Airline Frequent Flyer Programs – How They Work

Remember George Clooney in the movie, “Up in the Air”? Now there was a guy who knew his way around a frequent flyer mileage program and had the elite status to prove it. Elites are those who enjoy all the best perks of airline frequent flyer programs including upgrades, free checked-bags and much, much more. Elite status can make flying a more comfortable and even luxurious experience.

Hot on the heels of the Clooneys of this world are the mileage runners, folks who have to scramble toward the end of the year to amass enough miles to keep their elite status.

Limited Perks for Non-Frequent Flyers, Too

But what if you’re not a mileage runner, haven’t achieved elite status or just fly a few times a year – like most airline passengers? You may be able to use your miles for upgrades or shopping or renting a car.

Yes, there are plenty of airline frequent flyer programs that still provide perks for the not-so-frequent flyer as well. One of the most popular is Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program which underwent an extreme make-over last year.

6 Things Infrequent Flyers Must Know

Switching Elite Status from One Airline to Another

What if you’re unhappy with your elite status on one airline and think another will take better care of you – and maybe provide more perks?

You may be able to switch miles programs – though it may not be easy and it may not be cheap. As air travel analyst Rick Seaney explains, these ‘status match’ programs that jump-start your miles with a new airline are typically hush-hush: “It’s one of those wink-wink, nod-nod programs,” says Seaney, “but mileage runners know and talk about them all the time.” He added that a good place to learn more is in the FlyerTalk forums.

According to media reports, when switching programs, you must achieve a certain high level of miles flown during a challenge period, often 90 days or so – and the more miles the better. Also, you may have to fork over an application fee of anywhere from $200 to $600 to join a new program with elite status intact.

Southwest Rapid Rewards and AirTran Flyers

Southwest’s former rewards program was based on a credit system. Southwest’s Rapid Rewards is now an accrued point system that converts existing credits to points for members. The program highlights include:

  • No blackout date restrictions or expiration dates (so points can be redeemed anytime)
  • No seat restrictions for redeemed points (if you’ve got the points, you get the seat you want if available)
  • Points can be applied toward international flights, cruises, hotel stays, car rentals, gift cards and events

More changes: Although the two loyalty programs remain separate for now – Southwest’s Rapid Rewards and AirTran’s A+ Rewardsflyers who are enrolled in both can now transfer loyalty rewards between the two programs to redeem them for reward travel to 97 destinations, including the Mexico and the Caribbean destinations served by AirTran.

[Keep reading, below – there’s lots more!]

Airline Elite Status

Above average frequent flyers who tend to travel monthly throughout the year see elite status as the “brass ring” of air travel. Now what do elites actually get that the average frequent flyer member doesn’t? Even better perks that can include gourmet foods, fresh linens, complimentary drinks and even more depending on the airline. There are also levels within the elite system. Most of the legacy carriers, the oldest and biggest airlines–like American Airlines and United Airlines–have similar programs.

Let’s use American Airlines’ AAdvantage program as a kind of microcosm for the world of frequent flyer miles programs. (American pretty much invented this institution with the first frequent flyer miles club back in 1981). Like most of these programs, AAdvantage has distinct levels – there’s general membership, and the elites: Gold, Platinum and Executive Platinum.

American Airlines’ AAdvantage for Beginners

  • Gold – In the course of a year, these members must fly 25,000 miles or earn 25,000 point or fly 30 flight segments
  • Platinum – 50,000 miles, or 25,000 points or 60 segments
  • Executive Platinum – 100,000 miles, or 100,000 points or 100 segments

The benefits get better the more you fly and the higher level you attain. Here are just a few examples of what kind of benefits one may receive according to status:

  • All Levels: Free checked-bags, free priority boarding, free award ticket processing, some upgrades
  • Platinum Levels: Bags delivered ahead of all others to the carousel, free access to international partner business class lounges
  • Executive Platinum Exclusives: A total of eight free upgrades a year, waived change fees on awards tickets

Note: These differences in benefits can be big or subtle depending on the perk and the rules can be almost Byzantine in terms of complexity plus changes can be made to these programs with little notice, so you must do your homework whatever airline you fly. Here’s a comprehensive Elite Status Benefits Chart.

More Airline Frequent Flyer Programs

Find out more about the various airline frequent flyer programs:

  • American Airlines: its AAdvantage program has Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum levels
  • Delta Air Lines: its Skymiles program has Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallion levels
  • JetBlue Airlines: its TrueBlue program includes Go Long and Go Big tiers that earn members extra points
  • Southwest Airlines: its All- New Rapid Rewards includes an A-List level
  • United Airlines: its Mileage Plus program includes levels called Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and Premier 1K; it is now combined with Continental’s program in the wake of their merger.
  • US Airways: its Dividend Miles club offers Silver Preferred, Gold Preferred, Platinum Preferred and Chairman’s Preferred levels
  • Virgin America: its Elevate program has no different levels; as it says on its website, “We don’t have silver or gold status because all of our guests are important.” Even better, you can now use Virgin America miles on two other carriers – Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia – for international flights.

Share with us below your favorite airline frequent flyer program.

Watch our 60-second video on How Frequent Flyer Programs Work:

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Updated: November 17, 2014