What you need to know to choose your airline loyalty program

People often tend to choose by default the loyalty program of the airline they travel with most often, but this is not always a good idea.

Most travelers don’t choose their frequent flyer program: it imposes itself on them. Either they reflexively choose the one offered by their national airline or, more exceptionally, another one if, for some reason, they frequently travel to a part of the world that makes another choice relevant.

The French will choose Flying Blue, Air France KLM’s frequent flyer program, the Scandinavian SAS Eurobonus, the German Miles&More from Lufthansa, and the American in general will choose between AAdvantagee (American Airlines), Skymiles (Delta) or Mileage Plus (United), even if the US landscape is specific and may justify different strategies.

Well, that’s not always the best choice. We’re not saying it’s a bad choice, just that it’s not always the best one.

An airline loyalty program? What for?

Before going any further, you need to know what you want from an airline loyalty program. Not everyone expects the same thing, and this will largely determine your choice.

Award tickets: your sole aim is to earn award miles to buy yourself free tickets (well, not so free…you’ve sort of paid for them first to earn them). In this case, there are two subjects of interest to you: miles acquisition and redemption rates.

The status If you’re interested in acquiring miles of status, you’ll be able to take advantage of various benefits, such as lounge access, priority lanes, or priority upgrades (but don’t expect anything in this regard – upgrading is not a right, it’s just that if an airline is forced to upgrade passengers, it’s more likely to happen to you).

Of course, the two are linked. To get status, you have to travel a lot, which in the end gives you a lot of miles to spend. But let’s just say that in one case, the passenger will try to buy an award ticket as soon as he can, while in the second case, he’ll accumulate and accumulate, and maybe one day he’ll say to himself, “Hey, what if I bought myself an award ticket? And since award tickets don’t earn status miles, those who are careful about their status will never travel with an award ticket until they have ensured that their status is renewed.

And, conversely, the award ticket hunter will sometimes end up with a status by accumulating miles, but it’s not as systematic. Some people travel for a very long time to buy a long-haul award ticket for their vacations, without ever obtaining any status.

Things to know for the award ticket hunter

If your only interest is in being able to buy premium tickets, you need to optimize both the earning and spending of miles.

Earning miles

The first is fairly simple to assess, since we’re dealing with fixed scales: depending on your class of travel, the distance covered, and most often the price of the ticket, you know how many award miles you’re going to earn. This information is generally available on the airline’s website, or on the excellent Wheretocredit.

You’ll find, however, that there are two models.

  • Some programs earn miles based on distance and booking class (i.e. indirectly on price). Example : SAS Eurobonus
  • others only take into account the price paid: 1 euro = x miles. (revenue based). Example: Air France-KLM Flying Blue, Lufthansa, this is logically the most popular model today, as it directly correlates passenger spending with the awards available.

One thing you need to know: if you’re the type of person who hunts for discount fares, the second model will be less interesting for you than the first, especially as it usually only takes into account the pre-tax price of the ticket. And there are a lot of taxes on a ticket.

There are also co-branded credit cards that earn miles. We won’t go into detail here, as these cards are only available according to your geographical location, so if you don’t live in the country of your loyalty program, you’re not entitled to them. What’s more, co-branded credit cards are much less attractive in Europe than in the United States.

You’ll already notice that some programs are more generous than others, but that’s not all. There’s no point in earning lots of miles if the cost of award tickets is high, or if these tickets are in short supply.

Second thing to know: when an airline has a revenue-based program, this only applies to flights sold by that airline. So it’s often a good idea to travel with partner airlines, as the distance*class of travel model still applies in this case! At one time, I remember flying often from London to Jakarta on Garuda in business or first class, earning Flying Blue miles by the bucketload, in huge proportions compared to the price of the ticket.

Spend miles

As for the cost of premium tickets, here too there are two schools of thought: fixed or dynamic pricing.

