This is the second post in our How to Travel for (Almost) Free, A Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking series.  Hopefully if you have read our Introduction, you have decided that it is worthwhile to start collecting frequent flyer miles and/or hotel loyalty points to use for (almost) free travel in the future.

This post will discuss which frequent flyer programs you might consider focusing on.  In our next post, we will do a similar writeup comparing hotel loyalty programs.

Index:
Introduction
Which Frequent Flyer Programs Should I Sign Up for
Which Hotel Loyalty Programs Should I Sign Up for?
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How to Decide Which Programs to Focus On?

We will recommend and compare various frequent flyer programs and discuss some positive and negative aspects of these programs, but the choice also depends on YOU (your travel goals, preferences, current travel habits, future travel habits, where you live and other factors).

Questions to Ask Yourself: 

Following are some questions to ask yourself in deciding which frequent flyer programs to focus on:

1) What Are Your Travel Goals?
One factor when deciding which frequent flyer programs are right for you is knowing what you want to use miles for.  Some questions to ask yourself include the following: Are you looking to fly first or business class or is economy enough?  Do you have a specific destination on your wish list?

2) Do You Have Any Miles Already?
The reason you are collecting miles is to earn enough miles for one or more award ticket(s).  If you are just starting out collecting miles, it might be better to focus on 1 or 2 programs initially until you have enough miles for an award in that program.  If you already have some miles in a program, that might be a reason to start with that program.

3) Should You Diversify?
Once you have enough miles in one frequent flyer program, you might want to add another program so that you have more than one choice when it comes time to redeem your miles for award travel.  For US travelers looking to fly internationally, United Airlines and American Airlines are good choices as they are both members of different alliances and have tons of options for redemptions.  A good way to diversify is to earn flexible points in addition or in lieu of miles (see next question).

4) Should You Consider Flexible Points Programs?
If you decide to start applying for credit cards in order to earn free travel, you might want to consider credit cards that earn flexible points (such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and American Express Membership Rewards).  These points can be transferred to a large number of frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs so that you have lots of choices when it is time to book award travel.  (We will describe these flexible programs in a subsequent post of this series.)

Other Factors to Consider When Choosing a Frequent Flyer Program:

Once you have a clear idea of your travel goals, there are a variety of factors to consider when deciding what frequent flyer programs to focus on.

These factors include the following:

1) How many miles are required for award tickets?
Some airlines require more miles for the same route and class.

2) How easy is it to earn miles without flying?
There are various ways to earn miles without flying (credit cards, dining programs, online shopping portals, surveys, transferring flexible points) but not all of these are available for every program.  All the large US airlines offer numerous ways to earn miles, but that is not often the case for foreign airlines.

3) What destinations can you use your miles on?
If you want to use miles for free flights to South or Central America, then American miles are the most useful.  If you are interested in traveling to Asia, both American and United (or other Star Alliance partners) are good programs to consider.  United and other Star Alliance partners are best for Europe.  Southwest is a good program to focus on if you want to fly mostly domestically or if you travel with another person.  British Airways Avios are great for short economy flights.

4) Can you book one way travel?
Not all airlines allow one way awards.  While United, AA and Southwest allow one way awards, currently US Airways and Delta do not.

5) Are there fuel surcharges?
Some airlines such as Air France, Swiss and British Airways impose huge fuel surcharges which can be hundreds of dollars.

6) When do your miles expire?
Some mileage programs (including all the ones we discuss below) allow you to extend the life of your miles as long as you have some activity every 18 or 24 months.  Other airlines (usually foreign airlines) have miles expire after a certain amount of time and there is nothing you can do  extend the life of your miles. Delta is unique in that its miles do not expire.  You don’t want your miles expiring before you can use them.

Comparison of Frequent Flyer Programs

Below is a list of frequent flyer programs to consider for earning and redeeming miles for free travel.

American Airlines AAdvantage
American Airlines (AA) is a member of the oneworld alliance so you can use American Airlines miles to book flights on AA or any other oneworld partners.

Positives:
•Great off-peak award charts.
•Allows one-way flights on award tickets.
•It is easy to earn lots of AA miles through credit card sign up bonuses. (Citi offers several personal and business credit cards that earn AAdvantage miles and you can transfer Starwood Starpoints to AA).
•Unlike United, Southwest and Delta, AA has not recently had a devaluation on its lower priced awards.  There will most likely be a devaluation after AA is integrated with US Airways so low priced SAAver awards are a good value for now.

Negatives:
•It is not as easy to book flights online with your AAdvantage miles as it is with United.  Aa.com does not allow you to search for and book awards on a good number of its partners airlines.  Instead you have to call the airline and incur a $35 telephone booking fee.
•Some of American’s partners such as British Airways impose huge fuel surcharges.

United MileagePlus
United is a member of the Star Alliance so you can use United miles to book flights on United or any other Star Alliance partners.

