Five Signs of a Frequent Flier Rebound

My cousin Carol recently stopped over to visit me in Los Angeles.

She lives in San Francisco, and was returning from a trip to New York to see her daughter who's in college there. So her journey comprised three airline flights: from San Francisco to New York, from New York to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles back to San Francisco.

What was noteworthy about her trip was that she flew on three different airlines. And she used a mix of cash and frequent flier miles to pay for the trip.

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For the San Francisco-New York flight, she used 12,500 frequent flier miles for a one-way United award flight. United recently began allowing Mileage Plus members to book one-way award flights for half the number of miles required for round-trips, which suited my cousin just fine -- she didn't have 25,000 miles for a round-trip.

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For the flight between New York and Los Angeles, she purchased a one-way ticket on Virgin America.

And for the final leg of the trip, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, she used 12,500 frequent flier miles to fly American, which, like United, now offers award flights priced on a one-way basis.

While there's nothing new about the ability to purchase even the cheapest fares on a one-way basis from Virgin America -- which like most discount carriers (and unlike most full-service carriers) routinely prices even its cheapest tickets as one-ways -- being able to book one-way awards on major airlines is new. And it's just one of a number of signs of a hopeful trend among airlines to make it easier for frequent flier program members to redeem their miles.

1. One-Way Awards

It was a long time coming, but in February, when United followed the lead of American and Delta, the three largest U.S. carriers were finally united in allowing members of their loyalty programs to redeem miles for one-way flights, for half the number of miles required for a comparable round-trip.

Although allowing one-way awards may seem like a minor or obvious change, their beneficial effect is outsized, especially when trying to book capacity-controlled awards, as most frequent fliers do.

Under the old round-trip-only policy, a single flight segment with no award availability forced the mileage-redeemer to either pay twice as many miles for an unrestricted round-trip award ticket, or to compromise his travel plans to accommodate the airline's spotty seat allocation.

Now, faced with a flight leg with no available coach award seats, the traveler has the option of paying more miles for an unrestricted seat on just that segment, or just booking a restricted first-class seat for the same number of miles required for unrestricted coach.

The result: More frequent fliers will be able to book more award trips for fewer miles.

2. Cash and Miles

As alluded to above, cousin Carol used United's new one-way-awards capability because she didn't have enough miles for a round-trip award ticket. As it happens, she had another option for booking a round-trip: mixing miles and cash.

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