With paragraphs of fine print to decipher, frequent flyer programs are anything but straightforward. If you can get past all the rules and requirements, however, joining an airline’s program will start you on your way toward a free flight, a bump to first class, free entry into your airline’s club, and other perks. We’ve rounded up all the details so you’ll be in the know before you sign up.
Details vary from program to program, but what are the basic factors to consider before committing to one airline? We turned to Tim Winship, editor and publisher of Frequentflier.com, for some expert advice.
One mile equals (at least) one mile.
It’s well known that frequent flyer programs award miles based on the length of a flight, but exactly how many miles are rewarded for each mile flown? “If you fly 5,000 miles, you earn 5,000 miles—unless you’re an elite member of the program, in which case there’s a bonus on top of the actual flown mileage,” Winship said.
But not all programs operate on a mile-for-mile basis. For example, Southwest Airlines’ new program awards members points based on how much their ticket cost rather than how many miles were flown.
While one mile will always equal at least one mile in terms of what you're earning, that doesn't mean that rewards flights cost one rewards mile per mile flown. For example, while a round-trip ticket from New York to San Diego is only about 5,000 miles, the lowest awards flight we could find on JetBlue cost 13,300 TrueBlue points. Getting a free round-trip ticket on other airlines will cost you anywhere from 5,000 to 40,000 miles—and that's just for an economy fare.
A free flight—or first class—is the goal.
Wondering why you’d want to join a frequent flyer program in the first place? There are different reasons for different types of travelers. “For relatively infrequent leisure travelers, the benefit is that after X number of flights, you can earn a free flight,” Winship explained. “The price of the frequent flyer miles, at the end of the day, is folded into the price of your ticket. So in a sense, if you don’t earn the miles, you’re not getting full value for an airline ticket.”
For high-frequency business travelers, “it’s not so much about earning free flights; it’s more about achieving elite status, with the principle benefit being upgrades.” Many luxurious extras, such as admission to an airport lounge or complimentary upgrades, are only offered to elite members of a frequent flyer program.
Think about where you’ll fly before you join.
According to Winship, taking a realistic look at your travel patterns is the most important strategy for playing the frequent flyer program game. “It’s not just how often you fly,” Winship said, “it’s also whether or not you will be able to focus your flying on one airline or two at most, because if you don’t you’re going to be dispersing those miles over multiple programs and you’re not going to reach an award level in any program.”
So how do you know which program makes the most sense for you? Winship says that depends on your hometown airport. “If you live in Dallas, American Airlines is the big airline. So you’re probably going to be best served by joining American’s program.”
Think twice before transferring points between programs.
Sites such as Points.com will convert your miles from one frequent flyer program to another, but it will cost you. “The fees associated with these transfers sort of pull the rug out from any value you would get from transferring them in the first place,” Winship said.
Get an airline credit card.
“It generally does make sense to augment your mileage earning with one of the program-affiliated credit cards,” Winship said. In fact, many programs award double points for paying for a flight with an airline’s credit card. Still, Winship urges flyers to assess their priorities. “Remember that there are cash rebate credit cards out there that will deliver a reliable one percent or more cash rebate, and at the end of the day cash is better than frequent flyer miles because there are no restrictions on what you can do with cash.”
