Some of the smartest people I know are downright frustrated trying to figure out how to get free flights out of their frequent flyer programs. One friend of mine — an international banker, world traveler, database software engineer — couldn’t understand the value, or at least the tricks, to taking advantage of a frequent flyer program.
“These airlines are always just tricking you into joining their program, and then they send you email,” he said. “I have all of these points with different airlines, and I don’t think I can do anything with them.”
But, of course, almost all of my extravagant trips happen solely because of my participation in these frequent flyer programs. I travel a lot less than he does, but when I do travel for fun, I usually fly free in first or business class either through a complimentary upgrade or by cashing in accumulated points and miles.
It’s interesting to consider that a frequent flyer program might appear as an email marketing ploy. These loyalty programs are marketing programs, to the greatest extent possible, but they do still have far more to offer than email blasts. Frequent flyer programs incentivize travelers to make otherwise irrational decisions, but if you understand the cusp of those decisions and can take full advantage of the benefits that airlines use as lures, it’s possible to come out far better off than the average sojourner.
Rule 1: Pick an Airline
Frequent flyer programs only work well if you can stack and scale your awards within a specific program.
“I have 6,000 JetBlue points, 11,000 American Airlines miles, 9,000 Delta miles, 12,000 United miles, and 14,000 British Airways points. How do I pay for my trip to Japan.”
#Facepalm. This, an utter tragedy. This exhausted frequent flyer has flown tens of thousands of miles in a year, but isn’t getting any free perks, upgrades or rewards, and won’t be scoring a free to ticket to Japan. He would have, though, if he’d just stuck with one or two of these airlines.
It sometimes costs a bit more to fly on one airline over a cheaper competitor, but anyone who flies at least 25,000 miles per year would be well served to put their travel on a single airline, for a few reasons.
- This amount of travel is sufficient to qualify travelers for elite status on most airlines. I write more on elite perks below, but even at the lowest level, these tend to be worth paying up for.
- Rewards like free flights, of any distance or value, require at least some accumulation of points. When you are spreading mileage among multiple programs, there will be no valuable rewards available anytime soon, and there is no way to combine loyalty among multiple programs.
- The more points you have with one program, the more valuable they are. 60,000 points in one program are worth far more in redeemable value than 20,000 points in three separate programs.
Typically, a frequent flyer chooses their airline based on practical factors, including frequency of service and schedule convenience to frequently traveled routes, quality of service on those routes, and availability of nonstop or one-stop service in and out of a home airport.
Rule 2: Expand Earning Opportunities
Once you’re traveling enough on your chosen airline to start accumulating miles, it makes double sense to stack the number of ways you’re earning miles. I travel a lot, typically visiting three or more continents in a year on business trips alone, but last year I earned nearly twice as many airline miles away from the airline as I did on flights.
Airline Credit Cards
If you’re frequently flying with a chosen airline, there’s absolutely no reason not to apply for that airline’s credit card. Airline cards are typically easy to get, low-fee cards. They come with intro bonuses that often exceed a year or more worth of frequent flyer miles, and they improve your standing with the airline. Cardholders receive additional mileage on flights they buy with the cards. They also enjoy many elite perks, like checked bags and priority boarding, before a frequent flyer has attained any official elite status.
Even once you’ve earned elite status, cards continue to help things along. Some, like the Delta Platinum SkyMiles Card from Amex and the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, actually come with free companion tickets. Many come with spending bonuses that help eliminate requirements to qualify for the coveted elite status benefits (that I discuss more below).
- Alaska Airlines: the airline’s Visa Signature Card is less expensive than most airline cards, and comes with a virtually unlimited companion pass ticket.
- American Airlines: in addition to the free bag and priority perks, American’s Barclays and Citi Cards often come with some of the more generous bonus miles offers for new cardholders.
- British Airways: British Airways is one of the few foreign airlines to offer credit card bonuses that rival U.S. airlines. British Airways Visa Signature Cardholders earn bonus Avios on British Airways purchases, and a free “travel together” companion award ticket when cardholders spend more than $35,000 in a year.
- Delta Air Lines: probably the most extensive lineup of credit cards, all come with the standard benefits like free bags, early boarding, and bonus miles. The Gold Delta SkyMiles card is the most elemental and comes with all the essential perks, while Platinum affords additional perks like better purchase protection and a companion ticket after the card is renewed. The Reserve Card includes SkyClub access and an enhanced companion ticket. There are also business versions Gold, Platinum and Reserve cards, all from American Express.
