All right, I’m gonna start with the basics. Note that I have included this article in the Beginner’s Guide section if you ever need to refer back to it. I apologize in advance for the long post, but there’s so much information to share! Before I start, I would like to provide this glossary of frequent flyer/traveler terms: http://www.flyertalk.com/glossary/
I actually just discovered this glossary, but it is pretty useful and complete, in case you ever need to look up a term or acronym.
What ARE frequent flyer miles?
Frequent flyer miles are points that are awarded by nearly (if not every) airline on the planet, in some form or another. With most of the major airlines (also known as legacy airlines, including Delta, United, Continental, American), for every flight you take, if you provide your frequent flyer number (or a frequent flyer number for an airline in the same alliance or in a partnership, more on this later), the airline will credit to your frequent flyer account the number of miles that your flight was. Some airlines, such as Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America, don’t credit you based on mileage, but they use a system know as a “revenue based” system, which means that the number of miles/point/credits you earn is based on how much you spent for your flight. By and large, these revenue based systems are not as lucrative for the frequent flyer mile collector seeking to redeem for premium class travel. There are exceptions, and these airlines have some partnerships with certain legacy airlines that are sometimes good redemptions, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.
So, what is the point of accumulating these frequent flyer miles?
These miles are loyalty programs, intended to get you to always fly the same airline. OK, that’s more for the airlines’ benefit, but what’s in it for you? Generally, these miles can be redeemed for award tickets. Generally, on the US legacy airlines, a domestic, coach class award ticket can start as low as the 15,000 range, and more typically will cost you 25,000-50,000 miles. Therefore, you could have all your domestic flights for free if you were able to collect enough miles. A United States transcontinental flight (sometimes you’ll see this abbreviated as transcon) will generally generate just shy of 5000 miles, so if you are avidly collecting miles, you could in theory fly across the country for free roughly every 6 trips (of course, subject to travel dates, award availability, etc. etc.).
But what if I want to fly elsewhere?
You’re in luck, miles can be used also to travel internationally. Each airline has its own award chart, which dictates how many miles it costs to fly from each location to another. For example, see this page for links to the United Mileage Plus award chart for United and to the United Star Alliance (partner) Award Chart (that’s the award chart for using United Miles on other alliance members). You’ll notice the award charts also include booking fares for international and first class seats for miles. This is where, if you are interested in traveling in style in premium class, you can get the most bang for your mile. Typically, international business and first class seats are in the 100-150k mile range, of course depending on which airlines’ award chart you’re looking at and what your origin and destination are.
Well, how will I possibly ever accumulate 150,000 miles?
Most people do not fly anywhere close to 150,000 miles in 5 years, let alone a single year. However, there are many ways to earn miles. with the biggest one being credit card signup bonuses. I’ll have a future post about this, but basically, many airlines offer co-branded credit cards with the major banks (Chase United and Continental, Citi AAdvantage, AMEX Delta, etc.), and when you sign up for these, you generally can earn at least 25k bonus miles (ranging up to 50k and sometimes even 100k!). There are also several credit card affinity programs that allow you to earn points that can be converted to miles or allow you to spend the points for travel (usually valuing the points at $0.01 each). I’ll be writing about this very soon, because there are currently several excellent offers on American Express card that are available for only a limited time.
Before you get carried away with applying for credit cards, I would like to add a caveat. Playing the credit card side of the miles requires you to have a good credit score (at least 700, or close to that), and to be able to maintain that score (i.e.always paying your bills off on time, in full). IF you have trouble with either one of these, and/or you are planning, in the next two years, to make a major purchase involving a credit check, DO NOT dabble with credit cards. It’s more important that you be able to secure the best rate for your car loan, home mortgage, or whatever else you may be buying.
And even if you do play the credit card game, don’t go off applying for everything…generally, each bank will only allow you 3-4 credit cards a year, and they will not accept more than 1 application ever 30 days (sometimes 60). Therefore you have to be a bit selective on which offers you jump on, and go for the ones that present the best value in your particular situation.
Anyway, back to Frequent Flyer miles…
So one question that I have heard several times, is people lamenting the fact that they can’t earn useful miles on their flight because they collect United Mileage Plus miles, but they’re flying US Airways (or Continental). However, you CAN earn miles (even elite qualifying miles, or EQM, more on that in a moment) by flying on carriers in the same alliance. I’m only going to scratch the surface on this topic, but there are three major alliances operating in the US (actually, probably the world too):
- Star Alliance (sometimes abbreviated as *A, not to be confused for A* search) – includes United, Continental, US Airways, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, ANA, Lufthansa, and more. This is the largest alliance in the world.
- OneWorld (creatively abbreviated as OW) – includes American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and more.
- SkyTeam – Includes Delta, AirFrance/KLM, and other airlines, but this is generally considered the weakest alliance.
So, next time you’re not flying you’re usual carrier, do check if you can possibly credit your miles to another carrier’s account in the same alliance. And if you don’t have any miles with that alliance, you should consider opening an account with one of the carriers. One of the key tenets to follow is to always collect miles, and to accumulate miles in as many brands/alliances/chains as possible, because you never know when they’ll come in handy.
Last but not least…elite status?
So generally, as you accumulate EQM with a single frequent flyer program, you can earn elite status if you earn enough miles in a single year. Most of the airlines have elite levels at 25k miles, 50k miles, and 75k/100k/125k (top levels vary by program). You can also earn elite status through segments, which involves counting every flight you take. This might be the way you qualify if say you take many short trips within or near California or Texas. You generally don’t fly much more than 500 miles on these trips, but you can qualify for low-level elite status at less 50 segments.
The benefits of elite status generally include waived baggage fees on at least one bag, priority lines for check-in and sometimes security, and the potential to get free domestic upgrades to first class (I believe AA is an exception on this one). Note that ONLY elite qualifying miles (EQM) earn elite status and these are generally miles flown butt-in-seat (BIS). Most of the time, credit cards and other methods of earning or purchasing miles will not qualify you for elite status (though there are some exceptions). Airlines also sometimes run promotions where you can earn additional EQM on flights, usually it will be flight on certain routes that allow you to earn double or even triple EQM than normal.
Anyway, I think I’ve bombarded you all with enough words and acronyms for one sitting. Thank you for reading, to everyone that made it this far. And please feel free to post any questions in the comment section, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time!