Being the master of your air miles domain isn’t tricky. It’s all about getting signed up, knowing the basics, keeping things organized and most importantly reading this bible. Yes, you have an excuse for letting those miles slip through your fingers–it’s hard to comb through all the information on the various frequent flyer websites and figure it out. But, like a good Sunday school teacher, we have laid it all out for you. These aren’t any tips from anyone, they come directly from A-Trak’s team. And you know he’s racked up his miles.
So before you waste another flight filled with potential freebies, step your game up. Let the doors to those cushy airline lounges open to you. Let the champagne in first class flow. And get seated first, without pretending you thought they called your boarding number.
Like Moses on the mountain, we present to you: The Infinite Legroom Frequent Flyer Miles Bible.
Story Credit: Craig Tiede
Don't Cheat On Your Main Airline
Traveling with loyalty to an airline is like choosing a love interest. You want to strategically align your travel routes with the airline whose status means the most to you.
Assess which airline you intend to fly for the majority of your business (and pleasure) to maximize your benefits as a frequent flyer as much as possible. Where do you go the most? And what carriers fly there?
Choose the right one for you and show her you care. Then, try and stick with it. The more you fly, the more you get.
Respect The Trifecta
The main thing to consider is there are essentially three major US airlines that are non-discount carriers: United, American and Delta Airlines. (US Airways is a tax write off that will soon be absorbed by American Airlines, hopefully). These guys call the shots and have all the connections. They’re linked with a network of international airlines and each network honors your frequent flyer status with the three main US domestic carriers. These are crucial to achieving respect in the skies. The alliances to know are:
Give respect and you’ll get respect, you know the deal.
Register and Rack ‘Em Up
Make sure to register with each of the airlines you fly. Next step: rack up as many points as possible.
This will boost your frequent flyer status and cement your tier of frequent flyer. The biggest thing to note is that mileage is calculated based upon accrual for one calendar year from January 1 through December 31.
Start by registering for:
Status is Everything
Ever wonder why the balding chubby guy is boarding first? This isn’t the Meat Packing or the VIP line at Lavo. When he’s not popping his Rogaine pills, he’s clicking frequent flyer air miles. He’s got status. And the more you fly, the better the perks.
When flying major carriers the main objective is to accrue as many Elite Qualifying Miles or EQMs and Elite Qualifying Segments or EQSs as possible. These are the highly coveted miles that are used to calculate your frequent flyer tier status. You need the requisite amount of miles to qualify for each tier. So whether you’re flying a few times a year or a few times a week, be conscious of your status.
Who Does It Best?
While we’re hesitant to pull out the 10 card for any of the majors. This is what we will say:
1. United has the best availability of mileage award seats.
2. American has the best value for redeeming miles for a seat.
3. Delta has the better upgraded cabins for business and first class (on select routes).
4. American and Delta offer a simple three-tier frequent flyer status program.
5. United has implemented a four-tier system to allow a more incremental benefits program for frequent flyers.
6. United has seemingly more options because Star Alliance is the largest global airline network.
7. American and Delta offer more custom award ticket options on their networks because the airline pool is smaller.
Placing third is better than not placing at all. At least you get to stand on the podium.
All airline frequent flyer programs are tiered. These numbers are based on how much you travel. The entry level or “silver” status for most airlines is 25,000 miles. If you fly transcontinentally a few times a year, you could probably attain “silver” status on airlines.
Silver status means: free checked bags, priority boarding, priority security screening (where available) and designated check-in areas at most airports.
Gold all in my chain. Gold all in your miles.
If you attain 50,000 miles, this usually puts you in the “gold” echelon of status. Better perks! You get everything you had in silver, but you also get your own booking hotline and waived booking fees.
For airlines under the Star Alliance umbrella you have access to airport lounges when traveling internationally. Once they let you through those golden doors you are usually entitled to free checked baggage (up to 2 bags) and priority economy plus seating. This is the more comfortable set of seats between business class and standard coach. There is more room to spread out than the standard coach seat.
Don’t believe us, just watch.
Tiers: Platinum and Diamond
Throw up the roc! This is the Hov status of air miles.