- JetBlue TrueBlue: JetBlue offers two cards, the JetBlue card, and the JetBlue Plus card, both from Barclays. Both earn bonuses on JetBlue flights, dining, and grocery store purchases, but only the $99-per-year plus card includes baggage and even elite status, for those who spend enough.
- Southwest Airlines: Southwest has a few Rapid Rewards Credit Cards — like the Plus and Premier, each with unique perks in addition to bonus earning on Southwest flights and restaurants. The Plus card, with the lowest fee, comes with essential perks like bonus miles and extra points on Southwest flights and dining purchases. The Premier card, at $99, offers a few extra benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, plus bigger bonuses and tier points that could qualify a cardholder for A-List status or the coveted Companion Pass. The Priority Card, at $149 per year, is pricey up front, offset by a $75 Southwest travel credit. The Priority Card includes the above but also four upgraded A1-15 boarding passes per year.
- United Airlines: The MileagePlus Explorer card is one of the better values for entry-level airline credit cards. It includes all the comparable perks that American and Delta include with their cards, plus a restaurant points bonus and four United Club passes. The United MileagePlus Explorer Club card, like the Delta SkyMiles Reserve, includes unlimited United Club access for a higher fee.
Consider Bonus Fare Classes
Depending on which fare bucket you are booking, mileage earning can vary drastically, particularly on partner carriers. By booking a premium economy seat, or a higher-fare economy ticket, a business traveler could earn three times or more miles for the same trip booked for a slightly cheaper fare. When booking tickets for business purposes, there’s often little reason not to pay up for a slightly higher fare, and better onboard experience.
Even domestic first class tickets within the U.S. can be surprisingly inexpensive, particularly when booked at the last minute or during holiday periods when premium travelers look to avoid the family crowds. Those tickets can earn double or more miles over economy seats on the same flight, even when the price difference is small.
Know Airline Partners
If your airline doesn’t have service to an international destination, it’s highly likely that they have a partner that does. American, Delta and United are all part of separate international airline alliances (Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance).
Alaska and JetBlue aren’t a member of these alliances, but they too have international partners that service much of the globe.
Flights on different partners might earn miles at different rates, so it’s important to know how many miles you can expect to earn based on the type of ticket purchased and specific partner.
Alaska, American, Delta, and United all operate online shopping portals that allow frequent flyers to earn miles on non-airline purchases. Browser extensions make earning miles effortless, and anyone who spends a few thousand per year shopping on the internet could rack up serious additional points. Flash promotions can push earning rates as high as 20-points-per-dollar spent online at retailers ranging from online florists to Macys and Walmart.
Rule 3: Stack Points and Miles
Once you’ve settled in with your airline credit card, you might have a waxing appetite for more mileage currency to fuel vacation plans.
There are ways outside of traditional airline partnerships to earn miles that are transferrable to your airline program of choice.
American AAdvantage – No bank credit cards transfer directly into the American AAdvantage program. However, Marriott Bonvoy can be converted directly into AAdvantage Miles.
British Airways Executive Club Avios can be used to book many American Airlines domestic flights, and accepts points from a large number of bank credit cards including the Citi ThankYou Premier card, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards, and American Express Gold and Platinum cards. It’s possible to take advantage of American Airlines frequent flyer elite benefits while traveling on a British Airways ticket.
Delta SkyMiles – Delta is a direct transfer partner of American Express, which often doles out generous miles bonuses to new Amex Gold and Platinum cardholders. Business cards, like the Blue Business Plus Card from American Express, also earn points that can be converted instantly and directly into Delta SkyMiles.
Some of these cards, like The Platinum Card and Business Platinum Card, include additional benefits like complimentary Delta SkyClub access when traveling on Delta, Centurion Lounge access and free onboard wi-fi passes (Business Platinum Card).
Southwest Rapid Rewards – Southwest has an exclusive partnership with Chase, meaning that Ultimate Rewards points can be instantly and directly transferred to a Southwest Rapid Rewards account. The Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards both earn copious Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining purchases. The Chase Ink Business Preferred card nets bonus points on travel, dining and certain business-related expenses like shipping and telecom services.
United MileagePlus – United is also in an exclusive relationship with Chase, meaning that Sapphire Preferred, Reserve and Ink Business Preferred cardholders can move their points seamlessly to a MileagePlus account.
If you share a business with partners, points transferred through a business preferred account can be sprinkled across any of the partners’ MileagePlus accounts.
Rule 4: Know Your Elite Benefits
Perhaps just as valuable, if not more valuable than the traditional award flights offered through frequent flyer programs are elite status. For business travelers, these perks are more than worth the extra $15 or $25 it might sometimes cost to pay up to their chosen airline.
