Top 10: best frequent flyer programs to join in 2018

Monday newsletters always feature top 10 travel lists to inspire.

Today (January 15, 2018): Top 10 best frequent flyer programs to join in 2018.

Frequent flyer programs are used by many airlines to foster a sense of loyalty among passengers, who can earn points or miles that are redeemable for free flights, upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals or shopping. Everybody should participate in these programs as they can save you tons of money by traveling (almost for) free as well as offer you many other perks (signing up is free of charge and truly a no-brainer). The last couple of years, frequent flyer programs took a turn for the worse in the USA, with the three largest programs going revenue based, meaning that miles are awarded based on the members’ spend rather than according to the number of miles traveled. The rest of the world is now quickly following with several major European and Asian loyalty programs becoming revenue based as well later this year. If you plan on traveling often this year, then it’s time to choose a frequent flyer program. To help you, I have compiled a list of my own 10 favorite loyalty programs in the world, although the one that fits you most will depend on your own travel behavior, your location, your credit card spending, and your expectations (loyalty benefits, easy award bookings, or number of airline partners).

There is more information below the slideshow. What’s your favorite frequent flyer program? Take my poll or leave a comment below.

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10. SKYMILES (DELTA AIR LINES)

Created in 1981 as the ‘Delta Air Lines Frequent Flyer Program’, its name was changed to SkyMiles in 1995. The program is convenient for frequent flyers that live close to the Delta hubs of Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York City. Although Delta offers one of the best and most consistent inflight products of all USA airlines, its frequent flyer program is not in the same league as Delta continuously introduces surprise changes and unannounced devaluations that leave its loyal frequent flyers baffled. Delta was also the first airline in the world to introduce a revenue based program in 2015 (although others quickly followed).

  • Website: SkyMiles
  • Alliance program: SkyTeam
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 qualifying miles or 30 qualifying segments per calendar year (and $3,000 minimum annual spending level for USA residents).
  • What I like about the program: Miles don’t expire; you can earn elite status without ever flying (by spending big with a Delta branded credit card); and top-tier elite members get upgrade certificates and 25,000 bonus miles.
  • What I don’t like about the program: The program is very complicated; it costs more SkyMiles to fly partner carriers rather than Delta on routes originating from the USA; and Delta does not publish an award chart of how many miles it will cost you to fly to a particular destination with your SkyMiles.


9. MILES & MORE (THE LUFTHANSA GROUP)

Miles&More is the frequent flyer program used by the airlines of the Lufthansa group (Lufthansa, SWISS, Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines, and Eurowings) as well as by a few other carriers such as LOT Polish Airlines, Adria Airways, Croatia Airlines, Luxair, and Condor. The program was launched in 1993 and is now the largest frequent flyer loyalty scheme in Europe with more than 30 million members. Passengers earn miles on all Star Alliance airlines as well as several other airlines and non-airline partners. The program has introduced several devaluations over the past years (hence why it is often nicknamed More&Less) and becomes revenue based in March.

  • Website: Miles&More
  • Alliance program: Star Alliance
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 35,000 status miles or 30 scheduled flights in one calendar year.
  • What I like the most about the program: Availability for award redemptions on airlines of the Lufthansa group is generally very good (often four Business Class tickets per cabin); frequent flyer elite status remains two years valid; and the program regularly launches mileage bargains where you can book award tickets at half the number of miles normally required for the trip.
  • What I don’t like about the program: The program becomes revenue based in March and First Class award tickets on the Lufthansa Group’s premium airline – SWISS – are only available to its top elite members.


8. FLYING BLUE (KLM-AIR FRANCE)

When KLM and Air France merged in 2005, their frequent flyer programs (Fréquence Plus and Flying Dutchman) were merged into a new loyalty program called Flying Blue. Most airlines within the Air France-KLM family now use Flying Blue, including Kenya Airways (in which KLM is a major shareholder), Aircalin and Tarom. More than 100,000 new members sign up for Flying Blue each month, making it one of the most popular loyalty programs in the world. Unfortunately, Flying Blue will undergo a major overhaul this year, becoming a revenue-based program, among other changes.

