One thing is sure. If you travel, you must quickly figure out where to acquire miles and have a strategy.
My strategy is I want to be upgraded, I want to be in the lounge, and I want entertainment and extra room. Boarding early is fine, but the ability to take whatever problem I have into the lounge to get it resolved in a short line vs. the line at the gate is a HUGE difference. The ability to call a priority phone line on any airline that gives you respect and often gives you the benefit of the doubt really makes a big difference. In my travels it is very frequent that status has made the difference in our ability to have flexibility.
It took me 2 years to realize I was acquiring miles on 5 or 6 airlines where I could have reduced them to a max of 3 airlines one in each category. Ideally you should pick one as your main program, but cost and location play into this game. The programs and treatment are NOT created equally.
The first thing to understand is that 60% of world’s airlines revolve around 3 Major Alliances, and really in the U.S. and Europe I’d suggest it’s much higher than that.
Adria Airways, Aegean Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Blue1, Brussels Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss International Air Lines, TAM Airlines, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways International, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines (merged with Continental), US Airways
American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Iberia, Finnair, LanChile, Japan Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Dragonair, LAN, including a variety of subsidiaries. Malev and Mexicana are members, but stopped operations.
Aeroflot, Aeroméxico, Air Europa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines
My experience and preferences:
United – While United economy can easily be put down, and be seen as average or less, their mileage program is tops in the U.S. After a friend of mine was sharing his experience as 1K, I put empahsis on making it my preferred program. It was consistent upgrades and choices in United plus seating. I got upgraded both ways to Cancun and Hawaii and was able to get a family member upgraded in both of those cases. I had no problems getting into the very common United lounges all over the world. Word of Caution: Miles can expire after 18 months of inactivity. 25,000 miles earns you Premier status with two bags free and unlimited domestic upgrades, but If you fly over a million miles with United or its partners (flying like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”), you’ll get lifetime elite status and other exclusive rewards. Get into the 1K program and I truly believe you’re in the best program in the U.S. and the vouchers and handling you’ll get will really make you feel like a king. Internationally Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines, New Zealand Air are Tops, the Turkish Lounge in Istanbul and Luftansa lounge in Frankfurt are both the best in the world. You don’t always have to pick United planes, as an example, Air Canada has much better entertainment. As well, a long haul international flight to Europe or Asia or Australia you are often better served on the International airlines I’d pick a Singapore Air any day over a United plane. It always serves you to do your research.
Delta – Great domestic program, very frequent upgrades, the trick has been to check in early… as soon as that 24 hour reminder comes. While I got into international lounges just fine, I never got any international upgrades. The rollover miles has helped as well. Basically if you get lots of miles past the top program they would roll over into the next year. One thing that slowed that down was the Platinum and Diamond programs. While Delta and Air France are aligned I’ve definitely seen mistakes between the two companies including on a recent trip. I spoke to Delta where I have status to change my flight and while they said they made the change, Air France couldn’t see the change. These mistakes cost me $500 and nearly a missed flight. Delta miles don’t expire! I carry the Delta American Express card which gets me extra miles when I use it to book Delta flights including a big discount as well as miles when I use it on the plane. It can also get you an extra bag and/or an annual domestic companion ticket. Rack up some miles… 25,000 miles can get you a round trip coach ticket in the continental US, Alaska, and Canada.
American – The least developed of the alliances is the OneWorld. American’s program hasn’t been that great. It’s been a domestic catch all for me. While I was at one company it was their preferred airline, so it was tough to avoid. To reach the lowest Gold status tier, you’ll only need 25,000 miles, this is the only program where your miles earned from any source can get you elite status. So that’s nice and flexible as the alternative mileage program. With all the European travel, and various flights on British that may have provided more benefits. Flying first class round trip with my wife to Peru and visiting the wonder of Machu Picchu definitely means all this hard work pays off. You’ll find both Hotels and Rental car companies are the other places in your travel where they specifically have alliances with specific airlines. Parking is another place you might just find that gets you miles.
What about outside the Alliances?
Should we avoid those ones? The three alliances combined fly 60.8% of all passengers, and it’s a great way to combine miles to have pre selected an airline in each of the three alliances. There are exceptions. I love Jet Blue, I love Virgin. You can collect Delta miles on Virgin Australia. Don’t pass up an amazing deal or an incredible ride. Virgin American has some great prices and the coach class feels like business in most domestic airlines… remember why you are collecting. For comfort, for upgrades, for future free flights. That long haul to Australia and New Zealand, you should definitely make sure you’re actually collecting miles. A friend once mentioned he was on Air New Zealand and they said at the fare he was at he could not collect partner (United) miles. That’s a lot of miles to just go to waste. I’ve gotten frequent flier numbers on the spot, just to make sure those miles don’t go to waste. There are ways to transfer miles, even if you don’t, you’ll get that disclipine down of never letting those miles go to waste. True story. I had a fourth airline I was collecting miles on. Alaska Airlines. My parking would only support giving me Alaska miles, so I kept collecting them, but the airline itself at the time would take my Delta card. Years later I now have enough miles I can fly 2 people round trip to Nome, Alaksa on miles and $80. The Alaska program, while not directly aligned is a great program if you love alaska. They have incredible redemption value. For 25,000 miles you can go from nearly any Alaska hub to anywhere they fly for 25,000 miles. There may be a few exceptions.
What should I do with my miles: At any point you can upgrade a leg. I rarely if ever do this. Personally I pull them out when I have to pay out of pocket for a rediculous fare. I’ve seen domestic flights for way more than they should be. Take this Nome Alaska flight. It’s nearly $1000 USD and I can get it for 25,000 miles. You won’t find that very much, but I had a $600 west coast flight I needed to get on a particular plane so I could get home on time or lose a day of work. Using miles I didn’t have to pay. Hopefully you can get vouchers for those comfort flights. It may also be that you simply want to get from point A to point B. Ask them how much, and then say… how many miles. I’d give 10,000 miles for $500 USD. I’m sure you could come up with your formula.
A Star award from North America to Africa in first class, for instance, will run 180,000 miles. A flight within in Europe will run 30,000 miles in economy, you’ll see it for 20,000 or 25,000 domestic US and more to Hawaii and Alaska.
How about waiting for the “Round-the-world tickets” award (a bargain at 180,000 miles in economy).
Where can I go? Look at the Star Alliance Airpass for going to many countries with 1 ticket. It’s fun to explore the regional options as well.
Tip: You can use TripIt.com or TripIt Pro on your phone to track your various mileage programs including expiration dates. It also keeps your numbers handy, but don’t forget your card.
Travel Tip: Carry your frequent flier card. You might even attach it to your carry on luggage. Some frequent flier programs will send you multiple cards making this easier. You can keep them in your carry on or purse, so you don’t have to actually carry it in your wallet. Status does carry you internationally and give you great priveledges, but it’s at the 2nd tier. That lowest tier is often overlooked. Don’t forget to carry your card. It really will keep you out of lounges if you don’t have proof. The number alone often won’t do it! As well, just because it isn’t the same company on your card doesn’t mean it won’t make a difference. Your United miles status will get you into the Turkish lounge on a Turkish Ticket.A wider range of airport lounges shared with alliance members. Bring your traveling companion… you may be able to bring them with you as well. Your Amex or Interval Gold Travel card may get you in even if you don’t have status. I’ve unloaded the point cards in my wallet more than a couple of times, and found something they liked.
Some other great resources: