Choosing Frequent Flyer Programs to Belong To

Tim Winship offers his advice on how to choose which frequent flyer programs to belong to. On the whole it boils down to: choose the program of the airline with the most service at your home airport. Not terrible, but there are much better answers.

Winship thinks you should pick a program and stick with it:

Since it doesn’t cost anything to enroll in a frequent flyer program, the temptation is to sign up for them all, in the interest of being ever-ready to earn miles for any and all flights. The problem with that approach is that you will find yourself spread too thin.

The most-requested frequent flyer award is the free round-trip ticket within the continental U.S., offered in most programs for 25,000 miles. That’s 25,000 miles in one program. Banking hundreds of thousands of miles will earn you bragging rights as a road warrior. But if those miles are spread among multiple programs, never amounting to a full 25,000 miles in a single program, you’ll find yourself as reward-poor as you are mileage-rich.

The antidote to the dispersion problem—and the key to making the most of frequent flyer programs generally—is simple: consolidate.

That’s true as far as it goes. Your reward goal shouldn’t be a 25,000 mile domestic coach award. It should be something more valuable, aspirational, a premium class award to somewhere more exotic. But pretend that the 25,000 mile award stands in for “your reward goal.” Then it’s true that it’s important to build up enough miles in your account to reach that goal.

But what then? Once you’ve reached the goal of having enough miles to claim the award you want, the you shouldn’t continue to consolidate, you should diversity.

The biggest reason that I’ve never failed in my quest to redeem the award that I wanted when I wanted it is because I have so many programs to choose from. If you can build up enough miles in your United account to for that business class ticket to Asia, start building up miles in your American account. So when it’s time for that dream trip, you aren’t stuck if United tells you nothing’s available. (Although armed with this detailed discussion of how to go about securing premium class awards with United and their partners your chances will be pretty good…)

But if you’re going to start out by consoldiating, which one to choose? Winship says

The short answer is: Participate in the program that allows you to earn the most miles, most easily.

Here I disagree, the difference is subtle, but incredibly important. Participate in the program that allows you to redeem the award you want, most easily.

If your goal is free flights to Australia, you’d better not earn with Delta (unless you want to fly via Seoul on Korean, or island hop with Continental’s twice-weekly service on a 737 between Guam and Cairns).

Delta may let you earn easily, but you’ll be disappointed if they or their partners don’t let you redeem for the awards you want.

Winship acknowledges this route network issue later on, though rather too weakly for my tastes.

Let’s assume you live in Denver and are evaluating the programs of Frontier and United, both of which have strong presences at Denver International Airport. Further assume that your goal is award travel to Hawaii. But neither Frontier nor its program partner, AirTran, operates flights to Hawaii. So from an award standpoint, Frontier’s program is a non-starter. You’ve eliminated one contender from your list.

Most importantly, the only issue he raises about the redemption side of things is the route network of the carrier that you’re actually flying, and whether that matches your redemption goal (of Hawaii, which even Alaska and USAirways fly to these days).

There are much bigger problems with the strategy.

Take Northwest, and say you want to redeem your miles to Tokyo. There’s no problem with route network there, prior to their merger with Republic the airline was known as “Northwest Orient” and they’re one of only two U.S. airlines with the right to pick up passengers and make onward flights from Tokyo’s Narita airport. And Northwest’s partners Delta and Continental both fly to Tokyo as well.

But if you’re looking for a business class award to Tokyo, even if it’s easiest for you to earn the most Northwest miles, there are still two reasons why Northwest might be the wrong program for you.

  • Price of the award. What good does earning the most miles do when the award itself is more expensive? A business class award from the U.S. to Tokyo is 90,000 miles on United… and 120,000 miles on Northwest. So unless you’re earning miles a full 1/3rd faster with Northwest, you’d be coming out behind as a Worldperks member.
  • Availability. What good does earning the most miles do when the award isn’t available come time for redemption? Northwest, Continental, and Delta are all notoriously difficult for premium class international awards. You’ll find the occasional seat, for sure. But if your date flexibility is limited or you’re traveling with someone, you may need to look elsewhere.

I’d tell someone looking to redeem business class to Tokyo that United is a pretty good program (in spite of StarNet award filtering).

It’s 90,000 miles which is lower than many competitors. And the choices for getting there are great. Not only does United fly to Tokyo from Washington-Dulles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but you can use your miles on Japanese carrier ANA or on Singapore for their non-stop flights to Tokyo. And then there’s partner Asiana, offering connections through Seoul.

Hopefully it’s clear that the spending side is just as important as the earning side, if not more so. And a little thought into what you want up front can make a big difference in getting just that later on.

Then we get to Tim Winship’s point about “The Home Airport Factor” and he says that, for example,

the logical first choice of programs for our hypothetical Houston resident would be Continental’s OnePass.

Well.. maybe. If you’re flying Continental enough to earn elite status, then sure you probably want to credit your miles to Continental in order to earn the most upgrades on their planes (although Northwest and KLM members receive upgrades on Continental as well).

But if elite status isn’t in your cards, if you fly Continental you might consider crediting to another program. Because, again, redemption matters. If you finally eek out enough miles on Continental, you’re stuck trying to redeem those miles with Continental, Northwest, Delta, and the rest of those partners. But the airlines associated with Skyteam are on the whole the most difficult to redeem with for the most desirable awards.

What if that non-elite Houston-based flyer credited their Continental flights to Alaska Mileage Plan? They’d have the option of Continental and Northwest and Delta and Air France and KLM still… but they’d also have the choice of American Airlines and Cathay Pacific and British Airways. a whole world more possibilities, and perhaps very relevant depending on what they’re looking to redeem for!

So Winship guides us through how to pick a program, explaining the reason why he likes American’s AAdvantage (an excellent program, by the way).

He’s LA based, so he wants United or American or Delta (though perhaps he could add Alaska to that list). Then he says he flies quite a bit, LAX to JFK, and thus narrows the field to American and United (somehow forgetting Delta’s half dozen daily non-stops on the route). His conclusion:

I choose American over United without hesitation. Why? Because American operates more nonstop flights between the two cities.

Well, that’s true. Most days American operates 10 roundtrips, compared to United’s 8.

Seems like the wrong tie-breaker to me, but that’s not American’s only (ahem) AAdvantage:

American uses wide-body B767s on the route, where United flies single-aisle B757s. On a five-hour flight, the more spacious aircraft makes for a more comfortable flight.

Now, I’m not sure what class of service Tim Winship flies in. If he’s writing for an economy audience, American does offer a two to three extra inches of legroom on the ‘flagship service’ they provide for this route. But United offers a more consistent three inches.  Not a huge difference.

But if Winship is flying business or first class, and I bet he’s flying business (doesn’t strike me as a no frills guy, he does contend the two airlines have comparable lounges), then United’s p.s. service has both a wider seat and more legroom in both classes of service. To me that’s more important than a widebody aircraft.

But at least Tim is making the right choice to forgo Delta (since their Skymiles program is inferior to both Mileage Plus and AAdvantage, though Winship doesn’t say this), and he’s going to wind up with a respectable program whether he chooses United or American.

For a somewhat different take, here’s my own advice on Who to Fly, Which Program to Earn With that I posted last month.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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