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What should infrequent United or Delta fliers do with their cards now?

by on Tue June 17, 2014 • No Comment


Let’s take a situation many of you are in.

You have the credit card from United or Delta, you fly a few times a year –  maybe one or two work trips, a vacation or two, and try to stick to your card’s airline, but if the fare is higher you will fly with someone else. The 100% loyal flier is rare today.

So you’re probably using United on about 2 or 3 trips a year.

And you are concerned your ability to earn miles has just collapsed now that flown miles on United and Delta will be earned based on your fare paid, not distance flown.

It’s a fair concern, because make no mistake about it, United and Delta will be handing out fewer miles from flying overall starting next year, and people who don’t fly expensive fares are the target.

But if you’re an infrequent flier there’s a good chance what you earn each year won’t decline a lot.

Read on for a review of how you’ll shake out.

The average United passenger flew about 1,500 miles each way in 2013. And the average fare was $476 round-trip, including both domestic and international flights, according to its annual financial report.

That means the average flier will earn 620 fewer miles on each roundtrip ticket. Not as stunning.

Now let’s look at how many miles someone who spends $2,000 a month on an entry level United or Delta credit card will earn in one year.


We assumed you paid the average airfare of $476 and flew 3,000 miles roundtrip each time. Of course we all have different habits – some trips are longer and more expensive than $476, others are shorter and less than $476, but over 3 flights a year it’s a reasonable average.

You’ll earn just 1,860 fewer miles a year. 

That’s because about 80% of your miles are earned on the ground via card spending.

You’re a frequent spender, not frequent flier.

And for about half of frequent flier program members that’s the reality as noted in our recent survey.

Under the new system you’ll earn over 65,000 miles in two years, with 14,000 of them from flying.

And it will take you about $45,000 in credit card spending to add on to the 14,000 miles you’ll earn from flying to get to a roundtrip ticket to Europe.

That ticket is often worth over $1,000, and getting that value out of $45,000 in card spending works out to over 2.2 cents per dollar, similar to 2% cash back cards.

Before, you earned about 2.4 cents per dollar, needing $42,000 in card spending.

So value is still there for fliers topping off miles earned from flights. And like before, it’s really most compelling if you redeem for expensive tickets.

For saving money on long international trips, airline miles are still hard to beat and you should keep using a card that earns miles in your most convenient program, whether that’s United or Delta.

For short domestic trips, you’re still often better off with a 2% cash for travel card.

And the best way to hedge your bets is with transferable points like those from Chase Ultimate Rewards (transfer to United, Southwest, more), Amex Membership Rewards (transfer to Delta, JetBlue, more), or Starwood Preferred Guest (transfer to American, Alaska, more).

What if you fly longer distances?

Take a look at these examples.

In the first we assume you fly from Chicago to Hawaii once a year for $600, and ‘average’ flights twice a year.

You’ll earn 6,140 fewer miles each year.

Definitely a dent, but not catastrophic.

You’ll still earn about 70,000 miles over two years, enough for an Economy ticket to Europe, Hawaii, or even the most expensive tickets within the mainland U.S.


In the second we assume you fly from Chicago to Europe once a year for about $900, and ‘average’ flights twice a year. The story is similar. You definitely earn fewer miles, which is a real loss, but less than 10,000 miles over two years, which is manageable. And still earning about 70,000 miles over two years.


Who should be worried?

The big losers are people who fly frequently, but on ‘average’ fares or less. Think 5-10x per year or more. Or you fly 3x a year entirely on long trips to Asia or Europe at the lowest fare.

That’s who really gets hit here. You’re short 10,000, 20,000, or even 100,000 miles a year versus before.

It’s not the majority of total fliers, but it’s a vocal and loyal minority that bats above its weight in seats flown.

It’s real loss if you’re one of them. And it’s a risk for Delta and United to lose you.

But most of us don’t fly that much, and topping off the miles earned from flying the airline most convenient for you is now just modestly less rewarding.


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