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Frequent flyer programs seeing fast, frequent changes

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The idea is simple. "If you use our airline, then we'll reward you with discounted or even free airline tickets." That's how it started anyway, but that's not how it is now.

"Demand is very high, but supply is shrinking. So fewer seats are available for free," travel experts say. More than 30 years ago, frequent flyer mile programs were considered by some to be a brilliant marketing tool. "It allowed people, especially those who were loyal to a particular carrier, to rack up free miles and hopefully claim them for that coveted seat." 

But in 2015 there were trillions of un-redeemed frequent flyer miles, and it's going to get a bit more challenging for consumers to cash in.

American Airlines, which has merged with US Airways, has begun the extensive process of combining loyalty programs all into one."It's not that it's impossible to get somewhere with a frequent flyer program. You just really need to do your research," says Linda Gorman with AAA Arizona.

She says there are indeed some big changes consumers need to know about. "One of the things that went away, for example, US Airways had a great feature which was a $99 companion fee and that allowed people who were loyalty members to receive that $99 companion fee every year. That has since gone away."

And that's not all. Other airlines are making changes as well. "It used to be based on miles, so that's why it was called the frequent flier program, right? You earned miles as you traveled. Some carriers are changing it to how much money you spend."

Delta, Southwest, Jet Blue and Virgin America have transitioned to a so-called revenue-based model. In other words Gorman says, the more expensive your ticket the more miles you earn. "That's going to benefit mostly business travelers or people who travel first class, people who tend to pay more for their tickets, people who aren't looking for that bargain fare."

The bottom line is that  changes are here when it comes to how you accumulate your miles. And if you don't agree with the changes, remember, you can always use your credit card company to accumulate points or miles the way you like. Gorman goes on to say: "Maybe you don't need one for flying, maybe instead you need one for hotel stays, so look at the one that's going to give you the biggest return on your investment, that's going to offer you the best reward for your purchases and stick to one."

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