  • fixed fare: an award ticket has a fixed price in miles, depending on the geographical area of departure or arrival.
  • dynamic pricing: like the price of a “normal” ticket, the price in miles varies according to supply and demand, hence yield management.

What we’ve noticed lately is that the second model is becoming increasingly popular, and is driving up the price of award tickets, in addition to the usual devaluation that regularly affects the base ticket price.

Another factor to consider is how many seats are available to redeem for miles. On some airlines, a large number of seats are available on each flight, on others far fewer, making the use of miles difficult and very expensive. It is also becoming increasingly common to make the most prestigious cabins inaccessible to award tickets in order to maintain their exclusivity, or to reserve this possibility for elite customers in loyalty programs. For example, you won’t be able to buy an award ticket in La Première class on Air France if you’re not a Flying Blue Platinum member.

Finally, there’s access to partner airline inventories. Airlines are partners in alliances, so you can earn miles by flying on a partner airline, and you should be able to spend them that way too. In practice, this is not easy at all, with some airlines offering limited or non-existent access to their partners’ award seat inventory (or partners giving them limited access), and often at prohibitive rates.

In short, while it’s easy to know which program will help you earn the most, it’s much more complicated to know which one will enable you to spend efficiently, and you’ll need to do a lot of research and hang around on specialized forums and sites to get an idea.

Let’s say the ideal program earns you miles based on distance and class of travel, not income, and offers fixed-price award tickets. But they’re increasingly rare, so you’ll have to make trade-offs.

Things to know for the status hunter

If you’re primarily interested in your status, there’s one thing you need to know. The only really interesting statuses are usually the highest or even the two highest.

Not all statuses are worthwhile

The others do give you some benefits, but only with the airline that owns your loyalty program. A Flying Blue gold or platinum status will be recognized by all Skyteam members. A silver will only have certain benefits with partner airlines.

At Lufthansa’s Miles&More, only Senators and HON Circles earn a “Star Gold” status recognized by all the airlines in the alliance, with reciprocal benefits. With Frequent Traveller status you will have access to business counters to check-in for flights operated by partners, but only to Lufthansa Group lounges.

How to earn a status

So the first thing to know is status thresholds: how many points or status miles are required to acquire the coveted status. This of course depends on each loyalty program, and information is available on the program and airline websites.

Here again, there are two models.

  • you earn a certain number of status points based on distance and travel class (travel class, not booking class). The world is divided into 3 or zones (short, medium, long and very long haul, for example), and for each one you earn a number of miles or status points. This is the Flying Blue model.
  • you earn status miles based on distance and booking class, the old-fashioned way. This is the SAS model, for example.

Additional conditions may apply

  • fly a certain number of times a year with the program’s host airline. For example, if you’re a member of the Qatar Airways, Aegean and other frequent flyer programs, you’ll need to fly a certain number of times a year with them, in addition to earning the points required to obtain your status.
  • spend a certain amount each year with this airline. This is the case, for example, with Delta Skymiles (for US residents).

But what’s the point of knowing all this? I’m German, I go to Miles&More, I’m French, I go to Flying Blue, I’m British, I go to British Airways Executive Club… so I’m subject to my program.

Well, no, that’s the mistake.

You have to think in terms of alliances, not airlines.

When we talk about alliances, everyone immediately understands that they enable award and status miles earned by flying with one airline to be credited to another’s frequent flyer program. Well, almost all of them.

Status reciprocity works both ways

It’s also easy to understand the reciprocity logic : from a certain level of status, I benefit from the same advantages (lounges, priority queues, baggage allowance…) on all the airlines in the alliance (even if each airline always treats its own elite passengers a little better, with exclusive benefits when they travel with it).

But many people fail to take this intellectual approach to its logical conclusion: if I have a status in “my airline”, I’m recognized by others, which means that if I have a status in another airline, I’ll be recognized by mine. And if it’s easier to obtain statutes with other airlines…

It may therefore be worthwhile to join the loyalty program of an airline with which you travel little or not at all.