Positives:
•United.com is great for searching and booking award tickets with United and its partners. The website allows you to book awards online with most of United’s partners (with only a few exceptions).
•No fuel surcharges on awards.
•One-way flights on award tickets are allowed.
•It is EASY to earn United miles through credit cards.  (You can apply for any Chase credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards because they transfer to United and there is also a co-branded United credit card that offers anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 miles.)
•United has good award availability on its flights.

Negatives:
•United miles were devalued on February 1, 2014 so you will need a lot more United miles if you want to redeem them for international awards on partner airlines (especially for first and business class flights).  However, United does fly to a lot of destinations so you can frequently find award tickets on United (which require fewer miles than flights on its partners).

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
Southwest is the airline we mainly usually use for flying domestically within the US because its tickets are refundable.  Southwest has recently started expanding to international markets in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Southwest’s mileage program is a revenue program (unlike United, AA and US Airways) meaning the amount of points is directly related to the price of the ticket.  Therefore, Southwest is not the program to use if you want to collect miles in order to use them for expensive flights.   The main reason to collect Southwest Rewards versus just using a cash back credit card is the ability to earn the Southwest Companion Pass which allows your companion to fly free with you (on both paid and award tickets).

Positives:
•No limits or restrictions on awards- if there is an empty seat on the flight you can book it with your Southwest Rewards.
•No fuel surcharges.
•If you earn enough miles for the Companion Pass, your companion can fly for free as often as you like while the Companion Pass is valid.
•Southwest Rewards points are easy to earn through credit card sign up bonuses: Chase offers 4 versions of its Southwest credit cards and you can also transfer miles from Chase Ultimate Rewards.  Miles earned from the sign up bonus of all 4 Southwest credit cards count towards the Companion pass.
•Southwest has no checked baggage fees.
•One-way awards are allowed.
•No fees to cancel awards tickets (unlike United, AA and US Airways)-miles are just redeposited in your account.

Negatives:
•Southwest only flies domestically within the US and to a few spots in the Caribbean and Mexico.
•Southwest does not have first class or business class – so you can only fly economy.

In our opinion, Southwest points are worth collecting if you frequently fly in the US (or Mexico and Caribbean) especially if you travel with a companion and want flexibility to change your travel plans.  However, collecting Southwest Rapid Rewards points cannot earn you free business or first class flights or free flights outside of North America.

British Airways Avios
We have recently begun collecting British Airways Avios but have not had a chance to redeem them yet.  British Airways is a distance-per-segment based award chart – you pay for each flight based on the length of each segment.  Business class requires 2 times more Avios than economy and first class requires 3 times more Avios than economy.  You can use British Airways to book flights on American, Alaska and US Airways and other oneworld partners.

Positives:
•No close in ticketing fee  (fee for booking last minute award travel).
•Super easy to earn large amounts of Avios through credit cards.  Points from all 3 flexible travel programs transfer to British Airways and Chase also offers its own credit card (British Airways Visa Signature Card) with a good sign up bonus.
•Best for short nonstop economy flights since charged per distance and segment flown.
•Website allows you to book awards with British Airways as well as its partners.
•Able to have unlimited free stopovers on British Airways awards because the number of miles required is the sum of the price of each segment so it does not matter if you stop or not.
•American Airlines flights booked with Avios get Priority AAccess, which means priority security and boarding.
• You are able to cancel award tickets for a lower fee than other airlines.  British Airways is supposed to have a $55 cancellation fee, but in practice, if you cancel online and  your award has taxes lower than $55, British Airways will return your Avios on an award cancellation without charging you extra money (other than not returning your taxes).

Negatives:
•Most award tickets impose a huge fuel surcharge.
•British Airways Avios are not good for flying to Europe due to huge fuel surcharges.  There are a couple of options to reduce fuel surcharges however (redeem on Air Berlin or Aer Lingus or transfer to Iberia).
•Are charged per distance flown, so Avios are not a great value for long international trips or trips in business or first class.

Delta SkyMiles
We are not big fans of Delta but here are some positive and negative aspects of their frequent flyer program.  Delta has announced big changes to their program as of January 1, 2015 that most people consider a devaluation.

Positives:
•Miles have no expiration date so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of your activity.

Negatives:
• Cannot redeem Delta miles for first class on partners.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the above frequent flyer programs are useful programs for most people living in the US to consider for earning and redeeming miles.

Our favorite mileage programs are AA and United because they allow you to book one way awards and are a great complement to each other because they are part of 2 of the biggest airline alliances.  We are able to use them both for domestic flights and international flights (including first class).  Between these 2 airline programs we are able to book free award flights almost anywhere in the world.  We also frequently travel on Southwest when booking domestic flights mainly because you are able to cancel without any fees.  We are not big fans of Delta and have not actually used them at all for either award or paid travel.  One reason is that we are based in Chicago which is a hub for United and American Airlines and also offers tons of Southwest connections.

Our next post will compare hotel loyalty programs.  Stay tuned for more posts in this series.  Follow us on twitter, facebook or sign up to receive our new posts by e-mail.

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