Choosing a Frequent Flyer Program

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Choosing a Frequent Flyer Program

Merely joining a frequent traveler program doesn't guarantee you a free trip; choosing the right one does.

Many travelers simply join the first program from which they receive an enrollment form, and then take years to earn anything of value. Others accumulate miles in many different programs. That's fine if you have a plan, but having miles in too many programs can be a problem.

The primary rule is to concentrate on a single program (but always be prepared to switch allegiance temporarily for the right promotion). You'll get the most out of your programs if you go out of your way to fly on a particular airline, stay at a particular hotel, or rent from a partner car rental company.

Before selecting a primary program, compare programs and decide specifically what you want. There are many choices and benefits in each program. It is best to understand them beforehand.

The most important considerations to consider when choosing a program

Partners

The ideal airline will cover at least 60 percent of the cities to which you fly, and their partners will be in line with your other travel needs. If you travel to Europe once or twice a year, make sure that either your airline or an international partner covers that distance. You'll miss too many miles if you don't choose wisely in the beginning.

Most people do not realize that between 30 to 50 percent of their total miles and points can come from proper program partners. Every time you travel and use a "partner" airline, hotel or car rental company, you increase your chances of earning an award faster.

For example, on a flight from Chicago to Denver, you will earn between 1,500 and 2,000 miles (roundtrip) depending on your airline's program. An affiliated hotel partner can add 500 to 1,000 bonus miles to that total, and a partner car rental can add another 500 to 1,000 bonus miles. Using this method you can simultaneously earn miles and points toward numerous separate awards during a single trip.

These partners aren't limited to hotels and car rentals, but include affinity credit cards, telephone service, magazine subscriptions, referrals, and more.

Redemption Opportunities

Not all awards are created equal - some airlines require 30,000 miles for a free domestic airline ticket, while others require 15,000 miles for the same award. Review and compare the award charts of the programs you are considering, looking especially for award cost differences and award destination options. If your dream is a Hawaiian vacation but a program doesn't offer award redemptions to Hawaii, that would obviously be a problem.

Also, once you have narrowed down your choice, visit the FlyerTalk forums and find out from other travelers how the programs you are interested in fare when it comes to actually making the awards they offer available. Some programs are notorious for making award redemption difficult, while others are better about making their awards available.

Ease/Difficulty of Earning Miles/Points/Credits

Among airlines, a mile is a mile. But some airlines tend to offer double and triple mileage promotions more often than others. Again, the FlyerTalk forum is a great place to get more information directly from current program members.

The hotel programs are more confusing to compare. Some offer 10 points per dollar spent, others five, four, or even one. To calculate which hotel program will allow you to accumulate the most value for each dollar spent, take the folio amounts for your last five hotel stays and multiply them by the spending ratios of each of your top three hotel choices (within your travel budget), then compare that amount with the award chart from each hotel's program. That will give you the rate at which credits are earned for each program. We suggest leaving out partner bonuses and relying on the base rate of earning. Keep in mind that some hotel programs allow double dipping. That puts a kink in our equation, but you can at least get an idea of what you're earning.

Upgrades

If flying in first class is your favorite benefit, make sure your program has a reasonable mileage redemption policy for upgrades and has eligible fares that you are willing to pay. If you're flying on discounted fares, as most people do, consider only those programs that allow you to upgrade from any published fare as opposed to full-fare only.

Affinity Credit Cards

It is almost impossible to travel these days without some kind of credit card. Smart frequent flyers are those who have traded their existing Visa and MasterCard credit cards for those of the airline or hotel program to which they belong.

Affinity credit cards offer the same credit privileges as your other credit cards, but in addition to enhanced travel benefits, such as bonus miles and points just for signing up, and additional insurance and collision damage waivers for car rentals, they offer the ability to earn bonus miles or points for every dollar charged to the credit card.

Generally, affinity credit cards do not offer the lowest interest rates in the industry. Consider your situation carefully before signing up for an affinity credit card. Earning 10,000 miles per year with your credit card is worth the $50 annual fee, but when interest charges are added, those 10,000 miles become more expensive.

Other important considerations

Minimum Mileage

If you live in Phoenix and fly regularly to New York for business, then skip this advice. But if you fly between closer destinations, minimum mileage is important. For instance, traveling regularly between Chicago and Detroit means that a program offering 750 miles minimum is 50 percent better than one offering 500 miles minimum. If Washington, D.C., is your destination from Chicago, a program offering 1,000 miles minimum is almost 70 percent better for you than a program offering 500 miles minimum. Don't underestimate the importance of minimum miles.

Mileage Expiration

If you travel less than 20,000 miles per year, beware of programs that date miles. While you might earn an occasional free domestic ticket, before you can take the family to Europe or your spouse on a second honeymoon in Hawaii, your miles may expire.

Flight Conjunction Requirements

Some hotels and car rental agencies require that flights be in conjunction with stays or rentals in order for members to earn miles. If a program has flight conjunction requirements, overall you'll have fewer opportunities to earn miles when staying at a hotel or renting a car.

Award Transferability

If you aren't married, whether or not you can transfer awards, and to whom you are allowed to transfer them, might be the deciding factor. Find out whether you can give awards to anyone you choose, especially a business partner or friend. There's nothing more frustrating than being the only person eligible to use an award when you have more mileage than you can use yourself.

Terms and Conditions

Airlines reserve the right to make changes, often on short notice. Find out if the program has award guarantees that allow you to lock into a certain award level before the mileage requirements are raised.

Companion Tickets

Some programs offer companion tickets at lower mileage requirements that will allow you to take your spouse or children along on a paid business trip?

Airline Stability

Make sure, to the best of your ability, the airline with which you plan to earn miles is relatively healthy and not on the brink of bankruptcy. When Pan Am and Braniff went out of business, thousands of frequent travelers lost hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. Given the choice, select an airline that is likely to still be in business when you are ready to use your hard-earned miles.