Changes to Frequent Flier Programs Could Mean the End of 'Mileage Runs'

PHOTO: A Delta plane makes its way past a United plane at the Salt Lake City Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Nov. 15, 2007.

A woman I know - we'll call her Passenger #1 - told me about a recent conversation she had while seated in first class on Delta:

Passenger #1: "The flight attendant told us to turn off our phones, so please do so."

Passenger #2: "Mind your own business."

Passenger #1: "You're sending a message that you're 'special.'"

Passenger #2: "I am special."

It's easy to feel that way, what with those first class lie-flat seats, personal TVs, gourmet food and all the other perks. That "special" feeling explains the hordes of almost-elites who make frantic year-end mileage runs to reach exalted status in airline frequent flyer miles programs. But are they doomed to lose this race?

Maybe. Coming changes to Delta's loyalty program SkyMiles could drive a stake in the very heart of mileage running.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at Farecompare.com

First, some quick back-story: Take a trip. Take another. Then, take a free trip. That's how the original airline frequent flyer miles programs worked. Okay, extreme simplification (but not by all that much). Today, nothing's simple.

The rules of miles programs are riddled with cryptic charts and dense lines of print crammed with asterisks designating one loophole after another, always in the airline's favor. It's like navigating a legal document, only trickier, and using rewards gets harder and harder. Want to take your free trip to a popular resort during peak season? Let me know how that works out for you.

Then there's the old use-it-or-lose-it trap. Back in 1981 when American started AAdvantage, the grand-daddy of loyalty programs, miles lasted a lifetime. Not anymore. Sure, Southwest's website proudly notes that its Rapid Rewards points "don't expire" but this statement is followed by one of those asterisks that explains points will expire if you don't have "earning activity" every couple of years.

Keeping track of this can seem like a full time job though there are websites that will do it for you (but some will charge a fee). However, let's get back to the changes coming to Delta.

Starting next year, Delta's SkyMiles program will be the first to include a spending requirement. It won't be enough to simply earn miles to reach the holy grail of air travel - elite status and all those built-in perks - you will also have to shell out a minimum amount of cash for flights. So forget those incredibly cheap deals you love to snap up. That's not going to cut it for most mileage runs.

RELATED: Delta Changes SkyMiles to Require Minimum Spend

Look, what Delta is doing makes sense from a business point of view: it's rewarding its very best customers like free-spending business travelers. Road warriors who try to save their companies money won't fare so well nor will cheapskate leisure travelers (and to me, "cheapskate" is a compliment). Other casualties may be flyers in major cities who spread their loyalty around since they have a choice of airlines; it may be time to quit playing the field and settle down.

As for mileage runners who sprint around the globe on dirt-cheap fares to rack up miles, the Delta changes are no good at all. And I feel your pain, having just done a mileage run myself to Beijing - quick, cheap, and I had a blast.

Unless there's a massive outcry (which I don't see happening), Delta's SkyMiles is going to get more elite than ever, which is great news for big spenders; with fewer elites vying for the limited pool of perks, the ones who do earn status will have a better shot at getting and using those perks.

You don't fly Delta? Don't get too comfortable. Airlines are like sheep, forever following the herd and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if others start mimicking these changes. Think back to 2008 and how all the airlines jumped on the bag fee bandwagon once American led the way. Your program could be next. Will it get too elite for you? Is there any point to loyalty?

Well, miles programs are still free. And most of us take an unplanned, expensive last minute trip once in a while, maybe for a family emergency (or maybe just to get away); might as well get whatever you can out of it, be it miles or a spending minimum. And don't forget that even if you don't earn many miles, a lot of programs allow you to buy more so a free trip or occasional perk is not out of the question.

But my mileage running days may be over. Unless it's just for fun.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.

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