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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:

Travel Frequency

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.

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.

Redemption Opportunities – “Burn Rate”

What good is earning all that mileage if you can’t redeem it the way you want? Assuming that you would like to eventually redeem for reward flight(s), you should like to find an airline with lenient redemption policies and widely-available dates. Many airlines state that they give out a domestic reward flight once you’ve accumulated 25,000 miles, but many don’t deliver as expected. US Airways has been rated last or near last in almost all recent years for their numerous blackout dates and lack of award availability at the lowest tiers. Southwest and Alaska Airlines have great reward availability, but this is far from the most crucial point to consider. Some others of you may want to use miles earned towards things besides simply flights, like a new television, hotel rooms, or all-inclusive vacations. These kinds of rewards depend on whether your airline’s program offers them, so again, check the airline’s website.

Partnerships/Alliances

Especially over the last several years, there has been a culture of consolidation within the airline industry. Whether it’s due to mergers like Continental and United, partnerships on specific routes(codeshares), or airlines joining alliances, the consolidation is pretty apparent. Partnerships and codeshares happen when two competing carriers form a partnership for several routes or all routes. Avianca and Taca airlines recently formed a partnership; this partnership allows each airline to have a greater map coverage, as they can claim that they fly to places that they didn’t fly to before, all by simply “codesharing” their partner’s flight. This benefits passengers also, because on a codeshare flight, they can choose which partner airline’s program they would like to earn mileage in. An alliance goes even further than that. An alliance is a partnership between numerous airlines, allowing the same benefits as a simple partnership, but multiplied exponentially. There are three big alliances in the world: Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam. Having a great alliance backing your preferred carrier is a great opportunity. You can earn miles in your program as long as you fly any airline that is in the same alliance as your airline’s program. If you are a oneworld member, you can join the AAdvantage program by AA, and earn miles into it even if you never particularly fly AA. You may fly LAN, British Airways, or Qantas, and earn all miles towards your AAdvantage program, because all four(and quite a few more) participate in the oneworld alliance. Read more about picking proper airline alliances HERE.

Elite Perks

As somewhat of a frequent “frequent flier”, there is something that is worth more to me than the reward flights I may earn by sticking with a primary program. This is what’s called elite perks. Elite perks are offered in addition to miles earned towards flights. Basically, most frequent flier programs offer these perks in tiers. Perks, activated after reaching a predetermined mileage accrual, may include bonus miles, free upgrades, priority boarding, less fees, and lounge access, among many other things. For instance, Singapore Airline’s KrisFlyer program gifts passengers – who fly 25,000 miles or more in 12 month period with them or a partner – with an Elite Silver membership, which gives a 25% bonus to all miles earned through flying, priority waitlist, priority standby, and several waived and reduced fees. Fly 50,000 miles or more in a 12 month period and you will be a KrisFlyer Elite Gold member, which gets you access in all Star Alliance and SilkAir lounges, extra baggage allowances, priority check-in, priority boarding, and priority baggage handling, on top of all the Elite Silver benefits. Plus, upgrades can be handed out, if there is availability, into first or business classes, which is quite nice, if you become fortunate enough. I love elite perks, because it greatly reduces time waiting in lines to board, check-in, disembark the plane(frequent fliers rarely get stuck in the back), and going through security. I do many little 48-hour adventures, leaving Friday night after work and returning Monday morning, so these time-saving benefits really make my trip a joy.

Customer Satisfaction

A great way to rate any business is to see how satisfied existing customers are. There are innumerable surveys everywhere that show “which airline is the best and worst”. Believe it or not, my advice to you is to take most of these survey results with a grain of salt. Yes, there are some airlines which seem to display a consistent effort to provide poor service(I’m looking at you, Spirit Air!), but for the most part, I believe that many people who do not travel much take these surveys and base their negative answers on one particularly bad flight experience. For the average adult, a flight is a fairly large cost compared to other things, so one might become more critical of this flight they spent so much money on. Anything such as bad airport experiences(both destination and departure), unfriendly security checkpoint encounters, cold food, long lines to the bathrooms, and turbulence will be blamed on the airline by 90% of customers, because that is who they paid for the experience. Instead of focusing on survey results, I prefer to use numbers and statistics. There are airlines which are consistently late, just like there are routes with greater chance of upgrade than others. If you are going to consider someone’s judgement, make sure it is a truly professional opinion. The Freddie Awards is the annual people’s choice awards for the frequent flyer programs; though it was discontinued in 2009, it will launch again for 2012. Keep everything in perspective!

