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The Best Frequent-Flyer Program

What’s the best frequent flyer program? Is there even an all-around best program at all? Two new reports help shed some light on a very complicated question. And as so often is the case, “best” depends as much on your personal travel style as it does on the details of each program. And today, my take is from the perspective of a regular but not ultra-frequent leisure traveler living in the United States or Canada—those road warriors have probably long since determined where their loyalties lie.

The annual Freddie awards, given out since 1988 by Randy Petersen’s pioneering InsideFlyer newsletter, are easily the industry’s most comprehensive. They’re based on voting by members of various loyalty programs, worldwide, and are therefore heavily tilted toward the views of road warriors. American’s AAdvantage program scored as airline program of the year. It earned the top spot by scoring well in all categories, not necessarily in being the best in each. But the overall scores include some features that aren’t important to my target audience, so let’s look at the two categories that matter the most.

Related: 10 Best Frequent Flyer Programs

  • Best Redemption Ability. For typical leisure travelers, ability to score a seat is by far the most important factor. And the winner here is Southwest—no surprise, because, in theory, all seats are available if you’re willing to spend the points. American is close behind, followed by Air Canada, Hawaiian, Delta, United, Alaska, JetBlue, and Spirit.
  • Best Customer Service. Here, too, Southwest and American ranked one and two, followed by Air Canada, Hawaiian, Delta, Virgin America, JetBlue, Alaska, and United.
  • Best promotion (typically, buying miles) and best elite program really don’t matter to typical leisure travelers, and best credit card is too complicated to cover with a simple score. All in all, the Freddie awards are more useful to road warriors than to infrequent leisure travelers.

    Consumer Reports just published its evaluations, based on a combination of statistics developed by detailed analysis of government data for the country’s largest 25 city-pair routes and CR readers’ composite “satisfaction” scores for the five largest domestic airlines. The results fall into two obvious groups:

    • JetBlue and Southwest, with satisfaction scores of 85-86, easily outpointed American, Delta, and United with scores of 67-63.
    • Both winners scored especially well on ability to get seats. Both also scored well in the calculated value per mile/point, generally 1 to 1.4 cents each. By comparison, on the routes tested, the other lines’ miles were mostly worth less, often as low as 0.5 cent.
    • Although lowest in satisfaction, United beat its two legacy lines in the typical number of miles required for an economy class award trip: 18,700 miles compared with 21,250 on American or Delta.

    Related: Top Hotel Loyalty Programs

    But neither the Freddies nor CR covered ease of earning miles in its calculations. And, at least to me, that’s a near-fatal omission for consumers considering their frequent flyer options.

    All in all, the results from these two reports don’t really change the longstanding conventional wisdom about frequent flyer programs:

    • If most of your flights are on one airline, join that line’s program and fly it whenever you can.
    • Consider Alaska or Hawaiian, both of which still use the “legacy” mileage-based earning formula and have useful partnerships.
    • Consider American’s high scores, but figure there’s a good chance it will copy Delta and United in switching its earnings to a dollar basis.
    • If you earn most of you miles through a credit card, and if your main target is “free” economy seats, you’re better off with a card giving a high cash payback and buying your tickets yourself.
    • But if you value points to travel in a premium class, airline miles are your only practical choice. And good luck scoring seats.

    As a matter of historical interest, the “Freddie” awards are named for Sir Freddie Laker, whose Skytrain permanently revolutionized transatlantic travel. Even though his airline failed, his legacy remains strong.

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    Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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