How To Choose A Frequent Flyer Program

As we begin a new year one of the most common questions I’m getting from people is how to choose a frequent flyer program. Given all the changes happening with the US-based programs I thought now might be a good time to go over the decision-making process in choosing the best program for you.

In general, I tend to think choosing an airline should be based off a combination of factors, and as different people prioritize things differently there really isn’t an easy answer. Among other things, I think it’s worth considering three main factors:

  • How many miles will you fly?
  • Where will you be flying?
  • What features do you most value?

How many miles will you fly?

In general, I tend to think the first factor to consider in choosing an airline is determining how many miles you’re going to fly in a given year. If you are an occasional traveler or fly less than 25,000 miles in a year it probably doesn’t make sense to be loyal to a particular airline.

At least in the US, many airlines’ co-branded credit cards offer similar benefits in terms of baggage allowances and priority boarding as their entry-tier elite status:

Base Elite StatusBase Status BenefitsCo-Branded Credit CardCredit Card Benefits

Alaska Airlines MVP

20,000 miles on Alaska

or 25,000 miles on partners
- 50% Elite Bonus miles
- Complimentary domestic upgrades
- First two bags free for member and companions
- Priority Check-in
- Preferred Seating
- Priority Boarding
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card- Coach Companion Certificate
- No airport/flight benefits

American Airlines AAdvantage Gold

25,000 miles or points- 25% Elite mileage bonus
- Minimum mileage guarantee
- Preferred seating
- Priority security
- Priority boarding
- First two bags free for member and companions
- Waived AAdvantage award processing charge
Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage MasterCard- Priority Boarding
- First bag free for cardholder and up to four companions
- 10% rebate on award redemptions

Delta Air Lines Silver Medallion

25,000 miles or points

plus

$2500 spent on Delta flights
- 25% Elite Bonus miles
-Complimentary Domestic upgrades
- Companion upgrades
- Priority Check-In
- Priority boarding
- First bag free for member and companions
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Delta Reserve Card
- Priority Boarding
- First bag free for cardholder and up to four companions
- Medallion Qualification dollars waived with $25,000 in Eligible Purchases

United Airlines Premier Silver

25,000 miles or points

plus

$2500 spent on United flights
- 25% Elite Bonus miles on United and some partners
-Complimentary Domestic upgrades - Companion upgrades
- Priority Check-In
- Priority boarding
- First bag free for member and companions
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus at check-in
- Reduced Award fees
United MileagePlus® Explorer Card- Priority Boarding
- First bag free for cardholder and one companion
- Premier Qualification dollars waived with $25,000 in Eligible Purchases (not for 1K)

US Airways Silver Preferred

25,000 miles or points- 25% Elite Bonus miles on US Airways and select partners
- 500 mile minimums
-Complimentary North and Central America upgrades (excluding Hawaii)
- Companion upgrades
- Preferred seats
- Priority Check-In
- Priority boarding
- First bag free for member and companions
US Airways Barclays Mastercard- Annual companion ticket good for up to 2 companion tickets at $99 each, plus taxes and fees
- Zone 2 boarding
- First Class check-in
- 5,000 mile discount on US Airways awards

So if you’re not flying all that often, you’re probably better off purchasing the cheapest fare available and using an airline credit card to supplement the experience.

If you are flying enough to achieve mid-tier status, at least, then loyalty makes more sense. Once you’re flying 50,000 miles or so per year you’re not only going to have the opportunity to use the benefits of elite status, but you’ll also potentially be accumulating more miles in a given program, so it makes more sense to focus your earnings.

Mid-Tier Elite StatusAdditional Status Benefits

Alaska Airlines MVP Gold

40,000 miles on Alaska

or 50,000 miles on partners
-100% Elite Bonus Miles
- Companion Upgrades
- Fee Waivers
- Free Same Day Flight Changes

American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum

50,000 miles or points- 100% Elite Bonus Miles
- oneworld partner lounge access

Delta Air Lines Gold Medallion

50,000 miles

plus

$5000 spent on Delta flights
- 100% Elite Bonus Miles
- Award tickets eligible for upgrade
-Complimentary Economy Comfort (US only)
- Waived Same-Day Confirmed/Standby Fees
- Priority Security

Delta Air Lines Platinum Medallion

75,000 miles

plus

$7500 spent on Delta flights
- Complimentary Economy Comfort Seats for International Travel
- Waived Award Fees
- Selection of Choice Benefits

United Airlines Premier Gold

50,000 miles

plus

$5000 spent on United flights
- 50% Elite Bonus Miles on United and select partners
- Complimentary Economy Plus at booking
- International lounge access as Star Alliance Gold
- Three checked bags free for member and companion
- Waived Same-Day Confirmed/Standby Fees

United Airlines Premier Platinum

75,000 miles

plus

$7500 spent on United flights
- 75% Elite Bonus Miles on United and select partners
- Regional Premier Upgrades
- Waived phone and award fees

US Airways Gold Preferred

50,000 miles- 50% Elite Bonus miles on US Airways and select partners
Three checked bags free for member and companion
- Waived award processing fees
- International lounge access as Star Alliance Gold

US Airways Platinum Preferred

75,000 miles- 75% Elite Bonus miles on US Airways and select partners
- Guaranteed seating

In my opinion, elite status makes the most sense at the top-tier of each airline.

