Today (May 8, 2015): Travel tip: What’s the best airline loyalty program for UK- and EU-based travelers?
IMPORTANT UPDATE: American Airlines devaluated its program since the publication of this article. The major changes are that (1) Executive Platinum members now earn 4 system wide upgrades instead of 8; (2) you need more miles to book award tickets on certain routes; and (3) the program became revenue based. Despite the devaluation, I still consider it to be the best frequent flyer program in the world.
Frequent flyer programs are customer loyalty programs managed by most airlines that allow their passengers to earn miles that are redeemable for free flights, upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals or shopping. Travelers will mostly choose a program based on geography (e.g. living close to an airline’s hub, or frequently flying routes that are dominated by one airline), although they may also take into account their personal preference for an airline (based on reputation, service and punctuality) and/or their preferred class of travel (First versus Business versus Economy). The skies over the UK and EU have been taken over by 3 large airline groups, which all have their own loyalty program, with their own pros & cons:
- British Airways (which has its hub in London) and Iberia (which has its hub in Madrid) merged to a new company, known as International Airlines Group (IAG), although both airlines continue to fly under their own brand names. British Airways and Iberia have slightly different frequent flyer programs, Executive Club and Iberia Plus respectively, which both use a unique frequent flyer currency, called Avios. Both airlines are part of the Oneworld alliance.
- The Lufthansa group is composed of several airliners, being Lufthansa itself, Brussels Airlines, Swiss International Air Lines, and Austrian Airlines, with hubs spread all over central Europe (e.g. Frankfurt, Munich, Brussels, Zürich and Vienna). They all share one frequent flyer program, designated Miles & More. All airlines belong to Star Alliance.
- KLM and Air France are owned by one single company known as KLM-Air France, although both airlines keep their own identity (as of now). Amsterdam and Paris are the main hubs. Both airlines share Flying Blue as their loyalty program and they are founding members of the Skyteam alliance.
The last couple of years, airlines’ loyalty programs took a turn for the worse in Europe (and elsewhere), at least from a frequent flyer’s perspective. Air France and KLM’s Flying Blue program has always been a joke, since the elite benefits are not very rewarding. The Lufthansa group’s Miles & More program used to be excellent until a massive devaluation occurred 3 years ago. British Airways’ Executive Club was undoubtedly Europe’s single best frequent flyer program for the past years, but unfortunately, it devaluated as well last month. So, a new question arises: which airline offers the best loyalty program for EU- and UK-based travelers these days? Residing in central Europe myself and having changed from Flying Blue to Miles& More and finally to Executive Club the past decade, you might be surprised to read my answer to that question (below the photo).
It’s American Airlines’ loyalty program AAdvantage that currently offers EU- and UK-based travelers the best mileage earning and burning potential, and simply outclasses all current European loyalty programs. The good thing is you don’t even have to fly American Airlines (although they are excellent these days) since you can collect miles as long as you fly their Oneworld or other airline partners (which are – within Europe – Iberia, British Airways and Finnair).
I changed to AAdvantage 3 years ago, and I can guarantee you that the benefits are far superior to what the above mentioned, European frequent flyer programs offered at a time when they were still generous and before devaluations set in. So, what is it that I like so much about AAdvantage (as compared to its European rival programs)?
- Aadvantage top-tier member (Executive Platinum members) receive 8 system-wide, one way upgrades per calendar year. Even if that one-way trip is composed of multiple flight segments, you will only need just one upgrade certificate. So, if you’re traveling on an Economy or Business Class fare on an American Airlines plane and an upgrade is available, you or any passenger you choose will enjoy a confirmed upgrade to the next class of service at the time of booking. If it’s not available, you will be wait listed. Compare that to the number of upgrades you receive as a top elite member with one of the European airlines: 2 with British Airways (and another 2 if you hit a surreal high mileage treshold), 2 with the Lufthansa group (and you have to use one per flight segment), and none with the KLM-Air France group.
- Those system-wide upgrades are very valuable nowadays, since American Airlines is in the process of acquiring new planes with newly outfitted cabins, which currently offer the single best Economy and Business Class product across the pond. Especially its Business Class is very impressive: with one of the best longhaul Business Class cabins in the world, it simply outclasses that of its transatlantic competitors, including British Airways. The good news for Europeans (who need to travel to the States a lot) is that the new planes and cabins now fly the routes from London to New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Click here to read our trip report in a new American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER (a brilliant experience!).
- You earn (much) more miles and as such, reach elite status much faster when flying American Airlines as compared to flying one of its European (and also North American) competitors. To give you an idea: when you fly Business Class, you will receive 100% of the miles flown plus a 50% class of service bonus. In addition, when you are an AAdvantage elite member, you will also receive a 100% elite mileage bonus and additional bonus miles ranging between 1000 and 12,000, depending upon your status and the distance flown. To make it more concrete, if you fly a transatlantic route on American Airlines in Business Class, you will earn 150% of miles flown plus 3000 miles as a non-elite member, and 250% of miles flown plus a minimum of 6,000 bonus miles as an elite member. Compare that to the Lufthansa group and KLM-Air France, which have all introduced revenue based programs, meaning that the cheapest Business Class tickets will only earn you 100% (Lufthansa group) and 125% (KLM-Air France) of miles flown as a non-elite member.
