Choosing a frequent flyer program: Which one is for me?

So you’re just getting started and about to build your frequent flyer account.  You’re now ready for the most important question: What airline’s program should I choose?

And the single best answer is: It depends.  Sorry about that, the answer may not be so easy.

Truthfully, like many things in life, the best program for you may be chosen for you, rather than the other way around.  If you live in a city where one or two airlines dominate, such as Philadelphia (US Airways), Seattle (Alaska Air), Dallas (American Airlines or Southwest) or many other major cities, the best option is simply to choose to fly the dominant airline.  That airline will have the most options for you, including non-stops, and it simply doesn’t make sense to choose a program that is going to make flying inconvenient for you.

But if you live in an area where there is no dominant carrier, you have some options.  So here’s a few things to consider:

  1. Is there a city that you fly to often?  If so, see what airlines have non-stop flights.
  2. Do you have family members that like a particular airline?
  3. Do you have a preference for an amenity on a particular airline?  For instance, if you have a family with small children, you may want to choose an airline that has television onboard, such as Jet Blue.  If you need wi-fi on every flight, try a carrier with strong wi-fi coverage, such as Southwest or Delta.

But here’s the bottom line: When you’re just starting out, choose your flights based on price and convenience (and not necessarily in that order).  It is rare that you should be choosing a flight based solely on frequent flyer miles (although there are a few occasions, which I will discuss over the next several weeks), so when you’re starting anew, do what’s going to make your travel easiest and let the program choose you.  You’ll probably find that you are flying one carrier more than others over time, and you can take it from there.  Eventually, factors such as elite status and alliances (relatively simple concepts that I will discuss next week) will also impact your choices.


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Earning miles without flying: Earn by shopping

The internet has become the great equalizer for shopping.  With a few clicks, you can compare prices for just about anything.  Thus, stores have turned to bonuses to get you to shop there.

Before we go any farther, here’s a key point: You should never, ever buy anything online without determining if you can get some sort of rebate, whether it’s frequent flyer miles, cash (Yes, there is a way to do that and I’ll get to it in a future post.  Contact me if you want the details now.) or something else.  For now, we’ll stick to miles.

Virtually every airline has a shopping portal which will give you miles for shopping through them.  The merchants buy miles from American and award them to you for making purchases.  Why would merchants do this?  Well, it’s for the same reason that frequent flyer programs exist: they have to.  Their competitors are doing it, so they need to, also.  Some airlines require you to set up a separate user name and password for the shopping portal, some do not.

If you want direct links to each airline’s shopping portals, they’re at the bottom of this post.  But here’s an example of how to navigate a site to find them, as well.

For this example, we’ll assume that you are going to buy flowers and want to earn miles on American Airlines.  Your first step is to visit American’s site at  In the top right-hand corner, you see “Aadvantage,” which is the name of their frequent flyer program.  Click on it and then click on “Earn Miles” in the drop-down menu.  Choose the category  (Retail and Dining) and Aadvantage eShopping Mall.  Then, click on “Shop Online” in the blue bar and “All Online Stores” in the drop-down menu.  Someday, somebody will have to explain to me why the airlines put in so many steps, but at least it’s fairly intuitive .  Still, for the future, if you want to skip all of the above, here’s the direct link to the shopping portal.

Let’s buy some flowers now.  On the left-hand side, you can see that “Flowers, Food & Gifts” is a category, so go ahead and click on it.  Click “Flowers” and then look at the merchants.  Merchants are awarding anywhere from 4-30 miles per dollar spent. has the biggest payout, at 30 miles/dollar.  Click on “Shop Now” and you’ll get the following message:

You’re on your way to!

one moment please

Place an order now, and you will earn 30 miles/$.

It’s that simple.

Thank you for shopping through the AAdvantage eShopping mall.

And that’s it!  Shop as you normally would and the miles should show up in your American Airlines account within days.  It’s also worth noting that if you already know the merchant you want to shop with, in the middle of the page, you can simply click on the first letter of the merchant’s name.  Virtually every merchant you can think of is represented, with the glaring exception of Amazon.

Remember, never shop online without finding a way to get something back!

Alaska Air





US Airways

Understanding an Award Chart

No one has ever accused an airline of making things simple, and that includes figuring out how many miles you need to use to get somewhere.  In this post, we’ll look at an award chart and make some sense of it.  Please note: These things can get complicated, so don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense the first time around.


From U.S. 49 (excludes Hawaii) & Canada: Economy Class BusinessElite®, First or Business Class
Miles shown are each way based on round-trip purchase.*First Class / BusinessElite
Saver Standard Peak Saver Standard Peak
Within Continental US, Alaska and Canada 12,500 20,000 30,000 22,500 /
40,000 /
50,000 /
To Hawaii 20,000 32,500 45,000 37,500 /
67,500 /
90,000 /
To Caribbean 17,500 27,500 37,500 30,000 50,000 70,000
To Mexico 17,500 27,500 37,500 30,000 50,000 70,000
To Central America 17,500 30,000 40,000 30,000 50,000 70,000
To Northern South America 22,500 35,000 50,000 45,000 65,000 90,000
To Southern South America 30,000 47,500 65,000 50,000 100,000 162,500
To Europe 30,000 47,500 65,000 50,000 100,000 162,500














What you see here is a snippet of the Delta Airlines award chart for passengers originating in the US or Canada.  There are, of course, similar charts available for other countries.  Let’s break it down.

