Do miles make you the least valuable flier?

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It's increasingly tough to redeem frequent-flier miles, but I didn't appreciate how far they've been devalued until the July 4th weekend—when I lost my seat assignment and was nearly bumped from my Delta flight.

My husband and I used 100,000 miles to book two round-trip tickets between New York (JFK) and San Francisco (SFO) and selected our seats online. (Never mind that 50,000 miles were once enough for two such domestic fares!) We made a note to follow up because no two adjacent seats were available. When we called Delta a few days before our departure, we were told we no longer had seats and that we should arrive early to get seats at the gate. We were surprised, but not concerned.

At the gate, the agent broke the news that even though we were confirmed on the flight, she couldn't assign us seats because they were all taken. Delta had oversold the flight by 14 passengers, so we would have to wait to see how many people failed to check in on time. (The Department of Transportation (DOT) permits overselling and doesn't restrict the number or percentage of seats that can be oversold on any given flight.)

We questioned her about how we could have lost our seats and wound up among the 14 extras. The Delta agent offered the possible explanations that our flight had been downgraded to a plane that was smaller or had a different seat configuration. She admitted that when a plane is oversold, passengers are ranked in priority from high to low ticket price, which put us at the very bottom.

To confirm her statement, I later called a Delta spokesman, Kent Landers, who told me: "SkyMiles is a free ticket so that would be the lowest fare class on the airplane." He explained that passengers in first or business class, or with enough SkyMiles to qualify for elite status, are accommodated first and the remaining coach passengers are prioritized by ticket price, with advance check-in time also weighed as a factor. Delta lets you check in online up to 24 hours in advance—do so!

We were surprised again when we somehow made it onto our scheduled 5 p.m. flight last Thursday, as did most of the extra passengers. By then, the gate agent had agreed to assign us seats and print boarding passes for our return flight home on Sunday. Even with the happy ending, it was an eye-opening experience and revealed a downside to our typical BT goal of paying less than the person sitting next to you.

If you do find yourself involuntarily bumped from a flight, you're entitled to compensation and a written statement from the airline describing your rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Find out your rights before you go by reading the DOT's fact sheet on overbooking.

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