  • Website: Flying Blue
  • Alliance program: SkyTeam
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 level miles (30,000 in France and Monaco) or 15 qualifying flights.
  • What I like about the program? Award availability on KLM and Air France is usually great; Flying Blue offers the best tool for finding SkyTeam award seats, and new promo awards are launched every month, which are discounted award tickets that save you up to 50% on Award Miles.
  • What I don’t like about the program? Only elite members of the Flying Blue program can redeem miles for Air France La Premiere (First Class), which is one of the world’s greatest First Class products.
  • Review: read my review of the Flying Blue program here.


7. MILEAGEPLUS (UNITED AIRLINES)

Following the 2011 merger agreement between United Airlines and Continental Airlines, United Mileage Plus was chosen to be the frequent flyer program for the combined airline. The program was subsequently renamed to MileagePlus, and maintained its relationship with its Star Alliance partners, as well as other airline and travel enterprise agreements. Following the merger, several controversial changes were introduced to the program, such as the reduction in bonus miles for elite members, and the introduction of a revenue based model in 2015, making it a less attractive option for frequent flyers.

  • Website: Mileage Plus
  • Alliance program: Star Alliance
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 qualifying miles or 30 qualifying segments per calendar year (and $3,000 minimum annual spending level for USA residents).
  • What I like about the program: United and its Star Alliance partner airlines fly to more than 1,100 destinations worldwide; you can earn and redeem miles on dozens of participating airlines; and top-tier elite members get six upgrades each year.
  • What I don’t like about the program: The program is revenue based with rules that make it very complex; the number of seats available on United for award travel is limited; and miles expire after 18 months of account inactivity.


6. MILES&SMILES (TURKISH AIRLINES)

Turkish Airlines, with its main hub at Istanbul Atatürk Airport, is the flag carrier of Turkey and the world’s fourth-biggest airline in the world, flying to more international destinations than any other carrier. Turkish Airlines calls its frequent flyer program Miles&Smiles, offering its members many advantages, such as award tickets, cabin upgrades and extra baggage allowance. As long as you choose to fly with Turkish Airlines and to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by the Miles&Smiles program partners, you can collect miles to spend as you wish and to make your life a little easier.

  • Website: Miles&Smiles
  • Alliance program: Star Alliance
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 qualifying miles per 12 months.
  • What I like about the program: The program is straightforward and easy to use (with one award chart for all airlines); elite members have access to a family miles pooling program; companion awards are offered at 30% off; frequent flyer elite status remains two years valid; the region-based award chart is the best in the Star Alliance group; and Miles & Smiles has been routinely offering status matches.
  • What I don’t like about the program: There are significant fuel surcharges on Turkish Airlines and most airline partners; and the award ticket booking process can be a frustrating ordeal when you have to call the Turkish Airline call center.


5. LIFEMILES (AVIANCA)

Avianca is the largest airline in Colombia and second largest in Latin America. Launched in 1919, when it was initially registered under the name SCADTA, it’s also one of the oldest airlines in the world. The frequent flyer program of Avianca is LifeMiles and its members earn miles every time they fly with Star Alliance carriers and Avianca subsidiaries or use service in some hotels, retails, car rental and credit card partners. The program was first introduced in 2012, and while it has slightly devaluated since then, it’s still a favorite among points and miles enthusiasts and I consider LifeMiles to be the best Star Alliance frequent flyer program.

  • Website: LifeMiles
  • Alliance program: Star Alliance
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 22,000 qualifying miles on Avianca and/or Star Alliance airline partners in a calendar year.
  • What I like about the program: The program is easy to use; the entry-level for elite status is one of the lowest of all airlines; you can also book award tickets on non-Star Alliance partner Iberia; you can redeem miles and cash to cover an award flight if you don’t have enough miles; and LifeMiles don’t charge fuel surcharges on awards, no matter what airline you’re flying (although a $25 USD booking fee applies to all award tickets).
  • What I don’t like about the program: LifeMiles does not always have access to Lufthansa First Class availability; miles expire after 12 months of account inactivity; and booking an award ticket via Avianca’s call center in Bogota can be a very frustrating process (although some award tickets can be booked online).


