What are the best frequent flyer programs?

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 below.

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.