Across the top, you see that you have two choices: You can fly in Economy (coach) or Business/First.  In Delta’s case, there are only two types of cabins, coach or business, but some airlines have as many as four.  Right now, that distinction is not important.

Down the left-hand column, you see destinations.  That column is pretty self-explanatory, simply giving you options on where you can go from the US 49 and Canada.  Note that I have cut off portions of the chart to make it easier to read.  If you want to see the entire chart, you can look here.

Finally, underneath the class of service options (Economy or Business/First), you have three “time” options: Saver, Standard and Peak.  Not all airlines use these exact terms, but they all have similar concepts.  These options reflect the popularity of the destination at a particular time of the year.  The more popular, the more it will cost.  When you search for an award, the airline will show you a calendar indicating what category your flight falls into.  Here are a few quick definitions:

Saver: Think of it as the award being on sale.  Saver awards are to unpopular destinations and/or during lighter times of the year.  The airline knows that it won’t be able to fill the plane with paying passengers, so it makes the award cheaper.

Standard: This is the “base case” for the airline.  Planes will be pretty full but not overly so.

Peak: As the name implies, you are traveling to a popular destination at the busiest time of the year.  The airline knows that it will be able to fill seats with paying passengers, so it makes very few seats available for rewards, and those that are available will not come cheaply.

Example 1: You’re going to visit your Aunt Gladys in Fargo North Dakota next February.  Brr, awfully cold.  Not a lot of people will want to be on that flight, so the airline designates the flight as a Saver award.  You live in Minneapolis, so you go to the left-hand column and choose Within Continental US, Alaska and Canada.”  It’s not a particularly long flight, so you figure that Economy class is fine.  Using those criteria, the flight will cost you 12,500 miles.

Example 2: You have such a nice time with Aunt Gladys that you decide to take her on a whirlwind trip through Europe next April.  You’re going to start the trip in Amsterdam and backpack around the continent.  You want to make the flight a good one, so you decide to pay up for Business Class tickets.  Your trip leaves on April 20, a very popular day to be flying to Amsterdam.  In fact, that day is so busy that Delta categorizes it as a Peak day.  So let’s triangulate again: Europe is all the way at the bottom of the left-hand column and you need to use the Business Elite, First or Business Class designation.  Even worse, it’s a Peak day, meaning that the ticket will cost that many more miles.  Sure enough, a peak ticket to Europe in Business is 162,500 miles.   Are you sure she doesn’t want to just visit you in Minnesota?





Using your Frequent Flyer Miles (the good stuff)

So now that you’ve started to earn miles, or at least understand what they do, it’s time to get to the good stuff: the rewards (known in the industry as “awards”).

Frequent flyer miles can literally take you anywhere in the world.  From Austin to Zurich.  Feel like flying in First Class?  You can get that, too.  Sounds too good to be true, right?  Well, it is and it isn’t.

1) The longer the flight, the more miles it will take.  Most airlines base their reward “prices (amount of miles a ticket costs)” on where you are going, based on your starting and end point.  In other words, it will cost more to fly from the Continental US to Europe than it will to another destination in the United States.  I’ve seen award flights for as low as 4,500 miles and as high as 190,000 miles.  One way.

2) When you fly makes a difference.  Everyone wants to go to Europe in the summer or to Hawaii over Christmas vacation.  Feel like going to Idaho in January?  You’ll probably have less competition.  So the airlines got wise.  First, they limit the number of award seats available on any given route.  In other words, there may be only a few seats available to Hawaii in December, while there will be far more to Boise.  But they didn’t stop there.  They also charge more miles for popular destinations at popular times.  And guess who gets to choose what is defined as “popular” versus “unpopular?”  It’s not you.

The bottom line is that airlines price award tickets the way any other good gets priced, based on supply and demand.

In the next post, we’ll try to make sense of how to read an award chart.


So what is a frequent flyer mile, anyway?

Before we go any further, I want to make sure everyone is aware of the unit that we’re discussing, the frequent flyer mile.

A frequent flyer mile is a simple enough concept.  It is simply a unit of “airline currency” that you earn through flying, using credit cards, etc.  You generally earn one mile (sometimes referred to as “points”) per mile that you fly or dollar that you spend with an airline affiliated credit card.  There are exceptions to this rule but, for right now, we’ll stick to the “1=1” concept.  Each airline has its own program and its own rules but, for the most part, the basics are the same.  The programs are always free, so you should sign up for one whenever you fly an airline and hold onto your unique number.  When you book a flight, the airline will ask you for your number so that it can give you credit.

Example: I fly from Boston to San Francisco with a layover (stop) in Dallas.  The flight from Boston to Dallas is 1,562 miles, while the connecting flight from Dallas to San Francisco is 1,464 miles.  I would earn a total of 3,026 miles.  

A few days after your flight, you would simply log in to your airline account and it will be updated with your new balance.  Miles generally don’t expire as long as you have activity in your account every 18-24 months, but check your airline’s particular program for the specific rules.

Here is a list of links to sign up for the most popular airline programs.  You don’t have to sign up for every program right now, but you need to do so before your first flight on the airline so you can get credit.

Alaska Air



Jet Blue



US Airways


Here is a glossary of terms that you may encounter while managing your frequent flyer miles.  If a term isn’t clear to you, please contact me so I can help!

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