Best Frequent Flyer Program?

"What frequent flyer program do you participate in?"

That's a question I'm asked often. The answer is simple: American AAdvantage. But the qualifier causes some head-scratching: While I'm an AAdvantage member, it's not because it's the best program.

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So when I was asked for my pick of the Editors' Choice best airline loyalty program, American's AAdvantage program wasn't it. That would suggest that I recommend AAdvantage for others. I don't. But it's not because AAdvantage isn't the best program.

Huh?

What really raises eyebrows, and sometimes raises temperatures as well, is what I say next: There is no best airline loyalty program.

No best program? But ...

Best Because ...

What there is, is a best program for you, given your travel and consumption behavior.

American works for me because I live in Los Angeles and travel often to New York, Boston, and Miami.

And therein lies as solid a definition of "best" as I've been able to devise: The best airline program is the one that provides you with the most rewards for the least effort and expense.

I won't presume to tell you what program is best for you. But I will tell you how to go about choosing a best program yourself. So rather than an Editors' Choice, consider this an Editors' Guidelines for Choosing.

Home & Away

Many program participants earn the bulk of their miles from traveling. For them, the choice of program will be dictated largely by two factors: where they live, and where they travel.

Where they live determines their hometown airport. And most airports have one airline that operates a disproportionate share of that airport's flights. More often than not, that airline will be the best choice for mileage earning, because it is most likely to have the most nonstop flights to the destinations a traveler visits the most.

If their hometown airport is served more or less equally by two or more airlines, where they normally travel should narrow it down to a single carrier.

In my case, while there is no single uber-dominant carrier at Los Angeles International Airport, American is among the largest. And it has more nonstop flights to New York, Boston, and Miami than any other airline serving LAX.

If those two considerations aren't sufficient to push you into one camp or another, here are some other tie-breakers:

Promises, Promises

Award availability is one of the key determinants of an airline program's value. While there's no definitive source of reliable data comparing program members' success in redeeming their miles for free flights, a new study by ezRez Software and IdeaWorks attempts to bring some clarity to the issue, and illustrates just how wide the gap can be between the most and least generous programs.

The findings, ranked according to their success rate in test-booking award seats, were as follows:

  1. Southwest (99.3 percent)
  2. Alaska (75.0 percent)
  3. Continental (71.4 percent)
  4. United (68.6 percent)
  5. AirTran (67.9 percent)
  6. American (57.9 percent)
  7. Delta (12.9 percent)
  8. US Airways (10.7 percent)

While it would be overly simplistic to choose a program based solely on an airline's award generosity, it could certainly tip the decision in the direction of the carrier with a significantly better record. If the choice were between, for example, Delta and Continental, and they were neck-and-neck otherwise, the program with award seats available 71.4 percent of the time would get the nod over the one with only 12.9 percent.

Eyes on the Prize

Another important consideration is a traveler's goal in earning miles. For the great majority of program participants, the goal is a free domestic ticket, typically priced at 25,000 miles.

But if you're a bona fide road warrior, your focus is likely on the perks associated with elite status, in particular upgrades to first class. In that case, the programs of Southwest and other discount airlines are off the table—some airlines have no first-class cabins, so upgrades simply aren't possible.

Buyer or Flyer?

Do you earn the bulk of your miles for retail transactions, rather than from flying?

All modern airline programs feature affiliated credit cards, so no matter which program you swear allegiance to, you're covered for earning one mile or more for every dollar charged to a card.

But only the largest programs have mileage malls, extensive networks of online retailers that award miles for purchases.

And of the large mileage malls, Delta's SkyMiles mall is the largest, with more than 500 participating Internet merchants.

It's a Family Affair

Airline programs are hardly stand-alone affairs. American's AAdvantage boasts more than 1,000 companies that award miles for purchases, representing every retail and service sector.

Compare that to JetBlue's TrueBlue program, which only awards points for flights on JetBlue, transactions with one hotel chain and one car-rental company, and charges to a program-linked credit card.

Bigger, when it comes to partner rosters, means more opportunities to earn miles. And more miles means more awards.

But it's not just a matter of how many partners. It's also a matter of which partners.

American, for instance, recently advised members of its program that, effective July 1, they can no longer earn miles for stays at Marriott hotels. If you have been earning a significant portion of your American miles for stays at a Courtyard by Marriott, say, that change might be enough to nudge you away from AAdvantage and into a program that still partners with Marriott.

The Bottom Line Is Yours

The above are among the criteria for choosing a frequent flyer program. There are others.

For some consumers, airline fees are a determining factor—some airlines impose more fees (US Airways); others charge fewer (Southwest).

Maybe trips to Italy are your principal travel priority, and you only want to fly Alitalia. Through its participation in the SkyTeam alliance, Alitalia is linked to Delta, which means that you can earn and redeem Delta miles for Alitalia flights.

And so on.

There are almost as many best programs as there are reasons for choosing them. Which means that, when it comes to airline loyalty programs, your mileage is bound to vary.

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