- As a member of AAdvantage, you also earn (much) more miles when you fly on the Oneworld airlines as compared to the loyalty program of its European partner British Airways. The reason is that American Airlines gives its elite members a 100% elite mileage bonus on all Oneworld airlines, while British Airways only gives this bonus to its elite members when they fly British Airways, American Airlines, Iberia and Japan Airlines. So, flying Air Berlin, Cathay Pacific, Malaysian Airlines, Finnair, LAN, Qatar Airways, Srilankan AirwaysRoyal Jordanian or S7 airlines will earn you almost double the number of miles when you are member of American’s loyalty program as compared to members of British Airways’ Executive Club (regardless of status).
- Not only do you earn much more miles with American Airlines, the excellent news is that you also need fewer miles for award tickets, especially when you are departing from an EU airport (because of some sweet spots in the AAdvantage award chart). To give you an example, flying from Europe to the Maldives in Business Class will cost you 60,000 miles round trip with the AAdvantage program, while the same journey will cost you more than 100,000 with all of the European frequent flyer programs.
- Besides the Oneworld partners, American Airlines also has some extra airlines partners, where you can earn (mostly non-elite) miles and redeem them for award ticket. Combined together, they offer you an exciting range of exotic destinations that is unmatched by any of the European frequent flyer programs, such as the Seychelles (with Etihad Airways), Fiji (with Fiji Airways), French Polynesia (Air Tahiti Nui) and Alaska (Alaska Airlines).
- American Airlines has a special relationship with all 3 Middle East airlines (Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways), that are considered by many to offer unmatched service in the skies. While this partnership is evident for Qatar Airways (Oneworld partner) and Etihad Airways (additional airline partner) – with the possibility to earn and collect miles on both of them through AAdvantage – it is less clear (and little known) for Emirates. You cannot redeem AAdvantage miles on Emirates, but you will earn AAdvantage elite (!) miles (plus bonus miles) when you fly Emirates metal on the Kangaroo route between Europe and Australia on condition that your ticket is booked under a Qantas codeshare number (Qantas and Emirates have close ties these days). Last year, I collected more than 40,000 AA miles and reached the AAdvantage Executive Platinum threshold by flying Europe to Sydney on Emirates’ gorgeous A380 (read my trip report here). How wonderful is that!
- IMHO, Oneworld is the best alliance these days, with coverage all over the globe, although there are some regions where they are not that well represented (Africa, China). From Europe, Oneworld offers excellent (and the best) connections to the West (with American Airlines and British Airways to North America, and Iberia to Latin America) and the East (Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Malaysian Airlines, and Japan Airlines).
- At least once a year, American Airlines has a generous promotion to earn lots of extra miles (from 20,000 to up to 55,000 per return flight!) for flying transatlantic routes in their premium cabin. Those promotions are mostly launched in conjunction with its Oneworld partners Iberia, Finnair and British Airways, that run identical promotions at the same time. However, American Airlines promo’s terms & conditions are mostly far les stringent than those of their European counterparts. For example, American Airlines launched a promo yesterday, where you can earn up to 115,000 (!) bonus miles after 3 round-trip transatlantic flights completed before August 7th , which is similar to the simultaneously launched promo by British Airways. However, the British Airways promo is only valid for bookings made after the promo launch date (May 7th) and for Executive Club Members who are locally enrolled and residing in the United States, Canada or Mexico, while the identical American Airlines promo has no residency requirements and travel booked prior to registration still qualifies for the promotion. If you are still thinking about joining or sticking to Miles & More or Fying Blue (despite reading all of the above), you may want to know that Lufthansa and KLM-Air France never launch this type of extremely generous promotion. And to put things in perspective; 115,000 extra AAdvantage miles is only 5000 miles short of 2 Business Class tickets from Europe to the Middle East, India or the Maldives.
- American Airlines’ AAdvantage has three elite status categories. Gold is the first level. Platinum is the second level and Platinum Executive is the top-level. Each level has benefits and as the member moves from Gold to Platinum then Platinum Executive, they become more valuable. You can reach elite status in 3 ways, through elite-qualifying miles, segments or points. The elite qualifying points (EQP) system is pretty unique (and non-existing amongst European airlines) and especially valuable when you fly Business Class, since you will earn 1.5 EQP per mile flown (even on a discounted ticket), making the 100,000 points threshold for Platinum Executive within reach after a few long-haul flights. To make it even better, American Airlines now offers twice as many EQPs when you purchase and fly on a First or Business Class ticket through December 31, 2015, meaning a total of 3 EQPs per mile flown for First and Business Class, and a total of 2 EQPs per mile flown for discounted Business Class.
- Aadvantage Elite membership requires 4 flights on American Airlines metal (or AA codeshare flight) a year. But they don’t enforce that policy (yet), so technically, you can become AAdvantage elite member while flying other airlines.