Budget Tips, Newbie How-to's, Travel Advice

The Newbie’s Guide To Frequent Flier Programs – Part 1

July 25, 2011 • By

Newbie’s guide

I love to travel.  But, when you factor in the outrageous ticket prices, ridiculous junk fees, charges for checked baggage and in some instances…… carry on bags……… you will be broke before you reached your destination.  I say it’s high time for consumers to fight back!  One of the best ways to accomplish this is through the religious accumulation of Frequent Flier miles through an airline’s FF program.

What is a Frequent Flier (FF) program?

A Frequent Flier program is an airline’s loyalty program which rewards its members for their continued patronage.  Essentially, it gives the passenger a chance to earn a mile in kind for every mile that they fly on an airline.  Earn enough miles and you will eventually be able to book a free (with the exception of booking fees and taxes) domestic or international trip!  Today’s FF programs have gone through many changes over the years; so much so that you can actually earn miles without flying at all!

You’ve got my attention, how can I earn FF miles without flying?

One of the most popular ways is through an airline’s branded credit card.  When you sign up for the card (usually there is an annual fee of $50 – $450 involved)  you will get from 1 – 2.5 miles for each dollar spent.  You can also earn miles through a variety of sources like:

1. Hotel stays
2. Financial Services
3. Utilities
4. Restaurants & Entertainment
5. Car rentals
6. Surveys
7. Retail shopping via online portals
8. Joining online coupon or point sites
9. You can even earn miles by LIKING an airline’s (or their partner’s) page on Facebook!

You can always find out about mileage promotions by going to an airline’s website.  Be sure to sign up for their occasional emails which will detail all of the current promotions that you can take advantage of.   Frequent Flier miles is one of the last remnants of airline perks and I would advise all travelers (especially budget travelers) to take serious advantage of them.  The only caveat that I will offer is to pursue a promotional offer ONLY if it is something that you would normally use.  To purchase something that you would never use to gain miles defeats the purpose.  If it’s useful and you can afford it, go for it, otherwise….don’t waste your money.

What is an Airline Alliance and how can I maximize my award potential ?

Newbie’s guide

In an effort to offer their passengers more travel options, airlines have teamed up to connect domestic and international travelers with partner airlines who may travel routes that they do not.  This spirit of cooperation or partnership is called an airline alliance.  You can earn miles on one airline within that alliance and redeem them on another airline within that alliance.  For example, you can use your Delta miles on a trip that includes Delta, Air France and Czech Airlines because they are in the same alliance.

As you accrue miles, you can also gain status within an alliance which will give you VIP status and perks like double FF miles, seat upgrades, priority boarding and/or check-in, various waived fees or lounge access.  Each Alliance’s status benefits varies.  Currently, there are three of these alliances in existence.

Here are the names of the alliances and their member airlines:

1. Star Alliance
2. One World Alliance
3. Skyteam

The first step is to sign up with the airlines that you currently use on a regular basis or one that you think you might use.  Next, sign up with at least one member of each airline alliance.  This will ensure that you have all of your miles concentrated  in one place even though you can use any member airline when it’s time to book an international flight.  Be sure to keep track of your member name, password for each program.  You will need them in order to sign into your online account.

Keep track of your FF # too; you will need that when you book a flight online or via phone.  I would recommend that you do not book via phone because you may incur additional fees as a result.  Booking online is free.  There is a great program that will help you to keep all of this info organized for free.  More on that and a review in a follow up post.

You should do a little research and make sure that each of the two airlines (within the same alliance)  fly connecting routes.   There would be no benefit in sign up with two airlines that fly the same route.  The best way to see where each member airline flies is to check the alliance’s route map:

1. Route map for the Star Alliance
2. Route map for the One World Alliance
3. Route map for SkyTeam (rumored; they are adding new partners so current map is unavailable)


Credit: wired.com

How can I keep my miles from expiring?

Honestly, you would have to try very hard to get your miles to expire.  Most miles remain active and valid if you perform one transaction within 12-18 months, depending on the airline.  You can easily fill out a survey, make a purchase or sign up for an email list to keep your account active.  There are some airlines whose miles never expire like Delta, BMI (British Midland International) and United (who is now merging with Continental) , so you can’t lose there.  Stay on top of your account and you will never lose any of your hard earned miles.

Do I have to spend my miles on flights?

No, you do not, but why wouldn’t you?  If you are truly looking to build a FF miles portfolio, I wouldn’t advise you to use your miles to purchase inconsequential things like magazines, etc.  Believe it or not, some airlines will try to tempt you to waste some of your miles in that way.  Steady and slow wins the race.  Be patient and watch your miles grow over time.  Use those miles for international travel or for itineraries that would cost you a lot of money otherwise.  Try to have an idea of where you would like to go.  Check out a specific airline’s award chart to see how many miles will be needed to get to your destination.   You can find a specific airline’s award chart by Googling it.

In the next two weeks, we will discuss how to quickly accrue and maximize those treasured frequent flier miles so that you can realize your dream vacation.