Some Basic Suggestions on Airline Frequent Flier Programs (Guest Post)

There is a ton of strategy that goes into maximizing frequent flier miles and there are plenty of websites devoted to that sort of thing. This isn’t one of them. But over at Cranky Concierge, our Award Travel Architect David puts a lot of time into helping people use their miles for their travels. We’ve even started a little test program where David helps people from the beginning – pick where you want to go and he will help you figure out the best way to get miles in the right program. So in that spirit, I thought it would be good to get David to put together a very basic overview of the various US airline programs and what they can be good for. The goal was to avoid anything very complex and just give the basic pros and cons.

While I’ve been enamored by the airline industry for my entire life, my fascination with frequent flier miles began when my family flew using miles to Hawaii when I was 11. I’ve been collecting, redeeming and learning how best to earn and use miles ever since. I am often asked which mileage program or credit card is best for getting free flights, and I always tell people that it all generally depends on where you want to go. Below are a few programs and their strong points:

United MileagePlus Logo
I and many others who focus on points and miles believe that United miles generally give you the best chance to fly internationally, particularly in a premium class. United miles can be redeemed for one-way awards and don’t have a lot of restrictions. As a member of Star Alliance – the world’s largest passenger airline alliance, their partners give you a great opportunity to trade in miles to cross either ocean given the sheer number of partners that they have. Generally, if you’re looking to fly to Asia, you can choose to travel over the Pacific Ocean or through Europe, which isn’t true with other domestic carriers. United’s Star Alliance partners also cover Africa quite well. The biggest hole in the map is southern South America. Partner TAM will be leaving Star Alliance for oneworld by early next year. Even now, though, they give out almost no award availability. I’ve redeemed millions of United miles for myself and clients to places all over the world. With some flexibility, you shouldn’t have much trouble doing the same.

US Airways Dividend Miles Logo
US Airways miles currently have many of the same advantages as United. They’re also a Star Alliance member and have flexible routing rules. They cannot, however, be redeemed for one-way awards. There are some great opportunities for relatively cheap redemptions, such as awards from the US to North Asia (including China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and others) or the South Pacific. All that said, US Airways will soon be merging with American Airlines. If you’re sitting on a stash of Dividend Miles they’ll eventually become AAdvantage miles. We don’t know what the new combined program will look like exactly, but if there’s something in particular that you like about the US Airways award chart today, I’d look to cash them in sooner rather than later.

American Airlines AAdvantage Logo
The merger talk isn’t intended to scare you about what may come of your US Airways or American miles. Frankly, both airlines have pluses to their award programs but we don’t know what that will look like after the merger. The one thing we do know is that the current American partners will be the ones that survive. American has the advantage of allowing one-way awards and really shines if you want to travel to South America. It has an extensive network that is greatly enhanced by LAN and soon TAM. I not too long ago used miles to fly to Argentina with my wife and a couple friends. While some others on our trip spent more than $1,000 per person to get down there and back in coach, my wife and I flew down on LAN in their flat-bed Premium Business Class and back in American’s First Class for a total of $37 per person.

American also offers good award availability for flights to Europe through partner British Airways among others. Be careful, though, as these awards carry a hefty fuel surcharge, and your “free” ticket can cost $500-$1,000. British Airways generally offers more seats per flight than other airlines – particularly in premium classes – which can be helpful when trying to find seats for your whole family.

Delta SkyMiles Logo
I always cringe when someone comes to me with Delta miles, as Delta is about as stingy as it gets when it comes to making low-level ward seats available. That’s not to say that SkyMiles are worthless, however, as many of their partners offer pretty good award space. In particular, Delta miles are particularly useful when trying to get to Australia and Tahiti with partner airlines, which is ironic given how difficult those destinations can be to find award seats in general. They also have good award space to Asia through partners China Southern, China Airlines and Korean Air. Often, with Delta miles, the hardest part of the award is finding the domestic seats to match up to the partner award space to your final destination.

In spite of my dire warnings about terrible Delta space, I recently found a client some Business Class space to Europe. They were heading to Scandinavia, and I found them a flight into Zurich. From there, they paid for a nonstop flight from there to Scandinavia since they didn’t want to make the double connection that would have been required on miles. On the way back though, I was then able to find them space on KLM on the way back all the way home. Not bad for 100,000 miles that they thought they were convinced were worthless!

