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Airlines offer better elite frequent flier deals

Top tier rewards improved to retain the most loyal customers

By

Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Cashing In,
As someone who has earned beaucoup air miles the old-fashioned way -- by putting my backside in the seat of a plane many, many times -- I'm more than a bit ticked. With the massive sign-up bonuses and the ability to earn miles on some credit cards just by swiping, the effective value of my miles is being diluted, and the availability of seats is only going to get worse. Got any suggestions for a frustrated heavy traveler? -- Disgruntled Heavy Traveler

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Disgruntled,
I feel your pain and so do many frequent fliers. I think the problem of reduced seat availability is as much a symptom of shrinking flights and shrinking jets as it is the expansion of credit card rewards.

As more and more flights were canceled with the downturn in the economy, airlines brought in smaller jets. That meant fewer seats -- especially premium seats. This didn't jibe well with the increase in demand for reward seats associated with credit cards.

However, you have something many of those armchair mile holders don't have, and that's elite-qualifying miles (EQMs), the kind acquired with the old backside-in-the-seat technique. I'm assuming that, like most road warriors, you take advantage of all those in-flight miles to qualify for elite membership in an airline's loyalty program.

That gives you a leg up whenever airlines differentiate between elite-qualifying miles and regular miles. Yes, there are a few credit cards that offer EQMs as well as non-elite miles, but that's not what you're up against with the majority of sign-up bonuses and credit card-swiped miles.

If it's any consolation, you may be in a better position than regular miles holders going forward, depending on which airline you favor. There's a trend toward taxing fares earned with regular mile rewards while adding perks for elite members.

US Airways recently announced that, starting Feb. 15, 2012, non-elite Dividend Miles members will be charged co-payments ranging from $25 to $150 each way, in addition to miles, when they upgrade flights. Miles required for those upgrades were decreased slightly to partially compensate. Fees vary according to distance and route. A flight that garners 500 to 999 miles, for example, will require 6,000 frequent flier miles plus a $50 fee.

The good news for road warriors like you is that elite members are exempt from these co-pays and will need fewer miles to qualify for upgrades -- a definite advantage for those with actual flight-time miles. US Airways also seems to be differentiating more between base-level elite members and gold or platinum members. Another new development: Dividend Miles Silver elite members will only be allowed one free check-in bag instead of two.

American Airlines is also rewarding elite members, with the kind of double-miles offers we haven't seen for a couple years. From now through Jan. 31, 2012, you can double the elite-qualifying miles you earn on American and American Eagle flights -- but only EQMs, not regular miles.

One caveat: Bonus EQMs earned this year by AAdvantage elite members will only count toward elite status next year. That might make you a little nervous if you're worried about American's recent bankruptcy filing. No doubt, the generosity of this deal was designed to appeal to loyal frequent fliers who were thinking about jumping ship -- to another airline, that is.

Could this be the start of an overall trend for airlines to show special favor to their most loyal and active customers? Maybe. My advice is to take advantage of all that flying you're doing and focus on maximizing your elite status this year.

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Published: January 17, 2012


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