You know that stamp card in your wallet that gives you the 10th coffee for free at your local coffee shop? Frequent Flyer Programs work exactly like that; but instead of coffee, you earn miles or points.
Each airline has its own frequent flyer program, which they usually promote as “loyalty-” or “bonus programs”. Most programs are completely free to join and you accumulate miles or points by flying with chosen airline or an airline within the same alliance. You can then use your earned miles for free airline tickets and seat upgrades among other things.
Miles is what most airlines call their rewards currency. A few years ago a majority of the airlines based their programs on miles. This meant that if you traveled from New York to Miami you got 1,097 miles, and if you traveled back you had earned a total of 2,194 miles. However, it is important to point out that the number of miles you accumulated did not equate to the number of miles you could actually fly. The miles instead served as points in a rewards program, with every airline having their own reward levels. An example for a reward level could be that you need to acquire at least 20,000 miles to get a round-trip domestic ticket for free.
Today most airlines has moved on to revenue-based programs instead of miles-based. This means miles are now awarded based on ticket price and not the actual distance of the flight. For every dollar you spend you’ll earn a number of miles. How many miles differs from each airline. The revenue-based programs makes it considerably more difficult for the average leisure traveler to collect a lot of miles. For the frequent business traveler however it’s a gold mine.
When deciding which loyalty program to join, the first thing you should do is look into which airline has the most flights in and out of your nearest airport. This makes it noticeably easier to be loyal to one airline and by that earn more miles.
The next thing you should do is answer the question “Why?” - why do you want to join a frequent flyer program? Is it to save money on flight tickets, get access to airport lounges or maybe get upgrades to first class? Each loyalty program is designed differently and prioritize different rewards. With one program it may be easier to get upgrades, while another requires less miles to get free or cheaper plane tickets. Find a loyalty program that offers the best reward levels for the rewards you find most interesting.
Another thing to look into is how many miles each loyalty program require to reach elite status, which is something that most airlines apply. When a frequent flyer reaches a certain number of miles each year they get rewarded with this classification. The elite status classification usually stay valid through the next calendar year.
An elite status member gets more benefits than members without; this includes seat upgrades, priority boarding, free checked luggage and access to executive lounges. It’s also common that elite members receive mileage bonuses on every flight or per dollar spent, which means you usually earn miles faster than the regular member.
If you’re a frequent flyer that changes airline from time to time and don’t want to miss out on any points, it’s not always necessary with multiple memberships in different frequent flyer programs. That is if the airlines you tend to travel with are under the same alliance - most carriers actually let you earn and redeem miles with partner airlines. Today, there are three major alliances in the world; Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance. These have a majority of the world’s airlines under their wings. There’s therefore no need to join more than three loyalty programs - one for each alliance.
Take United Airlines for example. If you’re already a member of their loyalty program MileagePlus but plan to travel with Scandinavian Airlines next, you don’t have to apply for membership with them as well. This is because United Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines are both members of Star Alliance. But if you book a flight with British Airways instead, which is not a part of Star Alliance, you need to become a member of their loyalty program or another airline’s program within the same alliance (in this case Oneworld) to earn miles. The same goes if you travel with an airline that’s part of SkyTeam’s alliance.
This is how it generally works. A lot of carriers are also in partnerships with airlines that’s not part of their alliance. We therefore recommend going through which companies collaborate with which ones, before deciding on a frequent flyer program.
A comparison of eight major American airlines frequent flyer programs. Source: https://www.usnews.com/
Actually flying is only one way to earn miles. Many airlines loyalty programs let you earn miles when for example renting a car, booking a hotel room, shopping online and even eating at a restaurant - provided that the rental car company, hotel, online retailer and restaurant are in a partnership with the airline.
It’s not only the airlines themselves that offer reward miles. You can also accumulate miles by signing up for a credit card that rewards you with miles for every dollar spent. When you’ve accumulated enough miles you can redeem them for a plane ticket with any of the airlines that’s connected to the credit card issuer. Today, there are both credit cards connected to specific airlines as well as credit cards that work on any carrier. The airlines decide the amount of miles required for a free ticket and you earn miles by simply using your credit card.
Since most airlines nowadays apply revenue-based programs instead of miles-based, there’s not a big difference between reward miles via frequent flyer programs and those accumulated by credit card.
The one difference is that with credit cards you earn miles for every purchase - no matter where and what you spend your money on. When you’re a member of a frequent flyer program and make a purchase, the airline and the retailer must have entered an agreement for you to earn miles. If you’re a big spender it may therefore actually pay off to go with a credit card instead of joining a frequent flyer program. If you’re quite a frequent flyer though, it’s probably more profitable to choose a loyalty program.