Frequent flier programs can change at the whim of the airlines – and rarely in your favor. Here's how to shield yourself (and your miles) from their devious ways.
Canadians normally enjoy a reputation for being nice and courteous, but for those who collect frequent flier miles, their status just suffered a huge blow: Air Canada’s frequent flier program (called Aeroplan) recently announced it’s adding a “fuel surcharge” to award bookings.
There was no notice – and no time to redeem awards before the surcharges went into effect. Customers just received an announcement that, effective immediately, they’d have to pay hundreds of dollars extra, in addition to taxes, just to redeem the miles they had been saving. The announcement also mentions the same charge on its partner Lufthansa flights, but it’s been reported that award flights operated by other partners such as ANA, Asiana, and Thai have been affected as well.
Not very nice.
If you already hold huge quantities of Aeroplan miles, it’s too late for you to book a flight without this surcharge. Nevertheless, there are still some steps the rest of us can take to avoid waking up to similar announcements from our favorite airlines…
1. Don’t hoard miles. Like a Third World country’s currency, airline miles will always be devalued. In fact, they’re worse. Money loses value over time, but awards changes and fuel surcharges can be imposed with little or no notice. To limit your exposure, earn and burn your miles. Don’t save them up for years at a time.
2. Stay flexible. Rather than use a credit card to start earning miles with a single airline program, find a card that offers points that can be converted to miles with several different carriers. The best card for this is the Starwood Hotels American Express card, followed by any one of their cards that earns points in their Membership Rewards program. Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program also features a growing list of airline and hotel transfer partners. (Find these and others on the Money Talks News credit card search tool.)
3. Choose the right airline to credit your points to. When you book a ticket on a major carrier, you can specify which one of their partners you choose to earn miles with. For example, customers flying Air Canada can earn miles on Star Alliance partners such as United and US Airways. When it comes time to redeem their miles, they can have access to many of the same flights – but without the fuel surcharges. If you’re flying with an airline that imposes fuel surcharges on award bookings, figure out which partners it has that don’t. Have your miles credited to one of them instead.
4. Pick the right flights when you redeem your miles. Like many others, I took advantage of the Top Sign-Up Bonuses offered with the British Airways credit card earlier this year. I could use those miles for an award on British Airways and pay hundreds of dollars in fuel surcharges, or I could redeem an award with their partner, American Airlines. Since British Airlines only adds fuel surcharges to flights they operate, I’ll always look for an award on flights operated by their partners. (Try these tips for Getting the Most From Your Frequent Flier Miles.)