Diving into the frequent flyer game is tricky. Which are the best programs? When should you redeem points? Is loyalty to one airline worth the steep price? But once you‘re in the game, the rewards can be rich. Todd Bliwise has been studying these things for years, and has it all figured out. He’ll be sharing his tips and tricks with us in this column, Speed of Flight. Today: The best frequent flyer programs.
Points programs are complex, difficult to use, and can be downright frustrating—if not impossible—to understand. But for me? They’re fascinating. Since turning 15, I have studied various points systems, from airline frequent flyer accounts to credit cards. I have tried and tested all of them, and that has allowed me to explore 62 countries (so far!) under more of my own terms than most airlines would be comfortable with. And so can you.
The first step to understanding how to get the most out of points and miles is identifying which “currency” is the most valuable. And, of course, those with the most value translate into getting the most bang for your buck—when cashing in 100,000 miles can obtain a ticket that normally costs $10,000 or more. As a U.S.-based flyer, big airline frequent-flyer points are just a few of the programs you have to choose from. Unfortunately, there are lots of changes and, worse, point devaluations happening in these programs. Here are the four absolute best North American airline loyalty programs, in my opinion.
1. American Airlines AA Advantage frequent flyer miles is the only program to withstand any devaluation, and continues to be one of the best: They allow you to redeem miles on some of the best international carriers, free of dramatic fuel surcharges. Some other perks? High-value tickets are usually cheaper than other airlines’, and you can redeem points for a one-way ticket (which not every airline allows). These miles continue to be the best—but, since they don’t accept transfers from AMEX, they’re harder to earn than most.
2. Delta Airlines SkyMiles, whose frequent flyer program has a horrible reputation, introduced one-way awards this year—making these miles more valuable. Delta’s one-way awards on partners continue to be some of the best redemptions out there—and combined with the alliance’s low fuel surcharges, it’s even better. Delta also has partnered with Starwood to allow a “double dip” of points, allowing customers to earn in both programs simultaneously while flying or staying at hotels. With the program’s generous availability to partners—not to mention Delta’s extensive route map—SkyMiles is easily another solid choice. However, domestic reward flights are hard to come by and is the weakness of this program, so be aware of that.
3. Air Canada’s Aeroplan loyalty program is definitely not the best, but a lot better than other Star Alliance partners in North America. Be aware there are still fuel surcharges, but the ability to redeem business and first-class upgrades through Europe to get to Asia can be an incredible way to experience some of the best premium cabins out there, like Lufthansa’s First and Business Class. The downside to Aeroplan is that the only way to use one-way redemptions is if the itinerary originates or terminates in the US.
4. In terms of budget travel, JetBlue’s TrueBlue is a program with easy-to-redeem points with little price fluctuation—ticket prices are heavily linked to demand. There’s also great access to its relatively new premium business class product, Mint, and low fuel surcharges.
Todd Bliwise is the founder of An Avenue Apart.
Photo by Woodys Aeroimages/Flickr