United Frequent Flier Changes: A Loser For Travelers But A Win For Cardholders

United Frequent Flier Changes: A Loser For Travelers But A Win For Cardholders

Posted on June 17, 2014

In a burst of creativity, United Airlines just announced radical new changes to how travelers will earn frequent flier miles. The old system of earning one frequent flier mile per mile flown was thrown out the window in favor of an entirely original new scheme.... that happens to be identical to what Delta announced in February.

For example, if I fly from Denver to Atlanta on a ticket that cost $300, I now earn about 2,400 frequent flier miles, equal to the distance flown. In 2015, I will only earn 1,500, a 37% reduction. In fact, I would have to have Premier Gold elite status with United (or Gold Medallion status with Delta), which still requires 50,000 miles flown, to earn the same number of miles that I used to. Of course, if my company or client pays for last-minute, full-fare tickets, I will often come out ahead under this new program.

Why you shouldn't care, even if you will earn fewer miles from flying

While many are venting their rage at United (and Delta too), I have been shrugging my shoulders and looking for new opportunities to earn and spend miles. Here's how:

1. Frugal travelers aren't big fans of United anyways.
These new changes make it more clear than ever that United prefers free spending business travelers flying on other people's money. Those are the people who can afford to buy expensive tickets, upgrades to seats with more leg room, and $200 change fees. Me, I'll stick to discount carriers like Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America that can offer free checked bags, free in-flight entertainment, and in the case of Southwest, no change fees. Besides, too many "United" flights are now being operated by third parties using tiny, uncomfortable regional jets, even between major cities.

2. Flying has long been the hardest way to earn miles.
Get a credit card, buy flowers, or sign up for satellite television, but whatever you do, don't step on an airplane! That is the message being sent to customers when the offer tens of thousands of miles for these instant transactions, but it took forever to earn miles in the air. How long? A jet airplane travels at about 500 miles an hour, so it would take 240 hours, 10 full days in the air, to earn enough United miles for a round trip award ticket to Europe in business class. In contrast, the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express offers a 30,000 point sign-up bonus. These points can be transferred to frequent flier miles with United, or with one of several other carriers.

3. Fewer miles given out could mean more awards.
When Delta changed to this new revenue-based mileage earning program, it promised that it would also make more award seats available at the 25,000 mile level, which had been extremely scarce. Notably, United made no such promises, but it only stands to reason that even if it doesn't designate more award seats at the lowest levels, there could be more available when travelers earn fewer miles.

4. Credit card rewards are now more important than ever.
I have long earned most of my miles from using my credit cards, and that has now become more important than ever. Credit card users will continue to earn miles the same way they always have, and if anything, the trend is to offer more miles for sign-up bonuses as well as for spending. If you're looking for ideas on how to get the most miles out of spending on your credit cards, check out 10 Ways You Can Collect Miles on the Ground for inspiration.

5. Time to focus on price and quality.
As a leisure traveler with no elite status, I can now give up any remaining concern about the miles earned from my flight and any lingering loyalty I might have had. Leisure travelers should now focus only on the price of the ticket, the quality of service, and how many fees they will have to pay. Frankly, United has never been known for low prices or good service, and their fees are often the highest in the industry. At one time, travelers could have overlooked these deficiencies if offered enough frequent flier miles, but now that isn't even a factor.