How to Choose the 'Best' Frequent Flyer Program

On Frequent Flyer Miles
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 8, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AirTran, American, ATA, Continental, Delta, frequent flyer, JetBlue, Northwest, On Frequent Flyer Miles, Southwest, Tim Winship, United, US Airways.

There is no single, definitively superior frequent flyer program. If one did exist, every air traveler would belong to that program and the remaining programs would wither and die.

In fact, the size of airline mileage programs roughly corresponds to the size of the airlines that host them. American, the largest airline, boasts the mileage program with the most members. United, the second-largest airline, operates the second-largest program. And so on.


Does the enduring stability of the membership numbers mean that consumers have got it right and are participating effectively in the most appropriate programs? Not at all. As I often find myself suggesting, many consumers could be earning many more awards by focusing their mileage-earning more pointedly in a single program.

And when it comes to choosing that program, flyers can use a number of features as tie-breakers. Following are four variables that merit serious consideration by anyone seeking to optimize the results of frequent flyer program participation.

Mileage expiration

A key factor any would-be mileage collector should consider is the prospective program's mileage-expiration policy.

The current industry-standard rule is that miles do not expire as long as there is account activity, either earning or burning, every three years. As a practical matter, that means that miles need never be lost. With so many ways to earn miles in most programs, it's a simple matter to add to one's account balance by conducting everyday transactions. Racking up miles through dining-for-miles programs or by making purchases through an airline's online mileage mall are examples. And if earning isn't in the cards, a redemption works just as well in extending the life of miles. Most large programs have a miles-for-magazines award, allowing members to cash in as few as 400 miles for a magazine subscription.

But while widespread, the three-year rule is not the only approach to expiring miles. Among the major carriers, Continental's terms and conditions claim that "miles currently have no expiry date." But elsewhere, the rules stipulate that "if no mileage is deposited in your account for 18 consecutive months, commencing after June 1, 2001, your membership will be cancelled, and your miles may be forfeited."

It's in the realm of the low-cost carriers that travelers have to be especially aware of consumer-unfriendly expiration policies. Until August 2005, Southwest, which established the program model emulated by many discount carriers, expired Rapid Rewards points after just 12 months. That policy has since been liberalized to allow points to remain active for 24 months—still a very short time in which to reach an award level, especially for the occasional leisure traveler who makes up Southwest's core consumer base.

AirTran and ATA adopted Southwest's one-year expiration policy and have left it in place, even after Southwest modified its rule. JetBlue represents the worst-case scenario. Points in its TrueBlue program expire after just one year. And there are only two ways to earn credits: by flying on JetBlue or using the JetBlue credit card.

Caveat emptor.

Earning opportunities

As mentioned above, members of JetBlue's program can earn miles in just two ways. At the other extreme, members of American's AAdvantage program can earn miles with more than 1,500 companies, representing almost every imaginable retail, financial, and service sector.

All things being equal, a member of American's program should be able to earn more miles, faster, than a member of JetBlue's program. That's the straightforward logic underlying the general rule: Bigger programs (i.e. programs with more earning partners) are better than smaller programs.

While American's program is the clear leader in this area, all major airline programs have long partner lists, engineered to ensure that members can earn miles for most purchases, whether travel-related or not.

Populating the other end of the spectrum are the discount carriers, whose partner rosters are short at best. Southwest's Rapid Rewards, the longest lived of the discounter programs, has only added 14 partners over the program's 20-year history.

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