There is no one "best" frequent flyer program—but there may be one that is best for you. When choosing, take into account your travel habits, what types of fares you purchase and what trips you want to take, and each program's strengths and weaknesses. Here's my guide.
How They Award Miles
Traditionally, airlines bestowed miles based on the distance of a given flight. JFK to London Heathrow is 3,451 miles, so that's what you'd get (with a bonus if you bought a premium fare or had elite status). However, Delta and United switched to a revenue-based model in 2014, and now base the amount of miles you earn on how much you spend on your ticket, regardless of the length of the trip. (Elites still get a bonus.) American Airlines announced in November that they'd be switching to this model in the second half of 2016. If you tend to buy cheap tickets, this will put you at a disadvantage.
But most foreign frequent-flyer programs—and holdouts like Alaska Airlines—still dole out points based on distance, so it may make sense to bank miles to one of these programs instead. For example, if you purchase a $500 United fare from Newark to Los Angeles, you'll earn five miles per dollar spent, or 2,500 United MileagePlus miles. If you credit that same flight to partner Air Canada Aeroplan, you earn 100% of the miles flown, or 4,908 miles. Always check with the where you plan to bank the miles to see how many miles you earn, because discounted economy tickets often earn less than 100% of miles flown.
How You Want to Use Miles
Earning points is, well, pointless if you can't exchange them for the travel you want. United, Delta, and American all have zone-based redemptions, meaning the amount of miles needed for an award ticket is based on what region you're flying from and to. For example, traveling from New York to London (about 3,500 miles) costs the same number of points as going from San Diego to Istanbul (almost 7,000 miles) because the origins and destinations are in the same respective zones. Southwest, Jetblue and Virgin America have cost-based redemptions, meaning the miles required for an award ticket is based on the ticket price. Generally speaking, if you want to redeem for expensive flights, especially in business and first class, you'll want to accrue points in a zone-based frequent flyer program. If you travel economy and during peak periods, and have little flexibility (and want to redeem for multiple tickets on the same flight), revenue-based award programs might be more valuable.
Taxes and Fees
Some programs are naughtier than others when it comes to bogus fees and "fuel surcharges." American Airline's main partners for European travel, British Airways and Iberia, levy huge fees, which often negate the value of award tickets.
For example, British Airways charges 40,000 miles and more than $680 in taxes and fees for a JFK-London roundtrip in economy. This makes little sense, when tickets can be purchased outright for close to that amount. Plus, you earn miles on tickets you buy.
Delta levies a "foreign origination surcharge" of several hundred dollars when an award ticket originates in Europe. American and United both charge a $75 fee for booking an award within 21 days of departure, while Delta does not. Even though Delta may charge more miles, they have lower booking fees. So, don't just focus on the cost of trips in miles—also take extra charges into account when deciding what program is best for your particular redemption.
The Airline's Global Network
All of the big carriers are part of one of the three major airline networks: oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance. Not all alliances are created equal—each one has its strengths and coverage gaps. In addition to alliance partners, airlines also have "other airline partners" that can make their program valuable. For example, American Airlines is a member of the oneworld alliance, which means members have access to Qatar Airways awards, and also partners with Etihad Airlines the other major United Arab Emirates carrier. If you do extensive travel to/through the Middle East, American may make a lot of sense, even though they have few of their own operated flights to the region.
Each carrier has unique rules that can be deal-breakers for travelers. In my opinion, the biggest are:
- Delta doesn't allow you to change award tickets within 72 hours prior to departure—you lose all the miles you spent if you need to make last-minute changes. They also ban all first-class international redemptions on partners, so even if Korean Airlines has an empty first-class award seat, you cannot use SkyMiles to book it. On the plus side, Delta will upgrade elite passengers even on award tickets and also awards elite miles on first-class Pay With Miles redemptions.
- American allows free date changes to award tickets as long as the destination and origin remain the same. But there are no stopovers permitted on award tickets.
- United allows free stopovers on award tickets, but charges more miles (sometimes MANY more miles) for awards on partner airlines—80,000 miles on a United first-class flight to Europe versus 110,000 miles for first class on a partner like Lufthansa. Also, United generally offers much more first-class than business-class award availability to Europe—and while first-class tickets require many more miles (80,000 vs 57,500) the cabin isn't much better.