Choosing The Frequent Flyer Program That’s Right For You

One of the most important things you can do to maximize your mileage earning potential is to choose one frequent flyer program and stick with it, at least when you’re first getting started. Marginal benefits continue to increase with most frequent flyer programs as you give them more business. For example, when flying United, I earn a 100% bonus on all miles flown. So a quick trip from Tampa to Singapore will net me about 40,000 redeemable miles, more than two-thirds of the way to an award ticket from the US to Europe. If I had entry level status with four airlines, on the other hand, I would typically only earn a 25% bonus on miles flown, so miles would not add up nearly as quickly.

Almost on a daily basis I get emails from people asking which frequent flyer program they should be loyal to, and there really is no “one size fits all” answer. There are many factors that should determine which frequent flyer program is best for you, so I’ll attempt to outline some of those here. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick to the five major US legacies in my analysis (technically there are only four, but Continental still operates a separate frequent flyer program, so I’ll include them).

So here are a few of the factors to consider, in no particular order:

  • Where are you flying? You have to choose the frequent flyer program of the airline that flies where you need to go. That’s to say that if you travel exclusively between Charlotte and Phoenix, US Airways is probably your best option (since those are two of their hubs), while if you travel between Chicago and San Francisco, United is likely your best option. Keep in mind that when you become loyal to a frequent flyer program, it’s not just the airline you’re pledging your loyalty to, but also the alliance. There are three major alliances: OneWorld, SkyTeam, and the Star Alliance. Of the legacy carriers, American belongs to OneWorld, Delta belongs to SkyTeam, and Continental, United, and US Airways belong to the Star Alliance. So in a way, that allows you to “pool” your miles – you can credit all your miles from flights on Continental, United, and US Airways to one airline, to attain the highest possible elite level, for example.
  • What kind of tickets will you be booking? The next major thing to consider when trying to pick a frequent flyer program is what type of tickets you’ll most likely be booking. Will you be booking discounted coach tickets, full fare coach tickets, paid first class tickets, or a combination of all three? Surprisingly enough, this really matters when trying to pick an airline, and I think Continental is the prime example. They have a great first class product, and they offer instant upgrades on full fare coach tickets, even if you’re booking months out, as long as you have elite status with them. This means for the price of full fare coach you can almost be guaranteed first class. At the same time, that means that as someone who typically books cheaper tickets, you’re likely not going to get an upgrade on many routes at your upgrade “window” (typically a few days before departure). Continental transcontinental flights are notoriously tough to upgrade, and that’s because most of the seats are booked in advance by passengers flying in high fare classes with instant upgrades.
  • Does the airline offer upgrades that are useful to you? Above I mentioned the importance of picking an airline based on the route network. An extension of that is picking an airline that offers the right types of upgrades for where you need to fly. For example, Delta is great about domestic upgrades, while they’re downright awful with international upgrades. While they offer their Platinum and Diamond members (top tier) international upgrade certificates, they are only valid on near-full fare tickets. So if you want to upgrade a coach ticket to Europe, expect to pay around $2,000, basically the same price as a discounted business class ticket. American, on the complete other end, offers their Executive Platinum members (top tier) eight systemwide upgrades, which can be used to upgrade from any fare class. United is somewhere in the middle, requiring a “W” fare (mid-range fare) to be booked. So if you’re a domestic flyer, this shouldn’t be the deciding factor, but if you fly mostly internationally, pick the airline that offers the best top tier elite benefits.




  • What do you want to use your miles for? Everyone has different plans with their miles, so take a very close look at what you can actually use your miles for and what it will cost you. As mentioned above, there are three major airline alliances, and when you have miles with an airline in an alliance, you can typically use your miles for any airline in that alliance. If award travel is important to you, for example, stay away from Delta. Their miles are worth substantially less than with any other legacy. Along the same lines, if you want to use your miles to travel primarily to Europe, think twice about American. While you can use your miles to fly American, British Airways, Finnair, and Iberia, American imposes “fuel surcharges” on British Airways awards, which can quickly turn your “free” ticket into a $500 one. If you wanted to go to Europe, the Star Alliance would definitely be a better option.


