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How to Choose a Program

Choose a mileage programFrequent flyer programs generate as much interest and heated discussion as politics or religion. Everyone has a favorite program, a favorite horror story, and a favorite tactic for squeezing ever-more miles into a frequent flyer account.

What often gets lost in the profusion of advice and opinion is a decision procedure–one or more principles, or a clear set of criteria for use in choosing a program. And choosing a program, after all, is both the first and most important step in earning and burning miles.

In fact, there is a rule which, taken together with supporting considerations, will serve you well in choosing a program appropriate to your needs.

The Rule: Consolidate

Consolidation is key to maximizing the benefits of FFP participation. By consolidating your mileage into a single FFP account, you have the best chance to (a) qualify for elite status, and therefore for elite benefits and recognition, and (b) qualify for the most desirable travel awards.

You can’t expect to consolidate mileage-earning in an FFP which doesn’t meet your travel needs. And since most miles are earned for airline flights, the choice of FFP comes down to the choice of airline which best meets your travel needs. Over the long run, that will be the airline with the most flights from/to your home airport.

Join the FFP of the dominant airline in your region, and consolidate your mile-earning in that program.

If your local airport is a “hub” airport for one of the major carriers, join the FFP of that carrier.

For example, if you live in Dallas, you will be flying mostly on American… no matter what your final destination may be, and for that matter, no matter what your opinion of American. Why? Because American operates a disproportionate number of the flights into/out of the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport.

The same with Delta at Atlanta, United at Denver, US Airways at Pittsburgh, and so on.

In the case of Los Angeles or New York, for example, which are each served by several airports and many airlines, the choice is more difficult. But the same principle applies: join the FFP of the airline which flies most often to the cities you visit most often.

If your local airport is served by two or more major carriers, with more or less equal shares of that travel market, join the FFP of the carrier with the most service (= the most convenience) to those cities you fly to most often as a paying passenger.

And if the carriers serving your local airport offer more or less the same number of flights to those cities you fly to most often as a paying passenger, join the FFP of the carrier that offers the most flights to cities you want to visit using free award tickets.

If those two considerations — your home-town airport and your most-visited destinations — aren’t sufficient to push you into one camp or another, following are some other tie-breakers.

Promises, Promises

Award availability is one of the key determinants of an airline program’s value. While there’s no definitive source of reliable data comparing program members’ success in redeeming their miles for free flights, a new study by ezRez Software and IdeaWorks attempts to bring some clarity to the issue, and illustrates just how wide the gap can be between the most and least generous programs.

The findings, ranked according to their success rate in test-booking award seats, were as follows:

  • Southwest (99.3 percent)
  • Alaska (75.0 percent)
  • Continental (71.4 percent)
  • United (68.6 percent)
  • AirTran (67.9 percent)
  • American (57.9 percent)
  • Delta (12.9 percent)
  • US Airways (10.7 percent)

While it would be overly simplistic to choose a program based solely on an airline’s award generosity, it could certainly tip the decision in the direction of the carrier with a significantly better record. If the choice were between, for example, Delta and Continental, and they were neck-and-neck otherwise, the program with award seats available 71.4 percent of the time would get the nod over the one with only 12.9 percent.

Eyes on the Prize

Another important consideration is a traveler’s goal in earning miles. For the great majority of program participants, the goal is a free domestic ticket, typically priced at 25,000 miles.

But if you’re a bona fide road warrior, your focus is likely on the perks associated with elite status, in particular upgrades to first class. In that case, the programs of Southwest and other discount airlines are off the table—some airlines have no first-class cabins, so upgrades simply aren’t possible.

Buyer or Flyer?

Do you earn the bulk of your miles for retail transactions, rather than from flying?

All modern airline programs feature affiliated credit cards, so no matter which program you swear allegiance to, you’re covered for earning one mile or more for every dollar charged to a card.

But only the largest programs have mileage malls, extensive networks of online retailers that award miles for purchases.

And of the large mileage malls, Delta’s SkyMiles mall is the largest, with more than 500 participating Internet merchants.

It’s a Family Affair

Airline programs are hardly stand-alone affairs. American’s AAdvantage boasts more than 1,000 companies that award miles for purchases, representing every retail and service sector.

Compare that to JetBlue’s TrueBlue program, which only awards points for flights on JetBlue, transactions with one hotel chain and one car-rental company, and charges to a program-linked credit card.

Bigger, when it comes to partner rosters, means more opportunities to earn miles. And more miles means more awards.

But it’s not just a matter of how many partners. It’s also a matter of which partners.

American, for instance, recently advised members of its program that, effective July 1, they can no longer earn miles for stays at Marriott hotels. If you have been earning a significant portion of your American miles for stays at a Courtyard by Marriott, say, that change might be enough to nudge you away from AAdvantage and into a program that still partners with Marriott.

The Bottom Line Is Yours

The above are among the criteria for choosing a frequent flyer program. There are others.

For some consumers, airline fees are a determining factor—some airlines impose more fees (US Airways); others charge fewer (Southwest).

Maybe trips to Italy are your principal travel priority, and you only want to fly Alitalia. Through its participation in the SkyTeam alliance, Alitalia is linked to Delta, which means that you can earn and redeem Delta miles for Alitalia flights.

And so on.

There are almost as many best programs as there are reasons for choosing them. Which is why, when it comes to airline loyalty programs, your mileage will vary.

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