When you’re flying 100,000 miles or more per year it absolutely makes sense to be loyal to an airline, especially if you can maximize the benefits offered by the elite status. You’re also accumulating redeemable miles at a meaningful rate, as most programs offer substantial bonuses to their top-tier elites.

Top-Tier Elite StatusAdditional Status Benefits
Alaska Airlines Gold 75k75,000 miles on Alaska

or 90,000 miles on partners
- 50,000 Bonus miles when you attain status
- Nominate someone else to MVP status
American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum100,000 miles or points- Complimentary domestic upgrades
- 8 Systemwide upgrades
- oneworld baggage allowance
- Waived award change and cancellation fees
- Complimentary food and drink in the Main Cabin
Delta Air Lines Diamond Medallion125,000 miles

plus

$12,500 spent on Delta flights
- 125% Elite Bonus Miles
- Sky Club Membership
- Additional Choice Benefits
United Airlines Premier 1K100,000 miles

plus

$10,000 spent on United flights
-100% Elite Bonus Miles on United and select partners
- Global Premier Upgrades
US Airways Chairman's Preferred100,000 miles- 100% Elite Bonus miles on US Airways and select partners
- 2 upgrade certificates for Hawaii/Europe/South America/Middle East

Furthermore, keep in mind airline partnerships if your travel is spread across multiple airlines. For example, Alaska partners with both American and Delta, so if you don’t fly enough with either carrier to earn status with them, it could make sense to credit travel from both airlines to Alaska, where you could have enough activity to qualify for status.

Where will you be flying? 

This seems like a basic question, but it’s one that seems to be overlooked. If you live in a city served by all the major carriers you likely have lots of choices, and pretty competitive fares. However, if you live someplace like Atlanta, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas, or Charlotte you might be what we call “hub-captive,” meaning you likely have one airline that dominates the market. This can sometimes make choosing an airline a moot point, as your options are limited by geography.

Similarly, route networks make a difference! I personally enjoy making multiple connections, but for most people (and especially business travelers) that’s not an efficient use of time. So you’ll want to think about where you’ll be flying, which airlines can take you there, and what makes the most sense for your travel patterns. For example, American has an extremely strong route network for travel to South America, while United doesn’t. Conversely, United has an extremely strong route network to Asia, while American doesn’t.

What features do you most value?

This is where the discussion becomes a matter of trade-offs, in my opinion.  Once you’ve determined where and how often you’ll be flying, the incremental perks and benefits will likely be what set an airline apart. This is obviously a highly personalized decision, so rather than making a specific recommendation I thought I’d summarize what I consider to be the pros and cons of each airline:

Alaska

Alaska has some of the most valuable redeemable miles around, and is a genuinely well-run airline. They also have wifi across their network, and for people on the west coast they’re a solid option for domestic travel. However, the hard product itself isn’t fantastic (I lovingly refer to Alaska as “the bus”), and the route network is impractical for all but west coast flyers. The lack of power ports on transcon flights is incredibly limiting, and it’s worth keeping in mind that there isn’t an option for international upgrades.

That being said, their mid-tier elite members and above can cancel both revenue and award tickets for free (for revenue tickets the cost of the fare is simply transferred to your “Alaska Wallet”), and Alaska has a very generous same day change policy, which is useful given the frequency with which they fly in many markets.

American

At present, I think American is the best all-around domestic airline, though there are a lot of unknowns with the pending merger with US Airways.  Currently top-tier elites receive eight systemwide upgrades, valid on even the lowest economy fares, and the award chart is quite lucrative. They have wifi and power ports across most of their domestic fleet, and even on some international flights as well.

The major limitation is the international route network, which is pretty weak to places other than South America compared to Delta and United.

Delta

Delta is tough to quantify. While they run a great airline with a relatively modern fleet, solid hard product, great crews, and domestic wifi, their frequent flyer program is a joke aside from domestic upgrades. The implementation of Medallion Qualifying Dollars isn’t too bad, as this can be easily waived with the co-branded credit card. Upgrades are difficult, even for top-tier elites using upgrade instruments, and the program often changes without notice.

If you’re more concerned about your domestic experience than the value of the redeemable miles they could still be a good option though.

