Get a free flight or travel comfortably in first class for the price of an economy seat… Airline companies and alliances (Star Alliance, SkyTeam and oneworld) promise wonders for mile hunters. However, getting these rewards without becoming an elite member can be difficult, here are 10 things you need to know to make the most out of your miles and rewards program.
1. Join an alliance
In terms of loyalty rewards programs for airlines, there are two sides of the spectrum. On one side are the programs offered by big alliances and on the other are a myriad of little programs offered by single airlines or groups of code-sharing airlines. Unless you always travel with the same airline which is not a member of a major airline alliance, then the best bet is to join a program with one of these 3 alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam and oneworld
Each alliance contains at least dozen airlines, which allows you to earn miles by flying to hundreds of destinations worldwide. There is nothing that prevents you from signing up with all three programs if you travel often over long distances. But if you’re a casual traveller, the best solution is to keep it simple and focus on one program.
2. Choose the right alliance
So, which one should you choose? Each program has its strengths and weaknesses so you should take a look at where and how you travel and where you plan to go in the next couple of years before choosing and starting to accumulate points.
- Star Alliance: today it is the largest airline alliance in the world and the one that includes the most airlines: Adria Airways, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian Airlines, Blue1, bmi, Brussels Airlines, Continental Airlines, Croatia Airlines, Egypt Air, Lot Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Spanair, Swiss International Air Lines, TAP Air Portugal, Thai Airways International, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways. Star Alliance airlines fly to more than 1000 airports in 171 different countries. It covers most of Africa, North America, Asia and Europe. It doesn’t serve Russia or Central America particularly well however.
- SkyTeam: it is the second largest alliance, consisting of about 23% of the market. 856 destinations are covered in 169 countries. SkyTeam includes Aeroflot, Aeromexico, Air France, KLM, Alitalia, China Southern, Czech Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Korean Air. Vietnam Airlines and JAL are next on the list to join. For now SkyTeam serves the transatlantic routes very well, including North America, Europe and Russia. On the other hand, SkyTeam is the most limited for travel to Asia and Oceania (including Australia) and South America. It’s good to know if you’re a true globetrotter.
- oneworld: it is the smallest of the three, including only 11 airlines: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Malév, Mexicana, Qantas and Royal Jordanian. Its network, although quite scattered around the world, includes regions that the other two alliances lack: Central and South America (including Mexico) and Oceania. On the other hand, there are few destinations in Africa and Eastern Europe which are served by oneworld.
3. Collect points whenever possible
Each of the three loyalty rewards program allow you to collect miles not only on flights with their airlines but in many other ways as well:
- regional airline companies, not just ones part of the alliance or franchise
- hotel chains
- car hires
- shopping, in-flight duty free and online
- magazine subscriptions
- bank services
- culture and entertainment (movie theatres, theme parks, tourist attractions…)
As soon as you subscribe to a rewards program with an airline, familiarize yourself with the policies and partners where you can use your card to collect points and miles. Often the partners differ among the airline companies and are not common to the whole alliance. For example, if you choose Flying Blue with Air France (SkyTeam), you cannot collect points from partners of Delta (SkyTeam).
Collecting points usually happens instantly and directly. It is more complicated when it comes to converting points into miles. For example, Mexicana is a partner with Hilton, but you have to subscribe to Hilton’s rewards program before you can convert your points to miles with Mexicana.
4. Keep an eye on bonus offers
Consult your rewards program website: this is the place where airlines usually post their special offers for members or mile bonuses, like win double the miles if you fly on a particular day with a specific airline. Sign yourself up for the newsletter that corresponds to the card you’ve got.
For example, British Airways offers 1-2 BA Miles for every US dollar that you spend on any Marriott hotel of your choice. It’s not easy to collect all the points possible but try and stay up-to-date with new partners and the best places to collect.
To put things in perspective, it takes around 25000 miles for a free flight between two European capitals; 70000 miles to upgrade your economy seat to first class on a long-haul flight. One night in a hotel will “cost” you between 250-500 miles. The two most important things here for winning miles: travel and be informed.
5. Never leave your account inactive
Always keep this tip in mind as it’s usually written between the lines: with the majority of the loyalty rewards programs, if you haven’t collected any miles for 18-36 months, you’ll lose everything that you’ve collected until that point. If you don’t travel for a long period of time, think about making a small purchase to keep your account active.
If you’ve forgotten about your account for a while, you can always recuperate your miles for a fee (for example: $200 US with US Airways / Star Alliance for recuperate 20000 to 45000 miles).
6. Prime tickets: think at least 6 months in advance
It is highly recommended to search for prime airline tickets at least 6 months in advance. There is little chance of finding a great flight at the last-minute, especially if you’re planning on travelling during peak times like holiday and weekends.
So if you have collected enough points to get a premium seat and you want to take advantage of it in July or August, you should book it in December when fares are still low.
7. Search for tickets on different airlines
One of the greatest things about signing up for an airline rewards program which is part of an alliance is being able to use your miles wherever you’d like, so don’t only use your miles with your chosen airline, shop around. You can also book premium seats on code-sharing airline companies, giving you more choices for finding the best rewards for your miles.
8. Seek out the best dates and discounts
If the date of your trip falls during peak travel times, the airline will ask more miles for it. To get the most out of your miles, travel on weekdays instead of weekends and outside of popular travel periods like Christmas and summer break. It’s not impossible to find a ticket with your rewards during peak times but the airline won’t give it up so easily.
9. Availability: contact the airline by phone
Airline companies take care of their loyal customers but it seems that the premium seats are not always updated in real-time or listed on their website. It is better to call their customer service lines to get the most updated information on deals and offers. The call may cost a few quid, but you’ll receive personalized service to find the rewards ticket that best suits you. Agents have the offers at their fingertips, making it easy for them to find alternative routes or dates quickly.
10. Don’t forget the little deals
Don’t have enough points to qualify for a premium seat? You should also know that airlines offer rewards for smaller amounts of miles too. For example, with United (Star Alliance) you can get hotel rooms for as little as 8000 miles. Watch out for upgrades, they usually only apply if you’ve bought your seat in Economy for a very specific fare far in advance. Read the fare conditions before you purchase your ticket and make sure it qualifies for an upgrade with your rewards program.
One last thing
You can find limitless information on mile-collecting strategies and feedback on how to get the most out of your rewards online. In the USA, Randy Peterson has become what some call the naughty kid of the tourism industry thanks to his sites Flyertalk.com and Webflyer.com, two sites that give the customers the power to chat and reveal pros and cons about programs they’re involved in.
Do you have any experience with loyalty rewards programs? How have they effected the way your travel and spend? Have you cashed in your miles yet? Share you experiences below!