Personal Finance

Frequent Flyer Programs of the Major Airlines Reviewed

Passenger JetFree airline tickets? Sign me up! That’s the sales pitch behind the frequent flyer programs offered by all of the major airlines.  While you could save a lot of money on airline travel the more you fly, getting those miles or points and using them towards a free ticket can be a bit of a challenge.

The airline loyalty programs of today have become far more complicated than they used to be. Credit card purchases are now a part of the mix and the expiration date on those points is shorter than ever before. However, if you know how the system works, and better yet how to exploit it to your advantage, then you can easily get the most out of your reward program.

We’re going to discuss how these programs work and review some of the best that the major airlines have to offer.  Even if you’re not a business traveler who racks up points flying from one end of the country to the other on a weekly basis, you can still benefit from signing up for a frequent flyer program.

How Airline Miles Work

The airline industry is highly competitive and every company wants you to fly their service when your plans call for air travel. To ensure that you continue to book your flight plans with their company, the airlines devised loyalty programs that are designed to reward you for flying with them exclusively.

When you become a member of one of these frequent flyer programs you stand to earn miles or points on every trip you take with that airline. For example, if you fly from Los Angeles to New York or Miami to London, you will earn miles from those flights that you can apply towards a free airline ticket or upgrade in the future. That means once you take that round trip cross country for 5,554 miles or travel 8,852 back and forth across the pond, the miles you’ve traveled begin to accrue in your account. If you took just those two flights within a few months of each other, you’d be more than halfway towards earning a free ticket with many airline frequent flyer programs.

Most airlines offer members a domestic round trip coach ticket at 20,000 miles. That’s the basic thinking behind airline miles – the farther you fly on one particular airline then the quicker you can get rewarded for your loyalty to that carrier.

Credit Card Points

The rise of affiliate credit cards is supplementing traditional methods of earning airline miles. These accounts are a partnership between a credit card company and particular airlines that reward you for signing up and using a specific airlines-branded card. Now, you no longer have to just fly from one place to another to earn points. You can also rack up reward miles by simply swiping your credit card at one of the thousands of eligible merchants, earning miles while you pay for the items you normally buy on a regular basis anyway.

It’s a theoretical win-win.  The card you choose to sign up for can be compatible with earning those miles on a number of different airlines or with a specific carrier. That all depends on the issuer of the card you’ve selected. However, virtually all of the cards on the market including Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express have some kind of airline miles reward program.

Each purchase you make with the card doesn’t necessarily equal one dollar per mile, either.  The rewards you earn from each dollar spent can vary from program to program.  Needless to say, accruing points is easier to do with a credit card than it is boarding a plane each time.

Another aspect to remember when earning points on a card is that you’ll likely incur annual fees and contend with an interest rate on any balances you may keep on that card, too. That means more money out of your pocket just for the privilege of owning and using a credit card merely to rack up points or miles to put towards future travel.

On the one hand, you need a credit card anyway, so why not one of these? On the other, the extra money you may be spending in fees and higher interest rates than a card without rewards points may not be as cost efficient over time compared to just buying an airline ticket when you want to fly from point A to point B.

Earning Miles Elsewhere

In addition to earning miles for flying with a certain carrier and using an affiliated credit card, you can also get miles in other ways just by doing the things you may already do without earning any miles. Now you can earn that added bonus just for eating out or shopping through an airline affiliated online portal.

The airlines have created affiliate programs with a myriad of major chain stores such as Target, Best Buy, and even some major supermarkets.  You can earn points by spending money with these businesses as long as you use the specific online portal that has been set up for rewards eligibility. That Target run can now earn you rewards towards your next flight.

Dining out is also a way to earn those miles.  Most major airlines have restaurant rewards programs where you can earn anywhere from three to five miles for every dollar you spend on a meal. You don’t need to have an airline miles rewards card to take advantage of these offers, but if you do have one and use it to pay for your meal you could potentially earn double the miles on the same purchase. See, you’re already working the system to get the most rewards possible!

first class cabinRedeeming Your Miles

Now here’s the part where things can get tricky. You’ve been accumulating all of these miles from airline travel, making purchases on your airline miles credit card, and taking advantage of the many other alternative resources for earning miles on the things you buy and do the most. Before you know it, you’ve accrued close to 30,000 miles in your account! Congratulations!  As mentioned before, many of the airlines offer you a free domestic round trip ticket for 20,000 miles.

