Tricks of the Trade has now been running for more than six months, but reader Alex emailed me this week with a good point. I wrote an introduction to hotel loyalty points schemes back in April, but as yet have never penned a similar overview for airline programs.
I have of course written guides to both British Airways Avios points (found here) and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles (here) but I figured it was high time I assessed airline loyalty schemes in general – from a UK-based perspective.
So, airline loyalty programs – or to give them their proper name; frequent flyer programs. As the term suggests, these programs are designed as a means for airlines to reward their most regular customers. This is primarily done in two ways:
- Elite status
- Earning redeemable miles
Airlines operate a tiered system with elite status generally awarded according to the amount of flying you do (some programs have moved/are moving to revenue based programs but for the most part the key metric is the amount of flying completed).
The perks of elite status vary from airline to airline but they include:
- Lounge access
- Extra baggage allowance
- Priority boarding
A key point to be aware of, and I will elaborate further on this shortly, is that you aren’t restricted to flying solely with one airline in order to earn elite status in their frequent flyer program. More on that later.
Earning redeemable miles
This is the bit that appeals to the majority of people. On most airlines, every time you fly on a paid ticket you will earn a certain amount of ‘miles’ that you can redeem towards a future free flight.
The total number of miles earned per flight will vary according to:
- Distance flown
- Class of travel
- Elite status held
Flying isn’t the only way to earn redeemable miles though. In times gone by, frequent flyer miles were the exclusive domain of the…er…frequent flyer. That definitely isn’t the case anymore. There are multiple ways to rack up large quantities of miles without ever stepping foot on an aeroplane. Indeed, I know a fair few people with 7-figure mileage balances who have earned less than 5% of their miles through actual flying.
In the UK specifically, you can earn miles from credit cards, hotel stays, car rentals, supermarket shopping, filling up with petrol, paying taxes, completing surveys, ordering takeaways, opening ISA’s, to name but a few.
This is a slight bone of contention among people who have earned their miles the hard way i.e actual ‘butt in seat’ miles flown. They do have a point. However, the abundance of mileage earning opportunities via non-flying means makes it possible for people to experience travel in luxury they would never have otherwise been able to afford.
Airline alliances – what to do if you fly with many different airlines, but not that often?
This is a mistake that many people unfamiliar with frequent flyer programs make. People have said to me in the past: “I’ll never earn status with Airline B because most of my flying is done on Airlines A and C”. Wrong. That’s where airlines alliances come in.
There are 3 major airline alliances:
This alliance will likely be the most familiar to TOTT readers as British Airways (BA) are one of the founding partners. Other members of the Oneworld alliance include:
- American Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- Japan Airlines
- LATAM Airlines
- Malaysia Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Jordanian
- S7 Airlines
- SriLankan Airlines
- Adria Airways
- Aegean Airlines
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- Asiana Airlines
- Brussels Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- EVA Air
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Scandinavian Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- SWISS Int’l Airlines
- TAP Portugal
- Thai Airways
- Turkish Airlines
- Aerolineas Argentinas
- Aero Mexico
- Air Europa
- Air France
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Vietnam Airlines
- Xiamen Air
Without going into infinite detail, the key concept is that you are able to earn and redeem miles on any of the participating members of a particular alliance. You can also earn status with one airline program even by flying with an entirely different airline for the most part.
How? Well, let’s start with the earning part. Say I had some flights coming up with American Airlines (AA), but my main program and currency of choice are British Airways Executive Club (BAEC) and Avios points. BA and AA are both members of Oneworld. I could, therefore, choose to input my BAEC details on my AA reservations and would earn Avios and elite status credit with BAEC.
Redeeming miles works much the same. I can redeem my Avios for flights on Cathay Pacific or Qatar Airways if I wanted to. In fact, that allows you to experience some of the most luxurious airline cabins ‘on the market’. If you are looking for suggestions, I took a look at five of the most lucrative ways to redeem your Avios in this article a couple of months ago.
Elite status operates on a similar premise. If you have elite Star Alliance status with one member airline, for example, that will usually allow you status privileges like extra baggage and lounge access when flying with other Star Alliance members.
Which program should I pick?
Ah, the key question. There is no easy answer to that although I’ll try and simplify your thought process. The first thing to do is ensure you pick no more than a couple of programs in each alliance to focus your collecting efforts. Having small-ish balances in 10 programs isn’t going to help you make any aspirational redemptions anytime soon.
For UK-based collectors like myself, BAEC and Avios are definitely a good focus point given the wealth of options to accumulate them.
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted a notable exception among the alliances detailed above; Virgin Atlantic. Despite many rumours down the years, Virgin have resisted the urge to join any of the 3 big alliances. They do have strategic partnerships with airlines such as Delta and Singapore Airlines. As I described in this piece it isn’t always a straightforward process to use Virgin miles to fly on those partners though.
That said, like Avios, there are plenty of good opportunities to collect Virgin miles in the UK. Virgin has slashed routes such as Sydney and Tokyo in the last few years as their network becomes more and more US-centric. Nevertheless, I still maintain a healthy balance with them given the strength of that US network and the relative ease of collecting options.
For the best Star Alliance and SkyTeam programs, it is hard to make any definitive recommendations. Given that there are no Star Alliance or SkyTeam members with central hubs in the UK, much of your decision will depend on personal circumstances. These may include work travel patterns, family members based abroad etc.
How to know where to credit my flights?
With over 50 airlines in the 3 main alliances alone, plus numerous ‘independent’ ones, how do you know the best one to credit an upcoming flight to?
That’s where a nifty site called wheretocredit.com comes in. Simply plug in the airline you will be flying and the booking class. It will then give you details of which programs you can credit your flight to, and the difference in earning potential between them. This is especially helpful if you have a flight booked on an airline you haven’t come across before and want to know the best mileage options, without spending hours trawling the Internet.
This is especially helpful if you have a flight booked on an airline you haven’t come across before and want to know the best mileage earning options, without spending hours trawling the Internet.