Frequent Flier Basics

Steps to becoming a frequent flier:

— There are many loyalty programs in the airline industry, and it is very difficult to comprehensively summarize all of their pros/cons, so I will not try to do that here.  This post is meant to be an introduction for how you can take advantage of the loyalty programs already in place and how you can make flying easier and more fun.  Soon enough, you can be enjoying the same trips I blog about FOR FREE by taking advantage of the system in place.

  1. You actually need a frequent flier #.  Make sure you have an account, and make sure your information is accurate.  If you aren’t sure, you can usually just check on an airline’s website or call the airline’s 1-800# to find out for sure.  You really only need one airline frequent flier # PER alliance because the miles are usually redeemable across airlines within the same alliance.  I’ve heard from some people that they don’t fly enough to earn free trips, but I think this is a crazy statement with the vast amount of ways you can earn miles/points from NOT flying.  ****At the bottom of this post, I will list the alliances and their member airlines.
  2. Make sure that your frequent flier # is listed next to your name EVERY TIME YOU FLY.  You can ensure this by creating a log-in account under your frequent flier# and then booking your flights through your own account.  If you ever forget, you can always add it by calling the airline or by fishing around their website.  In the case where you have actually flown without having the # listed, you can usually go back up to 6 months and get retroactive frequent flier miles.
  3. Learn how to earn miles through flying.  These are the most valuable miles as they accrue toward your status with the airline, and you can also earn bonus miles based on your fare code/class of service.  For example, when you fly from JFK-LAX, you will earn 2470 elite/medallion miles and usually 2470 redeemable miles as well (note that the miles you earn does not always equal the actual distance between cities).  Elite status with an airline is calculated by elite miles earned DURING A CALENDAR year (the number resets on January 1st) and have nothing to do with the total amount of miles someone has stored in a frequent flier account.  This does not make the redeemable miles worthless of course as they can be redeemed (hence their name) for things like free trips, upgrades, etc.  Some fare classes offer bonus elite miles, usually because of their higher cost, and some fare classes yield a reduced elite mileage value, often because the fares were consolidator fares or group travel rates purchased in bulk.

    Delta Airlines Travel Account Homepage

    Delta Account Homepage

  4. Earning Status Through Segments:  It is possible to earn status with an airline through the number of segments flown.  A segment can also be referred to as a leg.  For example, if I am flying from JFK to SFO but am connecting in DTW, this would be two legs.  The airlines allow this because there are some frequent fliers who fly A LOT but only between close cities (think NY-DC, NY-Boston, DC-Atlanta, LA-SF, etc).  These flights do not earn a lot of elite miles because they are so close, so this is another way fliers can attain and retain status.  Further, when a flight occurs between cities less than 500 miles apart, 500 miles is usually given as the base mileage amount.  Many of these shuttle cities or short haul flights are very lucrative for the airlines.  Back in 1999, it was reported that 40% of Delta’s operating profit came from the Delta Shuttle flying between DCA-LGA-BOS.
  5. Track your mileage and your flight segments.  It’s important to know where you stand in your quest for status (or for the next tier), and you never want to be caught off guard with no recourse.  Two years ago, I was 3400 medallion miles from requalifying for Platinum with Delta, and I was about to book a mileage run to Las Vegas for New Years Eve to qualify.  Thankfully Delta ran a special for purchasing MQM’s during the last week of the year, so I quickly took advantage and “bought” my status.  Also, miles can expire, and there are literally trillions of miles floating worldwide around peoples’ accounts at any given time.  Use a service to track these.  You can use, or you can simply just track them manually.  It is unacceptable to ever allow any mile or point to expire with so many ways to keep these accounts active.  (Delta Skymiles do not expire as of now).
  6. Learn how to earn miles NOT from flying.  There are usually many alternate ways of earning miles for your account, including through hotel partnerships, car rentals, restaurants, online shopping portals, credit card partnerships, etc.  Here is a link to a list of most online shopping portals attached to a specific airline:  Check for specials around holidays as these portals will often run timely mileage bonus offers (40miles/dollar from 1-800-Flowers around Valentines Day, etc)

    United Airlines Online Shopping Portal Mileage Plus

    United Airlines Online Shopping Portal

  7. Learn how to credit card churn.  This sounds a little strange, and at the beginning, I was very skeptical.  In short, this is a term for taking advantage of many credit card companies’ sign up offers and spending bonuses.  For example, with the Chase Ink Bold credit card, if you spend $5000 in the first 3 months, you will receive a 50,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points bonus.  100,000 Chase points can be converted into 100,000 (or more) miles with most airlines, enabling first class travel to Asia or Europe for example.  Obviously if you have credit issues or have problems managing credit card spending, this is NOT the way to go, but I will also say that you are leaving a ton of mileage earning on the table.  Here is a post from Brian Kelly (“thepointsguy”) summarizing his top 10 credit card offers currently available:
  8. Learn how to redeem miles.  It has never been easier to earn miles, but many say that it also has never been more difficult to redeem miles for high value, low cost trip options.  Back in 2006-2007, I could have booked a business class ticket from NYC-Europe for 90,000 Skymiles at any time; today, it is a crap shoot booking these tickets (now for 100,000 miles), and it has become almost a game to find low mileage tickets to Europe (and other high priority, high demand destinations).  Flying with flexible dates and flying at non peak times definitely helps.  More on this in future posts.  Here is the United award redemption chart, the American Airlines award redemption chart, and the Delta award chart.
  9. Learn about the perks associated with status.  Many may wonder why frequent flier status is so sought after and so valuable.  If you travel even a decent amount, you will appreciate these perks as they pretty much ameliorate all of the stresses and hassles that most leisure travelers must deal with.  Earning and enjoying these perks is what makes most people able to travel for business as much as they do.  Some basic perks associated with status:  free checked bag(s), priority check in, priority security lines (also access to TSA PreCheck), bonus miles, increased award ticket availability, availability of priority seating, free or discounted economy plus/economy comfort seating, and the holy grail of flying:  the complimentary upgrade!

****Airline Alliances

Star Alliance:



Standalone airlines (no true alliance partners):

Southwest/AirTran, Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue (although there are partnerships).

One thought on “Frequent Flier Basics

  1. Pingback: Plans for Upcoming Credit Card Churn | An entrepreneur wandering the globe

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