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Does an Airline Really Deserve Your Loyalty?

2016's rewards changes prove one thing: Airlines are forgetting that loyalty is a two-way street

2016 certainly will be a milestone year for frequent fliers with lofty travel dreams.

American Airlines will follow the lead of its legacy brethren, United and Delta, by redesigning its loyalty program into one that is revenue based, leaving Alaska as the lone holdout of major network carriers in North America to award miles based upon distance flown. Fliers on American will now receive five miles per dollar spent, with elite members receiving more depending upon their specific status with the airline. What do these changes mean for you?

A free vacation, but at what price?

Let’s assume you plan your routine travel around flying with a certain airline or its partners so you can earn enough miles for that aspirational trip to, say, Hawaii. In the past, you could predict the number of miles you might need for an award, because a set price, or range of prices, was indicated on the airline’s award chart. But Delta announced that, in June 2016, it will change the way miles are redeemed, switiching to a sliding scale that is more closely tied to the dollar cost of that ticket. What’s worse is that Delta deleted its entire award chart from its website last year—something no other airline has done—making it even harder to estimate what awards will cost when it comes time to redeem your miles. Can you guess how much a ticket to Hawaii will cost nine months from now? Or how many miles Delta will charge you for that flight?

Loyalty programs have been extremely profitable for airlines. They built a value proposition that rewards customers for staying loyal to a single carrier, doling out perks and the promise of free travel. But loyalty is a two-way street. Loyalty program experts point out that if airlines continue to morph their frequent flier programs into “rebate systems,” the value for customers drops significantly, and travelers may become less interested in sticking with a carrier when the benefit they hope to receive becomes too difficult to attain. And if rewards are becoming too hard to earn, is it even worth playing the game?

Which kind of traveler are you?

In 2016, you are at a crossroads. You can remain loyal to one airline if you think it still brings great value in upgrades, mileage bonuses, and the eventual free trip. Maybe it still makes sense to go out of your way to fly a preferred carrier—to make connections instead of taking a nonstop flight, or travel at less convenient times so you can attain elite status or test your chances for a free upgrade. And when you do get to redeem that free mileage ticket to Hawaii, you’ll smile and think, ahh, that was all worth it.

Or, you can be loyal to yourself. Airlines have made so many changes to their rewards programs—with hard-to-understand elite qualification rules and redemption fees—that it may just be time to throw in the towel. You can decide that this year you will take the most convenient flights from the easiest airports so you can spend more time at your destination. You might ignore the promise of a free trip, dangled in front of you like a carrot, and instead say, I will pay less to fly low-cost airlines and use the money I save to take a vacation on my own terms.

It’s time to make the choice

As you face the blank calendar for the year ahead, decide if you want to keep spinning the mileage lotto wheel or finally break free. Me? I am in it to win it. I will continue to accrue miles and points because I receive tremendous value from being flexible when the time comes to redeem them. But everyone has a different set of circumstances, and being flexible is easier said than done.

My plan is to fly American for the first half of the year since that airline will continue to award miles based upon distance flown until mid-2016. American never gave a definitive date for when the program will switch over, and when it does, I will re-evaluate my goals. Perhaps I will occasionally fly low-cost airlines that get me where I am going nonstop. Or maybe I will stick with the airline with which I have an affiliated credit card because that’s the fastest way to earn miles now. Or maybe I’ll begin accruing points in Alaska’s program because you can also earn miles on Alaska by flying American and Delta.

The wise move is to evaluate what you want to achieve through your miles. Do you plan to take a big vacation this year? Delta notwithstanding, you can get an idea of the number of points you will need by visiting airline websities and checking their mileage charts to determine the cost. Then, plan your 2016 travel accordingly so that you can earn the miles quickly. Don’t forget, you can also earn airline miles at many hotels by giving the front desk your frequent flier number.

Loyalty to an airline can come with great perks, but sometimes it’s more rewarding to take care of yourself.

Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise, and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.