4. SKYPASS (KOREAN AIR)

SkyPass – which uses the motto ‘Beyond your Imagination’ – is the frequent flyer program of Korean Air, the flag carrier of South Korea. It’s probably one of the most underrated frequent flyer programs in the world. If you tend to fly with Korean Air often, you definitely have to take some time to look into this program and its many benefits. Even when you don’t fly Korean Air a lot but your preference is flying airlines of the SkyTeam alliance, you should still consider a SkyPAss membership because Korean Air’s frequent flyer program is by far the best loyalty schedule in the SkyTeam alliance (and definitely more rewarding than Delta’s SkyMiles).

  • Website: SkyPass
  • Alliance program: SkyTeam
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 50,000 miles or 40 qualifying flights on Korean Air per calendar year.
  • What I like about the program: There is excellent award availability on Korean Air-operated flights (including tons of First Class seat awards); SkyPass allows the registration of a family account; you can book award flights with all SkyTeam members online; and the program has many interesting non-SkyTeam partners (e.g. Alaska Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, and Japan Airlines).
  • What I don’t like about the program: SkyPass charges significant fuel surcharges; and the entry level for elite status requires an insane amount of miles.


3. EXECUTIVE CLUB (BRITISH AIRWAYS)

British Airways’ tiered loyalty program is called the Executive Club and was launched in 1995. In 2011, following its merger with Iberia, the flag carrier of the United Kingdom and the founding member of the One World global airline introduced dramatic changes to its Executive Club program, creating a distinct reward currency, Avios. Avios is a coalition program, offering members of the frequent flyer programs of British Airways, Iberia, FlyBe and Meridiana thousands of ways to earn and redeem Avios for flights, hotels, and even travel experiences. Although Executive Club has many downsides, it scores high in my list because it’s the only loyalty program of a major Western legacy airline that is not revenue based (yet).

  • Website: Executive Club
  • Alliance program: One World
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 300 tier points in a calendar year.
  • What I like about the program: Executive Club offers several flight bargains (such as Boston to Dublin on partner Aer Lingus or 12,500 Avios for one-way USA West Coast to Hawaii flights); you can pool earned Avios in a family account to maximize your earnings; elite members can invite a guest in the airport lounges; and the program is not revenue based (yet).
  • What I don’t like about the program: Executive Club adds incredibly high surcharges for award flights, especially for British Airways-operated flights departing from the United Kingdom.


2. MILEAGE PLAN (ALASKA AIRLINES)

Mileage Plan is the frequent-flyer program of United States based airline Alaska Airlines (which recently merged with Virgin America). Members earn flight miles according to the distance flown, rather than according to the price of their tickets (which is now the new standard in the USA, and soon, Europe and Asia). For the average traveler, this means more free flights and faster elite status. Mileage Plan miles can be redeemed for award flights on Alaska Airlines and its partner carriers and provide eligibility for frequent flyer elite status. Alaska Airlines isn’t a member of one of the three global airline alliances, but the carrier has established an impressive collaboration with a dozen airlines, serving more than 900 destinations worldwide.

  • Website: Mileage Plan
  • Alliance program: none
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 20,000 eligible miles earned on Alaska Airlines and Virgin America per calendar year.
  • What I like about the program: Mileage Plan is not revenue based; you can earn and spend miles on great airline partners (e.g. Air France, American, Emirates, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, JAL, KLM, Qantas, and several others); and the program has one of the best all around award charts.
  • What I don’t like about the program: Blackout dates apply on reward travel; miles expire after two years of inactivity; and the program is only of interest to USA based travelers.
  • Review: read my review of Mileage Plan here.


