Airline Frequent Flyer Miles Programs – How They Work

Airline miles programs, sometimes called frequent flyer programs, began popping up shortly after the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. It was a way for airlines set themselves apart from the pack and gain customer loyalty.

One of the first was American Airline's AAdvantage which began in 1981. It remains one of the most popular miles programs in the world with more than 100 million members.

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Frequent Flyer/Miles Programs – The Basics

In the early days, airline miles programs were not unlike the old grocery store green stamp giveaways in that the more miles you amassed the farther you could fly for free. It's no longer quite so simple. Recent changes:

  • Increased complexity: Today's programs are far more complex with multi-tier levels of elite membership and arcane rules governing each tier. One thing remains the same: The higher elite status you earn, the more goodies you get. But making elite status isn't as easy as it used to be.
  • Pay more, get more: More and more airlines (including Delta and United) have switched to a revenue-based earnings model for miles programs. This means someone who paid $1,000 for a last-minute ticket will earn more miles than a passenger who booked ahead and got a cheaper deal. Pay more, get more.
  • Fewer seats for awards travel when you want to go: Capacity-cutting by airlines has meant fewer empty middle seats available for award travel. This is especially true for popular destinations like the Caribbean, Orlando or Las Vegas. Plus some miles programs require more miles to secure seats at peak travel periods such as holidays or mid-summer. Also, members with higher elite status typically have a better chance of getting these preferred awards seats.
  • Fees on the freebies: Even those lucky enough to snag a free trip will find out free isn’t exactly free. Travelers still have to pay for everything from government security fees to fuel surcharges and other assorted extras. This can add up to hundreds of dollars on long-haul flights particularly on international routes.
  • Miles with expiration dates: Remember the days when miles lasted a lifetime? Today many miles expire after a period of inactivity. Programs where miles or points do not expire include Delta, JetBlue and Southwest.

Miles Programs – A Must forBusiness Travelers

It's no secret most airlines value one class of customer above all: Business travelers. They earn far more money off such passengers than leisure travelers for the simple reason that road warriors (or their bosses) typically buy tickets at the last minute which are generally far more expensive than tickets purchased a month or even two weeks before take-off. Plus business travelers are typically seated in those fancy (and costly) Business or First Class seats. Giving these folks more miles is simply an airline's way of rewarding their high-spending habits, as well as a way to keep lucrative passengers from straying.

Keeping Track of Miles

Not all miles programs have adopted the pay-more, earn-more model but all have gotten increasingly complicated, with pages of rules and regulations. Some savvy travelers resort to spreadsheets to keep track of miles but there are also plenty of apps that can do this for you.

Miles Programs in the U.S. and Beyond

To get a sense of the ins-and-outs of various programs, find useful information at The Points Guy and at the Flyer Talk community. For more information on specific airline programs, see the links to the U.S. and international carriers below. If you haven't checked your airline's rules lately, it might be time for a review. If you're trying to figure out which program is best for you, this will give you an idea.

 How to Choose a Miles Program

Figuring out which frequent flyer or miles programs is best for you takes some research. Let's begin with basics.

First of all, where do you live and where do you fly? This can make it pretty easy to choose the best program if you only have one airline at your disposal. Or maybe you only fly to a city that's serviced by a single airline (or only one airline offers the most/best routes). If you're in a bigger city, you'll need to do more.

Where to find information:

Tip: Check the date of any article or post you view to be sure it's up-to-date. Miles program rules can and do change frequently!

Other Ways to Amass Miles

Credit cards: The number one way to amass miles outside of flying is by using an airline-branded credit card combined with a flexible hotel-branded credit card that has transfer capability. Some cards include a sign-up bonus of 10,000 to 50,000 miles so joining at the right moment for the right offer is helpful. Also, many cards typically waive the fee for the first year, but factor in future fees as well as whether applying for a particular card could create problems with your overall credit score. NerdWallet ranks credit cards, so does WalletHub and there are other 'best' lists out there. Note: FareCompare doesn't endorse one list over another; compare the pros and cons of the various cards to see which one really is best for you.

Look for specials: Some airlines advertise routes and/or time periods when it's possible to earn two or even three times as many miles as one could normally earn.

When all else fails: Many airlines allow you to purchase miles which can be helpful if you're close to meeting an awards trip or upgrade level, but only purchase miles to top off your account to trip level.

Advice to Infrequent Fliers

Should you join a miles program if you don't earn many miles? Yes, because it's free and there may be intangible benefits (we've heard anecdotal reports of non-members being bumped from overbooked flights ahead of lower status members). And who knows, your work or a personal situation could change and maybe you'll be flying more frequently in the future.

However, if you do not fly a lot (and don't expect to), there's no reason for you to let loyalty to get in the way of a good deal. The number one thing every traveler should do when shopping for tickets is to compare airfare prices. It's the only way to be certain of getting the cheapest flight possible.

Anne McDermott
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