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My airline won’t award me the miles I earned. Now what?

An angry reader writes, “I recently traveled using miles on America West, then rented a car (also using my frequent flyer number). But America West refused to give me credit for this car rental, saying I can only earn miles for car rentals in conjunction with flights on paid tickets. Neither America West’s nor the rental company’s site shows that limitation. What are my options?”

The short answer is: probably none. But this experience raises some interesting questions about frequent flyer miles and how they are awarded. Here are some points to consider.

Whenever you earn airline points through an airline’s partner company, such as a hotel chain or car-rental outfit, the partner company, not the airline, actually “awards” the points. And that partner company normally establishes the ground rules for awarding credit. Partner companies buy miles from the airlines in bulk, and, as far as I know, they’re pretty free to dole them out as they please. If you have an argument, it’s with the rental company, not the airline.

Those “shortest book in the world” jokes usually poke fun at ethnic stereotypes, but one strong candidate for that title has nothing to do with ethnicity: “Frequent Flyers’ Rights.” When the programs first started, rules were much looser; frequent flyers bought and sold awards with impunity and otherwise claimed ownership rights to their accumulated credit. After losing a few lawsuits, however, the airlines—and their teams of lawyers—rewrote the program rules to remove virtually all flyers’ rights. Now, airlines can limit your use of accumulated credit and even cancel it, without recourse, if you do something an airline doesn’t like. Moreover, before you can participate in any program, you have to sign that you accept all the airlines’ totally one-sided rules and limitations. As far as I know, the airlines are no longer losing any frequent flyer lawsuits.

From the beginning, airlines have generally disallowed frequent flyer credit for some kinds of tickets, including non-revenue tickets. Here, for example, is what American says: “Certain airline tickets are not eligible for earning mileage credit. These include, without limitation, the following: all tickets issued as AAdvantage awards or other free ticket promotions including free or reduced rate tickets; companion tickets; charter flight tickets; travel agency/industry reduced-rate tickets; infant tickets; items occupying a purchased seat; unpublished fare tickets, including consolidator fares… and tickets issued subject to special provisions.”

One problem arises fairly often with foreign-airline partners of US lines. When you fly on a low-fare economy excursion ticket, you may earn only a fraction of the usual credit or even none at all. With American’s partners, for example, when you fly Qantas on an “economy discount” ticket you earn only 50 percent of the actual mileage in American’s program; with one of the cheapest tickets on Air Pacific you earn no American credit at all. Travelers who buy tickets on partner airlines to earn mileage are often shocked when, several months later, they find they got reduced credit or no credit for their flights.

Some non-US airlines are chintzy with even their own cheap-ticket travelers. On its lowest fares, for example, Cathay Pacific awards no credit in its own program. Air Canada awards only half credit to travelers on its cheapest tickets. You find similar limitations on many foreign lines.

Be realistic about picking a fight over frequent flyer miles. In the case of a car rental, you probably earn no more than 500 miles. That’s worth about $5.00—and probably not enough to justify the time it would take to pursue any claim.

The mileage at play on a long trip, however, could be worth a sizable amount. Before you select any “partner” airline in your frequent flyer program—or before you buy a discounted ticket—check to see whether it earns full mileage. If it doesn’t, look for other similarly priced options that do allow full earning.

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