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

Life and Style
Divers at Bouldnor Cliff underwater site in the Solent off the Isle of Wight, where the silt sample containing the einkorn DNA was found
life
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
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

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Recruitment Genius: Processing Partner

    £15000 - £19200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Processing Partner is require...

    Recruitment Genius: PPC Manager - SW London

    £34000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist travel agent ba...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower