If you feel like you can’t win with frequent flyer programs, you might be right. Here are some unfortunate realities about many popular rewards programs that they don’t really want you to know.

Starting with the contracts…they are extremely one-sided. Basically you are agreeing that the airline can change the rules any time it wants without any input from you.

Next is that in many cases the airline actually owns ‘your’ miles. That means you can’t transfer them to anyone else without paying a fee…and sometimes the fee is more than the miles are worth.

And if you do something the airline doesn’t like—such as a hidden city or throw-away ticketing, when you book a connection flight and don’t carry-on to the final destination to save money, they can erase your miles and kick you out of the program.

And what most of us want more than anything from reward programs, free flights, are unfortunately hard to get. Especially for business or first class tickets on international trips with decent itineraries.  Even if you do nab a free flight, most programs will still impose a hefty surcharge, tax or fee.

Another issue is that rewards are often hidden.  Award travel using partner airlines may not be displayed, or how many points are required for certain seats.  Often, the only way to get a straight answer is to call an airline’s frequent flyer office directly.

Another problem is that reward miles generally aren’t worth their asking price. Usually people place the value of airline frequent flyer miles at somewhere around a cent or a cent-and-a-half per mile. You would assume that is close to the price airlines get when they sell miles to banks for inclusion in credit card programs. But when they try to sell miles to you, the big airlines charge more than three cents—about two to three times what the miles are worth. They even charge up to one-and-a-half cents per mile to transfer miles you’ve already earned or bought.

And finally, elite status isn’t what it used to be. For frequent travelers, the most important reward is not so much the miles as it is the elite status that provides special check-in lanes, reduced baggage fees, and, most importantly, space-available no-charge upgrades.

But airlines are now handing out elite status to more and more travelers and at the same time there are cut backs on the number of first and business class seats on domestic flights. Basically, now only super high level members can hope for an upgrade.

So there are some points you might not have known about Frequent Flyer programs. Always be cautious of the program and use up your miles while you still have them!

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