What are the best frequent flyer programs?

Image Gallery: Flight Passengers watch a JetBlue plane on the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. See more pictures of flight.
Image Gallery: Flight Passengers watch a JetBlue plane on the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. See more pictures of flight.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Asking what makes a good frequent flyer program, and what are the top benefits, is akin to asking "What's a good investment?" The usual (and probably best) answer is, "It depends."

Since frequent flyer programs made the jump from marketing zeroes in the 1980s to the profit heroes of today, airlines both big and small constantly change programs to retain relevance and appeal. The airlines have created a shifting landscape where absolutes like the number of miles earned have to weigh against issues of relativity -- like whether a consumer wants to focus those miles on free flights, executive privileges, or perhaps a better rental car or hotel room.


Most importantly, consumers have a choice, and that calls for vigilance. A flyer can no longer be a passive recipient of airline largesse -- at least not if he or she wants to get the most from a program. A consumer has to be active, involved and engaged. So what are the best frequent flyer programs?

For Tim Winship, publisher and editor of FrequentFlier.com, the answer has little to do with the programs. "Know thyself, that's the best advice," Winship said. Check into the programs, learn the ins and outs, visit review sites and read the blogs. The number of carriers is bewildering, as is the numbers of rewards programs and offerings, but while it may be a bit confusing, this means there's a program for just about anyone.

For true road warriors like George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, in "Up in the Air," frequent flyer benefits are akin to breathing, an autonomous response mechanism where little, if any, thought is involved. For the rest of the flying population there's some consideration involved in the programs, and those decisions begin at home -- or at least at the local airport.

Winship's baseline advice to his readers is to choose one program, rather than several, in order to get the most bang for the flying buck. And that decision depends on which airport is closest to home or even what airline a passenger may call home.

For example, a flyer traveling from the Southeast to do business on the Gulf Coast wouldn't choose, say, Northwest Airlines for his or her benefits program. To take advantage of that particular carrier's program, the passenger would need to fly from Orlando, Fla., up to Chicago, and then back down to the Gulf to accrue any perks. This would be several extra hours (and several extra headache pills) in travel time for relatively little benefit. However, Delta flies out of Orlando and has a regular route along the Gulf Coast. It offers nice miles benefits, ease of use, and a lot of perks -- in other words it's a good bang-for-the-buck carrier.

Would it be perfect for everyone? Not at all. But if the program fits, then wear it.

Up next, we'll find out what benefits frequent flyers are really looking for.


Top Frequent Flyer Benefits

Javier Alfonso works for a school textbook company as a material trainer and educational consultant. His route covers much of the southern United States and he's on the road about two to three weeks out of each month.

Javier would be considered a seasoned traveler, even shading into the road warrior status. But he still pays close attention to his program and chooses according to what he wants for perks from his carrier. "I wanted to earn as much as I could from the program, and the one I chose offered the most return for the least effort," he said. This strategy is the one Tim Winship endorses.


Winship said there's essentially little difference between the programs and even less incentive to lure one customer away from one carrier to another. "The programs are not the reason for flying airlines," Winship said. "They function more as tie-breakers (when choosing two similar airlines)." And while the programs are often slow to change (Winship said many customers are infuriated by frequent changes to the programs), they do add benefits on a regular basis and it pays to keep up with what the airlines are offering.

While only tie-breakers, there are a few benefits to consider in a program:

  • Mileage expiration: Winship said while most miles don't expire, an account has to be used within a certain period to remain active. In the past, flyers accumulated miles only while flying; now many programs can link to a credit card and purchases will shunt miles into the account. Always remember to check the program's fine print for details regarding when an account is considered active, and exactly what will happen when it's not active.
  • Earning opportunities: Different programs offer different earning opportunities -- and the larger the program the more opportunities there are, in general. Some of the smaller carriers, such as AirTran or Southwest, offer only a few ways to earn miles. Larger carriers, such as American, offer thousands of ways to earn miles, ranging from car rentals, to dining and hotel stays.
  • Redemption opportunities: This is where the rubber meets the tarmac. After months of travel and investment in partnership programs, you can finally start cashing in the points for perks. Much of the redemption is for free flights, hotel rooms or car rentals -- essentially the stuff a good vacation is based on. Winship recommends checking into plans offering a broad spectrum of redemption opportunities, like the SkyTeam and SkyMiles perks programs where carriers allow users to redeem points for a variety of goods, services, tickets and upgrades. Wide-spectrum redemption also has the added advantage of offering expanded opportunities when award seats are in short or limited supply. For example, the chance to redeem twice as many points for an unrestricted seat, or you may just decide to simply not go at all.
  • Elite status: This is Holy Grail of the frequent flyer. The typical threshold is about 25,000 accrued miles (40,234 kilometers), though this distance varies from carrier to carrier. Once a passenger reaches elite status, airlines begin offering free upgrade status, unrestricted miles redemption and access to exclusive airport lounges or even a bump to the front of a lengthy security line.

There's plenty of information about frequent flyer programs on the Internet. In fact, there's far more than an average consumer would ever truly need. But, as Winship advised, the best advice is simply to know what you want from your frequent flyer program and then go after it.

For more information about frequent flyer programs and other related topics, soar over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Alfonso, Javier. Material Trainer, Educational Consultant and Frequent Flyer. Personal Interview. Conducted on April 23, 2010.
  • FlyerTalk. (May 20, 2010)http://www.flyertalk.com
  • FrequentFlier. (May 20, 2010)http://www.frequentflier.com
  • InsideFlyer. (May 20, 2010)http://www.insideflyer.com
  • SkyTeam. (May 20, 2010)http://www.skyteam.com
  • SmarterTravel. (May 20, 2010)http://www.smartertravel.com
  • WebFlyer. (May 20, 2010)http://www.webflyer.com
  • Winship, Tim. Editor and Publisher of FrequentFlier.com. Personal Interview. Conducted on April 21, 2010.