United

Even with the slaughtering of their partner award chart, United miles are still valuable, especially with US Airways leaving Star Alliance in March. Their route network is vast, and top-tier elites receive six systemwide upgrades and four regional confirmed upgrades, though there is a minimum fare class requirement. The Premier Qualifying Dollars can’t be waived via credit card spend for the 1K level, so that’s a consideration as well.

They are behind the other domestic carriers in terms of rolling out wifi, and I don’t think their soft product compares well to American, nor their hard product to Delta, but they are one of the more stable options at this point.

US Airways

Given the impending merger with American, the argument for US Airways is primarily based on geography, in my opinion. At present they have a strong presence in several markets that American doesn’t really cover, and if you live in one of those areas it may make sense to credit to US Airways until the merger is finalized. The bulk of their fleet has Wifi, and top tier elites receive two systemwide upgrades.

They’re also the only of the above airlines that will outright sell top tier elite status, and also offers very lucrative status challenges.

So which airline frequent flyer program should you go with?

I’d say it depends on your individual priorities, and which factors impact you the most. I’ll be sticking with American as my primary airline, and Alaska as my secondary – at least as long as I live on the west coast.

What about you? Have you chosen a frequent flyer program for this year? How did you decide?

Comments

  1. For me (and others with large families), I don’t think that elite status is worth chasing. I will continue to go with the cheapest (free-est) flights. I think the trend is going to be towards cash-back cards like the Barclays Arrival or CapitalOne Venture and using those for travel expenses

  2. I’m not sure what is going to happen with the new leadership, but I’ve always found Frontier’s elite status to be a really great value, especially considering how little you have to fly to earn it (25,000 miles for the top level).

    Free drinks, express security, free standby, early boarding, stretch seating, free checked bags, change fee waived, etc. Sure, you can’t redeem for international first class, but for a free domestic ticket, it’s a great option at 10k each way.

    Of course, being based in Denver helps too.

  3. could not agree more about Delta… “their frequent flyer program is a joke aside from domestic upgrades” – totally spot on.

    i was just changing an award today and i was told one cannot fly an award on LAX-BNA-LGA because BNA is not a valid transfer city despite the pretty direct routing. has anyone ever heard of such idiocy from other airline than Delta?

  4. I’m one of those people who’s less concerned with redeemable miles, and more concerned about the experience. Delta makes life a little bit easier for me.

    I travel a lot for work, and I would much rather arrive at my destination in a good mood. I value being treated well FAR FAR FAR more than having valuable miles on an airline that constantly lets me down. If, at the end of the day I dread the experience that my airline provides me, doesn’t that make all of this useless? The point is to enjoy yourself.

    Skyteam is strong in Europe and parts of Asia, so it makes a lot of sense for me. I’ll be working hard to re-qualify for PM this year because I’d like to roll over more than a 1500 MQM’s (which is what happened this year).

    *I’d just like to note that I’m not a person of exceptional means or anything close to it. I work hard like most of us do, and I make a good living. I see the value in traveling for free–it’s just that I’m okay with paying for something I want.

  5. I was 1K with united until March 1012 and gave up on them. I know I would have gotten better service on Greyhound..
    So I switched over to US (they were still *A) and been Chairman with them, and now that US is AA, I’ll continue to fly them. If I didn’t have to fly for work, I wouldn’t have status at all, but being Chairman has some nice perks.. They Certificates for Hawaii FC and Europe in Envoy.

    I still fly DL and will credit all fights to AS..

  6. I agree with Garrett. Delta goes where I need to go for work, it’s rarely a hassle, the crews are usually happy. Yes, it’s a pain to use the miles, but they earn my loyalty by not annoying me every time I get on a plane.

    Signed, A former United 1K-er.

  7. If I’m not mistaken, Delta Silver only gives you one checked bag free (not two as you list in the chart)

  8. I am based in the Bay Area and just became Premier Platinum with United. However, I’m moving to Atlanta for a job next month and I just emptied my Mileage Plus account for my honeymoon (including a leg on MUC-YYZ LH F, thanks @Lucky). I status-matched with Delta earlier this year but didn’t re-qualify for next year, so I’m just a general member. Given the terrible value of SkyPesos and my desire to travel internationally on award tickets, my plan is to status match to Alaska MVP Gold and fly Delta. That way I’ll get double miles that are actually useful, as well as some of the perks on Delta.

  9. My fiancee recently got a CSP and we’ll probably transfer her 40k bonus into my United account. Do I need to wait until we’re actually married to make the transfer?

  10. 100% leisure traveler. I will stick with DL for domestic, perhaps try JetBlue for my flights to LAX bc of their new Mint product, and earn/burn UR via transfer to UA for my foreign travel. No more chasing status on DL for me.

