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The Quest for Universal Miles

Wanted: A frequent flyer program that awards miles for flights on any airline.

That was the nub of a [%1300688 | | recent query %] submitted by a reader, voicing a sentiment shared at one time or another by most mileage-collectors.

I responded that no such program exists, and that the very idea of an all-airline frequent flyer program amounted to an oxymoron. After all, mileage programs are in the business of directing loyalty and business to a single airline, or to a group of allied airlines and other partners. A program that allowed members to earn miles on any and all airlines would completely defeat that purpose.

In spite of my best efforts to untangle what is, admittedly, a complicated situation, the piece generated a significant number of responses that suggested I’d overlooked some candidates with legitimate claims to be considered universal programs.

The common thread of those responses was, notwithstanding my contention to the contrary, there are indeed loyalty programs that apply to any airline. Examples given were the American Express Membership Rewards program and the programs associated with various bank-issued cards like the Capital One No Hassle Miles Visa and the Chase Travel Plus Visa.

Are these credit card programs truly the Holy Grail of mileage programs? Absolutely not. But they do have their particular virtues that make them well worth considering, either as adjuncts to airline programs or even, in some cases, as freestanding alternatives.

To reiterate, there is no single program that permits members to freely (important qualifier—see below) earn miles for flights on all airlines. Or even on most airlines. But several credit card programs do award points for charges that can be exchanged for miles in the programs of participating airlines or redeemed for flights on any carrier.

Convertible points from AmEx and Diners

Members of the American Express Membership Rewards and Diners Club Rewards programs earn one point for every dollar charged for most purchases. Those points can then be converted to miles in select airline programs, as follows:

American Express airline partners: AeroMexico, Air Canada, AirTran, ANA, Continental, Delta, El Al, Frontier, Global Pass, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Mexicana, Southwest, Virgin

Diners Club airline partners: Air Canada, Air France, Alaska, American, Asiana, British Airways, Delta, El Al, Frontier, Global Pass, Hawaiian, Icelandair, Korean Air, Mexicana, Midwest, SAS, South African, Southwest, Thai, Virgin

Once converted, the points become true airline miles in the participating programs.

The flexibility afforded by the ability to deposit credit card points into multiple airline programs is an undeniable boon. It’s especially helpful for travelers who participate in several airline programs and wish to selectively allocate their credit card earnings among a range of programs.

But, the lists of participating programs fall far short of including all airline programs. And more importantly, they don’t even include the majority of the largest U.S. programs.

Bank cards with “Any Airline” awards

What about such credit card programs as Capital One’s No Hassle Miles and Chase’s TravelPlus?

The principal value proposition of these programs is that they allow cardholders to redeem their miles for flights on almost any airline. That’s because when points are cashed in, the bank card programs simply purchase tickets on behalf of their members. So members’ options on the award side of these programs are almost unlimited.

But returning to the original question, can cardholders earn miles when flying on any airline? While they’ll earn miles for charging tickets on any airline to their credit cards, they will not earn flight miles—typically the distance actually flown—as they would in an airline program. And the miles-for-charges can’t be added to the flight miles earned in airline programs. They’re noncombinable “currencies.”

Miles for all airlines (sort of)

One travel rewards credit card explicitly alludes to the miles-for-any-airline dream. The Citi PremierPass MasterCard marketing materials make the following promise: “Earn one Flight Point for every mile you fly on any airline.”

How can Citibank award flight miles? The credit card issuer’s back-end software has been programmed to identify charges made to purchase airline tickets, and to compute the number of miles flown based on the ticketed itinerary. Note that cardholders may only redeem as many Flight Points as they have earned Purchase Points. Frequent flyers must also be frequent buyers in order to access the total number of points available to them.

This would seem to be precisely what frequent flyers have at the top of their wish lists: a credit card that works seamlessly with almost any airline program.

But Flight Points are not true airline miles because they can’t be added to miles earned in an airline program account. So although the PremierPass card warrants consideration as a stand-alone option, it’s not a good fit for those who earn their miles in airline programs.

Citi’s PremierPass card is just the latest example of a travel rewards program that attempts the impossible: to be all things to all people. Surely we can expect to see other companies try to do the same.

But the hopeful would do well to bear in mind a new twist on the old adage: If wishes were airplanes, beggars would fly.

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