Up in the air: Why frequent flyers are losing out

George Clooney may covet frequent-flyer miles in his latest film, but what do these schemes really offer?

"There's nothing cheap about loyalty," insists Ryan Bingham, the high-flying character played by George Clooney in Up In The Air, released on Friday. Anyone seeking to cash in their frequent-flyer points for a long-haul flight may well agree, given the high costs of a "free" flight.

The frequent-flyer concept is intellectually enticing. On a typical flight one out of four seats is empty, so passengers who elect to stay loyal to a particular carrier, or airline alliance, can earn free seats on future flights that would otherwise go unsold.

That appealing theory led American Airlines to unveil the idea in 1981. Competitors immediately copied the concept. British Airways came to the party with its "Air Miles" scheme. The term has since gained currency as the generic name for any frequent-flyer programme, even though BA soon changed the offer so that it was no longer an airline passenger loyalty scheme but a retail reward programme (a good one, too, with genuinely free flights). Frequent flyers on BA who join its Executive Club qualify for BA Miles.

An estimated 14 trillion frequent-flyer miles are in circulation. But research by the Independent Traveller shows that their value has become debased.

First, earning miles is getting tougher for the majority of passengers: anyone travelling on a discounted ticket gets only a fraction of the actual distance travelled. Second, redeeming points attracts such high "taxes, fees and charges" that schemes can look almost worthless.

We looked at frequent-flyer programmes from Europe's three leading airlines: Air France, Lufthansa and BA, who also represent the world's three major airline alliances: SkyTeam, Star and Oneworld. The Manchester-Hong Kong route provides good comparison because there are no longer direct flights between the two cities: you must change planes at Paris Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow or Frankfurt, flying around 6,000 miles.

So how many round trips between Manchester and Hong Kong, at a discount fare, would you need to make to earn enough miles for a "free" flight on the same route? For Air France and BA, the answer is 26, because each airline awards only one-quarter of the actual miles flown, and sets the points level at 80,000 for a "free" flight. Lufthansa's Miles&More scheme is more than twice as generous, awarding points worth half the distance flown, and "charging" only 77,000 miles if you book online. But even after flying back and forth 11 times, you need a lot of Miles&Money before you can take off: £340 for "taxes, fees and charges".

We then looked at fares on the open market through Opodo.co.uk. A flight one month from now, returning a fortnight later, costs £617 return on Lufthansa. So surely your 77,000 miles are at least saving you nearly £300? Not if you fly on a different airline. Finnair, easily the quickest link between Manchester and Hong Kong with a stop in Helsinki, costs £356 return, only £36 more than the extras demanded by Lufthansa.

The German airline allows travellers to add an extra 15,000 miles to cover the taxes, fees and charges, which would be a smart move: you could earn a completely free trip from only 13 return flights.

Air France demands £320 before you can claim your "free" trip via Paris. That means each of those 26 round-trips you took to earn the 80,000 miles is worth approximately £1.30 in the benefit it earns compared with the Finnair flight: just five pence for every 12,000-mile round trip. British Airways is more generous, with an assessment of only £270. But passengers from northern England may still prefer to pay an extra £86 for a faster and less stressful journey via Helsinki.

So do frequent-flyer schemes have any merit? Yes, but usually on routes where fares are disproportionately high because of an absence of competition.

I last used BA Miles to fly to Bermuda (the same distance as New York, but with fares twice as high), and Luxembourg, which has no low-fare options.

No-frills airlines are often sniffy about frequent-flyer schemes. The world's largest budget carrier, Southwest Airlines, has a simple "fly eight round trips and the ninth is free" plan. But easyJet and Ryanair have steered clear of the concept. The one exception was in 1996, when easyJet offered passengers on its new Aberdeen-Luton route a bottle of whisky if they paid the full £69 fare. (This was before the liquids ban.)

Those who claimed the award were disappointed to find that their reward was, in fact, only half a bottle of Scotch. Yet another frequent-flyer swizz.

Research by Claire Cooper

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreEXCLUSIVE The Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor