At this time of year, we tend to get a substantial number of new readers who are newcomers to miles and points. With that in mind, I’ll be running a number of beginner-focussed articles in the coming weeks.
This is my beginners guide to airline mileage schemes.
If one of your New Year commitments was to finally get to grips with the world of airline miles and points, we’ve got you covered.
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 recognise and reward their customers. Broadly speaking, these programs centre around two main areas:
- Elite status
- Redeemable miles
Airlines operate a tiered system for elite status which is largely based on the amount of flying you do with that airline and or its partners (some programs have moved to a revenue-based model but most still focus on your level of flying).
Perks of elite status vary from airline to airline but they tend to include:
- Airport lounge access
- Extra baggage allowance
- Priority boarding
- Priority check-in counters
- Bonus mileage earning
A key point to bear in mind is that you don’t have to fly exclusively with one airline to earn elite status in their frequent flyer program. More on that later.
On most airlines, every time you book a cash ticket you’ll earn a certain amount of ‘miles’ or points that you can redeem towards a future flight.
The number of miles that you earn per flight varies according to:
- Distance flown
- Class of travel
- Elite status level
Flying isn’t the only way to earn airline miles though. There are multiple ways to rack up large quantities of miles without ever stepping foot on a plane. As I’ve said previously, I know numerous people with seven-figure mileage balances who have earned less than 5% of their miles through actual flying.
This is sometimes a bone of contention among people who have earned their miles the hard way i.e actual ‘butt in seat’ flying. However, in fairness, the upside of this abundance of non-flying mileage-earning opportunities is that it allows more people to travel in ways that they would never have otherwise been able to afford.
Airline alliances explained
What to do if you fly often but with many different airlines?
People who are unfamiliar with frequent flyer programs will often assume: “I’ll never earn status with Airline A because most of my flying is done on Airlines B 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 Tricks of the Trade readers as British Airways are one of the founding partners. Current oneworld members:
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- 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
- Austrian 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 Airlines
- Czech Airlines
- Garuda Indonesia
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- Middle East Airlines
- Vietnam Airlines
- Xiamen Air
In other words, you can earn and redeem your 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.
Say I booked some flights on American Airlines (AA), but my main frequent flyer program is the British Airways Executive Club (BAEC). Since BA and AA are both members of oneworld, I could insert my BAEC details into my booking and earn BA Tier Points on those AA flights.
Redeeming miles works much the same way. You can redeem BA Avios for Cathay Pacific or Qatar Airways flights. Or use Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles to fly with Lufthansa. There are also relationships outside of the main alliances. For example, one of the best ways to redeem miles for Etihad’s business or first class is by using American Airlines AAdvantage miles.
Elite status operates on a similar premise. If you have elite Star Alliance status via one member airline, for example, that will usually secure you privileges like extra baggage and lounge access even when flying with other Star Alliance members.
Which airline program is right for me?
There’s no straightforward answer to that question, but I’ll try and simplify the decision-making process.
I’d advise picking no more than a couple of programs in each alliance or even choosing a particular alliance to focus your collecting efforts. Having small-ish balances across 10 different airline programs isn’t conducive to making worthwhile redemptions in the long run.
For UK-based collectors, BA Avios are definitely a good starting point given the variety of ways to accumulate them.
Alert readers will have spotted that Virgin Atlantic is a notable omission from the alliances above. Despite plenty of rumours over the years, Virgin have resisted the urge to join any of the three airline alliances. They do have strategic partnerships with airlines such as Delta and Singapore Airlines though. Like Avios, there are plenty of opportunities in the UK to collect Virgin Flying Club miles without flying.
It’s hard to make any definitive recommendations in terms of the best Star Alliance and SkyTeam programs. Given that there are no Star Alliance or SkyTeam members with hubs in the UK, much of your decision will depend on personal circumstances such as work travel patterns, family members living abroad etc.
This is even more subjective. Much will depend on the type of travel you do i.e. leisure only or do you travel heavily for work. For example, if you find yourself doing a lot of short-haul economy flights for work then BAEC may well make sense for you – given that you can earn BA Bronze/Silver status after 25/50 eligible flights.
How to know which program I can credit a flight to?
With over 50 airlines in the three main alliances alone, plus numerous ‘independent’ ones, how can you work out which is the best program to credit a flight to?
That’s where the highly useful 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.