The best frequent flyer programs

Brianna Mills, 21.05.18
Alternative travel tips: 12 min read

What are frequent flyer programs?

Frequent flyer programs are the loyalty cards of the air travel industry. Your supermarket points card or your 10th-coffee-free stamp collection work in exactly the same way. You fly with the same airline, or an alternative airline in the same alliance. You earn points. Then, you can put those points toward the price of your flight, upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals or even shopping! Most programs cost absolutely nothing to join, so you're not losing out by signing up and you may end up saving yourself some serious cash!

Plane taking off

How do frequent flyer programs work?

The traditional way frequent flyer programs worked was to offer air miles rewards. The longer (more miles) your flight, the more mileage points you accumulated. Although many airlines still have air miles reward schemes as a way to reward loyal passengers, there is another frequent flyer trend to watch out for. Some airline loyalty programs now work on a "get points for the amount you spend" basis. So instead of rewarding how far you travel, you're rewarded based on how much money your flights cost. This trend is apparently set to continue over the next few years, so bare that in mind when you research your frequent flyer options!

Airport Signs

How do I choose the best frequent flyer program for me?

The best thing about the majority of frequent flyer programs is that they literally allow you the opportunity to get something for nothing. If you are a frequent traveller, you should definitely spend some time sussing out which airline rewards program is the best for you. With no risk of losing any money, it's a no brainer! A few things to consider when you're picking the best loyalty program for your needs include:

Airline AllianceInfographic

Airline Alliances

An airline alliance is an agreement between two or more airlines to cooperate to a significant degree. Airlines choose to do this because of cost reductions in terms of maintenance etc. For example, airline alliances might combine marketing and branding tactics to ease passengers making connections under codeshares. But, we’re more interested in what airline alliances can do for you. If you want to find out more about which airlines are part of which alliances, click here. It's good to know that 6 out of 10 airlines allow rewards program members to earn and redeem miles with partner carriers - this is where your knowledge of airline alliances come in handy.

Not only do airline alliances grant you a large range of perks, such as lounge access, across multiple airlines, they also allow you to gain more and more milage rewards by earning you frequent flyer points for a single account on several different carriers. If you’re a member of an alliance loyalty program, Alternative Airlines can filter your search to show you all the flights available that will earn you frequent flyer points. For example, if you're a member of the American Airlines loyalty program "AAdvantage", you can filter your search by their alliance, Oneworld. This will immediately show you which flights will allow you to collect those precious frequent flyer points:

How to book flights with frequent flyer points

Location, location, location

Of course, where you are in the world and where you're flying to can have a huge impact in your choice of frequent flyer programs. If you live in Italy and spend a lot of time visiting family in France, you're going to be in the market for a different frequent flyer program than a domestic US business traveller. Find out which airlines that you’re most likely to fly on over the next few years — given on where you live and where you’re likely to go — and work backwards from there

Trip planning

unsplash-logoFrancesca Tirico

Which frequent flyer perks are you interested in?

This is where you can have a bit of fun. Are you in the frequent flyer business just to save some money on air travel? Are you a frequent business traveller who spends a long time waiting around airports? Or is it your dream to be waited on like an A-list celebrity in first class? Different frequent flyer programs prioritise different rewards. It might be easier to be upgraded with one loyalty program, but you may need less points to get money off your flight purchases with another. Whether you're after lounge access, cash-back, or upgrades, you can try and find an airline loyalty program that offers the best value points schemes for the rewards you're interested in.

Our favourite airline rewards programs 2018

Although this article is called The best frequent flyer programs of 2018, the best programs for us at Alternative Airlines may not be the best ones for you. These are, however, some of the most popular in the world right now. Compare these frequent flyer programs and get a feel for what frequent flyer program best suits you.

Frequent Flyer Programs Compared

SkyMiles

Airline: Delta
Airline alliance: SkyTeam
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 qualifying miles or 30 qualifying flight segments per calendar year (and $3,000 minimum annual spending level for USA residents).
Special bonus: Top-tier elite members get upgrade certificates and 25,000 bonus miles.
How to join SkyMiles:_ You can join SkyMiles by visiting Delta's website and signing up.

delta-airlines

3 decades in, SkyMiles is one of the longest-running and most successful loyalty programs in air travel. In fact, this is the third year in a row that the program has proudly received the title Best rewards program by air travel awards institutions. Delta Air lines offers its members more ways to redeem frequent flyer miles than any other airline, including airline tickets, mileage upgrades, car rentals, hotel accommodation and Delta Sky Club membership. Another bonus: your miles never expire! Not only that, but you can rack up your points without even having to purchase a flight when you use your Delta-branded credit card. It's a little less straightforward than some of the other airlines rewards shcemes on the list, but its pros definitely seem to outweigh the cons.

Skywards

Airline: Emirates
Airline alliance: None
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: Blue 0 miles
Silver 25,000 miles in a given calendar year
Gold 50,000 miles in a given calendar year
Platinum 100,000 miles in a given calendar year
Special bonus: You can redeem your points when you buy EasyJet flights at 7,500 miles - EasyJet's frequent flyer program is by invitation only so this is a great way of using points on this low cost carrier!
How to join Skywards: You can join Skywards and start earning frequent flyer rewards by visiting the Skywards sign-up page

emirates plane

Emirates' award-winning frequent flyer program costs nothing to join and you can quickly rack up those all-important miles in various ways. Membership gives you the chance to earn and spend miles with Emirates and a wide selection of partners, and also enhances your travel experience with benefits and services. Although Emirates don't belong to an airline alliance, they have many airline partners, such as Alaska Airlines and Flydubai, with which you can earn and spend points. According to Emirates' own website, you can earn enough miles for an upgrade after just one long-distance trip and your miles are valid for three years, so you’ll have plenty of time if you want to save up for something really special.

