What Airline Loyalty Programs Can Do For You

Airline Loyalty Programs

Jet-setting across the globe at no expense to you is an attractive idea. Many people have been able to make that dream become a reality by making good use of airline loyalty programs. In fact, joining an airline’s frequent flyer program is one of the easiest ways to score free and reduced-price travel. Some estimates show that as much as 7 percent of all airline purchases are made using loyalty program points or miles.

Airline loyalty programs are easy to sign up for and painless to use. If you’ve never participated in an airline loyalty program, we’ve outlined everything you need to know to choose the one that’s right for you. Keep reading.

What is an Airline Loyalty Program?

Nearly every major U.S. airline has some version of a loyalty or frequent flyer program. Typically, these programs allow you to earn miles or points based on several activities that range from flying that airline to using a co-branded airline credit card. Airline loyalty programs started as a way to reward loyal travelers. The more you fly with a particular airline, the more points you use and the more free travel you can earn.

Airline loyalty programs vary significantly from airline to airline, so it pays (literally) to know the benefits of each and compare them to your existing travel habits and your travel goals. In addition to earning free flights, participating in an airline’s loyalty program can also earn you access to upgrades, airport lounges across the world, and other perks.

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How Do You Earn Miles or Points Through an Airline Loyalty Program?

The most common way to earn airline miles is by flying that particular airline. It’s quick, easy, and completely free. You can usually earn points based on either the distance you fly or the price you pay for your ticket. Depending on the airline, you might earn one mile per actual mile flown. However, some programs award you up to five or six times the dollar amount of your ticket. If you’re loyal to one airline, this is usually a good deal. You’ll earn and be able to redeem points through that one airline only.

However, flying isn’t the only way to earn airline miles. There are several ways to earn rewards credit.

The fastest way to earn airline miles with rewards programs is through using a travel credit card. You can typically earn bonus points once you spend a certain amount within the first few weeks of having your card. Those bonus points can go as high as 50,000 points or more and can push you toward a reward ticket pretty quickly. And you don’t even need to fly at all. These programs reward you with “miles” for the dollars you’re already spending. You’ll earn miles on all your purchases. Some cards offer special incentive programs to reward spending in specific categories with double, triple, or even up to six times the points per dollar. Sample categories might include dining, hotels, gas, or even groceries.

Things to Keep in Mind

Make note that you usually need to have excellent credit to qualify for a travel card, and many of them also come with an annual fee. Some of those annual fees can get pretty pricey, too, so you’ll need to make sure you’ll use enough of the perks to offset what you spend on the card’s annual fee.

If you go for a general travel rewards card rather than one that’s co-branded with a particular airline, you can generally redeem your points for travel with any airline. With an airline co-branded card, you can redeem your points for flying with that airline only. These cards usually also come with additional perks like free checked bags, airline lounge access, the occasional companion pass, etc.

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Airline Loyalty Programs

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How Many Points Do You Have to Earn to Get a Free Flight?

The point redemption process varies from airline to airline – each one has a particular formula for determining how many points you need to redeem for a specific award. As a general rule, you can expect to need about 25,000 points for a round-trip domestic flight with most airlines. You may need double, triple, or more for trips overseas, depending on your destination.

Some airline reward programs work by zones – for example, you can use a set number of miles to go from one zone to another. No matter where within the area you start or end up, you’ll use the same number of points or miles. Other reward programs are distance-based – so the number of reward miles you need to use depends on the actual distance between where you are and where you’re going. And still, others use a cost-based model, which calculates the reward points you need to use based on the dollar value of the fare you want to purchase. With this kind of model, for example, you’d need to use more reward points during peak seasons when tickets cost more.

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Is an Airline Loyalty Program Worth the Trouble?

Usually, yes. While the thought of keeping up with airline miles and purchases can seem intimidating, most of the best programs do all the work for you. And if you aren’t participating in any kind of loyalty rewards program, you could be missing out on major savings. Earning points allows many people to either travel for free, travel at a greatly reduced price, or take advantage of premium deals that they couldn’t otherwise afford.

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Can You Get a Decent Seat With a Flight Reward?

