Which Frequent Flier Program Should I Join?
Just about every commercial airline in the industry has a frequent flier program. It started out as a concept by Texas International Airlines back in 1979, but most consider American Airlines to be the pioneer of travel rewards programs with their AAdvantage program of 1981. The general goal of a frequent flier program is to reward customers with points, or “miles”(the common term used to describe some programs’ currency), for being loyal to the brand. Passengers earn miles by flying with an airline, and once enough mileage is accrued, the passenger can redeem miles for rewards, most commonly used towards free flights on that airline. This generates a win-win situation for both the airline and the passenger enrolled in its participating frequent flier program. Customers will most likely try to fly often on their specific carrier so as to bulk up on rewards mileage in one program, which is great for that airline, while the customer slowly works their way toward free airfare.
Frequent flier programs have become increasingly competitive, especially over the last decade. Now, the average consumer would find it fairly easy to earn mileage towards rewards in their program without even flying. Credit cards, grocery stores, wireless retailers, and restaurants all compete to attract new customers of their own, many of them partnering with an airline rewards program, so as to take advantage of the loyal customer base that the airline already administers. In the United States, I earn miles through banking by using my debit card, I find restaurants that will reward me with flyer miles for my dinners, I buy my ink cartridges at the online retailer that offers me the most miles, and I send flowers to friends more often when there is a double bonus miles promotion with 1-800-Flowers. As a travel fiend, every monetary transaction that I encounter is analyzed for the best possible rewards miles in my travel program.
Some people fly on whichever airline is the cheapest, and sign up for new programs each time they fly a different airline. However, it is important to stick with one – or at the very most, a select few – so that you can earn your reward travel as soon as possible. With the way most merchants are consolidating promotions and advertising efforts into their ties with these programs, it helps to know which one to choose. So, which frequent flier program should you choose?
This is not a straightforward answer, as there is no perfect choice. There are many factors that you should take into consideration before you settle for picking that program that would suit your style and needs the best, in no particular order:
How often do you fly? This needs to include both your personal and business travel, as you are eligible to earn miles on both. Some people don’t realize that their business trips can earn them miles, so long as they request them. Also, some people think that they may be crossing boundaries between personal and business transactions when they provide a frequent flier number for a flight that the company paid for. This is not true, and these miles will just vanish if you don’t claim them. As airline policy has it, virtually all across the board, no one can earn mileage other than the person who had their ass in the seat. So, how many times per year do you fly? And, how long are the distances flown each time? Travel frequency is helpful to determine the next factor to determine: Mileage Expiration.
Once you figure out your travel frequency, you are prepared to possibly filter out some programs for their mileage expiration conditions. If you only fly one or twice per year, or if you only fly several short-haul flights in a year, you need to choose a program that has a gracious expiration date. What good is earning miles if they will expire before you use them? Most programs go about mileage expiration like this: as long as there is activity(usually an increase) in a frequent flier’s account, miles will not expire because the clock will be reset. However, if you do not have any activity for 18 months or 3 years(it all depends on the airline’s T&C’s), you may forfeit all your miles. It seems easy to keep activity up in an account, especially after I mentioned earlier that now it is the easiest thing in the world to earn miles on everyday retail transactions. But, if you are “in” in a program that is less relevant for you, you can find yourself forgetting these miles. For instance, I typically fly internationally, but I flew a few years ago to visit my friend in San Francisco. I found a fare that was quite inexpensive on Virgin America, so I earned miles in their program(as they didn’t have any codeshare partners at that time. Needless to say, these miles were forfeited about a year ago due to inactivity, and I could not get them reinstated. Delta just recently threw mileage expiration out of the window, as a promotional tactic. The Delta Skymiles program may be a good fit for the most infrequent of “frequent fliers”, as there does not even need to be a bit of activity. Hopefully, other airlines will follow suit to compete and this can become an industry standard; but for now, be very aware!
Where do you live?