AAdvantage

Airline: American Airlines
Airline alliance: Oneworld
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments per calendar year as well as $3,000 minimum annual spend.
Special bonus: American Airlines doesn't just have airline partners with its alliance , it has so many others you can earn and spend points with such as Etihad Airways, Fiji Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, Alaska Airlines, Westjet, Hawaiian Airlines
How to join Aadvantage: You can join Aadvantage by enrolling on the Aadvantage page on the American Airlines website.

american airlines plane

American Airlines boast over 1000 ways to earn miles with their loyalty program, AAdvantage. The Program has been around since 1981 and remains the largest with a reported membership of more than 100 million. American Airlines has a fantastic reputation for international and domestic travellers alike. It's important to note, however, that AAdvantage is now revenue-based, meaning miles are awarded based on dollars spent rather than number of miles flown. Also, your mileage credit will be forfeited if your account is inactive for 18 months.

Miles&More

Airline: Lufthansa group (Lufthansa, SWISS, Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines, and Eurowings)
Airline alliance: Star Alliance
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: Frequent Traveler 35,000 status miles or 30 flights in 1 calendar year. Senator 100,000 status miles in a given calendar year HON Circle Member 600,000 HON Circle miles in two consecutive calendar years (current & preceding years)
Special bonus Miles&More regularly launch good-value promotions where you can get more for your miles
How to join Miles&More: Join Miles&More by completing the registration form on the Miles&More website

lufthansa plane

Miles&More is the largest frequent flyer loyalty program in Europe with over 40 airline partners and 30 million members. The program began in 1993 and has different tiers for their member. For standard Miles & More members, you only need one mile to join and your miles retain validity for 36 months, after which they expire. The other tiers in ascending order are For Frequent Travellers, Senators and HON Circle Card holders. For these members, miles have no expiration date.

MILES&SMILES

Airline: Turkish Airlines
Airline alliance: Star Alliance
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 level miles every 12 months
Special bonus: Of all the airlines, this frequent flyer program is the easiest to work out and may help you to become Star Alliance Gold status. They also have an epic (and by epic I mean long) MILES&SMILES explanation video with an unbelievably dramatic soundtrack. If that doesn't win you over, I don't know what will.
How to join Miles&Smiles: Join Miles&Smiles by filling out the online application on the Turkish Airlines website

MILES&SMILES allows members of the Turkish Airlines loyalty program special services. These include: award tickets, upgrades, lounge access, extra baggage allowance, the use of business class counters and reservation priority. With its main hub at Istanbul Atatürk Airport, Turkish Airlines is the flag carrier of Turkey and the world’s fourth-biggest airline in the world, flying to more international destinations than any other carrier. As long as you choose to fly with Turkish Airlines or a member of star alliance, you can take advantage of the many opportunities offered by the MILES&SMILES.

LifeMiles

Airline: Avianca
Airline alliance: Star Alliance
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: 22,000 qualifying miles on Avianca and/or Star Alliance airline partners in a calendar year.
Special bonus: It has one of the lowest requirements of elite status of all the airline rewards programs.
How to join LifeMiles: Visit the LifeMiles website to join LifeMiles and start earning points right away!

Avianca is the largest airline in Colombia and second largest in Latin America, so if you're a frequent traveller prone to jet-setting around the Americas it may be a frequent flyer program worth considering. Launched in 1919, when it was initially registered under the name SCADTA, it’s also one of the oldest airlines in the world. LifeMiles members earn miles every time they fly with Star Alliance carriers and Avianca subsidiaries or use services in certain hotels and retail outlets.

Flying Blue

Airline: KLM and Air France
Airline alliance: SkyTeam
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 level miles (30,000 in France and Monaco) or 15 qualifying flights.
Special bonus: Flying Blue launch new offers each month; usually discounted loyalty tickets that save you up to 50% on Award Miles.
How to join Flying Blue: Join Flying Blue by completing the online regisration on the Air France website.

klm plane

Flying Blue is the airline rewards scheme for both KLM and Air France. When the airlines merged in 2005, their frequent flyer programs (Fréquence Plus and Flying Dutchman) merged with them into Flying Blue. Most airlines within the Air France-KLM family now use Flying Blue, including Kenya Airways, Aircalin and Tarom. Flying Blue is growing rapidly, which isn't a surprise given that Air France operates 15,00 daily departures to 191 destinations. More than 100,000 new members sign up for Flying Blue each month and its slogan is "explorer le monde".

Executive Club

Airline: British Airways
Airline alliance: Oneworld
Cost to join: Free
Minimum elite status requirement: 300 tier points in a calendar year.
Special bonus: The elite lounge access allows you to bring in a guest and you can pool your points, or Avios, with up to six people who live with you, including children, with your Household Account to earn rewards quicker.
How to join the Executive Club: Join the Executive Club and start earning Avios points by visiting the Executive Club page on the British Airways website.

British Airways plane

British Airways liken their rewards scheme to a holiday fund. Their tiered loyalty program sees people earn Avios and spend their well-earned points on any British Airways or partner carrier flights. The Executive Club was launched in 1995 and later became the founding member of the Oneworld global airline. Their Executive Club program has a distinct reward currency, Avios. Avios is a coalition program, offering members of the frequent flyer programs of British Airways, Iberia, FlyBe and AIR ITALY thousands of ways to earn and redeem Avios for flights, hotels, and even travel experiences.

sleeping at airports

unsplash-logoJay Wen

Updated: 27th September 2018


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