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How to choose the best program

Having decided to “play the mileage game,” the single most important decision you will be called upon to make is this: Which program should I join?

Less is more

“I participate in every program known to man…and I still can’t seem to earn a free ticket.”

If I had a mile (or a dollar) for every time I’ve heard that lament, I’d be sitting in a first-class seat winging my way to some remote island in the South Seas, instead of sitting in front of the PC aggravating my carpal tunnel syndrome.

Since it doesn’t cost anything to enroll in a frequent flyer program, the temptation is to sign up for them all, in the interest of being ever-ready to earn miles for any and all flights. The problem with that approach is that you will find yourself spread too thin.

The most-requested frequent flyer award is the free round-trip ticket within the continental U.S., offered in most programs for 25,000 miles. That’s 25,000 miles in one program. Banking hundreds of thousands of miles will earn you bragging rights as a road warrior. But if those miles are spread among multiple programs, never amounting to a full 25,000 miles in a single program, you’ll find yourself as reward-poor as you are mileage-rich.

The antidote to the dispersion problem?and the key to making the most of frequent flyer programs generally? is simple: consolidate.

Which brings us back full circle to the choice question: Consolidate in which program?

The short answer is: Participate in the program that allows you to earn the most miles, most easily.

The home airport factor

The majority of frequent flyer miles are earned for air travel, and the airport nearest your residence defines your air travel options, first and foremost.

If, for example, you live in the Houston area, it’s practically a statistical certainty that you will find yourself flying Continental Airlines more often than not. Why? Because Houston is Continental’s home base and, more importantly, they operate more flights, to more destinations, than any other airline from Houston’s primary airport, George Bush Intercontinental. So unless there were compelling considerations to the contrary, the logical first choice of programs for Houston residents would be Continental’s OnePass.

The same logic applies to many parts of the country served by airports dominated by single carriers. American would be a prime candidate for those living in Dallas, St. Louis, or Miami. America West has hubs at Phoenix and Las Vegas. Delta dominates Atlanta, Cleveland, and Columbus, OH. Northwest rules at Minneapolis and Detroit (DTW), as does United at Chicago (O’Hare) and US Airways at Pittsburgh. And so on.

In many cases, it’s that simple: determine which airline dominates your home airport and join that airline’s program.

Destination counts, too

If your home airport is more or less equally served by several airlines, look to your actual travel patterns for direction. Where do you travel most often, and which airline best serves that destination?

Join that airline’s program, and wherever possible, use that airline for flights to other destinations to consolidate your earnings.

Again, the strategy is to pick the program of the airline that is the best fit with your actual travel behavior.

Eye on the Prize

So far, we’ve focused on earning miles. But there are situations where the award side of the equation might affect your choice of programs as well.

For example, since US Airways severed their relationship with American Airlines, members of US Airways’ Dividend Miles program cannot use their miles for an award ticket to Hawaii, as neither US Airways nor any of its program partners fly the route. So if a free ticket to Hawaii is your goal, US Airways’ program is a non-starter. You’ve eliminated one contender from your list.

Tie breakers

There are other points of differentiation among the programs and the airlines themselves that might come into play when travel patterns alone don’t generate a clear winner.

Bigger is better

All things being equal, the program that features more options for earning and redeeming miles is better than the program with fewer options.

Credit card miles

So far, we’ve tailored the discussion to the needs of frequent travelers. There’s another segment of the mileage-earning population that is growing rapidly and has rather different criteria when it comes to choosing an appropriate program. That’s the frequent buyer.

In fact, almost all program members earn miles from a combination of travel and non-travel transactions. In the non-travel category, the greatest number of miles is earned for credit card activity.

If you anticipate earning a significant proportion of your miles by using a program-affiliated credit card, you’ll want to look carefully at two aspects of competing programs’ cards: 1) costs?annual fee and APR for outstanding balances, and 2) mileage payout?the number of miles earned for charges, typically one mile for every dollar charged.

If, for example, Delta is on your short list of airlines that meet your travel needs, the tiebreaker could be Delta’s SkyMiles credit card, issued by American Express. Unlike most program-affiliated credit cards, the Delta card awards two miles for every dollar charged for many purchases.

Back to the future

In today’s precarious economic environment, consumers must factor in the long-term viability of the airlines. In a worst-case scenario, if your airline of choice goes bankrupt, you could lose your miles and any elite status you have earned.

Case in point

Consider my own situation as an example.
  • Airport: I live in Los Angeles, which means that in theory, I have five airports to choose from: Burbank, , Long Beach, Los Angeles International (LAX), Ontario, and Orange/Santa Ana. In practice, only Burbank and LAX are convenient. And Burbank’s short runways only accommodate smaller short-haul aircraft. So, by process of elimination, my primary airport is LAX.

    Unlike the “fortress hub” airports mentioned above, LAX is well served by multiple airlines, with the Big Three (American, Delta, United) all operating their own terminals to support extensive flight schedules.

  • Travel Pattern: For both business and personal reasons, I fly regularly to New York, and quite irregularly to other points in the U.S. and overseas. Putting the LAX-JFK flight at the head of the priority list, the field quickly narrows to the two airlines that fly the route most often, American and United.
  • Tie Breaker: American and United both operate frequent flights between LAX and JFK using wide-body aircraft. Their fares are normally comparable. There’s no significant difference between their inflight meals. Both have snappy terminals with comfortable lounges.

For all their parity, I choose American over United without hesitation. Why? Because I typically fly in economy class, and American’s “More Room Throughout Coach” initiative means that I can expect more legroom on American’s flights than on United’s. On a five-hour flight, that extra comfort makes a difference.

And finally, hand in hand with choosing American as my primary carrier, I choose American’s AAdvantage as my primary frequent flyer program.

Summing up

As we’ve tried to show, the principal factors affecting the choice of program are entirely individual: where you live, where you travel, and what your award goals are.

Know your travel patterns, choose a program accordingly, and you’ll be positioned to earn not only miles, but free tickets as well.

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