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How to Choose the ‘Best’ Frequent Flyer Program

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.

The exception to the rule among low-cost carriers is US Airways. Because the Dividend Miles program was developed before US Airways transformed itself into a discounter, it is comparable in most respects to the programs of full-service airlines. In particular, Dividend Miles members can earn miles with more than 100 partner companies—far more than participate in the program of any other low-cost carrier.

Redemption opportunities

The flip side of earning opportunities is redemption opportunities. Together they account for most of what makes a program worth investing time and energy in, or not.

As with earning miles, the general rule governing award options is that larger programs offer their members more choices than smaller programs.

Continental, Delta and Northwest members fare especially well on the awards front—domestic awards in particular—because these carriers are all members of the SkyTeam airline alliance. That means that they co-participate in each other’s mileage programs, allowing members of Delta’s program, for example, to redeem miles for flights on Continental and Northwest.

With award seats in notoriously short supply, such expanded opportunities can make the difference between snagging an award ticket and being forced to redeem twice as many miles for an unrestricted award, or staying home altogether.

Elite perks

For the majority of program participants, earning miles and redeeming them for awards are the primary concerns. But for truly frequent flyers, earning miles is a given and free flights aren’t the principal goal. Bona fide road warriors participate in mileage programs to obtain the perks associated with elite status. And the elite benefit that trumps all others is upgrades.

Airline programs that feature elite upgrades fall into two camps. American and United offer their elite members unlimited complimentary upgrades only from unrestricted fares (e.g. from the highest-priced tickets). Continental, Delta, and Northwest, on the other hand, allow their elite members to upgrade from any published fare. Unless you’re a traveler who routinely flies on unrestricted tickets, the latter policy is likely to result in more seat time in first class than the former policy.

The discount airlines’ programs rarely feature elite upgrades because they lack either first-class cabins, elite program tiers, or both. The notable exception, as with earning partners, is US Airways’ Dividend Miles program. Most US Airways flights have both first- and coach-class cabins, and Dividend Miles elite members receive unlimited space-available upgrades when traveling within the continental U.S.

Because frequent flyer program members have wildly different travel and purchase behavior, no mileage program is one-size-fits-all. But there is almost certainly a program whose particular strengths best dovetail with your individual requirements. Find it, stick with it, and reap the rewards.

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