Frequent Flyer confusion
February 14, 2008 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Help me sort out the confusion of the frequent flyer programs.

I have never flown much except for the occasional necessary trip for business or family. There's a possibility that I will be spending more time on an airplane so I thought I'd look into a frequent flyer program. I had no idea they were so confusing. What are my best options? Do I simply talk to my credit card company? Do I have to be a member of a specific airline? Can I use a program that covers all airlines? Is one program better than another for bonus miles and merchandise and the like? There are so many options that I have no idea on where to start.
Thanks for any clarification you can provide!
posted by mcarthey to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The best thing to do is to try to get as many of your miles on one carrier's program as possible. Where will you be flying? That will impact which carrier is most likely to be convenient and therefore which one you should take to maximize FF miles.
posted by grouse at 7:42 AM on February 14, 2008

Asking for the "better" frequent-flyer program is like asking for the "better" religion -- it depends what you're looking for.

Some basics:

* Frequent flyer programs are designed to encourage loyalty to a particular airline or alliance of airlines, so there is no program that covers most/all airlines. There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam. An airline will be in at most one alliance, and many airlines (e.g., Southwest, JetBlue) are not in any alliance.

* Figure out what your travel pattern will be like and choose a program accordingly. If you live in a city that is a "fortress" hub for an airline (e.g., Atlanta with Delta), you will almost certainly want to use that airline's program. More competitive markets or less settled travel patterns may mean you need to be more flexible -- I live in Boston and have significant mileage with American, US Airways, and JetBlue.

* Read FlyerTalk. There is a wealth of information on each program, including lots of tips, advice, and inside information for newbies.
posted by backupjesus at 7:44 AM on February 14, 2008

Typically, each airline will have their own frequent flyer program, although you don't necessarily have to fly that airline all the time to earn points (or miles) in that particular program - for example, I am a Delta Gold Medallion frequent flyer, but I can earn miles when flying on one of Delta's "partner" airlines, such as Northwest, Continental, or Air France.

Some credit cards also provide airline mile benefits - typically, once you sign up for your airline of choice's frequent flyer program, you'll start getting solicitations from affiliated credit card companies.

My advice would be to find out which airline is the predominant one in your hometown airport and sign up for that airline's program - that's the airline you're most likely to fly often, so that's the one you're going to get the most benefit from joining.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:46 AM on February 14, 2008

Find out where you will be travelling to, and see which airlines service that area. Also, which airport is your "home" airport, the one you will be departing from and returning to? For example, if you lived in Charlotte, NC, CLT is a USAir hub. Its a lot easier to fly out of CLT on USAir, so it would make sense to join their FF program.

You can't join one single program that covers all airlines. In the states (assuming your in the US), there are 3 big programs. Star Alliance (United, USAir, multiple international airlines), Sky Miles (Delta, Northwest, Continental, multiple international airlines), and AAdvantage (American, multiple international airlines)

Pick one of the big 3, and join one of the member airlines programs. For instance, if you sign up for Continental's FF program, then you earn miles on any Sky Miles flight including delta flights etc. It pays to be loyal to a single program, because you earn status quicker that way.
posted by BigVACub at 7:51 AM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for getting me started. I live in the Midwest, USA and my local airline is Midwest Express. I am looking to fly internationally (Latin America in the near future) and the best deals I've found so far are on Avianca. It looks like they don't fly out of my area, though, so I'll likely fly to Florida or New York to make the connecting flight.

Thanks for the help thus far!
posted by mcarthey at 7:58 AM on February 14, 2008

For more Frequent Flyer information, look here.
posted by Xurando at 8:07 AM on February 14, 2008

If you think you will be flying more than 20,000 miles or 25 one-way trips on Midwest Airlines (YX), you might consider staying in Midwest Miles to get the perks of their Executive Program. On the other hand, the awards suck. No chance of getting an international award, which makes storing up miles there seem useless to me.

You can park your YX miles on Northwest Airlines (NW) WorldPerks, which you will be able to send miles to from other airlines as well (not Avianca though), and it the redemption options are much more useful.

I'd ask the experts in the YX forum on FlyerTalk for their recommendation. After you figure this out, you can decide on a credit card program.

When you take flights on other airlines, try to see if they will fit into one of your existing frequent flier programs. If they won't, you can sign up for one that they will. The only thing you need to be careful about is making sure the miles don't expire—some programs make your miles expires 18 months after your last activity.
posted by grouse at 8:12 AM on February 14, 2008

I apologize for the multiple grammatical mistakes in the above comment, which I introduced while editing it hastily.
posted by grouse at 8:17 AM on February 14, 2008

OP, multiple-airline international itineraries are difficult; changing terminals at JFK or MIA is a major chore, interlining (going from one airline to another) of checked luggage can be problematic or unavailable, and each airline will blame the other for any issues that crop up. It's not worth it to save a few bucks, and may not be worth it to save lots of bucks. I would strongly consider sticking with American, which is strong in Latin America and has hubs well-positioned for travel from the Midwest, rather than trying to build Midwest Express/Avianca/some other airline frankentrips. As a side benefit, this will make it easy to consolidate miles with AA.
posted by backupjesus at 8:36 AM on February 14, 2008

Since joining frequent flier programs is free, you might as well sign up for one from each codeshare alliance (e.g, Lufthansa for Star Alliance, NWA for Skyteam, American for Oneworld or whatever).
posted by cmonkey at 10:05 AM on February 14, 2008

And make sure you look and see when or if the miles expire. Delta expires after two years, so if you can't accumulate enough for a free flight, you're out of luck.
posted by cmonkey at 10:07 AM on February 14, 2008

It should be said that there are also benefits to sticking with a primary carrier which are nothing to do with frequent flyer programs; you are more familiar with their terminals, more familiar with their routes, their crew, their trends for ticket discounts and specials. Like anything else in life, when you get really knowledgeable about any given service provider, you can game their system for the best possible experience.

You have to take a look at what carriers you're likely to fly most, what their programs are like, and when you can start to recognize the value. For example, American is my primary carrier because I live at a hub, but my goal with getting and maintaining elite status on AA is to get bumps and upgrades to first or business class. But I know people who care far more about accruing miles that can be redeemed for free plane tickets. Figure out what you care about most, and use Google to research carriers with good performance for those benefits. See what the masses have to say.

Agree that FlyerTalk is a great resource (it's where I found out about a secret fast track to elite status on AA), but be forewarned: they use lots and lots of acronyms there, and it's often hard to search the site to find the info you want, so people just post multiple versions of the same questions over and over and over. Or a thread goes on for years, and you have to wade through 20 pages of it to find what you want... or risk inquiring again and getting a curt "asked and answered!!!" response. But, yes, a wealth of info at that site if you're willing to be patient.

You mentioned your credit card company. Getting started with an FF program has little to do with your existing credit card vendors, likely -- but every airline and alliance will be attached to a branded debit or credit card that you can use to earn miles, or points toward miles, usually 0.X miles per dollar spent on the card (or even 1:1 or 2:1). So when you've ID'ed a primary carrier with whom you want to work toward status, you might check out their credit card, see if it's worth having in your wallet. There is usually a link to the airline-branded card right on the home page of the airline website.

mcarthey: "Thanks for getting me started. I live in the Midwest, USA and my local airline is Midwest Express. I am looking to fly internationally (Latin America in the near future) and the best deals I've found so far are on Avianca. It looks like they don't fly out of my area, though, so I'll likely fly to Florida or New York to make the connecting flight."

I would recommend highly against this plan, for the reasons that backupjesus* already stated, plus these:

1. To me, the sooner you get on the longest segment, the better. Going all the way to the East Coast to go to Latin America, when you can get on that flight in Chicago or Houston, will be really exhausting.

2. Avianca is not going to have an FF program that accrues any real benefit to you. So you earn loads of points on a small Latin American carrier? Whoopty-do... that won't let you take the family on a free trip to Disneyworld with your miles. You have to look at what that airline actually lets you do with those miles. A US carrier that does long haul is always going to give you better options: American, Continental, United, US Airways, Delta.
(disclaimer, I have zero familiarity with the programs of United, USAir or Delta. I'm just offering them as examples of major US carriers.)

And, you always earn the most points/miles on the longest trips. For example: since I'm focused on maintaining highest status with American, I will move heaven and earth to try and fly AA anytime I have to go overseas... because that's another cool 10,000 miles I've accrued in my AAdvantage account in one trip. I would do anything I could to avoid flying long haul on a secondary carrier -- especially one that wasn't in one of the alliances who honor miles from other airlines, as BigVACub pointed out. (one minor correction: AA is a member of the OneWorld alliance)

I don't know exactly where you are in the Midwest, obvs, but it would seem to me that your best bet would be what backupjesus recommended: use O'Hare as your "home" airport, using Midwest Express to shuttle you to O'Hare. American and United are both big at O'Hare (and of course, am partial to AA but also ORD Terminal 3 is just much nicer imo), so from there you could go anywhere in the world conveniently.

If you don't have the luxury of picking carriers, you just don't, and you do what you can. But if you're about to become a frequent flyer, you'll soon learn that the perks that come from the miles and points are your reward and compensation for spending so much time with your derriere parked in a tiny uncomfortable seat at 30,000 feet up. No matter who you decide to fly with, never ever board a plane if you aren't a member of that carrier's FF program (I prefer AA but I'm enrolled in 7 other programs too). It only takes a few minutes online, and if you have to fly anyway, might as well be earning miles for it.

* HA! "frankentrips" - I'm totally using that one the next I have to go from Boise to Raleigh.
posted by pineapple at 10:17 AM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all for the continual advice. One thing I'm a bit confused/disappointed about is that I had found a flight on Avianca from Florida for about $400/person, whereas booking the flight direct from a local location ups the price to nearly $1000/person. Is the hassle of "interlining" (as backupjesus stated) really that much of a hassle to warrant the savings? I haven't found or looked for any direct flights, but I can only imagine it's going to be even more crazy expensive.
Thanks again!
posted by mcarthey at 10:49 AM on February 14, 2008

mcarthey: "One thing I'm a bit confused/disappointed about is that I had found a flight on Avianca from Florida for about $400/person, whereas booking the flight direct from a local location ups the price to nearly $1000/person. Is the hassle of "interlining" (as backupjesus stated) really that much of a hassle to warrant the savings? I haven't found or looked for any direct flights, but I can only imagine it's going to be even more crazy expensive."

Without knowing the exact departure and arrival cities, it's going to be more difficult for anyone to speculate. But the question becomes, "Yes it only costs $400 to go from Miami to, say, Panama. But what does it cost you to get to Miami from Des Moines?" It's easy to assume that the longest segment will be the most expensive or the most time-consuming, but that isn't always the case.

When planning a trip, I rely on a site called Kayak, which gathers data from lots of the big global distribution systems that the airlines use for inventory. It helps me draw the broad strokes (departure and arrival cities, time frames, price range, available carriers) and then refine my trip with details (layover cities, plane size, departure and arrival windows, preferred carriers). You might check it out to get an idea of what the general price range is for any carrier on a particular trip.

But, yeah, interlining is a really big pain. Just some of the things that suck:

- Terminal changes practically guaranteed. Risk of having to make airport transfer (ORD to MDW, for example, or JFK to LGA).
- Multiple check-in waits
- Multiple baggage waits if you check
- Multiply the risk of lost luggage on a given trip (roughly 1 bag of every 140 bags) by total number of unique carriers
- Multiple TSA screenings, if you check baggage / transfer airports / sometimes in case of terminal change.
- No consideration from one carrier to another for delays. If you get to Miami late and miss your Avianca flight because your Delta flight had to be de-iced in Chicago, Avianca does not care. You are just a no-show for that segment, so you better hope it's refundable (but deep discount fares usually aren't).
posted by pineapple at 11:05 AM on February 14, 2008

And make sure you look and see when or if the miles expire. Delta expires after two years, so if you can't accumulate enough for a free flight, you're out of luck.

