How to Choose a Frequent Flyer Program

With so many frequent flyer programs, it can be difficult to chose the best one for you.  Making the right choice is important since it can be difficult to switch programs once you’ve have status and a bunch of miles.  This post will hopefully help you chose the right program for you.  Unfortunately, I’m only going to be looking at US carriers so all you international folks are out of luck on this one.  I also won’t be covering US Airways as they are currently merging with AA.Determining the best frequent flyer program is a combination of the best program for paid flights and the best program for award flights.  As in most things, money prevails.  This means that if the flights you usually take cost less or are more convenient on a particular carrier, you are probably going to be using that carrier a lot.  This makes your decision pretty easy.

However, if prices/convenience are about the same for you on all carriers, we look at other things.  The first thing to consider is if you are going to make status.  For most carriers, the entry level status starts at 25,000 miles flown in a calendar year.  This gets you benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding, and upgrades, though at this level they will almost never happen.  The better perks like priority security, same day confirmed changes, and an actual chance at an upgrade happen at 50,000-75,000 miles flown in a year.  In my opinion, if you aren’t going to be flying 50,000 miles a year with a single airline status isn’t worth having and you should just get the airline’s co-branded credit card to get most of the same benefits as entry level status.

If you’re going to flying more than 50,000 miles and want to be treated well you need to look at each airline to determine which works for what is important for you.  You need to balance things like same day confirmed changes, upgrades for low fares, and reduces change fees.  Below are a list of airline benefit pages.  In the frequent flyer community is it usually considered that American and United are the top two in that order followed at a big distance by Delta.  But read each site to see what works for you.  American, United, Delta, Virgin America.

The next thing to consider is where you live.  If your home airport is a hub for an airline, it makes that airline attractive since that’s usually one less flight you have to find.  As an example, I live in Tulsa.  Unfortunately there are a very limited number of domestic destinations and no international flights out of Tulsa despite it being called an international airport.  So when I want to fly somewhere, I usually have to make a connection to an airline’s hub city and then to my destination.  When using miles this means both flights have to have availability at the same day with good connection times.  It gets a lot easier if you happen to live in a hub city to begin with.  Below are a list of hubs for some of the big airlines in the US.  I am including US Airways on this since they will be merging with AA and some of the hubs may remain.

American: DFW, ORD, MIA, JFK, LAX
US Airways: PHX, CLT, PHL, DCA
Virgin America: SFO
Frontier: DEN
Jet Blue: JFK
Alaska: SEA

The next thing to consider is where you want to go with your miles.  Some programs like Frontier and Jet Blue have very limited route maps that should be carefully considered before focusing on them.  Each of the big three alliances have different priorities that make flying to other continents easier or harder.

South America: Using AA miles (oneworld) to fly on their partner LAN is by far the best choice, the other two are very difficult.
Europe: United (Star alliance) is the best choice followed by Delta (Sky Team).  AA is harder to use since partner BA has hight fuel surcharges and taxes flying through LHR are expensive.
Asia: United is your best bet since they have a ton of partners here.  Delta and AA have some partners but few direct flights so they’re harder to use.
Australia: Delta shines here since they partner with Virgin Australia and no longer charge fuel surcharges.  However they’re the most expensive awards of all three and finding low level flights to LAX on Delta can be difficult.  United is very doable if you’re willing to make a connection in Asia since they have all those partners.  AA is very difficult since they don’t allow you to fly through Asia and they don’t fly to Australia themselves but they do require the fewest miles.

Another thing to consider is the number of miles required for rewards.  As seen in the Australia example above, sometimes a particular program is cheaper than others.  But for travel within the United States, awards start at 25,000 miles.  United and AA have anytime awards available at 50,000 and Delta has a three tiered program that maxes out at 60,000.  It’s best to check the specific redemption rates for where you want to go before starting with a program.  Southwest, Jet Blue, and Virgin America has points with a set value meaning that as the ticket price increases, so does the number of points required.  In reality, I think this is the most fair way to do it and it makes it really good for cheap flights, plus there are no blackout dates or seat limits.  But it makes it equally bad for expensive flights meaning that some of the great value redemptions are off limits.

The final thing to consider is the routing rules for each airline.  Delta doesn’t allow one way awards which make them harder to use.  AA and United both allow one way awards.  However delta has very nice stopover and open jaw allowances.  AA however, only allows stopovers at the international gateway city.  So if you’re flying TUL-DFW-LHR-CDG on AA, you can only stopover in DFW.  Very limited indeed.  United has decent stopover and open jaw rules so I’d call them the winner here.

A few other things to consider:
Alaska – Miles from AA or Delta can be sent to Alaska.  If you split your time equally between AA and Delta, Alaska can be a good option that allows you to earn some status.  However, Alaskan miles can only be used to get award flights on AA and Delta at the low level which isn’t always available.
Expiring Miles – Recently Delta and Jet Blue have announced that miles in their programs no longer expire.  You shouldn’t care about this at all.  Miles in other programs only expire after 18 months of inactivity.  Activity in this case can be as little as a $1 purchase on the airline partner website or a purchase on a co-branded credit card.  It’s really easy to do it so don’t give Delta or Jet Blue any credit for this.
Delta – All things being the equal, stay away from Delta.  Delta has made a lot of changes recently that reduce the value of their program and I’m not sure they won’t be making more of them soon.  They already make it very hard to use miles to upgrade, earn miles on partners, and don’t allow miles to be used for first class flight.  Those facts alone says a lot about the program.


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