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Is the dream of a free family flight gone for good?

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Airlines have been tweaking their frequent flier programs for the past year, which may be bad news for those who've dreamed of putting their miles toward a big family vacation. Here are five things you should know.

1. The old 'green stamps' program is dead

When your mother or grandmother collected green stamps at the grocery story, it was really simple, and so were the original frequent flier programs: Fly the required number of miles, get a free trip. But nothing is simple now, thanks in part to the airlines' return to financial health, which included cutting flights and filling every middle seat. That means fewer available seats for free awards trips. Throw in the devaluation of miles as redemption levels rise and it adds up to fewer people with a shot at a freebie. 

2. Forget the most popular destinations

All those domestic airline megamergers and the virtual mergers between U.S. and international alliance partners have reduced competition dramatically. That means airlines have no incentive to add more flights to places everyone wants to go for their dream vacation.

3. Free tickets or fee tickets?

While it still costs nothing to sign up for a miles program, there are more fees associated with “free” awards tickets, including:

-September 11 fee, currently $2.50 per flight segment.

-Fuel surcharges, included in certain long-haul flights, that can total hundreds of dollars.

-Checked-bag fees, sometimes – but not always – waived on awards flights.

-Luxury tax, charged by some countries if redemption involves business class seats on international flights.

-Airline-branded credit cards, which accumulate miles but may also substantial annual fees.

4.  Who wins?

Road warriors: Business people who fly incessantly and buy expensive last-minute tickets. To the airlines, their miles are worth more, so they get greater access to perks like awards seats.

The airlines: Their goal is getting their hooks into high-paying business travelers, and they are not overly concerned if you take your one-flight-a-year business elsewhere.

5. Who loses?

Average families: The family of four with school-age children and two weeks of vacation time loses out, since there are fewer awards seats in peak travel periods. They may also be affected by:

-Expired miles: If you don't fly much, check your miles. They may have expired due to inactivity.

-Lack of airline transparency: Rules governing miles programs are dense and difficult, far more confusing than any tax form. To their credit, airlines have slowly provided program members with better tools to use in the redemption process, but a tool isn't much good without enough seats.

-Limited portability of miles: Some airlines may still allow you to transfer miles to a family member or friend, but often there's a fee attached.

    

What you can do

-Re-evaluate your loyalty: It never hurts to sign up for miles programs (they’re free, after all), but it might not be worth flying one airline if the other guys offer cheaper fares. Getting a cash-back credit card or one that offers flights anytime with loyalty points might be a more prudent choice.

-Learn and play the game: If you want to earn and use miles, access experts on sites like ThePointsGuy or FlyerTalk, where knowledgeable people can answer your questions.

-Choose destinations wisely: By all means, try to find that Honolulu flight at Christmas, but have a backup plan if there are no seats. Try off-the-beaten-path destinations or popular cities in the off-season. Also see what your airline's alliance partners are offering.

 

Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site