We recently passed the 40th anniversary of frequent flyer programs as we know them. These programs started really simply, but forever changed the way we travel. Essentially, the more you flew, the more points you earned, the more free flights you received.
A lot has changed since the 1980’s, and to better understand our current marketplace, let’s analyze some notable milestones:
- 1981: American, United, and Delta establish frequent flyer programs.
- 1986: Continental, American, and United each launched co-branded credit cards.
- 1990: Air Canada becomes the first airline to allow the direct purchase of miles.
- 2000s: An influx of mergers led to a consolidation of frequent flyer programs.
- 2014: Delta and United announced that status would be based partly on dollars spent.1
All of these changes, and others that went unmentioned, have made loyalty programs much more complex. There are now more ways to earn points, more levels to achieve, and more redemption options than ever before.
Don’t let the complexity discourage you from getting involved. By taking the time to learn about these programs and to understand their complexities, you’re better able to redeem miles for fun and exciting perks.
Here are a few tips to help you achieve points and status more quickly:
Concentrate on One Airline
Stick with that airline to earn more miles and reach elite status faster. It’s very hard to earn status by flying a variety of airlines and using a variety of credit cards. Your choice in airline may depend on your geography, but consider whose miles are worth more2, their tier calculations, and your previous experiences with them as well.
Focus on Credit Cards
Co-branded airline credit cards now play a significant role in helping you achieve elite status, allowing you to earn points for everyday spending. This is a gamechanger, especially for those who aren’t frequent flyers. It’s also the reason there are so many people eligible to board flights in the early zones.
Take Advantage of Perks
You’ll no doubt enjoy the priority boarding, lounge access, free checked bags, upgrades, and other perks that enhance your travel experience. But pay attention to the benefits that require you to sign up or opt-in. For example, American offers Loyalty Point Rewards as you reach certain milestones. These include systemwide upgrades, day passes to their lounge, and other valuable perks, but you have to log-in and select them.
Factor in Lounge Access
Airport lounges offer a comfortable environment for you to relax before your flights. Access is typically granted to those with elite status or those holding certain credit cards. You’ll enjoy complimentary food and beverages, comfortable seating, and other amenities. This could be a deciding factor if one airline or credit card makes lounge access possible, while another does not.
Earn Through Partners
Utilize airline partnerships and affiliated programs to earn additional miles for hotel stays, car rentals, and more. Many of these services earn mileage bonuses, helping you reach status even faster.
Participate in Status Challenges
Some airlines offer elite status challenges where you can earn temporary elite status by completing a set number of qualifying flights or miles within a specific timeframe. This can be a faster way to achieve elite status compared to the regular qualification requirements.3
Track Your Progress
Keep an eye on your mileage and status progression, ensuring you meet the requirements for higher tiers. There are times when you reach the end of the points year and find yourself just under the next tier, and by booking a flight or paying a bill with your credit card, you could reach it.
Determine When to Use Miles
When booking a flight and considering whether to use points or cash, leverage a points calculator4. They assign a value to airline miles to tell you which option makes the most “cents.” There are times when you could use points to book, but shouldn’t.
Frequent flyer programs have evolved significantly since their inception, becoming more complex yet offering more opportunities for you to earn points and enjoy various perks. Despite the complexity, understanding and engaging with these programs can lead to better travel experiences. If you haven’t started yet, today is the day!
1 Rosen, Eric. “40 Years of Miles: The History of Frequent Flyer Programs.” The Points Guy, 20 Mar. 2021, thepointsguy.com/guide/evolution-frequent-flyer-programs/. Accessed 2 Jun. 2023.
2 Coates, Jennifer, and Ramsey Qubein. “American Airlines Vs. Delta: Which Is Best?” Nerdwallet, 10 Mar. 2023, www.nerdwallet.com/article/travel/american-airlines-vs-delta. Accessed 2 Jun. 2023.
3 Casagrande, June. “The Beginner’s Guide to Airline Elite Status.” Nerdwallet, 3 Mar. 2023, www.nerdwallet.com/article/travel/airline-elite-status-beginners-guide. Accessed 2 Jun. 2023.
4 Rosen, Eric. “40 Years of Miles: The History of Frequent Flyer Programs.” The Points Guy, 20 Mar. 2021, thepointsguy.com/guide/evolution-frequent-flyer-programs/. Accessed 2 Jun. 2023.