Rules are changing for frequent fliers

Deals: Some airlines are raising mileage minimums, but there are more ways to earn awards.

Strategies

March 24, 2002|By Jane Engle | Jane Engle,Special to the Sun

If you are a business traveler enrolled in one or more elite airline clubs, you probably check your frequent-flier miles often.

But this article is for the rest of us, the leisure travelers who occasionally dip our toes into the arcane waters of awards, rewards and other mileage minutiae. It's time to take the plunge because the mileage rules are changing. Booking that free trip now instead of later could be one of the smarter travel decisions you make this spring.

A roundup of recent changes in the frequent-flier world:

* Higher mileage minimums: Some airlines are getting rid of off-peak award levels, which typically allow travelers to book free flights for fewer miles between September and May. Instead of using 20,000 miles to book a domestic trip in that period, for instance, you'll need 25,000 miles, the same as in peak travel periods. At Continental and Northwest, you have until June 1 to book under the current, more generous rules.

* Booking online can boost miles: Among current offers: For travel through May 31, America West offers 3,000 extra miles for every round-trip ticket bought at www.americawest.com. In January, Southwest announced it would extend its program of double credit for online bookings at www.southwest.com through Dec. 31.

* Buying miles with cash: Need a few more miles to get a ticket? Buying them is an option that has been around for a while, but "in the last half of last year, everyone got into mileage sales," says Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine.

When should you use this option? Typically, the airlines charge about 2.5 cents per mile, but add-ons such as service fees of $15 to $25 plus 7.5 percent federal tax might boost the actual price to more than 3 cents a mile.

"I think the miles they sell are prohibitively expensive," says Petersen, who estimates the airlines' cost at less than a penny a mile. But he says it might be worth it for a leisure traveler who is a few thousand miles short of qualifying for a free domestic ticket.

A little-known way to top off miles is to go into debt on your frequent-flier account, which some airlines let you do if you're a very frequent flier or if you use the airline's credit card regularly, Petersen says.

* More ways to earn awards: There are, of course, thousands of ways to get miles without ever stepping on a plane, using airline-allied credit cards or doing business with hotels and other airline partners -- far more than could be listed in this column.

Here are some deals that expire soon:

Until March 31 Continental frequent fliers can earn double points on KLM flights. Through May 31, Northwest frequent fliers can earn 2,000 miles by checking in for flights online or at airport kiosks; through April 30, first-time buyers earn 2,500 miles for booking online at www.nwa.com. For travel through April 28, US Airways offers 5,000 to 30,000 bonus miles for trips between the United States and Europe.

* A quirky but timely option: You can earn miles through some carriers while paying income taxes. Delta, for instance, awards two miles for every dollar you pay Uncle Sam through its SkyMiles credit card from American Express. America West gives you 500 to 2,000 miles for using H&R Block tax services for the first time.

* A less taxing idea: More good news for frequent fliers came last month when the IRS clarified its policy on miles earned on business travel. It said such miles would not be taxed as income when they are converted to personal use. Some legal experts had viewed these miles as compensation that should be taxed, but the IRS indicated it is too difficult to place a value on miles or to separate personal from business accounts.

* The end of blackouts: Northwest in January announced it was eliminating blackout dates, the practice of barring award travel during certain holiday periods in the United States and on trans- Atlantic travel on summer weekends. Some other airlines copied the move. But the benefit to travelers is less than it might appear. As competitors note, eliminating the blackout label without actually making more seats available for award travel on those dates doesn't help frequent fliers.

* Fewer mailings: If you haven't heard from your frequent-flier program in a while, this might be the reason: Some airlines have cut back on mailings and instead post updates on their Internet sites or via e-mail. "If you haven't decided to be an electronic junkie, you're almost never going to hear about the offers out there," Petersen says.

Jane Engle is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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