Frequent Flyer Programs – Picking the right one

Picking the right Frequent Flyer program can have significant impact on your ability to earn or redeem Airline rewards and to earn and enjoy Elite status. Most uninformed travelers start like I did – they take the credit for any flight they fly on the frequent flyer program of the airline they are flying. This results in miles scattered across multiple programs. That too miles that are not enough for any kind of award. And of course, they never qualify for any Elite status. The only thing worse than this approach is not enrolling in a Frequent Flyer program at all!

Like anything in life, success in having significant accumulation of Airline miles and the earning of Elite Status requires focus.

While it is not possible to have only one Frequent Flyer Program for your earned miles, you should try to limit yourself to two or at most three. One primary and the other one or two if due to routing or price you have to fly an airline other than one affiliated to your primary program.

Here are 10 factors you should consider when picking a Frequent Flyer program:

  1. Past accumulated miles: If you have significant miles accumulated on an airline miles program, you should obviously try to continue accumulating miles on that program. This may not be possible as you may have moved or the airline may have stopped or reduced service to your airport.
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  3. Location: Where you live and where you fly to or are going fly to in the future will obviously determine which airlines you can fly and hence which airline you can earn miles on. Certain airports are dominated by certain airlines or alliances – Charlotte, NC is a US Airways dominated airport, Dallas/Ft. Worth is best for American Airlines, etc. If your goal is to redeem your accumulated miles for an award ticket to a particular location, then it is also important to pick an airline that flies there or has a partner that flies there. If there are multiple options available, you should also do some research to see which typically airline has more award seat availability.
  4. Alliance: As I discussed in my article on Airline Alliances, picking the right alliance is an important part of your ability earn and redeem miles. It is important to note here that your elite status will always have more value on the airline you are an Elite on, than its alliance partners, so choose the airline within an alliance wisely.
  5. Partner network: Outside of an alliance, airlines have extensive networks of airline and non-airline partners. These can be an important factor in choosing a Frequent Program. See what kind of miles earning ability you have with partners – car rentals, hotel, grocery stores, online malls, movie rentals, etc. This network of partners becomes even more important if you are choosing an airline that is not a part of an alliance, such as Virgin Atlantic, AirTran, etc.
  6. Affiliated Credit Card: Using a credit card affiliated to a Frequent Flyer Program can accelerate your mileage accumulation rapidly. I would highly recommend avoiding a program that has no affiliated credit card. I have a two part article on choosing the right airline miles credit card.
  7. Earn Rate: Earn rate is the rate of earning miles for every mile flown. One expect this to be always 1:1, but that is not true. Airlines give a higher burn rate for upper class or full fare economy tickets. Some airline also do the reverse and give less than one mile per mile flown for discounted tickets. If you fly upper class a lot, choose an airline with a generous earn rate for upper class tickets. Avoid airlines that give a less than 1:1 earn rate for any kind of ticket.
  8. Burn Rate: Burn rate or redemption rate is the amount of miles needed to redeem for an award ticket or an upgrade. This varies significantly from airline to airline. For international travel, it is also effected by how an airline determines the burn rate. Most airlines have a burn rate based on the from and to regions. A few airlines calculate the burn rate on actual distance flown. ANA of Japan is one such airline.
  9. Elite Status qualification requirements: This too varies from airline to airline. The period in which one needs to earn the status miles also varies. My article on Status Miles discusses this in detail.
  10. Elite Status Benefits: What use is Elite status if the benefits are not worth it or if they are benefits you will never use? Study this carefully. Some airlines have great benefits at their mid-level elite status but not any better at their higher level elite status or vice versa. Benefits that include bonus miles and free upgrade coupons are a big plus.
  11. Miles Expiration policy: Most US based airlines have an activity based mileage expiration policy. If you have any activity on your mileage account every 18 (or 24) months, you miles will not expire. Other airlines have a fixed time expiration policy. ANA for example, has a policy that miles expire 3 years from the time you earn them, no matter what else happens in your account. The activity based expiration policy is preferable as you can always figure a way to get some activity in your account to restart the expiry clock. I have a more detailed article coming just focussed on keeping miles from expiring.

Choose your frequent flyer program wisely. It is not easy to change horses here. As I noted in my article on transferring miles, it can be cumbersome and expensive, if at all possible. So, choose well, earn a lot, fly safely and most importantly enjoy your flights.

Thoughts? Leave a comment…

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  1. Sharma, Thanks for the question. Yes, Elite status is a critical factor. For two reasons – 1. If you have earned elite status, you want to enjoy the benefits that it comes with. 2. Most programs give bonus RDM miles for every miles you fly. United gives me 100% bonus miles for every miles flown, as a Premier Exec.

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