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Logo
I won’t talk about Alaska much because Cranky highlighted the recent changes in that program, but I will echo what he says. This program can be very lucrative.

Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America
I haven’t talked a lot about domestic awards, as most people that approach Cranky Concierge are looking to use their miles for international trips. Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America all have limited international service, so only choose these if your award travel needs are largely limited to domestic trips (with a few exceptions). All three of these programs are revenue-based, as opposed to distance-based, mileage programs. That means that you accrue points according to how much you pay for tickets, not according to how many miles you fly. Redeeming points is also based on ticket price so more expensive tickets will cost more in points.

Sometimes, it works best if you can diversify your miles and take advantage of different strengths of programs. For example, I recently helped a client book a trip to the Dubai and Malaysia. I was able to use United miles to get him to the Dubai using a combination of United and partner Lufthansa. I then used his American miles to get him to Malaysia on Malaysian Airlines and back to the US using Cathay Pacific.

Please keep in mind that this rundown isn’t comprehensive and there’s no such thing as the perfect program. The important thing is to use your miles in a way that works for you. If you’re sitting on a large number of Delta miles and are trying to visit Gramma and Grampa in Wichita, do it! You may just have to spend the same number of miles as someone else uses to fly to Europe, but you’re getting a trip that you want to take. I generally believe you can’t really go wrong collecting miles in a Star Alliance program, but it still may not be the best option for you. Take a close look at each program, and figure out how you’ll be using miles. When you know what you want to get out of a frequent flier program, choose the one that’s the best matches how you want to use it.


If you’d like help redeeming miles, email us at info@crankyconcierge.com and we can tell you if we think we can help with your particular trip. You can learn more about the service at crankyconcierge.com/awardtravel.


20 Responses to Some Basic Suggestions on Airline Frequent Flier Programs (Guest Post)

  1. David says:

    If you went to Argentina recently – is there a forthcoming guest post about how terrible a time you presumably had at the mercy of Aerolineas ?

    • David – I didn’t end up flying Aerolineas. We were LAN and American for the long-hauls and LAN for the short-haul. Longhauls were quite nice. Shorthauls were often delayed, but I somehow got us up in the seats with extra legroom for most of the flights.

  2. TimH says:

    It’s also important to note that if you want to use an airline credit card as your primary way of earning miles, you aren’t listed to US-based airlines.

    I’ve got a British Airways card, and they partner with American in the US but use distance-based awards. Any American award in their ‘sAAver’ category is available for redemption from BA.

    A round trip to a destination less than 650 miles away (almost any sub-2 hour flight) takes $7200 in spending. (9000 Avios, but you earn 1.25 per dollar spent). My mom lives about 500 miles away in a smaller city with American service but high prices – I’ve gotten award flights when buying tickets would have cost $500! That’s a pretty good deal for $7200 in spending.

    Ironically, British Airways is a much better deal for domestic US travel than to Europe b/c of the fuel fees you mention, but for domestic awards (or flights to Latin/Central America) it’s a good deal!

    • You’re right, TimH. There are some great redemption opportunities in the British Airways award chart. I didn’t really go over the redemption you talk about, since I was focusing this as a general primer on international flights. But British Airways’ award chart can also be a good deal, for instance, to South America without fuel surcharges I describe above.

  3. Great rundown. I’ve recently gotten into the mileage programs and was curious about the differences about each. I had kind of assumed that they would all be basically the same, but this post was super informative. Thanks again!

  4. 1. You omitted British Airways Avios—best used for domestic and Latin America flights. NEVER fly on BA with ripoff fuel surcharges.
    2. Use AA miles to bypass UK with horrible taxes and fuel surcharges. Besides Europe flights on AA, use miles on other Oneworld partners and code shares.
    3. Right now, use US miles on United and partners or wait until they convert to AA miles.

    • I would only use BA as a last resort on ANY method (FF miles or full fare) you fly to or through the UK as the airport tax is one of the highest in the world. To confirm what I say, just ask what the taxes/fees are on BA or any other airline stopping in the UK. Then compare the price avoiding the UK. You will immediately see the savings.