Where will you go? New York? Miami? Maybe you should use that free ticket to attend your best friend’s wedding the first week of August. Your head is swimming with ideas. Just head over to that airline’s website and look up the dates and the destination you want.

Guess what, your friend’s wedding that weekend in August… blacked out. Oh wait a minute, you look closer and you see that there are seats available on the perfect flight – but for 50,000 miles. In fact, it seems that those 20,000 miles seats are kind of hard to come by across the board and are only available if you’re headed to Atlanta or the main hub of whichever airline you’ve shown loyalty to all of this time.

This is the cold hard fact of many frequent flyer programs.  They say you can earn miles towards free travel, but it’s going to require you to have a very high number of miles in order to get a seat on the exact flight, date, and destination that you actually want. The airlines aren’t too keen on repaying your loyalty with the same dedication that you’ve shown them by joining their frequent flyer programs and affiliated partnerships in the first place.

Unless you’re a steady business traveler who has accrued something like 200,000 miles, it’s going to take the average traveler much longer to earn enough miles to get a good seat. Oh, there are seats out there, but they are severely limited at the lower redemption levels.

The secret to redeeming miles for those who fly on a casual basis isn’t in getting a free seat, it’s in upgrading a seat you already paid to use. If you buy a seat in coach, then you can apply your miles to upgrade to business or first class. Getting a free seat is going to be much more of a challenge.

Don’t think you can transfer or gift those miles to someone else, either.  Or not unless you want to pay for the privilege. Many of the carriers charge a fee for transferring miles into another account, sometimes as much as $10-15 for every 1,000 miles. Some airlines prohibit this practice entirely.

Do the math.  If your child or spouse has 30,000 miles in his or her account and you want to get them to that 50,000 threshold, it’ll cost you $200 to send them another 20,000 miles. Heck, another $100-200 more and you could just pay for the ticket in cash.

All of this begs the question – is joining any type of frequent flyer program even worth it if you don’t live on airplanes week in, week out?

For an airline miles program the answer is still possibly yes. It’s free to join and you don’t really have to do anything to keep the account open. You book a flight; you get the miles. Simple. Over time, if you happen to accrue enough to use them for an upgrade or that free seat on a flight that you happen to luck upon at the off chance you check the website at the right time, then all the better.

Many programs have expiration dates on their miles, so if you don’t use them by a certain date then they go away.  No harm no foul.

For credit cards programs, the answer may be no if you can’t find a card with lower rates and low or no fees. If the only appeal of the card is its affiliation with an airline loyalty program, then you’ll want to first check to see if it requires you to amass a high number of miles before those rewards are actually worth something.

It’s up to you to make your comparisons among the many credit cards out there and see if you’re getting a good deal on that rewards program card versus another card with an alternative points program. Before you enter into any frequent flyer miles program, it’s important you know what you’re really up against when it comes time to redeeming those miles you’ve worked towards earning.

Frequent Flyer Programs

Now that we’ve discussed how airline miles work and the ways in which you can earn and redeem them, let’s have a look at some of the best programs in the business at the moment. These frequent flyer programs offer many similar benefits, earnings options, and redemption limits and restrictions.

You’ll find some of them come with membership levels that afford the user extended perks and options like free checked baggage, priority boarding, and various other VIP accoutrements. Check out these programs we like most and see which ones are the best fit for your airline travel needs and habits.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Program

Considered by many in the industry to be the best frequent flyer program available, the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan allows members to earn miles on all Alaska Airlines flights and is perfect for travelers who fly in and out of cities in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and other destinations that the airline serves along the west coast of the U.S.

The best part about this program is that you don’t have to fly Alaska exclusively to earn miles, nor are they only applicable for Alaska Airlines flights. You can earn and use rewards miles when you fly with the carrier’s 16 other partners including American, Delta, and British Airways, along with many more.

When you’re not in mid-air, the Mileage Plan also gives you the opportunity to earn even more miles by using the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card which allows you to earn miles on purchases and comes with an Annual Percentage Rate (APR) of 14.49-19.49%, based upon your credit, and an annual fee of $75.

Stay at one of the airlines’ 13 hotel partners including Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood properties and you’ll be eligible for earning even more miles.

You have two choices of membership levels, Basic and MVP. The former keeps things simple, the latter offers more perks like priority boarding and free checked bags. There are a few downsides to the program as miles expire after two years, blackout dates do apply, reward flights have limited seating, and Alaska doesn’t service as many cities as some of the other bigger airlines out there.