Which airport do you consider your home airport? Are you fortunate, like I am, to have more than one airport serving your metropolitan area? Every airport has airlines that does not serve it, and this is a big factor to consider when choosing your ideal frequent flier program. If you reside in Memphis, you would not well-rewarded(or well-regarded) if you chose All Nippon Airways’ ANA Mileage Club as your primary program(Japan is not quite supported through the Memphis Int’l Airport(actually, most Asian destinations aren’t)). Rather, you should choose the airline program that has a strong presence at the airport you frequent, or at least the airline you would fly the most with. So, at Memphis International, the Delta Skymiles program could be a good fit, as they consider Memphis to be one of their hubs(FedEx considers Memphis to be a hub also, but there are many obstacles to flying with them:)).
Where are you going?
Similar to the last determinant, your destinations are just as important as your departure point. If you visit Denver often to check up on the parents, and don’t go much anywhere else, both Frontier and United Airlines would be viable options to consider for your primary frequent flier program, as they both consider Denver International Airport to be a hub for them. But if you fly internationally also, maybe Frontier’s EarlyReturns program is not as feasible an option as United’s Mileage Plus program, as United flies almost anywhere in the world, while Frontier is mainly a domestic carrier.
Earning Opportunities – “Earn Rate”
Like I stated in the beginning of this article, many airlines offer earning opportunities outside of flying with them. There are some programs that have myriad ways to earn mileage, American Airlines being the front-runner, with over 1,500 merchants offering their AAdvantage miles for shopping with them. Likewise, there are some airlines with few ways of earning miles with them outside of flying, such as JetBlue. So, if you want to quickly rack up some miles, but don’t fly too often, you need to find a program that can earn you the miles you want for the transactions that you do make often.
- Banking/Credit Cards – This is the best and easiest way to earn miles. Basically, you can find what’s called an affinity card, which is a card issued by a financial institution that is co-branded and partnered with an airline’s frequent flier program. There are both debit cards and credit cards that do this, though credit cards are the more popular offering by banks, as they don’t lose as much money by issuing rewards, due to the fees and interest rates. But, your everyday purchase will literally add miles to your account. $5.00 for a coffee every morning, $346.00 for the utilities each month, another few hundred for grocery shopping, and perhaps $200.00 more for gas. If you swiped for these purchases, this is already about 1,000 miles(based on 1 mile/dollar) per month. And there is much more that you could find to use your credit/debit card for. Bank of America offers a debit card that earns you US Airways Dividend Miles, and American Express has some great Delta Skymiles credit cards.
- Dining – Many frequent flier programs offer rewards for each time you dine with a participating restaurant. Many of the legacy carriers, such as Delta, AA, US Airways, and United reward you based on the dollar amount spent at a participating restaurant. You do not need to have an affinity card in this case, but rather you simply register any accepted credit or debit card with the program’s dining affiliate, and every time you eat at a participating restaurant, you will earn miles. New restaurants get added all the time, as they try to increase their customer base, again by adopting loyal customers of an airline rewards program. Make sure you sign up for the emails, as these dining sub-programs often deliver double or triple bonus points promotions, and they can be quite a lucrative deal. AAdvantage Dining and Dividend Miles Dining are two great choices with many participating restaurants.
- Online Retailers – Many airlines’ websites have become virtual mega-malls where you can purchase almost anything your heart desires. That’s because they built a shopping area and integrated with their site so that you can earn miles on purchases. If you were shopping at Best Buy for a camera, why not shop for it by clicking on the link from Delta’s Skymiles Shopping? You will utilize the Best Buy website just like you would have, but you will earn maybe 1 or 2 points per dollar on your purchase. The airline benefits by earning a commission on the items you purchase, for their referral.
- Brick and Mortar Retailers – Similar to the dining experience, some carriers’ frequent traveler programs allow you to also register your credit/debit card to earn miles by shopping at physical merchants. Miles can be earned perhaps at participating gas stations, grocery stores, movie theaters, etc. Not only that, but if you also register an affinity card, you should come out earning mileage from both methods, a sort of double-dipping.
- Other Promotional Offers – Check out the website of your potential frequent flier choice to see other limited-time offers. They may have bonus miles on signing up for a magazine subscription, staying at a particular hotel, or referring a friend to sign up.