Newsflash: Your frequent flier miles are nearly worthless

In an exercise in stating the obvious, the Wall Street Journal has written about how the declining value of frequent flier miles has made customers less loyal to airlines. If you're one of those travelers who flies hundreds of thousands of miles a year, a frequent flier program might be important because of the perks (like free upgrades to first class) that you can get when flying. But if you're simply doing it for the miles you can turn into free tickets, it's often a waste of time.

A survey found that only 25% of travelers say they are loyal to a particular airline. Their choices more often depend on ticket prices and flight schedules, rather than preference for an airline.

For years, my travel has not been influenced by frequent flier programs. I know that if I ever try to actually use the miles to get a ticket, my options are going to be severely limited. So like most other fliers, I base my purchasing decision on who can get me to my destination most efficiently and at the most reasonable cost. (Notice I didn't say at the cheapest price. I'm more than willing to pay a higher fare in exchange for a direct flight or a layover that avoids some of the worst airports.)

And if you're wondering what the real value of those miles is.... Currently it stands at about 1.2 cents per mile. So if you've got 40,000 miles accumulated, the value of that travel is about $480. That's an awful lots of miles you have to fly in order to reap a middling benefit. And when you think about how many flights are needed to accumulate 40,000 miles, it's no wonder that travelers stay focused on convenience and value each time they pay for a ticket.

To put this in perspective, at about 2,462 air miles between Los Angeles and New York, you'd have to fly between the two more than 16 times (8 round trips) to accumulate 40,000 miles. That's an awful lot of time in the air, and I wouldn't be willing to sacrifice convenience and comfort (if there is still any in airline travel) on those long trips just for a $480 value that I may or may not be able to use toward travel in the future.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

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