|AIRLINES||MEMBERSHIP LEVELS||RELATED CREDIT CARDS||WHAT YOU EARN FOR FLYING||EXTRA PERKS||MILES NEEDED FOR FREE FLIGHT|
|AAdvantage||Gold (25,000 miles), Platinum (50,000), and Executive Platinum (100,000)||Citi Platinum Select/AAdvantage Visa Signature card, Citi Select/AAdvantage American Express card (both cards free for first year, then $85 annual fee). Earn two AAdvantage miles for every dollar spent on an American Airlines purchase (for first year); earn one mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.||One mile for every mile flown on American Airlines and associated airlines; an additional 25 percent of flight mileage for flying in business class and an additional 50 percent for flying in first class.||Citi/AAdvantage card users receive a Companion Certificate for two round-trip domestic flights for the price of one. Bonus offers get you double or triple miles for booking flights or making purchases. Elite Status members enjoy waived baggage fee and priority screening; Platinum and Executive Platinum members get priority check-in and access to the oneworld Partner Lounge.||Starting at 12,500 miles for a one-way flight|
|OnePass||Silver (25,000 miles), Gold (50,000), and Platinum (75,000)||OnePass Plus Card (no fee for first year, then $85 annual fee), Presidential Plus Card ($395 annual fee); purchasing Continental flights with card earns you two miles per dollar. Earn one mile per dollar for all other purchases.||One mile for every mile flown on Continental Airlines and associated airlines; an additional 25% for flying first and business class and an extra 50% for Elite members.||OnePass Plus cardholders earn 25,000 bonus miles after first purchase. Presidential Plus cardholders get free Presidents Club membership and a waived baggage fee for the first two bags. OnePass Elite members are eligible for complimentary first class upgrades, priority check-in and boarding, and complimentary checked baggage. Gold and Platinum members get free lounge access when traveling internationally.||Starting at 20,000 miles for a one-way flight|
|SkyMiles||Silver (25,000 miles), Gold (50,000), Platinum (75,000), and Diamond (125,000).||Gold Delta SkyMiles card (free for first year, then $95 annual fee), Platinum Delta SkyMiles card ($150 annual fee), Delta Reserve card ($450 annual fee); purchasing Delta flights with card earns you double miles.||One mile for every mile flown on Delta Airlines; an additional 50 percent of mileage for flying first, business, or premium economy class. Medallion members earn 25 percent to 125 percent extra mileage per flight.||Cardholders earn waived fee for first checked bag and companion certificate for a free flight each year. Medallion members get waived baggage fees, priority check-in, a complimentary seating upgrade, preferred seats, and priority wait-listing. Medallion members also earn a discounted membership for the Delta Sky Club lounge at the airport (Diamond members get in for free).||Starting at 12,500 miles for a one-way flight; starting at 25,000 for a round-trip flight|
|TrueBlue Program||None||JetBlue Card from American Express ($40 annual fee); earn an extra two points for purchasing a flight with the card.||Earn 3 points per dollar spent on a JetBlue flight. Earn 6 points per dollar if you book your flight through jetblue.com. Earn an extra 200 points for upgrading to an Even More Legroom seat.||Earn a 500-point bonus upon reaching 3,000 points. Earn 4,000 points for every 3,000 points earned (beyond 12,000 points). JetBlue’s Go Long Bonus entitles you to 10,000 points for flying at least 10 one-way flights of 2,000 miles or more within a year.||Starting at 5,000 points for a one-way flight|
|Rapid Rewards||A-List Member status awarded after flying 16 round-trip flights (or 32 one-way flights) in a one-year period.||Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards card ($59 annual fee); earn double Reward Dollars on Southwest flights and at partner hotels and car rental agencies; earn one Reward Dollar per dollar for all other purchases.||Each one-way flight earns you one credit; each round-trip flight earns two. Earn two credits for enrolling in the Rapid Rewards program.||Earn a free standard flight after booking 8 round-trip flights within a two-year period. Receive a Companion Pass to let one person of your choice fly for free after earning 100 credits (50 round-trip flights) within a year. A-List members receive reserved boarding privileges for 12 months and may use priority check-in and security lanes. Purchasing a Business Select fare with priority seating earns you a premium beverage coupon along with double credits on flights greater than 750 miles or 1.25 credits on flights less than 750 miles.||Starting at 6,000 points|
|Mileage Plus||Premier (25,000 miles), Premier Executive (50,000), 1K (100,000)||Mileage Plus Visa ($60-375 annual fee); earn one mile for every eligible dollar spent; Mileage Plus Club Visa cardholders earn double miles on all United purchases.||One mile for every mile flown on a United or partner flight; an extra 50 percent for flying first class; an extra 25 percent for flying business class.||Mileage Plus Visa cardholders receive a one-way upgrade certificate and a $25 travel gift certificate after first purchase. Elite members (Premier status and up) get unlimited upgrades on domestic flights, priority check-in, waived baggage fee, discounts on Red Carpet Club membership. Premier members earn 25 percent bonus miles on United and partner flights. Premier Executive and 1K members earn 100 percent bonus miles.||Starting at 12,500 miles for a one-way flight|
|Elevate||None||Virgin America Visa Card (no annual fee); earn three points for every dollar spent on Virgin America flights; earn one point per dollar on all other pur||Earn five points per dollar spent on travel.||Redeem earned points for any unsold seat on any Virgin America flight. Earn extra points for bonuses and temporary promotional deals. Members-only offers include the possibility to earn a seat on the Virgin Galactic suborbital space flight.||Starting at 2,500 points (or four round-trip flights)|