about your 2014 Frequent Flyer earning and spending strategy to maximize future awards and benefits, give United and Delta another look. A look in your rear-view mirror as you say “see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” while switching to a better program for you.

If you, dear reader, are among the “I only fly Southwest, bags fly free, no change fees!” crowd, this article is not for you, but thanks for stopping by. You are, sadly, likely deluded about the value of flying Southwest vs one of the international-network-affliated airlines, including being naive about “no change fees” (ever try to make a same-day change on Southwest and get soaked for hundreds of dollars difference between your “full credit” and their “same-day walk-up fare”, compared to $25-75 on those airlines with change fees but same-day-confirmed discount changes?) and “bags fly free” (ever wonder why they refuse to show their fares on comparison sites? Often higher by at least a bag fee, sometimes two) but that’s a topic for another day and another snark. Bottom line: You’re not getting to Thailand or Kenya or Austria or South Africa or Australia or Uruguay, ever, with awards earned by paying money to Southwest to fly on Southwest. Some of us want to go to those places. Some of us live in those places. 

For the rest of us, who may well want to travel somewhere outside of the domestic USA and its near-environs, and may want to gain awards on airlines other than the airline on which we’re suffering to fly, read on! “Real” frequent flyer programs with real international award opportunities are important to smart travelers. United and Delta just gave us a kick in the pants. Time to kick them to the curb!

I write about travel, especially about making use of frequent flyer programs effectively, on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and right here at my fuzzywander.com travel blog. Which means I read a whole lot about travel, especially frequent flyer programs.

Pleasantly surprised to find a good report by Bloomberg Businessweek on some upcoming very bad changes to the FF programs of two of the three largest global airlines, Delta and United. Not at all pleased by that news, mind you. But pleased that the news was, for a change, well-reported.

Most of the reporting by mainstream media on Frequent Flyer programs is absolutely awful – either focusing on the “free domestic coach award”, which for the serious players is often the least important (as in of zero importance) or is secondary at best. Or the reporters appear to have zero idea of how the programs work. Which doesn’t surprise me, because don’t you notice anytime the mainstream media reports on something you happen to know a lot about, they get a lot of things wrong? You can pretty much generalize that to everything else the MSM reports on too.

Businessweek actually “got it” about how the most valuable awards are the overseas premium cabin flights. It really doesn’t make sense “paying” 25,000 miles for a US ticket that you can sometimes buy for $250 or $300. It does make a heck of a lot of sense “paying” only 4 or 6 times that amount for a premium cabin international award to the other side of the world, often on a premium international carrier. Those are flights that would cost near-to or even well-over $10,000 US dollars on a paid ticket. Even if you never would have paid that amount, that flight is a “aspirational award” – you may never have the money for, or at least find it valuable enough of a product if you have the disposable income, to spend $20,000 to take you and your spouse to Asia on a high-end flight experience.

But you may well be able to “afford” saving up 200,000 United MileagePlus or Delta SkyMiles miles for that same trip. Relatively easily earned (if you read my and other clueful folks’ stuff) in 2 or three years just from normal family, friends, job, domestic vacation travel plus smart use of hotel, car rental, online shopping, and debit/credit-card airline tie-ins.

What United and Delta are doing are significantly raising the price-in-miles of those aspirational awards. Round-trip business class to Europe is going from 100,000 to 125,000 miles per person. To Asia, going up 20K to be 140,000. Suddenly, for a non-fulltime “Road Warrior”, that aspirational trip is another 1, 2, 3 years away. United got even nastier – they have gone to a whole new award chart for partner airlines. Yes, even though they are a founding member of Star Alliance, they are making it harder than ever for you to redeem awards on their Star Alliance partners. If you don’t want United’s substandard (by international airlines quality standards, especially Asian ones) service, cough up another 20 or 30 or 40 thousand miles!

Here’s United’s miserable 2014 award chart (PDF). Take a reasonable-yet-aspirational award to Europe from USA, for example, in International Business Class. In 2014, if flying on United, it will be 55,000 miles each way (United does allow one-way award redemptions), or 110,000 round trip. Prefer to fly on the better service of Star Alliance partners SWISS, Austrian, Turkish Air, SAS, or even United’s “close friends” and revenue-sharing partners Air Canada or Lufthansa? Pony up 70,000 miles each way, for a 140,000 mile roundtrip per person.