 

  • How much flying will you be doing? This is probably the most important point. There are some frequent flyer programs I’d recommend for someone flying very frequently, while I wouldn’t recommend them for someone not flying very frequently. Take American, for example. Their Executive Platinum (top tier) perks are fantastic. You get unlimited domestic upgrades, eight international upgrades, international first class lounge access when flying internationally, etc. If you’re a low tier elite, however, you only earn four upgrade certificates good for 500 miles each for every 10,000 miles you fly. In that case I would likely suggest United, which offers unlimited domestic upgrades and Economy Plus. While your upgrades most likely won’t clear very frequently, you have Economy Plus to fall back on, which is a very nice product.

So with that theoretical stuff out of the way, let me offer just a couple of specific suggestions, keeping in mind the above. American has always been a great airline for their top tier status level. If they fly the places you need to go, you really can’t go wrong with them. The same can be said for United. As a 1K you get unlimited domestic upgrades, including for a companion, six international systemwide upgrades, and eight confirmed regional upgrades, along with a bunch of other benefits. On both airlines, upgrades should clear 90%+ of the time as a top tier elite, assuming you’re not flying during the busiest times.

For middle tier elites, I’d stick to anyone except for American, which is the only airline that doesn’t offer unlimited domestic upgrades. As a middle tier elite, you should clear upgrades fairly regularly on non-transcon, non-peak time flights. Otherwise, middle tier elites always get exit rows. With the exception of Delta, middle tier elites at the 50,000 mile level get lounge access when traveling internationally at all of the legacy airlines, so that might be a reason to shy away from Delta if primarily flying internationally.

For lower tier status, you really can’t go wrong with any of the carriers. Nowdays you can’t expect upgrades all that regularly as a 25,000 mile flyer, but the other benefits really add value, like free checked bags, first class check-in, priority boarding, a mileage bonus, etc. I’d say as a lower tier, 25,000 mile flyer, United has a pretty solid frequent flyer program, mainly because of Economy Plus, which really makes coach quite tolerable.

And those are just a few suggestions. Looking for more specific advice about which frequent flyer program to pick? Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions.

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Comments
User_avatar_default johnny z. commented 19 Oct 2010
Another great piece, Ben. Been following you for about 6 months now at One Mile. I live in Austin and Continental flies pretty much everywhere I need to go as does American. About to achieve LT PL with AA so after I achieve that would it be best to collect miles under AeroPlan to use for CO? I mainly fly to Europe and S. America in biz. Thinking also to switch spend from SPG amex to Fidelity Worldpoints (2 to 1) for Aeroplan.
User_avatar_default Brian B. commented 19 Oct 2010
Do you know if most FF programs provide "soft" landings if you don't requalify the following year? I know American does. I'm currently about 26,000 miles from EXP, and factoring into my decision to take a mileage run to Brussels to hit EXP is whether or not I'll drop down to PLT the following year, in the event I don't fly 50,000 miles next year. My work travel schedule is very sporadic, so I never know. This year has been the first I've even come close to EXP.
Picture?type=large Jon B. commented 19 Oct 2010
What is the best program for a low tier flyer out of NYC flying mostly domestic flights?
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 19 Oct 2010

@ johnny -- While Aeroplan miles might be slightly more valuable than Continental miles, you're losing out on quite a few elite benefits by crediting your flights to Aeroplan. In your shoes I would status match to Continental and credit your miles there once you get Lifetime Platinum with American. If you credited to Aeroplan and flew Continental, you wouldn't get premium seating, unlimited domestic upgrades, the 100% mileage bonus, etc. So for US airlines, at least, you're almost always better off crediting to the airline you primarily fly.

@ Brian -- American is the only airline I can think of off the top of my head that does. As far as I know, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways don't. They'll often offer some sort of "buy up" towards the beginning of the year if you drop status levels, but that can cost quite a bit. So in that sense, American is by far the most generous.