The “platinum” or “diamond” tier is the pinnacle of frequent flyers. This baller status reserves the most star treatment. Designated check-in lines at most airports, more priority security, priority boarding before the other tiers of frequent flyers.
The biggest perk for these top tier flyers is that the three major airlines give you select regional and global upgrades with your status to be redeemed for travel domestically and internationally. United and American specifically offer these perks, while Delta offers rollover Medallion miles in their program.
But no, Beyonce sitting next to you in First Class is not included.
Got it for Cheap?
When dealing with discount carriers, (think: JetBlue, Southwest, Frontier) don’t literally discount their frequent flyer programs. They can be vital to ensuring a well-respected time in the skies.
Their systems are not based on traditional tier hierarchies like the major airlines, but it is more or less the same–everyone accrues as many points or segments as possible. They just use more abstract systems. Know what you’re getting before you get it for cheap.
Local vs. International
When it comes to service, the international carriers tend to do it better. We’re talking better airplanes, better cabins, better entertainment systems, better food, better drinks, better service and better (read: cuter) flight attendants. But if you choose to fly international, it might come with a cost.
For example if you’re flying from New York to Frankfurt and you want to use United miles, instead of flying from Newark on United direct, you could try opting for JFK to Frankfurt on Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. The Bavarian charm and German engineered precision of their service will make you very happy. Or flying to Pairs? You could consider using your miles on an Air France flight. The service has a certain je ne sais quoi.
But, for all of this, you may have to sacrifice your clout. If you choose that Air France flight, yes you can use your Delta SkyTeam points, but you’ll give up perks like upgrades and baggage allowance.
Decide what’s more important to you–your hometeam perks or some international flair.
Traveling with a Buddy?
Someone to share their in-flight peanuts and watch episodes of Shameless with you is always more preferable than a stranger. So, when traveling with a friend book your tickets together. If booked under the same reservation number your companion will be traveling under the same frequent flyer status as you and entitled to the same upgrades as you (if booked in an economy full fare cabin). This can be done for up to 8 people usually. And who has more than 8 friends they want to share an armrest with.
Keeping Track of Your Cheddar
Not cashing in on your miles is like not getting that cute girl’s phone number that said “Hi” on the train.
Always keep track of your miles and status by constantly checking your online profile with each airline. They all have very user-friendly interfaces and apps. Every time you travel, double check your frequent flyer number is included in the reservation. If booking online, always book through the airline’s website while logged into your frequent flyer account. This will ensure your information is stored in the ticket. If you work directly with a travel agent, make sure they have your frequent flyer miles for all bookings, even codeshares (see the Codesharing slide). And if after of all of this you still forgot to enter your frequent flyer number prior to the day of flight, be sure to add it when you check in at the airport.
Once those doors close, there’s no recovering.
Timing is Everything
You can be late for drinks with the guys. You can be late for a dentist appointment. You can be late with that leather bomber you finally copped. But you can’t be late using your miles.
Most airmiles expire one year after you acquire them. Each airline is different, but be aware and make sure to use all your miles before they expire.
Also when redeeming your miles, the time of travel is crucial to attain the best value. For example, trying to go to Miami for New years Eve? Don’t. You’re not going to get the best value because it’s a high volume travel time.
When it comes to travel, sometimes sharing isn’t always caring.
Codesharing is when multiple airlines sell seats on the same flight. It’s integral for airlines to operate seamlessly, as well as offer international travel with smooth connections. But it also can affect your frequent flyer points.
Objectively investigate how to travel on your preferred airline (and it’s affiliate codeshare partners) and ensure you accrue your desired frequent flyer miles on that program.
For example, if you are 100% loyal to United Airlines and want to fly from Chicago to Bangkok, you can’t fly United directly to Bangkok. Therefore you will have to fly United to one of their Eastern gateway cities like Shanghai or Tokyo to connect to a Star Alliance carrier onto Bangkok. The Star Alliance carrier in Asia is either Thai Airways or ANA. By designating either of these two airlines when booking you will received United frequent flyer miles for flying that route on a UA codeshare partner.
Another example would be, if you wanted to get UA miles and had to fly from NYC to Frankfurt, Germany, you would fly Lufthansa to accrue United Airlines miles because UA doesn’t fly from JFK to Frankfurt on that route.
