When American Airlines invented frequent-flier programs in 1982, the
concept was simply a new twist on traditional "loyalty marketing"
schemes like S & H Green Stamps and the Dunkin' Donuts punchcard.
Today, such programs are one of the airline industry's most successful
marketing toolsódespite the fact that most passengers never accumulate
enough miles to qualify for free travel.
To benefit from frequent-flier programs, you need to observe these
simple but important rules:
1. Pick an airline that you can use regularly. If you live in a city
or hub where one airline is dominant, use that airline whenever
possible (all other things, including fares, being equal). If you
have several major airlines to choose from, determine which
airline has the most flights to places you're likely to visit.
2. Pick the most generous frequent-flier program. Look for a
program with reasonable award goals, such as from 20,000 to
25,000 miles for an off-peak domestic ticket. Next, check the
program's mileage expiration policy. (The better programs, such
as Northwest's WorldPerks and Continental's OnePass, let you
accrue miles indefinitely.)
3. Look for alliances that match your travel interests. Today
more than ever, airlines are working together with code sharing
and other marketing alliances. This makes it easier to rack up
miles and claim awards while flying more than one airline.
[Example: Delta lets you earn and redeem SkyMiles on 14
international airlines (subject to various exclusions). This makes
SkyMiles a good bet if you live near a Delta hub and plan to
4. Check the fine print. International partners of U.S. airlines
may not award miles for discount fares. This means you could
fly from Tupelo to Paris and earn credit only for the
Tupelo-New York leg of your trip. If that's the case, you may
want to fly on another airline that awards full mileage to
discount travelers, assuming that you can get a comparable fare.
5. Take advantage of non-airline partner offers, but don't be
obsessive. Credit cards, long-distance phone services, car rental
firms, and hotel chains are just a few of the businesses that
award frequent-flier miles. If such partners offer the services
you need at competitive prices, then by all means use them. But
remember: An overpriced hotel or a credit card with a 1.75
percent monthly finance charge is no bargain, even if it does
reward you with frequent-flyer miles.
To read the Web's most detailed advice on frequent-flier programs,
Randy Peterson has been tracking frequent-flier programs since the
mid-1980s, when he started InsideFlyer magazine. His WebFlyer
site has reviews of frequent-flier programs, news of bonus awards,
and a form that lets you enroll in up to five airline programs with a