Ready to join?

airport-1211948-639x852Southwest Rapid Rewards Program

One of the most popular airlines in the industry (probably because they’re one of the few left that won’t charge you checked bag fees), Southwest Airlines offers a superior rewards program in that you won’t have to contend with blackout dates when you’re trying to book a free ticket.

In fact, you can use your points for any seat on any flight with very few restrictions. Once you become a member, you can also begin to earn points for every dollar you spend buying a Southwest Airlines ticket and for every dollar spent with their hotel, car rental, and retail shopping partners.

The airline also offers a Southwest Rapid Rewards Chase Bank Visa card with gives you more points on what you spend with those same companies and additional everyday purchases. Having that Visa card in your wallet lets you use Rapid Rewards points to cover flights, hotels, rental cars, cruise tickets and more.

With all of these great benefits there are bound to be some limitations and, unfortunately, Southwest’s program has plenty of them. The two most glaring are an inability to combine cash with points to purchase a ticket and you can’t combine your points with those of someone else to get a seat or even an upgrade. This means you can’t gift points to help someone else meet a points requirement on a flight. Redemption points vary for each flight with respect to destination, time, travel date, and fare class.

Ready to join?

Delta SkyMiles Program

The SkyMiles program is one of the best choices for flyers who frequently travel in and out of New York City and other central and southern regions of the U.S. Members earn miles on airfare with Delta, Delta Connection, and Delta Shuttle flights as well as trips on their partner carriers like KLM, Virgin Atlantic, and Air France, just to name a few. When traveling on these airlines you will earn at a rate of five flyer miles for every dollar spent.

Miles can also be earned by Delta SkyMiles American Express cardholders when used towards purchases on items they buy most often. These rewards miles can be used for free tickets, seat upgrades or towards purchasing items from the SkyMiles marketplace, which is the airline’s exclusive version of a SkyMall.

Membership comes in a variety of levels and sublevels, each with their own perks package.  Members of the Medallion level can get more miles when they book rooms with the Starwood hotel chain, for example.

One of the biggest advantages of Delta’s program is that your miles never expire, you can use them whenever you wish, and they are eligible for redemption on Delta or any of their partner carriers. However, the drawbacks you’ll find come in the form of miles earned being varied among those carriers.

Not every airline you book with among Delta’s network offers the same rewards and you must have a minimum of 10,000 miles in your account to access any type of redemption capabilities. Seating is limited for redeemed tickets and trying to determine how many miles a certain seat on a flight requires for redemption can be difficult. Delta either makes this intentionally confusing or they are incapable of clearly communicating how to redeem your miles.

Ready to join?

American Airlines AAdvantage Program

For mileage earnings potential and overall flexibility, the AAdvantage Program stands head and shoulders above all the rest. Members can earn miles by spending money with over 1,000 different partner companies in the travel industry. This includes airlines within American’s OneWorld frequent flier network that counts US Airways, Qatar Airways and British Airways among its membership, hotel chains, rental car companies, restaurants, retailers, cruise lines, and more.

Among all of the programs on our list, AAdvantage boasts the largest partner affiliation of any other we’ve reviewed. That means your ability to earn miles is exponentially greater with American Airlines’ program.  You can use your miles to book travel and lodging as well. That’s right, your miles can go towards a free room instead of a flight.

If that’s not enough earning potential for you, sign up for a Citi AAdvantage MasterCard and earn more miles on your purchases made with the card at a variety of retailers.

There are two membership levels for travelers to choose from in their Basic and Elite Levels. The Elite membership offers Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum status, which can be difficult to attain as you need to be a serious frequent flyer to hit that level. Miles do expire, but the airline is willing to reinstate them for a fee.  The time it takes for them to expire is short at 18 months.

Ready to join?

Our Final Thoughts

These are just some of the most popular and highly incentivized programs that you can find on the market at the moment. Just about every other major airline from United to JetBlue has their own version of a loyalty program and each comes with similar components and earnings capabilities.

If these don’t fit your needs, do some research on the program your favorite airline offers travelers for purchasing flights and get some information on how to join. You may even wish to sign up for their affiliated credit card so you can earn more points on purchases. Just be sure to consider how many destinations that airline, and any other partner carriers, flies to on a daily basis.

There’s not much sense in joining a rewards program with an airline that has severely limited destination options. Check into the various levels of membership and the perks that come with each and find out if the miles expire. These both should play a role in helping you decide which program is the best for you.

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