How to Begin Collecting Miles
How you approach all of these programs depends on how aggressive you will be in getting miles. I am very aggressive. So any time I see a free good deal, I first get a frequent flyer account with the appropriate airline, then do the deal. I have accounts with 16 airlines. My first flight on American Airlines was to Costa Rica, paid for entirely by free frequent flyer miles obtained means other than flying with American.
The whole point of this website is to tell you about these good deals. Their source varies. When I started this program, the best were from switching long distance telephone companies every 6 months. Then came bank deals, buying dollar coins from the US Mint, buying money orders from Walmart, and moving assets from one stock and bond brokerage to another every few months. On January 3, 2016, the best ones could be found on my Credit Card and Finance pages, so start by reading everything in those sections. One of the brokerage deals still exists, as does one of the bank deals. Then sign up for the service I mention on my What's New page that sends you an email whenever I put something on that page.
If, however, most of your miles will come from paid tickets, then it is important to choose a frequent flyer program with an airline within an alliance you will use most frequently. Remember you must have a minimum of 20,000 or 25,000 miles before you can receive any round trip award with most programs.
There are several considerations for choice of airline program:
There are three major worldwide alliances of major airlines - Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team.
- If you earn flight miles from paid flights on any airline within an alliance, you may credit them to any airline within that alliance. So for starters stick with one airline within each alliance for crediting your flight miles. Pick the one from which you can get the most non-flight miles (for credit card or brokers bonuses, for example).
- You may use miles from any one airline within an alliance to get tickets on any combination of airlines within that alliance. For example, I flew within the Star Alliance network from San Francisco to Korea on United Airlines, stayed overnight, then flew from Korea to Bangkok on Thai Air, toured Vietnam from there for a few weeks, then returned from Bangkok to Tokyo on Thai Air, stayed there four days, then returned to San Francisco on All Nippon Air - all in business class, all for the United Airlines miles price of one round trip to Asia. But you may not combine miles from more than one airline to get an award ticket. This why I say to start with one airline within each alliance for miles accumulation.
- Star Alliance is the largest. It is the easiest alliance from which to get an award ticket, because it has the most flights to most places. United is the U.S. based airlines within this alliance. Note that you may use the miles of member of the alliance to get a flight on any other. Click my link to see the list of airlines that are in the alliance. My favorites (as of 2016) include United, Lufthansa, Swiss Air, Avianca, Turkish and Singapore Airlines. (Turkish is a very nice way to get to Europe in business class via Istanbul, and Avianca will get to you most anywhere in Latin America).I would chose to fly any of these three in business class over any U.S. based airline's business class.
- The second largest alliance is One World. American Airlines is its only U.S. member. Click my link to see the large list of non-U.S. based airlines that are in the alliance. My favorites (as of 2016) are Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Lan. British Air is a member, but beware of its infamous very high "fees" for award tickets.
- The third largest alliance is Sky Team. Delta Airlines is its only U.S. member. Click my link to see the list of non-U.S. based airlines that are in the alliance. My favorite (as of 2016) is Air France, a comfortable way to get to Europe in business class. Delta has greatly devalued its miles and has greatly decreased availability of award seats, thus causing those miles to be called sky pesos. Still, the miles are occasionally very useful, and never expire, so I collect them whenever they are free. They got me a very nice round trip award ticket to Buenos Aires in 2015, and a low miles one-way ticket from there to Iguazu on AerolineasArgentinas on that same trip.
Some airlines are not part of any alliance, but have a useful set of partners.
- The Alaska Airlines program is one of my favorites due mainly to its partners, including (as of 2016) Delta, American, British Air, KLM, Cathay Pacific, Air France, Qantas, Lan, Iceland Air, and Emirates. In 2016, for example, the "fees" for a round trip business class award ticket on Cathay Pacific between San Francisco and Bangkok (via Hong Kong) were hundreds of dollars less than the same award ticket from British Air. Note how the partners span several of the major alliances. Alaska usually has a different inventory of award tickets from a particular airline than does that airline or any within its alliance. That is a very valuable flexibility when you are looking for such a ticket. All Alaska Air tickets are one way, and all allow one layover. This makes the program extremely generous for layovers and open jaw trips.
In 2014 I used its miles for a one way trip from San Francisco to Gustavos (Glacier Bay national park), then another from Gustavos to San Francisco, with a 15 day layover in Juno. During those 15 days I took a cruise through the Alaska wilderness on an UnCruise small ship. This was the very best of many organized tours I have taken. They don't travel port to port, where you can spend lots of money in tourist shops. Instead, they go from fjord to bay to inlet, putting you in the water in very stable kayaks, or on shore via zodiacs for well led hikes of various difficulties over un-trailed land. Imagine the ship stopping in Fredrick sound surrounded by about a hundred whales breaching and leaping out of the water, with Dahl Porpoises streaking by near the ship. And imagine the ship stopping and interrupting dinner because a Grizzly bear was spotted. (You can get a discount by mentioning my name - Gary Steiger)
Different programs require different numbers of miles for awards.
I could have paid 35,000 or 50,000 miles for my trip to Peru, depending on the airline. So if you know where you want to go, choose your program accordingly.
Most airlines mileage programs cause your miles to expire under certain conditions. Most US airlines miles expire in one to two years of the last mileage adding activity (so it is easy to maintain those miles forever), but some U.S. airlines (like Delta in 2016) do not expire your miles. (But that may change at any time.) Southwest and some of the other low cost domestic airlines expire your credits after a year or two of earning them, so with these airlines you have to be sure you can earn enough credits to get a ticket and can decide what ticket you want within that time period. Many foreign airlines expire your miles after a certain time, regardless of activity. If you need an activity to keep your domestic airlines miles alive, one of the easiest is through Rewards Network (iDine), a program described on my Other Programs I Like page in the dining section. Another, though less reliable, is purchasing something from the airline's shopping portal.
It usually costs you most of your miles if you try to exchange them between airlines -so don't plan on doing this. Just follow my What's New page to accumulate as many miles as you can on lots of airlines within all the alliances, so you will always have enough for your needs. Webflyer maintains and excellent mileage converter page on exchanging miles between airlines and/or points programs. Always use this tool before converting hotel or Amtrak points to miles.
To sign up for a mileage program, first check my Registrations and Other Bonuses section of this web site to see if you can get miles for joining the program. If you can't, then go the airline's web site and navigate to the online registration form. To find the web site, just use your favorite search engine.
The airlines' sites also give all details need about their frequent flyer programs, including partners, expiration policies, and how many miles it takes to get to where you want to go. Be sure to sign up for emails from airlines of interest. These are a major source of the deals I post on this website.
Even though you have already purchased your ticket, it is not too late to receive miles for it. Just sign up for a miles program, call the travel agent or the airline reservation number and give them your frequent flyer number, and when you show up at the gate, ask them to check to be sure the number is in your account. Remember that you can credit those miles to any of the Airline's partners. Even if your miles are not credited, perhaps even if you were not a member of the program at the time of your flight, you probably can still get them by sending in your boarding pass receipt. Always save that receipt, for lots of reasons, including getting miles credit.