Why earning frequent flier miles is about to get a lot more expensive

Story highlights

  • 'Mile runners' take trips just to get frequent flier points
  • Ben Schlappig traveled 270,000 miles in four days
  • Many airlines are changing their reward systems to make it harder

(CNN)It's amazing what (literal) lengths some people will go to earn frequent flier miles. Take Ben Schlappig. Over his lifetime, he's accrued about four million miles. Half of those, he estimates, were earned on "mile runs" -- trips taken for the sole purpose of earning points.

Recently, he completed a dizzying, non-stop trip (London-New York-Los Angeles-Honolulu-Los Angeles-London-Miami-London-Los Angeles-London) that would set most people's heads spinning. It took four days (three of which were spent almost completely on a plane), and he accrued 270,000 miles.
He admits that the journey was exhausting, but ultimately worth it.
    "To put it into some kind of perspective, it's enough miles for two first-class tickets between the U.S. and Asia," he notes.
    "If I would have paid cash for them, they would have each cost me over $20,000."

    Rules of the game set to change

    December -- which marks the last opportunity for many frequent fliers to earn enough to gain (or maintain) their elite statuses -- is mile-run season. In the past, the trick was looking for a cheap ticket that went the distance, as miles earned were calculated by, well, miles flown. This year, that is all set to change.
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    The changing face of frequent flier programs
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    "In 33 years of frequent flier programs, this is the year of the biggest changes ever," says Randy Petersen, founder of the online travel forum FlyerTalk and CEO of Frequent Flyer Services, which offers guidance to road warriors the world over.
    "Some of the world's largest frequent flier programs are going to a revenue model," he explains, noting that come this year, many programs will start awarding members based on how much they spend, not how far they fly.
    Air New Zealand started the trend when it introduced Airpoint Dollars in 2004. Other airlines have followed suit over the years, such as Virgin Australia, JetBlue and Southwest (the latter -- which awards members 10 points for every dollar spent -- has one of the most popular frequent flier programs in the U.S.).
    Starting this month, both Delta and United shifted to a completely revenue-based system of calculating miles earned.
    Petersen predicts it's only a matter of time before the European carriers follow suit.
    "They may say they won't, because they don't want to upset things, but these (carriers) are part of alliances. Over the next two years, I think you'll start to see revenue-based frequent flier programs tremble out through the rest of the airline industry."

    Hotels to adjust, too

    Petersen notes there's also been a shift in hotel awards programs.
    "A lot of hotel programs are changing what it costs per night come January. If you're planning on redeeming hotel rooms later this year, do it now. Get the redemptions at lower prices," he advises.
    As for points earned and spent on plane tickets, there's little to be done but to accept airlines' change in policy.
    "It's too late for you to do anything. But here's what you don't do. Do not buy a more expensive ticket to earn miles. You'd be playing into what the airlines want. It's okay to earn fewer miles on a cheap ticket, because you'll still be able to find cheap awards out there," he says.