@ Jonathan -- Your three logical options would be American, Continental, and Delta. American doesn't offer unlimited domestic upgrades (you have to buy "stickers," as they call them), so I'd avoid them unless their destinations really fit your needs. In theory you'll get unlimited domestic upgrades on both Continental and Delta, though in practice they won't clear all that frequently with either airline as a low tier elite. So I'd give slight preference to Continental because miles are much more valuable in their program than with Delta, but if one airline serves your destinations better than the other, I'd go with it.

User_avatar_default johnny z. commented 20 Oct 2010

Would you change your answer if I told you I only fly 3 to 4 times a year on award redemptions. All (98%) of my miles are on spend and signup bonuses.

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 20 Oct 2010

If most of the miles you earn are through credit card spend, then I'd go with Aeroplan. Two miles per dollar is tough to beat.

User_avatar_default joe s. commented 26 Oct 2010

Hey Ben,

Happened upon your great post/ pic, especially the US airways, in huffp,  just started traveling for 1x a month from atlanta to nyc for and 2x a year to india for business. Delta has the cheapest fares domestic coach, but now that I have reached almost 50k, I am not too happy with them!! I heard about the star aliance, lufthansa, etc upgrading elites to business from coach. Have any suggestions? I mainly care about getting upgraded to business for my international flights to dubai, delhi, and bombay? 

J

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 27 Oct 2010

@ joe s -- What kind of fares do you typically book internationally? If you could get to 100,000 miles/year, it would make sense to switch to American or United, as they offer systemwide upgrade vouchers to their top tier elites. Other than that, you typically won't see many international upgrades as a middle tier elite, unfortunately.

Picture?type=large James W. commented 27 Oct 2010

Ben,

Delta no longer does soft landings or buy ups of any kind. That was phased out with rollover miles. Whatever Elite status you attain, you get to rollover the excess. 

So for example if I make Gold(50,000 MQM) and end the year with 74,990 MQM. I start the new year with 24,990MQM (a cat's breath from the lowest Elite level). For rollover to occur, you have to at least reach Silver. 

Picture?type=large Daryl D. commented 16 Mar 2011

Ben,

This is a great piece, thank you.  After reading a LOT of other posts, this is the first which really weighs the pros and cons fairly.  

I'm trying to make a key decision within the next week or so, and could use some help from you and fellow readers.  I'm currently Gold on US Airways, and have been for a few years.  I have the opportunity to move to Elite Silver on Continental, and would need to start from 0 to maintain the silver (or higher) status for 2012.  While I'd hate the drop down this year, this would set me up nicely to move from US Airways to the new United/Continental program in 2012.  Ultimately my decision is: Do I stick with US Airways and the Gold thing I've got going now (already banked about 24K miles this year) or do I abandon ship and start booking miles on CO with hopes for access to a better program next year?

Thank you.

 

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 16 Mar 2011

@ Daryl D. -- Thanks for the question! Do you mind sharing what routes you usually fly? Generally speaking flying with Continental/United is a more pleasant experience than flying with US Airways. Furthermore, the "new" United will have Economy Plus, so when your upgrades don't clear, you'll have a much more pleasant experience in coach with a few extra inches of legroom.

That being said, you'll have a much better upgrade percentage on US Airways as a Gold than on Continental as a Silver. US Airways' elite ranks aren't quite as swelled as those of United and Continental, so you're competing with fewer people for the upgrades.

Furthermore, both airlines belong to the Star Alliance, so you're looking at similar benefits in terms of burning miles.

So I think it really comes down to the routes you fly. If US Airways is more convenient, I would stick with them for now. If Continental is more convenient, then it might make sense banking miles with them. I'd say that's especially true if you could make it to Gold with Continental next year, given that you'll get more bonus miles for your travel and a much better upgrade percentage.

