Frequent flyer programs—and most loyalty programs in general—are a game. They are created by companies to manipulate your purchasing behavior and encourage you to buy one product instead of another (or just buy more often). At the heart of most programs are three basic truths:

  • People who redeem an award are more likely to stay committed to the program. This is why airline credit cards come with 25,000 miles for a free domestic ticket.
  • Some awards are more valuable than others. These “aspirational awards” are things you wouldn’t ordinarily pay for, but you might be motivated to earn miles.
  • The program should be profitable to the company on average. That said, individual customers might be better or worse at exploiting the program’s weaknesses.

If the first two points sound like the company is taking advantage of you, the third point is your chance to strike back. Start by creating a holistic strategy that includes not just how you plan to earn these miles but also how you plan to redeem them. Not all frequent flyer miles are created equal.

As a simple example, the three largest domestic carriers (American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines) all provide the same number of miles based on the cost of your ticket; a typical member without status gets 5 miles per dollar. However, each program has a different award chart and may charge different amounts to book the same trip from, say, Los Angeles to London. Sometimes these differences aren’t very large on the surface.


Program Economy Class Business Class First Class
American AAdvantage 60,000 miles + $200 115,000 miles + $300 170,000 miles + $300
United MileagePlus 60,000 miles + $200 115,000 miles + $300 160,000 miles + $300
Delta SkyMiles 60,000 miles + $200 125,000 miles + $300 N/A


These programs also have different partners, different frequencies of service, and different rules for the taxes and fees you must pay in addition to the miles.

Some loyalty programs, like United MileagePlus, don’t collect fuel surcharges on any awards but do charge more miles if you fly on a partner such as Lufthansa. American AAdvantage charges the same number of miles, but they collect a fuel surcharge of several hundred dollars if you fly British Airways. Delta doesn’t even publish an award chart anymore, using variable pricing that makes it tough to tell when you’re getting the best deal. What originally looked like fairly similar award charts can quickly be distorted.


Program Economy Class Business Class First Class
American AAdvantage
(off-peak on British Airways)
40,000 miles + $400 115,000 miles + $1,200 170,000 miles + $1,200
United MileagePlus
(on Lufthansa)
60,000 miles + $200 140,000 miles + $300 220,000 miles + $300
Delta SkyMiles
(Level 2 award)
75,000 miles + $200 160,000 miles + $300 N/A


If you know how you’ll use your miles before you start earning them, you might choose a different loyalty program. Consider performing a few test searches now and see how expensive or difficult it will be to book your desired award.

There are other ways of earning miles, too. Many credit cards earn 1-2 miles per dollar, and you can earn those miles without flying at all. Among the best credit cards earn points that can be transferred to a variety of loyalty programs without committing to a single one up front. Examples are Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. If you and a spouse both have a Sapphire Preferred card from Chase, you can combine your Ultimate Rewards points and transfer them to United. That might make it easier to reach your goal than having two United credit cards, which earn miles in separate accounts.

Or you could continue flying but credit the miles to a different program. Alaska Airlines is partners with Delta, American, and a few others. This means you could fly on American or Delta but earn Alaska Airlines miles and be subject to the rules and award chart that Alaska chooses to publish. Several foreign carriers also have attractive programs for specific uses. British Airways operates a distance-based program that works very well for people who plan to book non-stop domestic awards on American or Alaska.

Finally, avoid being tempted to cash out early.  Domestic flights are likely to be inexpensive if you just pay cash. Save your miles for international travel, and preferably in business or first class flights. These experiences are beyond ordinary travelers but easily obtained with miles.

For more advice on getting good value for your miles, read my follow up article on the tricks to booking award flights.


Note: This post includes recently announced changes to the American AAdvantage program that take effect in 2016.