Discouraged by student loan payments? Rent’s too high? How about taking a trip to the Caribbean?

There is no reason for not having a frequent flier account and accumulating miles for practically every trip you take.  Frequent flier accounts cost absolutely nothing and may eventually earn you a free trip, even if it takes you a few years.

Airlines offer frequent flier programs with the idea that they can keep you loyal – if you have an American Airlines account, when you have to travel you will choose to fly with AA or one of its partners to accumulate miles, regardless of whether there are cheaper options out there (or at least if the difference in price between the cheapest alternative and your AA flight isn’t that big).  I challenge that concept.  Rather, loyalty programs should not factor into your decision of flight which to take, because you should have frequent flier accounts with more than one airline, making sure every flight you take will be covered by at least one of your accounts.

To set this up, here are some facts you should know:

  1. You can accumulate miles by flying with the airlines with which you have a frequent flier account, with their airline partners, as well as with their other partners including hotels, car rentals, and online retail sites.
  2. You can redeem miles for flights with the airlines with which you have a frequent flier account and with their partners, as well as for other things such as magazine subscriptions.  Redeeming for international flights tends to the best deal. 
  3. There are three main airline groups that share mileage accumulation benefits and redemption options (US-based airlines in group): oneworld (American Airlines), SkyTeam (Continental, Delta, and Northwest), and Star Alliance (United and US Airways).  [A full list of the member airlines can be found in the respective group websites.]

You only need to open a frequent flier account with one airline in each of the three groups, since having an account with any airline in a group lets you earn and redeem flights within the entire group.  In fact, having more than one account within each group would only spread your miles thin, since miles from different programs within the group cannot be easily combined.

For SkyTeam and Star Alliance, you should generally choose to be a frequent flier with the airline that you fly the most, because several of them offer bonuses for online check-in and other activities to their members only (not partners’ members). 

If you fly internationally enough, you may want to consider having a frequent flier account with a non-US-based airline from one of those groups.  The main problem I have found with some of those programs, however, is that the miles tend to expire more easily, so be careful and read the fine print before you decide to go that route.  For example, I used to have an account with Japan Airlines, but the miles expired 2-3 years after they were accumulated, regardless of activity.  In contrast to most US-based airline programs, where miles do not expire as long as there has been any activity (accumulation or redemption) in the account in the last 18 months.

Regardless of your home airport and the frequency of your travel, this post should have given you a basic understanding of how frequent flier programs work.  Next week I will post some tips for accumulating miles and getting that trip to Aruba faster – and a week should be enough time for you to sign up for your frequent flier accounts.

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