Frequent flyer awards: The new standards

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Delta and United have recently devalued their frequent flyer programs for travel starting next spring. United's changes are effective February. Delta, for some reason, decided to make two changes, one effective February 1 and another effective June 1. Cutting off the puppy dog's tail an inch at a time rather than all at once? American and US Airways, presumably preoccupied with the merger, haven't responded yet, but you can almost certainly expect some changes.

Meanwhile, you can check to see how much value -- if any -- your miles will lose next year. I checked the post-June mileage requirements for round-trip travel for the six awards that seem to be the most popular: within the 48 states (usually including nearby cities in Canada; sometimes including nearby Caribbean and Mexican points), to Hawaii, and to Europe; for both coach/economy and for the next class above coach/economy (usually first class within North America, business class to Europe).

The biggest hikes fall on those of you who like to use your miles for premium-class travel

-- Delta's primary change is in business class to Europe, where a low-level award trip will increase from 100,000 to 125,000 miles. Other awards see smaller changes: The 49-state first-class award will go from 45,000 to 50,000, and the Hawaii award will go from 75,000 to 80,000. But Delta is notorious for having very few seats at the lowest levels. So when you're evaluating your Delta miles, you're better off looking at mid-level awards. The mid-level Europe business-class award will remain at a very stiff 200,000 miles.

-- United's premium travel award requirements seats change only for business class to Europe, which will increase from 100,000 to 115,000, a bit lower than Delta's new level. And its top almost-always-get-a-seat award remains at 150,000 miles, well below Delta's mid-level requirement.

Miles required for coach travel within the 48 states and adjacent border cities will not change at all, remaining at 25,000 miles, and other coach/economy awards will change only a little:

-- For coach/economy travel, Delta's only change is to Hawaii, where the lowest level award will increase from 40,000 to 45,000. The mid-level award does not change.

-- United's only change for coach/economy is an increase for Hawaii from 40,000 to 45,000 miles.

For now, awards on American and US Airways remain the "standard" 25,000 miles for 48-state coach travel, and other awards closely parallel previous levels on Delta and United. I suspect that this parity won't last long. At the least, you can expect the merged line to match the increases for first- and business-class awards. Some industry observers expect far more radical changes, to a system of earnings based on how much you pay rather than how many miles you fly and award requirements pegged to ticket prices. But for now, that's just speculation.

As I reviewed award requirements, I was struck by one other conclusion: These days, the combination of high mileage requirements and stiff co-payments means that upgrading cheap coach/economy tickets doesn't look like as good a use for miles as it once did. To upgrade the cheapest United 48-state coach ticket, for example, you'd pay 40,000 miles plus $150. I suspect lots of you would rather save the cash and pay the extra 10,000 miles for a "free" first-class award. Upgrading looks better if you start with a more expensive coach ticket, however, and upgrading a paid ticket may give you access to more seats. But check carefully before you pay a big co-payment for an upgrade, which can run as high as $1,100 to upgrade an economy ticket to Europe.

Obviously, differences among different airlines don't matter if you have your miles concentrated in one line -- you can't transfer. But you should consider the differences in where you want to earn miles in the future.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

(c) 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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