Think you can net-out to beat the interest because you can make “elite status” (called Premier on UA, Medallion on DL)? Thus be getting 25%, 50%, 100% bonus miles each paid flight? Sorry Charlie, both of those airlines now have added the concept of “Elite Qualifying Dollars” to their programs. Take United, for example. You still can get United Premier Silver for 25,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM, the generic cross-airlines term, UA calls it PQM for Premier Qualifying Miles). Except… you also have to fly 4 paid segments on United itself (or on Copa, which uses UA Mileage Plus as its “home program”). But wait, there’s more, or perhaps there’s Mileage Less: As of 2014, you also have to spend at least $2500 USD on tickets from United themselves – either paid tickets for flights on United, or if on a United Star Alliance partner, the ticket must have been sold by United on United’s own “016 ticket stock”. That’s right, even if you want to fly Air Canada or Lufthansa, closer-than-just-Star partners with United, the ticket for Lufthansa you buy from Lufthansa will not help you with your Premier Qualifying Dollars $2500 requirement. Same with Air Canada. Even though Air Canada (AC), Lufthansa(LH), and United(UA) share the actual dollar revenue and dollar cost of operating every North America-Europe flight due to a “very special friends” Joint Venture agreement, if United didn’t ticket it, United won’t count the dollars spent. Yet they got actual dollars from Lufthansa when you bought your ticket from Lufthansa! Same trans-Pacific with UA JV Parter ANA (All Nippon Airlines, code NH).

Sure, that Lufthansa or Air Canada or All Nippon flight you take, if you give them your UA Mileage Plus number, will earn Redeemable (award) Miles (RDM) and Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM), but not a penny of Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQD). Without $2500 PQD for United Silver, $5000 for Gold, $7500 for Platinum, or $10,000 for 1K top-earned-elite level, you don’t get any elite level. If you fly 100,000 PQM but on United partner airlines and did not buy $2500 of tickets from United itself, you get nothing! The Points Guy covered PQDs with a great post and chart a few months back – please read his article to get more details and “what-if” scenarios. He also explained Delta’s 2014 Medallion Qualifying Dollars back in an article from last January.

My point is that getting elite status, one of the easiest ways to earn enough RDM for that now-harder aspirational trip, is itself now harder. You’re hit both ways – “earning and burning” miles.

It’s time to find a new Frequent Flyer program, if you have been using either Delta or United’s program. In fact, it’s well past time. They’ve devalued before. But now with 2014 about to start, they’re taking it steps further into near-worthlessness compared to the competition.

That doesn’t mean, “Don’t fly United” or “Don’t fly Delta”. There are, sometimes, good reasons for flying either or both of those competing airlines. But far better Frequent Flyer Programs exist which include Delta, others which include United. Me personally? I gave up on Delta SkyMiles in 2010, switching to non-alliance but broadly-aligned, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Earned plenty of miles in Alaska’s program, including Elite Qualifying Miles for MVP and MVP Gold Status a couple of years, from flying on Delta.

I gave up on United Mileage Plus twice! First, back in early 2008, when United and Continental were still competitors (and Continental was still a partner in Skyteam with Delta and then-independent Northwest.) Switched most of my paid flights to Continental or their partners. When CO moved to Star Alliance, and became a close partner with United, I still preferred Continental. When Continental took over United (which is really what the United merger was, despite on the surface the other way around), Continental OnePass became the new United Mileage Plus, but soon became worse than either of the two preceding programs. Just like the “new United” is overall far worse onboard and in airports than the worst of either Continental or the old United. So nowadays, as my Star Alliance award program, I use Avianca’s LifeMiles Frequent Flyer Program. I can earn LifeMiles on paid tickets on United, and I can get “free” tickets on United using LifeMiles I earn from paid tickets on Avianca, Air Canada, other partners, or yes, if necessary, bought on United. LifeMiles awards are more flexible, they have access to the same partner airlines, and even have a sliding-scale “miles and money” redemption at award-redemption-time, for as “per mile” purchase price far less than the typical “buying miles”.

I’ll do more posts on what other programs to choose, and what criteria you might use. But right now, at a high level: Dump United MileagePlus. Dump Delta SkyMiles. Dump them even if you’re flying those airlines sometimes. Unless you never intend to fly internationally and have no aspirations for free or deeply-discounted miles-assisted global travel, those programs are now the worst. I won’t call SkyMiles the derogatory SkyPesos because that’s insulting to countries with strong pesos, like my home now in Uruguay!

More details later, but for now please consider:

If you sometimes have to, or want to, fly Delta:
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

If you sometimes have to, or want to, fly United:
Avianca LifeMiles


About Mark Mercer

Expat aging sometime-ski-bum former corporate tool. Currently living in the beachside aging resort town of Atlántida in Uruguay. Sometimes skiing and teaching in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA. Location and velocity cannot be simultaneously observed.


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