Sort of. They expire after 2 consecutive calendar years of account inactivity. In fact, I still have miles in my account that I earned in 1995 - I've never actually used any of the miles in my account. Since I've flown already in 2008 (six times, in fact) my account now reflects an expiration date of 31 December 2010.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:14 AM on February 14, 2008

I fly 200,000 miles+ a year.

First, pineapple's advice is great.

I can give you the following advice (some seconds, some new stuff). First, definitely invest in frequent flyer sites: ExpertFlyer, FlightAware, ITA Software's Beta Site, etc.

Second: Living in a hub city can be a pro or a con. Generally, you can get to status quite quickly by doing a lot of connections, e.g. living somewhere out of a major city and connecting through, for instance, Chicago for United would lead you to a lot of segments or at the very least a lot of 500-mile minimums. Most of the people I know achieve status this way very quickly.

I would definitely focus on one airline/alliance for achieving status as quickly as possible. This is really a question of where you are flying to. For international travel, I split between Lufthansa and Delta. Lufthansa's frequent flyer program, which is part of Star Alliance, permits upgrades and tickets on many flights, whereas one of the competing alliances, Skyteam, only offers tickets. You will rapidly find that your happiness on an airline generally is a function of how often you are upgraded and how well you are treated. Lufthansa tends to be somewhat blunt (rude?) but extremely efficient and at the highest elite levels you are treated unbelievably well. Generally you get into a specific airline's program and as you approach elite status, you get similar status across the alliance, although what "status" means is different for each carrier and alliance.

I wouldn't necessarily get a credit card from any particular airline or alliance although it's a quick way to status. If you want to enhance your travel experience this way, I'd recommend one of the hotel American Express cards; you get extremely good acceptance and travel assistance and with, for instance, Starwood Preferred Guest (also another concern for you, finding a hotel program), you can do 1:1 point-mile transfers to most airlines which is hugely important in the long run.

Ultimately if I had to advise a new flyer, i'd say that domestically in the US you should pick the program with the best domestic upgrade package. I believe this is Delta though that's probably very debatable. If you're flying internationally I would definitely tell you to get status as quickly as possible on United or Lufthansa (preferably the latter). Depending on funds you either build this over time, or if you're really crazy, you hop on a plane for a few days for something called a "Mileage Run", which is a constructed trip designed to maximize your status miles. Keep in mind also some airlines (all airlines) have a different concept of status miles vs frequent flyer miles. You can spend the latter, and you get the former as part of your flying process.

Good luck and welcome to the crazy world of travel.

Flyertalk is by far your best resource moving forward.
posted by arimathea at 12:46 PM on February 14, 2008

Is the hassle of "interlining" really that much of a hassle to warrant the savings?

Short answer: there's no such thing as a free lunch.

It's all about risk, specifically a low probability of an issue that is expensive in both time and money. If a flight is cancelled or delayed, a single-airline itinerary means that the airline will work out a way to get you to your destination at no additional cost. On a multiple-airline itinerary, the airline will get you to/from your connection point and it will be up to you to rearrange your connection. This may be very expensive if your need to change the connecting flight to a different day (which may happen even if you show up on the same day, since later flights may be full), since you will generally have to pay the difference between your fare and the current (last-minute) fare as well as a change fee. Similar arguments apply to routing flexibility; for example, if your flight to JFK is cancelled due to snow, Avianca may be willing to change you to an MIA flight, but you still need to work out the connection.

Even on individual airlines, there's much less rebooking flexibility these days than even the recent past because flights are so full. I have had to fly some crazy routings lately after the cancellation of domestic flights, and I have had to postpone trips after cancellations because it would be a multiday wait for the next possible flight. Adding in additional airlines and a fixed connection point just increases the chances of such problems.

The hassle and the risk may be worth it to you, but just be aware of what you're getting in to.
posted by backupjesus at 6:43 AM on February 15, 2008

« Older Help me find a better appointment scheduler   |   New Computer, Random Restarts, Help? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.