      Up to now my favorite FF program as been with AA One World, as they actually let you use your miles more often than not. I hope I do not have to change programs after the proposed merger with US Air. I will have to wait and see any changes to award levels, availability, benefits, etc. If Parker & Co. are at the helm there is a great danger that he may change the program to the basement level of DELTA SkyMiles, which are as worthless as a 3 Peso bill.

      • MeanMeosh says:

        “If Parker & Co. are at the helm there is a great danger that he may change the program to the basement level of DELTA SkyMiles, which are as worthless as a 3 Peso bill.”

        I don’t know about that, especially since Suzanne Rubin is sticking around, but I’d venture to bet that you’ll at least see a 4th elite tier introduced between Platinum and Exec Plat, with a corresponding devaluation of the current Gold tier, to align with what DL and UA are already doing.

        I actually think the merger could be a net benefit for oneworld folks flying to/from Europe, though, since the new US flights will open up more options with which to dodge BA’s fuel surcharges.

  5. A says:

    “I always tell people that it all generally depends on where you want to go.”

    I suppose if you aren’t based in a fortress hub of any one airline. Skymiles is pretty bad but being in MSP, DTW, ATL or SLC you’re pretty limited in your options unless you want a connection on most of your frequent travel.

    • Greg J says:

      Yep, being in the southeast and usually only needing to fly in the southeast damns us to Delta.

    • MeanMeosh says:

      I’ll second that – if you happen to be in a fortress hub, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever program/alliance your entrenched carrier has. I had status on Star Alliance via MileagePlus briefly when LH was the most convenient way to get from DFW to HYD. Trouble is, Star, or for that matter, SkyTeam, are pretty much useless for domestic flying out of DFW unless you want to connect on all of your itineraries, so I ended up switching to AAdvantage and oneworld. Fortunately AAdvantage has been a pretty good program to this point. We’ll see if that continues to be the case post-merger.

    • A – I understand why if you live in a fortress hub you want to stick with that airline, but that airline’s program can limit your redemption program. When it comes to frequent flier redemptions, though, a lot of time you have flexibility. Even living in a hub, sometimes you have to make an extra connection or two to make it where you want to go when you’re on an award flight.

      • This is what I get for responding to posts while on the phone… Here’s what I meant:

        A ? I understand why if you live in a fortress hub you want to stick with that airline, but that airline?s frequent flier program can limit your redemption opportunities. When it comes to frequent flier redemptions, though, the best way to get a good award is to have have lots of flexibility. Even when living in a hub, though, you will sometimes still have to make an extra connection or two to make it where you want to go when you?re on an award flight.

  6. H says:

    Great post David!

  7. Mke says:

    as one of many points, mileage expiration could be covered –
    the jetblue ones now never expire!

    • David M says:

      Delia’s don’t expire, either.

      Avoiding mileage expiration is pretty easy though. Most programs partner with an online shopping portal (they’re all pretty much run by the same company so they have the same merchant partners), so it’s not too hard to go through one of those sites to buy something and get a few points thrown into your account, which is enough to keep the account active. Perhaps the least expensive option is Apple iTunes, buy a song or two for about 99¢ each and you’re good to go. Some of the daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are on there too.

  8. Bryan says:

    Good article from a guy who really knows his stuff. David has helped me book a series of trips and he knows how to work the system to your advantage. I hope the guy flying on CX back to the US enjoys his trip :)

  9. UAPhil says:

    The big advantage of Southwest points is their flexibility. If you change or cancel your reservation, miles are re-deposited without penalty. (True of other programs only if you are a very high level elite.)

    • Well Phil, you better take full advantage of what benefits you enjoy with SouthWest as fast as you can, because in my opinion those perks are under review to increase the bottom line. SW has already lost its title as a discount airline (have you compared their fares lately?) and the only place for this Texas airline to drill for more revenue is……. YOU GUESSED IT! The no-charge perks you love.

      Cranky also had made mention of a probable change in those free perks a couple of months ago in one of his blogs. So it is just not me that can see a change at SW over the horizon. Stay tuned.

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