Some benefits are obvious. To start, even at the entry level status (AAdvantage Gold on American, MVP on Alaska, silver on Delta and United, Mosaic on JetBlue, A-List on Southwest) airlines start taking away all the small annoyances that make the average traveler dread slogs through the airport.
Lines at check-in and boarding disappear, as do bag fees and pesky seat selection fees. If available, the extra-legroom, extra-recline seats at the front of the economy cabin are free when selected during or after check-in.
Complimentary upgrades to first class are also a very visible manifestation of frequent flyer loyalty. The major airlines plaster the upgrade list on a big-screen monitor during the boarding process, summoning schadenfreude for those at the top and envy for everyone else on board. The higher the elite status, the more likely one is to end up at the top of that board (or, better yet, get moved up before they even check-in for their flight).
The hidden perks are often the best, though.
For those who make it into the upper echelons of frequent flyer status, the Golds, Platinums, Diamonds of the world and beyond, airlines grant superpowers.
Depending on your airline, elite status may enable you to change flights on the day of travel, for free. Arrangements that seem excruciatingly immutable to most flyers, such as award tickets, can be changed on a whim. For their top-tier elites, most airlines waive just about every fee imaginable, enabling elites to deftly maneuver their way around the planet unencumbered by the usual considerations of penalties or fees.
Beyond standard upgrades, upper tier elites can use upgrade certificates to bump up economy tickets to business and first class, even on flights when complimentary upgrades aren’t offered.
Rule 5: Pick Redemptions Carefully
Every Christmas I get an inviting looking catalog in the mail from United MileagePlus, encouraging me to spend my hard-earned miles on gifts for the holidays. If you receive one of these, run — do not walk — away. Merchandise redemptions tend to be one of the worst potential uses regarding the actual cash value for your frequent flyer miles.
Depending on the program you’re using, redemption value is calculated differently.
Programs That Offer a Fixed Value For Frequent Flyer Miles
JetBlue TrueBlue and Southwest Rapid Rewards both cash in miles at a fixed value. Southwest redemptions are fixed at approximated 1.5 cents per point (Anytime and Business Select tickets net a slightly, but not significantly higher value). JetBlue redemptions tend to vary slightly, floating between 1.5 cents and 1.7 cents per point. Redemptions applied toward Mint business class seats net a slightly higher value.
Delta Air Lines allows credit card holders to redeem SkyMiles toward a cash fare at a rate of 1 cent per point, in increments of 5,000 points. There has been some discussion, in quarterly earnings conversations, that Delta might expand its pay-with-points schema to all SkyMiles members.
Programs That Offer Fixed Rates For Frequent Flyer Miles
Most major frequent flyer programs, including Air Canada Aeroplan, Alaska, American, British Airways, Delta and United, offer awards that are available at a fixed rate. No matter the cash fare at the time you book your ticket, award seats stay within fixed parameters.
Fixed rate programs can require more effort on the part of the frequent flyer. Unlike fixed value points that are applied to any airfare, airlines only release a limited number of seats to awards. This can be frustrating for those looking to redeem points on certain dates, or during peak travel times when airlines may not make any seats available.
Because the redemption rates are fixed, however, these awards can deliver tremendous value when airfare is high. Awards often become available at the last minute, when airfare tends to be highest.
Generally, international business and first class awards offer the highest value for your miles. While a business or first class award might cost twice that of an economy award, it covers a fare that would otherwise be many multiples more expensive, generally out of reach for the average consumer.
Round-trip JFK-NRT in business class ($5,854) — 150,000 United MileagePlus Miles — 3.9 Cents Per Mile
One-way ORD-LHR in economy class ($265) — 30,000 MileagePlus Miles — 0.8 Cents Per Mile
It’s extremely easy to book the one-way economy flight on United’s website, but it would be a significantly better value to use a pay-with-points portal (1, 1.25 or 1.5 cents per point, depending on which card you’re using) than a mileage award redemption on the Chicago to London trip.
Better yet, if possible, save your miles to use on trips that would otherwise have high airfare.
Aspirational experiences are generally one of the best uses of airline miles. These trips can be harder to find and even harder to plan. Many airlines don’t provide online access to awards on some of their best partners, requiring phone calls and even additional research to find and book. There are services, like Points Pros and Juicy Miles, that take care of the tedious and sometimes repetitive task of finding points and miles redemptions.
It requires some basic research to take full advantage of loyalty programs, and continually changing award rates and conditions add layers of complexity that turn many people off. If you fly a decent amount, though, good things come to those with the patience to learn a bit about their program and take advantage of the ins-and-outs.
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