What's Happening with Frequent Fliers in 2024?

Bargain airfares are back, but use your frequent-flier miles before they lose value.

A plane flies low over two tourists, waving from a beach and holding luggage.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Programs for frequent fliers in 2024 differ from past years. Bargain hunters will be happy to see a return to low-cost flight deals, but watch out for fees that might take a bite right back out of your travel budget.

To understand what the year will bring for frequent fliers, Sandra Block, senior editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, sat down with Katy Nastro.  Ms. Nasto is a travel expert for Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), a subscription service that alerts travelers to deals on airfares.

Frequent fliers in 2024: the summer travel season

What’s the outlook for the 2024 summer travel season?

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We’re not anticipating any major increases in airfares in 2024. Airfares won’t go back to pandemic lows, when you could get a round-trip ticket to Europe for around $200. But we anticipate deals that we haven’t seen for quite some time will come back. For example, Going.com recently found a $399 round-tripfare from Phoenix to Madrid, which we hadn’t seen in over a year. However, a deal that might have been available for five days in the past may disappear within one or two days. 

If you see a really good deal and it fits your budget, go ahead and book it, and remember: If you book directly with the airline, you have 24 hours to ask for a refund, so you’re not locked in.

What about fees?

To encourage nervous travelers to fly, many airlines scrapped flight-change fees during the pandemic. Do you expect airlines to reinstate them? And do you anticipate increases in baggage fees?

Analysts assumed that once the industry recovered from the pandemic, change fees would come back. But so far, they haven’t. We don’t expect any airlines to bring back change fees for standard economy tickets in 2024. But if you buy a basic economy ticket, nine times out of 10 it will have a change fee.

When it comes to bag fees, most U.S. airlines charge about $30 for the first checked bag on domestic flights. We expect at least two carriers to increase that price to $35 this year. Data shows that airlines can generate quite a bit of money by raising baggage fees by just a small amount, and the last time major carriers increased fees was in 2018.

How to beat the crowds

You’re predicting that there will be a record number of air travelers this year. What advice do you have for travelers who will likely face big crowds at the airport?

If you don’t have TSA PreCheck, which provides expedited security screening, this is the year to get it. It’s good for five years, so it’s worth the cost [a $78 fee for first-time enrollees] even if you fly only once a year. Not having to wait an hour or more in security lines reduces the stress of traveling.

If you’re looking for cheap flights and you can be flexible, go in the spring or after Labor Day. September is a fantastic month to go to Europe. For those who need to travel in the summer, try heading out the first two weeks in June or the last two in August, when airfares can cost up to 30% less than in the peak of summer.

Use those points and miles

Last year, Delta Air Lines changed the way its frequent-flier miles are structured, reducing the value for many longtime customers. Do you expect other airlines to follow suit this year? 

In the past decade or so, airlines have been moving toward rewarding fliers who spend more versus those who fly more. Delta rolled back some of its changes in response to the backlash it experienced, but you still need to spend more money to get the benefits. While it’s unclear whether another big airline will follow suit, if you’re sitting on points and miles, try to use them this year instead of hoarding them, because there’s a good chance they’ll lose some of their value moving forward.

What about Alaska Airlines?

Alaska Airlines plans to buy Hawaiian Airlines for $1.9 billion, pending approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. How would the merger affect fares to destinations served by those airlines? 

Going.com founder Scott Keyes correctly predicted last year that the Justice Department would block JetBlue’s proposed acquisition of Spirit. Even though this administration isn’t super merger-friendly, we suspect this merger will get the green light from regulators. But the process takes a long time, so even if this merger goes through, we’re unlikely to see its effects on airfares within the next year.

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Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.