You still need to know what the thresholds are, of course, but also how each program credits flights made with partner airlines.

How to choose a partner airline’s loyalty program?

Some programs give generous credit for flights operated with partners, while others, such as Turkish Airlines’ Miles&Smile for example, do not credit flights operated on Lufthansa at discount fares (even in business class).

So to make an “informed” choice, you need to work a little, be patient, have an excel sheet and elbow grease.

Here’s how I chose my OneWorld and Star Alliance loyalty programs.

1°) Try to reconstruct a “typical year”: where I’m going, with which airlines, which booking classes.

In my case, I based my calculations on intra-European trips in economy discount and business discount, with the airlines I think I’d like to take (and therefore including connecting flights in the calculation), and 2 or 3 trips to Asia in business class, or even occasionally one in first class (if you’re “hunting” for status, sometimes it’s better to take one expensive trip in first class than several cheaper ones in business class, which end up costing almost twice as much when added up…. when a business discount gives you 100% of the distance and first class 300%, while the price of the latter is not 3 times more expensive, the calculation is quickly done).

2°) Find the corresponding booking classes.

This is the most laborious part. Sometimes the information is available on the airline’s website, sometimes you’ll find it on specialized forums, and sometimes you’ll have to simulate a purchase to see which class your ticket corresponds to.

3°) Find the thresholds for each status.

3°) Put all this in an excel sheet. The trips in the rows, the programs in the columns and for each itinerary calculate how much it earns and the percentage of each status that it makes (so if I do this x times in the year I have such and such a status).

4°) Use the excellent Wheretocredit to find out when I travel in class X on an airline how much credit I have on each of the partner programs.

Of course, this is just a rough simulation, but you’ll sometimes find that, depending on the program you choose, if you fly the same pattern, some programs will easily give you premium status and others won’t.

For example, here’s what I did at the time for OneWorld. After a number of comparisons and excluding certain programs that require a certain amount of expenditure or a certain number of flights on a given airline (making 4 flights a year on British Airways is simple, on Qatar Airways it can be more complicated) I came to a final decision between Finnair Plus and British Airways executive club.

In this case, I’ve also added the notion of lifetime status (LT).

And the result was this:

Well, it sounds a bit complicated, but while intuitively everything led me to believe that Finnair was the program that would enable me to acquire Saphire or Emerald OneWorld status most easily, it turned out that the best choice, based on my assumptions, was BAEC. And by far!

When I did the same thing on Star Alliance, I put several programs in competition, thinking that the best choice might be Miles&More, or a “minor” program like Aegean or TAP (but with constraints on the number of flights). And to my great surprise, the winner was a program I had almost not even considered: SAS Eurobonus.

It’s a program that credits partner flights very generously, and offers low thresholds.

To put it simply, let’s say that with my “standard” travel assumptions, I could easily get a gold with SAS or even a Diamond (I’m interested in the gold because it’s the star alliance gold equivalent for the whole alliance, the diamond is just a bonus), whereas I couldn’t get a Lufthansa Senator (Star Gold equivalent). We’re talking about thresholds that vary from simple to double. And with the new Miles&More conditions, it’s probably even worse now.

So if I’d gone to Lufthansa I’d probably never have made Star Alliance Gold, or not every year, whereas with SAS it’s impossible not to. And in 5 years I’ll be lifetime Gold.

And so there are certainly plenty of German customers who have chosen Miles&More out of reflex and will never be anything but Frequent Travelers, whereas by joining the programs of Aegean, TAP, Turkish Airlines or SAS…

A calculation to be adapted to each person’s travel habits: what’s a good plan for some won’t necessarily be for others, and vice versa.

Bottom line

Choosing the frequent flyer program of your national airline or the one you use most often is not always the right decision. Depending on your objectives and travel habits, a partner airline may be more generous in terms of award miles and status.

Image : loyalty program by MMXeon via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.
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