How Frequent Flyer Programs Work

Choosing a Frequent Flyer Program

Frequent flyer programs are the beginning of a relationship -- hopefully long and loyal -- between you (the consumer) and the airline. If you choose to apply online using a Web site such as WebFlyer, your information will reside in several airline databases in a short amount of time. You can call the airlines on their toll-free telephone numbers (during which you'll instantly get a member number), sign up while at the airport (not advisable if you are in a rush), or send in the registration form using the old standby -- U.S. mail.

There are several things to consider when deciding which frequent flyer program to join. First and foremost, look at the overall quality ratings of the program that you are considering. One way to obtain information about the quality of frequent flyer programs is to read a survey, such as InsideFlyer's Freddie Awards. This award system was named after Sir Freddie Laker, founder of Laker Airways.

If you truly are a frequent flyer, join the program that will allow you to consolidate your miles. This would usually be with the dominant airline in your region (i.e., they have a hub there). The chosen airline should be convenient for you and the one that has the most flights to the places that you frequent. This is your number one consideration, because when you rapidly accrue miles and reach the critical "25,000" mark, you can qualify for elite status.

However, if you are an infrequent flyer, compare the programs and choose the one that allows you the greatest opportunities to earn miles or points for all your non-flight activities. Consider your patterns of purchasing hotel rooms, renting cars, and general shopping. Look at the airline's partner roster and decide whether that particular frequent flyer program is for you. Many people place themselves in the middle of this overall group -- they travel sometimes, and engage in non-flight activities awarding points/miles. If you are in this last group, you should compare the total rewards package offered for both flight and non-flight activities before choosing your primary frequent flyer program.

And, finally, you want to pay attention to the little things - the tiny print at the bottom or on the back of the enrollment form. Therein expect to find quite a few key terms and conditions, such as:

  • It may be your membership, but it's the airline's program -- hence, they own it. In addition, according to many airlines, miles and points do not represent property of the owner; in short, you don't really own them.
  • Every airline has some restrictions. These may include blackout dates and/or limited seating availability. The airlines plainly state that at any given time, you cannot count on any award being available.
  • Airlines only count miles from origination to destination. If your plane stops along the way to your final destination, these are not recorded as segments. You'll only receive mileage for the "point A to point B" distance. Also, airlines will not give mileage for voluntary changes in mid-flight -- for example, if you voluntarily changed from a direct flight to a segmented one.
  • If your flight is cancelled, you won't be credited with the original flight's miles. Airline policies regarding rebooking vary. When the original airline rebooks you, it won't automatically credit the rebooked flight as miles to your account even if the cancellation is caused by the airline's machinery (or any other technical problem on their end of the deal). For example, if your flight on United is cancelled and United rebooks you on Delta, United may not automatically award you Mileage Plus miles for the Delta flight. However, for many airlines, awarding mileage to the customer's account using the rebooked passage is situation-dependent, and may take into account how far you are willing to push for your miles.
  • Most airlines offer "fee free" enrollment, but there will probably be an assortment of fees later. A fee may be charged for mileage redemption, accounts with no recent action, lost or stolen tickets, etc.