You need to be careful the route you’re flying on, doesn’t overlap with your preferred airline. Be sure to consult directly with the airline before booking to verify if they will honor your codeshare or not.
To Buy or Not To Buy Miles
There are questions in life that demand a lot of our attention. What career path should I take? Who will I end up with? What should I have for lunch? With all the things you have to figure out, let us answer one of these for you. To buy or not to buy miles, that is the question.
When it comes to air miles, there are two instances we advise handing over the dough.
1. When redeeming air miles, if you don’t have enough miles, you can pay the difference. The price is a market rate set by the airline.
2. At the end of the calendar year, if you have fallen short of achieving your status, the airlines will usually offer incentives to buy miles to attain the next level of frequent flyer status. These offers are usually in December and contingent on how many miles you need to reach the next tier.
Any other time, it’s probably best to pay the cash fare.
Status Matching and Challenges
Sometimes getting set up can go horribly wrong. Think back to the last three dates you were “sent” on. But sometimes getting matchmakered is great!
In an effort to attract your business, airlines will match your status of another airline. So if you have Gold status with one, you could temporarily get Gold for another. Matching is broken up into two categories: status matches and status challenges.
Status matches are when airlines will offer you a compatible status to help you move your business over easily. Status challenges, are more of a promotion. They offer a window of opportunity to move over to a new airline, then you have fly a certain amount in a set amount of time to keep the status.
Started from the bottom. But if you make it to the top, you may encounter systemwide upgrades.
Systemwide upgrades are granted to the top tier of frequent flyer miles. For UA this is 1k, for Delta this is Platinum Medallion and AA this is Executive Platinum.
Each airline offers a specific amount of systemwide upgrades per qualifying member. For example UA gives 6 and AA gives 8. These upgrades are used for international flights to upgrade you from one cabin to the next. If you book full fare in coach, you can upgrade to business class or if you book in business class you can upgrade to first class. (This is all pending availability for seats earmarked for upgrades. The airlines holds a small amount for each international flight.) You can only upgrade one cabin per flight per system wide upgrade. This means you can’t book in coach and use two system wides to bump up to first class, you can only upgrade one cabin per flight. These system wides can be transferred from the holder to friends/family.
The difference between systemwide upgrades and regular upgrades is systemwides are usually held for international/transoceanic flights. For domestic (and sometimes Central American/Canadian flights on AA at least) if you qualify you the upgrade the airline will automatically bump you up based on availability and the order of wait-listed people in the queue. The top tier frequent flyers get top priority.
Most of the upgrades are dispersed January 1and if you don’t use all of your system wides by December 31 they expire.
Swipe the Plastic
Heavily swiping your plastic can bring things besides shoe boxes and bills. Each airlines has their own credit card with various perks. You need to pick which one is right for you.
Delta: Delta offers a Sky Miles Gold AMEX. Since AMEX comes with a higher credit rating, it might be good to opt for this card to boost your credit rating by getting an AMEX affiliated card. This card also comes with the cachet of benefits including free checked baggage (for you and up to 8 guests on the same reservation) and priority boarding. With each purchase you receive a mile of accrued travel for each dollar purchased. They also offer a Delta Reserve AMEX that offers a $450 annual fee for the same benefits plus concierge service and Delta Sky Lounge access.
American: American offers a American Advantage Citi Mastercard which enables you to receive the same free checked baggage and priority access for priority security and priority boarding. Their Elite Platinum Master card offers Admirals Club lounge access.
United: United offers a Chase Mastercard with free checked baggage, priority boarding and United Club access.
Each card essentially offers the same thing but be aware of the hidden annual fees. Most of the top tier credit cards that offer lounge access have steep $450 annual fees. If you travel a lot, the annual fee, free wi-fi and endless crackers and ginger ale might be worth it. Lounge membership can run you anywhere from $350 to $500 a year anyways. Carefully assess which airline you will likely fly the most to help you choose which card will work for you.
Air miles don’t just offer you opportunities at joining the mile high club. You can also use your miles to ride around and get it (in a rental car) and sleep in a bed more comfortable than your own (at a hotel, not your ex girlfriend’s house). Explore each airline’s respective frequent flyer website to see the options on leveraging your miles for travel other than airline tickets.