Ways to Save With Airline Loyalty Programs

Airlines are sweetening the pot to lure back disillusioned travelers.

March 25, 2009 — -- In these tight economic times many of us have become "frugal travelers" -- some of us have done so kicking and screaming, but for others, it's a badge of honor.

I suppose I should define "frugal," but that really encompasses a wide ranger of fliers. It could be the flier who wouldn't dream of enjoying a cocktail on a plane because spending $6 on a beer is unfathomable, or frugal travelers like me, whose only bag is a carry-on because, really, who wants to pay an extra $30 round-trip if you don't have to?

The cheapskates (and I include myself) are quick to save tens of dollars, but sometimes they unknowingly leave thousands on the table. How? By not joining or keeping up with frequent flier programs.

Don't worry, this is not meant to be dense report on all the minutiae of airline mileage programs. If it was, it would take perhaps 100 columns and a flight from here to Dubai to read it all.

Instead, I want to point out some of the reasons why you should, now more than ever, consider joining. And no, it's not just about the free flights.

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First of all, frequent flier miles programs are free. OK, it does cost a minute or two of your time to fill out the form, but that's it. And yet so many people don't bother.

At a recent airline marketing conference I attended, American Airlines Marketing Vice President Daniel Garton noted that close to 60 million signed up for AA's Advantage program, but only about half their ticketed customers specified loyalty program credentials. That's not so surprising, really. Estimates indicate that more than 70 percent of all miles program members are "inactive" and many never even sign up. What are they missing?

The obvious is free flights. But nowadays, it can be much more.

Frequent Flying in Comfort

According to Randy Petersen of Inside Flyer magazine, airlines gave away about 25 million free tickets in 2008 (well "free" except for taxes, fees and in some cases fuel-related redemption charges).

For a lot of frequent flier members, that's the least of it: Elite members amass miles for the free perks -- entree to VIP lounges, getting bag fees waived, first-in-line boarding and the all important "upgrades."

"I like to fly, but I love flying in comfort," said frequent flier Karen Kay. "It's all about the upgrades for me."

Kay is a member of numerous miles programs, but most of her efforts are focused on United where she is a part of the creme de la creme -- a "1K" member (fliers who accumulate 100,000 miles a year).

Kay uses her miles to upgrade her seats whenever she can. This week, for example, she will travel from Houston to San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok -- roughly 27 hours in the air. Thanks to her upgrades, those hours will be spent in the luxury of business and first class.

Does Kay save money doing this? Yes and no.

"I do save thousands of dollars by not having to purchase a business or first class ticket, but I often pay a little more by buying coach tickets that are 'upgradable.' If the rock-bottom, bottom-line is the only thing that's important, maybe my system isn't for you."

Like many elite fliers, Kay is a "mileage runner." If she sees she's going to fall short of the 100,000 mile mark, she'll go on a "mileage run" -- a long trip to anywhere -- with the sole goal of amassing miles.

For example, last year Karen flew from Asheville, N.C. to Singapore. She spent just six hours there, shopping, before turning around and heading home. Not much of a vacation, but she got her miles -- and that was the point.

Now, business travelers, pay attention -- and join a mileage club now. Here's why:

Companies are cutting back on travel, and when travel is sanctioned, more and more road warriors are being told to sit in coach. That's a perfect time to use those accumulated upgrades. They're easier than ever to earn thanks to ongoing double- and triple-mile promotions. At the very least, you may be able to snag a free coach ticket for the family vacation.

Speaking of family, don't forget to sign up the kids. I've taken my 8-year-old daughter on a couple of flights to Europe in the past two years, and now even she's amassed enough miles for a free ticket -- with a double miles promotion this could put you near elite status instantly.

Checking Bags for Free

Now, about waiving those bag fees.

Many airlines only require that you attain the lowliest "elite" status, where you rack up a "mere" 25,000 miles a year to get bag fees waived. That's a nice perk as more and more airlines succumb to bag-fee mania (Virgin America joined the crowd last week).

And what about the lowliest of mileage members: those who haven't racked up enough trips to do much of anything? Well, one of my colleagues recently booked a Delta flight and was assigned a middle seat. She went back to the Web site to see if she couldn't get a better one, but no such luck. All seats were "occupied."

She tried again, but this time, plugged in her frequent flier number, and voila: plenty of seats were now available, including an emergency exit row aisle seat.

So there can be advantages, big and small, to frequent flier programs. And yes, it takes some effort, but just do it. No one should leave money on the table. Not in this economy.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.