  11. Thanks for this although I still am left with a feeling of: I have a few options all of them bad. After nearly a million miles flown on Continental/United I now loath them and refer to them as the easy jet of legacy carriers. Yet Star Alliance is my favorite alliance so what do you do? Lately I have been booking the best fare on the most comfortable plane and saying the hell with allegiance. This year my hubby is flying to Brisbane, Sao Paolo, Israel, Europe and Bangkok….the first two are best served by One World/AA but AA doesn’t have a direct flight to Israel and still flies shitty biz class to Europe, unless you want to fly to London all the time (not!). For us it’s all about Upgrade so Delta is out. If you have taught be anything Ben it’s the power of the right credit cards and that we are now living is a world where miles are easy to get and harder to use besides the airlines just want revenue passengers ergo all the devaluation of mileage charts.

  12. Oh, and there’s another benefit to elite status w/ Delta. Skyteam Elite/Elite Plus can get you pretty far. KLM treats you like a king even at Silver. Once you get to Gold and Platinum (never been Diamond, so can’t say), they really start helping you out. For Elite Plus, it’s complementary lounge access regardless of class flown (I think with a guest or two as well), priority security and customs lines, even separate seating areas in certain airports. I actually value Skyteam Elite Plus status almost as much as I do Platinum Medallion.

  13. Thanks for putting this together, it really puts in perspective the benefits of different airlines. I have been very loyal to UA for many years out of ORD (other than 2 years flying DL out of DTW). I fly weekly only domestic and am finally sick of UA. They cut their benefits, I’m sick of tiny ERJs and RJs and limited WiFi when you do get a big plane. Also, I find myself consistently encountering unhelpful, angry employees. The only think keeping me close to UA is that I am about 2 years from Million Milers. However, if things don’t get better through Q1, I should still have enough time to hit 100K on AA and will make the switch.

  14. I only have two choices from the small airport I fly from. US airways or Delta. My decision was originally based on the fact that the majority of flights by US airways are on prop planes while Delta has crj200 and Airbus A319 thus a better experience to the hub. Now it would take something to get me to change as Delta has for the most part gotten me where I need to go. If they had a good reward program it would be a no brainer.

  15. I can pick any of the airports in the Los Angeles area and previously flew from SFO. I should hit 2M with UA this year but doubt I will reach the 1K again due to $ spent since taxes and fees aren’t added to your amounts. I will finish with UA and deal with angry agents and attendants, to make the lifetime Platinum. After that I figure I will try and status match with AA and begin building with them. Love the bonuses as a 1K with United but losing the systemwide upgrades will hurt. I fly domestic at lowest possible rates for work. Use miles to get family on a nice annual vacation but not only has the devaluation made that tougher, the availability is being held back on saver awards. But let’s face it, you have to have some status as a business flyer on low rate tickets to get decent seats and reduce baggage fees.

  16. Lucky,
    Could you possibly do how to choose a frequent program, but for hotels? I think a post about it would be very helpful for which hotel portfolio would be best for different people! Thanks!

  17. Hey Lucky. Since we’re on the topic of frequent flyer programs, can we enjoy A3 Gold privileges (extra checked bags/lounge access) on an award ticket booking made through another Star Alliance program (ie. extra bags when redeeming mileageplus miles)?

    Thanks!

  18. I think the ability for AS MVP and Delta Silver to reserve exit row seats for free at booking is a significant differentiator from both the credit card holders and from other airline elite programs. After all the exit row is the original poor man’s first class!

  19. I think a lot of it depends on what you want, so I’m glad Lucky didn’t conclude with anyone being “the best” or anything like that. Just what he’d pick for himself.

    For me, I’m a bottom tier if I’m loyal to an airline. At that level, it’s about the experience. I want to be upgraded as often as possible, I don’t want to wait in lines, I want to talk to a person if there’s a problem, and I generally want to get somewhere on time. US Airways has done well for me because they serve most of my frequent destinations nonstop.

    That said, I rarely use US miles for anything other than upgrades on competitive routes. I don’t accrue enough to do much else. My “real” bank of miles comes through Amex MR and lately Chase UR – so when I redeem, it’s often not with an airline with whom I’ve ever flown a revenue ticket.

    Living in the Northeast, US treats its bottom tier the best. If I were out west, I’d probably choose AS and stretch for 40k to hit MVP Gold (I flew 35k last year on US).

    Nice writeup, Ben.

  20. If you live in a Delta hub (NYC, ATL, MSP, etc) or otherwise like flying Delta domestically, why not generally fly Delta but always credit miles to Alaska? I am thinking about switching to Alaska’s program as an NYC based Delta flier that has never flown Alaska metal.

  21. @ Anthony — It can definitely make sense in some cases, though the thing to keep in mind is that ultimately you’ll be treated better by an airline if you’re an elite with them vs. an elite with one of their partners. So for example even if you fly 100K miles on Delta and credit it all to Alaska, you’d only have the upgrade priority of a Silver Medallion members, which is where in the queue Alaska elites fall.

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