Picture?type=large Alan N. commented 22 Mar 2011

Ben, I just found the article as a link from the Economist. It is very helpful. Can you give some advice on the best international FF program if I base from Nairobi? I will be moving there in July from LA (I work for a non-profit that has programs across Africa and worldwide). I am currently a Premier Exec with United. I will continue to travel from NBO to Europe/UK several times a year; several trips to Asia as well, probably Singapore and/or Bangkok; trips around Africa (Dakar, Johannesburg, Maputo); and perhaps another trip or so to the US (DC and/or LA).

Any suggestions on programs? I keep hearing that Delta is the way to go (because of the Kenya Airlines SkyTeam connection), but not based on your article or the comments from your readers.

Thanks!  Alan

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 22 Mar 2011

@ Alan N. -- That's a toughie, since there are quite a few things to factor in, like how long you'll be based in Nairobi for. If it's long term, you'll definitely want to switch loyalty to the airline you'll be flying most often, while if it's short term, it might make sense to credit to a different airline. Assuming most of your travel will be on Kenya Airways, then yes, I suggest crediting to Delta. There aren't many better alternatives there, so I guess crediting to Delta would be the lesser of the SkyTeam evils.

But staying with United might not be a bad idea. I believe that both Lufthansa and Swiss fly to Nairobi, so if you fly with them with any sort of frequency, you could probably maintain your Premier Exec status, or maybe even shoot for 1K. Keep in mind that if you achieved 1K with United, you would get six systemwide upgrades per year that could be used on Lufthansa for your travels to Europe. Your miles will also be worth a lot more through them than through Delta. And when you're traveling within Asia, keep in mind that South African Airways is a member of the Star Alliance, so that's another opportunity to earn United miles, get lounge access, exit rows, priority boarding, etc. Based on my experience, they're the best airline in the region as well.

I hope that helps!

Picture?type=large Alan N. commented 22 Mar 2011
Ben, I'll likely be in Kenya for 2-4 years, then perhaps somewhere outside the US after that. What do you know about the FlyingBlue FF program instead of Delta for SkyTeam? I've read about it online and it seems pretty good--though the upgrades with United are pretty sweet (although I rarely get them since we fly discount economy usually--Y, W, H, T,S are often the ticket code). I've hit 75-90K the last three years, so not sure if I'd make the 1K status anyway. Thanks again for your advise.
Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 23 Mar 2011

@ Alan N. -- In terms of earning miles, you'll be in a similar situation regardless of whether you credit to Delta or Air France. Air France doesn't offer many upgrade benefits either, which is the only reason I don't recommend them. If you save your Delta miles for future use on Delta, you can redeem with no fuel surcharges, as long as the award origintes in the US. Air France has higher award prices and charges some extreme fuel surcharges, so it will cost you quite a bit to redeem your miles.

Picture?type=large Tom A. commented 29 Aug 2011

Ben, you're a milage guru!

OK, I'll throw my hat in. Where should I credit miles?

I'm CO gold now, but business has been good and I will make Platinum by October and--80% chance to make 1K by the end of the year.

80-90% of my elite miles come from three routes:

TPA-BKK 60%

TPA-HKG 20%

TPA-LAS 10%

For whatever reason, UA/CO almost always has the best fares for these routes--it's been that way for years, so I don't see this changing soon.

I use my miles for free flights. I'd love to get free international upgrades, but it costs $600 to upgrade a low tier fare, so I've never tried. I've heard that it's quite difficult in any event. I have gotten operational upgrades a couple times, though.

Second question: What's up with these codeshares that are called "Operated by Air Japan, DBA All Nippon Airways"? I can earn elite miles on ANA, but not Air Japan (even thought they have merged and are now Japan's equivalent of CO/UA). I called CO, and they told me that if Air Japan is on the list, no miles are awarded, however when I look at the flights online, it shows that they are elite eligible. I woul not be surprised if the call center was incorrect. Do you have any idea? I don't want to burn 10,000k to "test" this.

Finally, what's all the hoopla on Flyertalk about crediting miles to Alaska Air? Is there anything to that?

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 29 Aug 2011

@ Tom -- Given that you already have status with United/Continental, I would stick to them. The only other airline that is competitive when it comes to international upgrades is American, though they don't fly to Bangkok or Hong Kong, so you'd be stick on one of their partners on each trip.

For ANA flights operated by Air Japan, you SHOULD earn elite miles.

As far as Alaska goes, the reason they're popular is because they have so many airline partners across all alliances. So for someone that doesn't fly that much, they're a great airline to credit miles to, given that you can credit miles from American, Delta, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, etc., to them, all while qualifying for their elite status.

Picture?type=large Tom A. commented 04 Sep 2011

Thanks, Ben. I'm in BKK now, actually. Yeah, and those partner flights on American are pushing their prices to Asia way up. 

Thanks for the info on Alaska Air... I always wondered about that. I just looked at their elite benefits, and they are pretty good. I was kinda disappointed to finally make Platinum on CO this year and find that the recent program changes mean that there isn't really much difference between P and G anymore. I wonder why they washed out the P and S statuses while leaving G relatively untouched? 

 

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 04 Sep 2011

@ Tom -- I'd say the difference in upgrade percentage between Platinum and Gold will make a huge difference, as Platinums will clear upgrades much more regularly than Golds. If you're referring to the rumored changes, keep in mind Premier Executives would be taking a huge hit as well, with the reduction of the elite mileage bonus. I always thought the 100% mileage bonus was one of the huge benefits of being a Premier Executive.

Picture?type=large Dexton G. commented 10 Sep 2011

Hi Ben, I'm on the verge of getting Marco Polo Gold status. I would say on average I fly about 60-75K in miles a year from LAX to Asia. I've noticed however that the redemption rates for AA (135,000) are much lower as compared to CX (180,000) for first class. 

In your opinion, which is the better frequent flier program to maintain? Marco Polo or AA Advantage? AA's benefits are spelled out quite clearly, number of upgrades, lounge access, etc. So far I've only been upgraded once on CX on a short haul from SIN to HKG. I figured I can still enjoy the same benefits with an AA Platinum status while flying on CX. In addition I can redeem premium flights faster and I will have confirmed upgrades. BTW- do those system wide upgrades apply for CX service from LAX to HKG?

Picture?type=large Ben Schlappig commented 10 Sep 2011

@ Dexton -- American is definitely more tempting on the surface thanks to the lower redemption rate and generally greater opportunities to earn miles, though what fare class do you usually fly in? If it's not business or near full fare coach, you might not earn any miles if booking on American. Take a look at their earnings chart:

http://www.aa.com/i18n/AAdvantage/earnMiles/travel/airlines/cathayPacific.jsp

Most of their lower fare classes don't earn any elite qualifying or redeemable miles. So that should be a major consideration.

Picture?type=large Tom A. commented 10 Sep 2011
BUT: Check the fine print.. Which in this case happens to be positive: "Note – Travel ticketed as an AA marketed flight (booked as an AA flight number) and operated by Cathay Pacific will earn AAdvantage base miles and elite qualifying miles, points and segments according to the AA mileage accrual chart."
Picture?type=large Rom Y. commented 18 Sep 2011

Ben - I fly LAX to TLV once every 2-3 years.  I'd also like to get to JFK every now and then.  My currently booked LAX-TLV flight is on KLM (chosen for the price...), and I'd like to post it to my new FF program.

Picture?type=large Andrew N. commented 21 Nov 2011

Ive been trying to decided which FF program I to try and stick with. I am from the US but I will be living over in England for the next two years. From reading your articles it sounds like I should stick with Star Alliance but what I need help figureing out is what partner would be the best option. My main goal is to get to gold status at quickly as possilble and I mainly care about lounge access, priority boarding and check in, extra baggage allowance. I am not too worried about not getting seat upgrades because it seems like you have to my almost full fare tickets to use the seat upgrade tickets. Thanks for the help in advance!

 

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