It depends. Keep in mind that each flight has a limited number of seats that can be assigned to rewards customers. And airlines typically reserve their best seats for paying customers. As a flight fills up, the availability and points requirements for those reward seats can fluctuate. When you’re ready to purchase a ticket with rewards points, it’s a good idea to check for your seats frequently and to be flexible with your trip date.

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How Do You Know Which Loyalty Program is Best For You?

If you’re not a frequent traveler or are new to travel rewards, don’t be put off by the term “frequent flyer.” A loyalty program can also offer substantial benefits for the occasional traveler. Additionally, you can earn loyalty program points through using an airline’s co-branded credit card. Here are a few key things to consider when choosing a loyalty program.

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Your Travel Habits

Are you a frequent or only occasional traveler? Do you travel for business, pleasure, or both? It’s a good idea to sit down and map out how much you generally travel within a given year. What are your upcoming travel goals? Do you have a dream trip in mind that you’d like to cover with airline points? Knowing what you typically do – plus what you’d like to do – in terms of travel can help you measure your lifestyle and preferences against what a given loyalty program can offer.

Your Airline Preference

Is there one airline you always try to fly – or are you airline agnostic? Do you live in a city that’s a hub for a major airline? If you stick with one airline, for the most part, go ahead and join its loyalty program or consider getting its co-branded credit card to rack up points for a quick travel reward. If you fly lots of different airlines and don’t have a preference, you might be better off getting a generic travel credit card since it allows you to redeem rewards with any airline.

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Program Restrictions

No matter what kind of program you decide on, make sure you find out about its restrictions. For example, are there blackout dates or particular times that you can’t use rewards points for tickets or upgrades? And are your points good forever, or will they expire if you don’t use them within a specific time frame? What about canceling a flight – if you find yourself having to cancel, will your points be refunded or are they lost forever? Once you know the answers to these questions, you can make a more informed choice about which program best fits your likely travel patterns and preferences.

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Airline Loyalty Programs

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Our Top Five Airline Loyalty Picks

To get you started on choosing an airline loyalty program, below, we’ve outlined our top five picks based on ease of use and quality of rewards and perks.

American Airlines AAdvantage

As a member of American’s rewards program, you can redeem points for flights, plus hotel stays, car rentals, retail gift cards, and vacation packages with nearly 1,000 additional partners. The points you earn are based on the dollars you spend. AAdvantage points do eventually expire, though, so you’ll want to make sure to use them before your window of opportunity closes.

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Delta SkyMiles

Delta’s reward program is excellent for travelers who love Delta and live in major cities like Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, or L.A. and for those who frequently visit New York City. You’ll earn roughly five miles for every dollar you spend with Delta. You can use your miles with more than 20 partner airlines, and your miles never expire. But be warned – you do have to spend or fly a lot to build up enough points to qualify for elite status, and there is limited availability for reward tickets on each flight.

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Southwest Rapid Rewards

Budget-minded travelers love flying Southwest, and its rewards program doesn’t disappoint. With the Rapid Rewards program, you’ll have no blackout dates, and you can earn points from dollars spent on both flights and hotel stays. However, you will face seat restrictions for reward flights, and this program is best for those whose primary travel is domestic. Southwest flies internationally only to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Additionally, the program will not allow you to combine points and cash to pay for your ticket. You must use reward points before they expire, generally two years after you earn them.

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Spirit Airlines’ Free Spirit Rewards Program

This is a great rewards program for people who travel primarily within the United States. You’ll earn miles every time you fly Spirit Airlines. You can also earn points by making purchases with the Spirit Airlines co-branded credit card. Plus, you can earn points by making purchases through Spirit Airlines partners, like certain hotel and cruise lines, restaurants, car rental companies, etc. You can only use your points for flights and magazine subscriptions, and they do eventually expire.

United MileagePlus

With the United MileagePlus program, you can use reward points not only for airline tickets but also for hotel stays, car rentals, and other shopping. The number of reward seats per flight is limited, but your miles never expire, and you can use them with up to 35 additional partners. With this program, you have a choice of levels – a basic level and four premium levels. 

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To Sum Up

This list of reward programs certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it’s plenty to get you started on thinking about which kind of airline loyalty program might be right for you. What other airline loyalty programs have you tried? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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