All aboard, or jump ship? Loyalty program tweaks to consider for 2015

JetBlue passengers at Logan International Airport, Boston.
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JetBlue passengers at Logan International Airport, Boston.

Nearly 25 million people were expected to travel around the world for Thanksgiving this year, and they are seen continuing that trend as the holiday season reaches a peak.

Some are already making travel plans for 2015, but may find themselves sifting through changes in loyalty programs that could either keep them on board—or make them jump ship.

The pending changes for 2015 may make some travelers rethink their allegiances this year.

A few carriers, like Alaska Airlines, will begin offering increased mileage bonuses for a number of fare classes and elite Mileage Plan members, the company announced this week. At the turn of the year, Alaska Air will be offering big mileage bonuses to first class, refundable coach and MVP Gold upgradeable travelers.

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The Alaskan carrier isn't alone. Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are joining the fray by boosting bonuses for flight miles and elite programs, through a mix of cash spend and frequent flier miles.

How loyal will you be?

"We're working hard to reward the loyalty of all of our frequent flyers, while ensuring customers who fly and spend the most have access to the richest benefits of our program," said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.

As of January 1, Delta SkyMiles members will earn miles based on ticket price and elite program status as well, while the cash spend for reaching various Medallion levels will be bumped up as well.

Assorted websites, many of which earn commissions from promoting mileage-linked credit cards, parse the minutiae of the airline mileage rules. However, the new bonuses may not be enough to keep travelers interested, some say.

"Come next February, I think a lot of people are going to drop status because of these changes," said Brian Kelly, founder of "Even though they may have flown the same amount as the year before, they most likely won't hit the revenue requirements."

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Too much baggage, or not enough

It may be more difficult to accrue elite status, but United and Delta have still rolled out some helpful all-access perks.

In August, Delta introduced Delta Studio, which offers movies, TV episodes, music, games and other free entertainment options on all of its domestic aircraft and two-cabin regional jets.

Just this week, United expanded its free on-board wireless video streaming to Android devices, and will also offer incentives to smartphone app users.

In the second quarter of 2015, American Airlines' AAdvantage and US Airways Dividend Miles members will become part of the same frequent flyer program. Mileage balances will be combined, elite levels will be aligned and a new upgrade policy for elite status members flying on American and US Airways will be put in place.

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The bane of every flier's existence is fees associated with checking luggage. However, some travelers can expect modest incentives in that department.

In the first half of 2015, JetBlue will launch a three-tiered flyer program that will allow some passengers to get up to two pieces of luggage checked for free, along with other incentives.

Meanwhile, Hawaiian Airlines will offer its travelers the option of earning travel miles "based on distance flown, not based on ticket spend and Elite status," spokeswoman Alison Croyle told CNBC. "The airline will also not require any minimum spend to make elite status."

Based on the host of incentives and upcoming changes, airline watchers say passengers need to decide whether certain loyalty programs are worth keeping.

"Elite status is becoming harder to earn and less valuable, at least at the mid and lower tiers," said ThePointsGuy's Kelly.

"So you need to identify what you want out of your program," he added. "Calculate how much extra you pay for your loyalty and see if you're receiving more than that back in perks and the value from miles. If not, then it may be time to switch."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.