Customer Service

Customer service may be important to many seekers of the perfect frequent flier program. Some airlines offer a special number for their elite members so that they can get right through to a live operator when calling. And while some airlines field complaints with seemingly sincere compassion and compensation in the form of a voucher, others basically tell you that “you’re shit outta luck“. About a year ago, I looked at a fare on Spirit Airline’s website, and I noticed that if I joined their $9 Fare Club($39.99/year), I could book that same ticket for about $80 less. Spirit’s reservation system asked if I would like to save $80 on this flight by paying the $39.99 for a year’s membership, and I thought it was a no-brainer. The system held my reservation as I went through the process of signing up for the $9 Fare Club. When I finished and returned to complete my reservation, the fare had went up $120! I called Spirit and told them how I felt conned, but they would not honor the ticket price that I had held it at. Then, I asked if they could cancel my $9 Fare Club membership, but they would not refund me even a prorated amount. This all happened in the span of 10 minutes. Needless to say, I no longer consider Spirit in my searches, though some of their prices are tempting.

Consolidation

This is one of the fundamental rules to utilizing frequent flier programs. For all these benefits to be obtainable for the average traveler, one must really try their hardest to focus on one program, and one program only. 25,000 miles towards a free flight is the standard, so earn that in one program. If you earn 10,000 with AAdvantage, 12,500 with Dividend Miles, and 5,700 with Skymiles, what good is that gonna do you? Consolidation, though requiring a bit of restraint sometimes, will serve you better in the long run. Even paying slightly higher fares to stay within your program is worth it, especially if you have the opportunity to earn elite status. If you need to have accounts in more than one program, my suggestion is to get one in each of the “Big 3″, which are the three major alliances. Pick one program in each alliance, and this will cover most of your travel. Another reason to consolidate is because many legacy airlines, like Delta and American, offer loyalty gifts once a member reaches a lifetime mileage-flown tier. At a million flown miles with Delta, a member gets Silver Medallion Elite Status for the rest of their life; at 2 million miles flown, complimentary Gold Medallion Status is awarded annually. I remember flying with my parents as a child to destinations around Europe and Asia; if my parents would have put me on just one program, I would be a Million-Miler by now!

Set Goals/Make a Plan

If you are fairly devoted to earning specific rewards in a certain amount of time, you need to set your goals and create a plan towards it. If your goal is to have enough for a reward flight to Athens in 12 months from now, and the award travel costs about 60,000 miles, you need to plan to earn 5,000 miles a month to reach this goal. You can track your progress, and implement additional tools if you need more options. With the variety of miles-earning purchases that you can make in a year, a reasonable goal should be easily obtainable and somewhat fun. For me, earning miles is a sort of hobby, and I love to find bonus mileage deals and fares to significantly increase my balance. At the same time, I look at frequent flier mileage as a form of currency. If you consider it as currency, you will incubate the proper attitude towards budgeting, spending, and earning mileage.

Listen to Your Gut

In the end, there really is no perfect program. There may be some that many will agree are better than others, but the choice belongs to you. Every frequent flier program has members, because there is a reason that each one exists. The free market will decide if a program can no longer cut it, and that program will eventually die out. However, if it currently exists, then it should be a contender for your program choice. Narrow down the options until you pick the right one, and then stick with that one as long as possible. If you can’t make up your mind just yet, don’t stress over it; even if you have a flight tomorrow, most airlines will allow you to request reward mileage up to six months after the flight date. Like marriage, take ample time so that you can pick the proper one that suits you best, because you should not have it in your head that you can change in the future.