focused on big-time flyers
Continental & United's merged rewards program to focus on money spent ratherthan miles flown
You might have heard, Continental and United Airlines are merging. And along with their merged corporate cultures and operations, the two airlines frequent flyer rewards programs are also marrying, with the respective programs ending December 31 and the combined program beginning in the first quarter of 2012.
But before you read further, understand that this article is by a non-elite traveler—the sort of person that forgets her rewards numbers, thought the Star Alliance was a superhero thing and always has to re-purchase toiletries at her destination because who the hell can eyeball 3 ounces, anyway?
So what's changed, exactly?
The new rewards program — like most airline reward programs — are designed to disproportionately benefit the big-time flyers.
Both soon-to-be-completely-merged United and Continental airlines are members of the aforementioned Star Alliance, an group of airlines in partnership which accept each other's rewards programs, but there are changes afoot for members of either airline's rewards programs.
Here's what you can expect:
As travel writer writer Ed Perkins writes, "The miles you get matter, but the only miles that really matter are those you earn by flying." The new rewards program—like most airline reward programs—are designed to disproportionately benefit the big-time flyers.
But new is an effort to further differentiate program members and restructure how you earn rewards. Normal folks racking up miles on cheap, short flights will soon stop getting the same benefits as business and elite travelers paying full fare as rewards become structured around how much you paid, not how far you flew.
United, for example, has decreased the benefits awarded to its lowest tier elites in its new combined loyalty program, moving to a four-tier system in favor of the three-tier system both Continental and United had previously employed.
In the new system, the "silver" level, which constitutes the lowest tier of the airline's elites, can no longer reserve extra legroom at booking and have new restrictions on free baggage. Other premier tiers who travel more frequently—and often pay full fare—however, retain those benefits.
It pays to have accounts with both airlines—and then link them. Although you can currently earn and redeem miles flying on any Star Alliance member airline (and both Continental and United flights are appearing in each other's search queues), a major perk of maintaining both a OnePass and MileagePlus account and linking them together is that once you do, you can transfer miles between the two at no cost.
United estimates it has 58 million members in its rewards program, compared to Continental's 41 million. There's an estimated 15 percent overlap between the two, though, so if you're one of those people, link 'em up!
The accessibility of rewards seats should stay about the same, according to MileagePlus president Jeff Foland, once the programs are combined and serve around 85 million members.
The United Red Carpet Club and the Continental Presidents Clubs have merged into the United Club, if you have access.
United's new loyalty program is the first to require fliers to take four flights on United or Continental planes to qualify for elite status. That means no counting on rewards just by buying with your airline branded credit card.