1. AADVANTAGE (AMERICAN AIRLINES)

AAdvantage is the frequent flyer program of American Airlines. Launched in 1981, it was the second such loyalty program in the world (after the first at Texas International Airlines in 1979) and remains the largest with a reported membership of more than 100 million. For decades, AAdvantage was by far the best and most rewarding loyalty program, not only for American citizens living nearby the American Airlines hubs of Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Dallas) but also for travelers based outside the USA. However, that all changed after USA Airways took over American Airlines, keeping the brand name and the loyalty program, but introducing a massive devaluation and – last year – a revenue based earning system. But despite these changes, I still consider AAdvantage to be the best frequent flyer program in the world because of the many benefits.

  • Website: AAdvantage
  • Alliance program: One World
  • Minimum elite status requirement: 25,000 qualifying miles or 30 qualifying segments per calendar year in addition to a $3,000 USD minimum annual spending level.
  • What I like about the program: You can earn miles with more than 1,000 partner companies; AAdvantage has plenty of interesting non-One World airline partners (e.g. Etihad Airways, Fiji Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, Alaska Airlines, Westjet, Hawaiian Airlines); the program regularly launches terrific promotions to earn extra miles; and top-tier members receive four upgrades per year on American Airlines flights.
  • What I don’t like about the program: Although it was the last of the big three USA airlines to do so, AAdvantage is now revenue-based, meaning miles are awarded based on dollars spent rather than number of miles flown. Also, your mileage credit will be forfeited if your account is inactive for 18 months.
  • Review: read my review of the AAdvantage program here.


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5 Comments

  1. I do not think AAvantage is even close to number 1. All of the other programs have easy ways to move or purchase miles inexpensively. For example you can add Chase UR to Mileage Plus and Amex MR to Delta, but the only ‘hybrid’ points that can transfer to American are SPG. AAdvantage awards to Europe are usually fuel surcharged on BA, there are some are nice awards on Iberia. But AA releases very little premium award seats. Also getting AA flights to connect to partner awards is very difficult and when available they are Anytime awards.

    I like Alaskan with its easy to use miles. With almost everyone having one way awards, I frequently use one program’s miles outbound and another to return.

  2. Hi. Good article. I have gold cards for TAP Air Portugal (Star Alliance) and British Airways (One World). The former is way, way better and seems to be better than Lufthansa’s Miles & More, (also in StarAlliance).

    Some key benefits I get from TAP gold status:

    – Gaining/keeping status is much easier. Once you gain your first Gold card (75,000 earned miles), they reduce the renewal level to only 50,000 miles (including cabin and status bonuses). The BA level for Gold status is 1500 Tier Points (which are only loosely related to Avios = Air miles, what a messy system!) and is equivalent to around 200,000 air miles and massive step up from Silver at 300 Tier Points = c. 40,000 air miles)

    – I get a free second TAP gold card for a nominated person (in my case, my wife).

    – Dedicated TAP Gold phone lines (English and Portuguese) are much quicker, friendlier, more helpful and much easier to find on their website.

    – Much better availability for reward flights and upgrades. BA availability for upgrade from Business to First Class is, I have found, useless – I have yet to manage a SINGLE upgrade in the last three years!

    – I find onboard service on TAP to be excellent, with significantly better food and wines in Business than on BA and certainly than Iberia, AA or United. And they are honestly friendly, not just plastic “have a nice day” stuff. Some of their aircraft are getting a bit old but they are modernising (no A380s yet…) but big partners Lufthansa and Singapore have very good fleets (not true of tired old United). Avoid BA’s partner Iberia, they are just consistently awful – online, on the ground and in the air.

    Otherwise the benefits are the same as everyone else. You earn the same air miles (including bonuses) whichever Star Alliance airline you use. There are some differences with non-TAP Star Alliance members for rewards/upgrades.

    I had thought about trying Sky Team more seriously but all comments suggest it’s not good and anyway most of their airlines are pretty unfriendly these days.

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