"I participate in every program known to man... and still I can't seem to earn a free ticket."
If I had a mile (or a dollar) for every time I've heard that lament, I'd be sprawled in a first-class seat winging my way to some remote island in the South Seas instead of hunched over a PC aggravating my carpal tunnel syndrome.
Since it doesn't cost anything to enroll in a frequent flyer program, the temptation is to sign up for them all, in the interest of being ever-ready to earn miles for any and all flights. The problem with that approach is that you will find yourself spread too thin.
The most-requested frequent flyer award is the free roundtrip ticket within the continental U.S., offered in most programs for 25,000 miles. That's 25,000 miles in one program. Banking hundreds of thousands of miles will earn you bragging rights as a road warrior. But if those miles are spread among multiple programs, never amounting to a full 25,000 miles in a single program, you'll find yourself as reward-poor as you are mileage-rich. And you'll always fall short of earning elite status, and the perks associated with it.
The antidote to the dispersion problem—and the key to making the most of frequent flyer programs generally—is simple: consolidate.
Which brings us back full circle to the choice question. Consolidate in which program?
The short answer is: Participate in the program which allows you to earn the most miles, most easily.
The Home Airport Factor
The majority of frequent flyer miles are earned for air travel, and your air travel options are defined, first and foremost, by the airport nearest your residence.
If, for example, you live in the Atlanta area, it's practically a statistical certainty that—on average, over time—you will find yourself flying Delta more often than not. Why? Because Atlanta is Delta's home base and, more important, it operates more flights, to more destinations, than any other airline from Atlanta's primary airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Intercontinental.
So unless there were compelling considerations to the contrary, the logical first choice of programs for our hypothetical Atlanta resident would be Delta's SkyMiles.
The same logic applies to many parts of the country served by airports dominated by single carriers. American would be a prime candidate for those living in Dallas, St. Louis, or Miami. US Airways has hubs at Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas. United dominates Chicago and Denver, as Delta does Cleveland, Columbus, and Detroit. And so on.
For many travelers, it's that simple: Determine which airline dominates your home airport and join that airline's program.
Destinations Count, Too
If your home airport happens to be one that is more or less equally served by several airlines, look to your actual travel patterns for direction. Where do you travel most often; and which airline best serves that destination from your hometown airport?
Join that airline's program, and wherever possible use that airline for flights to other destinations to consolidate your earnings.
Again, the strategy is to pick the program of the airline which is the best fit with your actual travel behavior.
Hint: If you use a travel agent, seek her assistance in choosing a program. An agent will be familiar with your travel patterns, and with the travel industry generally, and should be able to help identify your best options.
Eye on the Prize
So far, we've focused on earning miles. There are situations where the award side of the equation might affect the choice of programs as well.
An example: Let's assume you live in Denver and are evaluating the programs of Frontier and United, both of which have strong presences at Denver International Airport. Further assume that your goal is award travel to Hawaii. But Frontier operates no flights to Hawaii, and has no program partners that do either. So from an award standpoint, Frontier's program is a non-starter. You've eliminated one contender from your list, and United wins by default.
There are other points of differentiation among the programs, and the airlines themselves, which may come into play when consideration of travel patterns alone doesn't generate a clear winner.
Bigger Is Better: All things being equal, the program which features more options for earning and redeeming miles is better than the program with fewer options.
Credit Card Miles: We've tailored the discussion so far to the needs of frequent travelers, who earn the bulk of their miles from actually traveling. There's another segment of the mileage-earning population which is growing rapidly and has rather different criteria when it comes to choosing an appropriate program. That's the frequent buyer.
In fact, almost all program members earn miles from a combination of travel and non-travel transactions—some primarily from the former, others more from the latter. In the non-travel category, the greatest number of miles are earned for credit card activity.
If you anticipate earning a significant proportion of your miles by using a credit card, you'll want to consider bypassing airline programs altogether in favor of a card linked to an independent rewards program. Some examples: Citibank's Premier card, Chase's Sapphire card, American Express's Blue Sky card.
Look for a future installment in this series that examines credit card options in depth.
Back to the Future: Given the economic environment and the nature of the airline industry, conscientious consumers must factor into their thinking the long-term viability of any short-listed airlines. In a worst-case scenario, if your airline of choice goes bankrupt you could lose your miles and any elite status you might have earned.
Case in Point
Consider my own situation as an example.
a) Airport: I live in Los Angeles. Which means that, in theory, I have five airports to choose from—Burbank, John Wayne, Long Beach, Los Angeles International (LAX), and Ontario. In practice, only Burbank and LAX are convenient. And Burbank's short runways only accommodate smaller, short-haul aircraft. So, by process of elimination, my primary airport is LAX.
Unlike the "fortress hub" airports that are dominated by a single carrier, LAX is well served by multiple airlines, with the Big Three (American, Delta, United) all operating their own terminals to support extensive flight schedules.
b) Travel Patterns: For both business and personal reasons, I fly regularly to New York, and quite irregularly to other points in the U.S. and overseas. Putting the LAX-JFK flight at the head of the priority list, the field quickly narrows to the two airlines which fly the route most often, American and United.
c) Tie Breakers: American and United both operate frequent flights between LAX and JFK. Their fares are normally comparable. There's no significant difference between their inflight meals. Both have snappy terminals with comfortable lounges.
For all their parity, I choose American over United without hesitation. Why? Because American operates more non-stop flights between the two cities. And because American uses wide-body B767s on the route, where United flies single-aisle B757s. On a five-hour flight, the more spacious aircraft makes for a more comfortable flight.
And finally, hand in hand with choosing American as my primary carrier, I choose American's AAdvantage as my primary frequent flyer program. Not because AAdvantage is the best program, but because it's the program that works best for me.
You'll notice that we have steered clear of any spreadsheet-type analysis of the programs.
While that approach works well when deciding which vacuum cleaner to purchase, a point-by-point comparison of frequent flyer programs is worse than useless. It's positively counterproductive, implying as it does that there's some actionable value in the comparison. There rarely is.
In fact, as we've tried to show, the principal factors affecting the choice of program are entirely individual: where you live, where you travel, and what your award goals are. The best program is the program that works best for you, regardless of its ranking in the latest loyalty program smackdown.
Know your travel patterns, choose a program accordingly, and you'll be positioned to earn not only miles, but free tickets as well.