Some Non-obvious Frequent Flyer Programs to Consider

Gabriel Leigh has a CNNgo column on 7 top frequent flyer programs — offering a perspective on the unique value proposition of each.

For the most part, he’s spot on, worth highlighting and also some modest disagreement.

  • Aegean Airlines Miles&Bonus. Easiest Star Alliance status, you get 1000 qualifying miles for signing up and 3000 more within the first year means Star Alliance Silver (so some boarding priority and a free checked bag on your domestic US flying on United and US Airways). 16,000 more qualifying miles to hit Star Alliance Gold which gets you lounge access. I outlined the pluses and minuses of the program when I became an Aegean Airlines Gold member, since then they’ve made it possible to change date and time on award tickets and also cancel awards and redeposit miles (both for a small fee) so that’s an improvement.

  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. If you aren’t a regular Delta flyer or American flyer it’s a great option to put miles flown on both those airlines into a single account — an Alaska Airlines frequent flyer account, since Alaska partners with both — and earn free travel more quickly.

  • American AAdvantage. Gabriel says this is the best overall frequent flyer program. There’s a case to be made for that, though it’s not a slam dunk for the top spot. I do think that they have the best top tier elite program with unlimited complimentary upgrades and international upgrades from any fare. They’re the best for redeeming miles in international first class (Cathay Pacific, Etihad, British Airways all have good availability). Transatlantic flying can be tough, especially since the primary transatlantic partner is British Airways which while inventory is good does impose fuel surcharges. They’re the best program for getting to South America given their own flying and that of partner LAN. But they don’t have as many European or Asian partners as United nad US Airways do, so if you want tons of ways to get where you’re going in business class on award tickets, including to Africa as well, American can pose some greater challenges. Again, it’s arguably the best option all-around. And certainly in some key categories. But not in every one.

  • Avianca TACA Lifemiles: Gabriel highlights the newest Star Alliance member and one of the most lucrative ways to use mileage programs for the infrequent flyer. Last month I laid out in some detail how to make the most of the program through cheap mileage purchases and cash and points awards to get award travel at a deep discount. (The piece does cite this blog on the current 100% bonus on purchased miles.)

  • British Airways Executive Club. Avios points: are good for cheap short-haul redemptions. True enough, and worth paying attention to when there’s a 40% transfer bonus from American Express Membership Rewards for sure. But the flip side is that longer distance flying, and flying that involves connections, gets outrageously pricey. So not one of my favorite programs. But still strategically useful.

  • United MileagePlus. Reasonable award chart, great routing rules, and good online booking experience in most cases plus no fuel surcharges. The IT systems are unreliable and you need to make sure that when you book an award ticket that you actually have a ticket. I’m not a fan of what they’ve done to their elite program this year, or to the airline itself with the reservation system cutover. (We’ll see if the new interface that agents will be using makes the situation better — or worse.) But United has better award availability between the US and Europe and between the US and Asia than anyone else, especially if you’re looking for business class (but not first class) awards.

  • Singapore Airlines Krisflyer. Only because they offer better (and pretty decent) award availability to their own members, much more so on their own aircraft than they offer to partner airlines like United and US Airways. They hit you with fuel surcharges. The online booking process is terrible. And the miles expire after three years regardless of account activity. Still, they do offer one-way awards. I wouldn’t save their points for many other reasons (though domestic US flights, and especially to Hawaii are a comparative bargain when booking on United). So a pretty narrow use. But useful nonetheless, and something I personally save my American Express Membership Rewards for.

I used to love my bmi miles and morn the Diamond Club’s (all-but) passing with the airline’s acquisition by British Airways. And there are strategic uses for All Nippon and Turkish Miles&Smiles. Plenty of other programs have their unique value as well. But I do think this is a good list nonetheless.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “I used to love my bmi miles and morn the Diamond Club’s (all-but) passing with the airline’s acquisition by American”

    Don’t you mean British Airways and not American?
    Also, slight typo, but it should be ‘mourn’.

  2. Note that SQ has a 15% point discount for on-line redemptions. The fuel surcharges are bad, and for economy redemptions, I don’t think the availability is any better for KF members than *A. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been unable to use my KF points to book a saver award, but still found availability through United!

  3. You said easy Star Alliance Silver (through Aegean) is good for a free checked bag on American Airlines too? Really? Or did you mean US Airways?

  4. I’m curious what this strategic use of TK miles are. I’m TK *G, but the only give bonus miles for premium class tickets on TK.

  5. Alaska Airlines has a large number of partners across two alliances. I like it especially because it got me from San Francisco to Bangkok on Cathay Pacific in its business class, amd because it can put me on Air France, and especially because it can get me to, well, Alaska (and Mexico).

    Alaska says it has different inventories for award seats than those of its partners. So it is possible to, say, get a seat on American with Alaska miles that is not available with American miles. My upcoming trip to Panama is on American metal, but was booked with Alaska miles, because those miles gave me a business class ticket for the same number of miles American would have charged me for cattle class.

  6. Hmm, no Skyteam award programs on the list…

    I’d also like to see why it would be worth putting points on Turkish and ANA’s award programs as well…

  7. Thanks for the comments Gary–I was curious to see what your reaction would be.

    @Euro, yes no Skyteam, because I don’t personally find any particularly great value proposition in any Skyteam program. Of course you could make the case for certain uses of Delta, etc. Or even AF/KLM maybe. But this is not meant to be a comprehensive list, rather a subjective selection, and I had to stop somewhere…

  8. Anyone that shops at Amazon often should consider Hawaiian since their portal is the only one I’m aware of that earns miles for Amazon purchases.

  9. Good luck actually getting Hawaiian miles to post. No help either from requests to customer service.

  10. Gary,
    What about TAM Fidelidade? If you only fly short segments, it’s the easiest way to get to Star Silver (only 12 segments in 12 months – doesn’t even have to be in a calendar year)!
    Well, soon to be OneWorld, but still…

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