My Ranking of Airline Frequent Flyer Programs

Oct 24, 2011

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All airline miles were not created equal. And while some programs are clearly better than others, the only thing that matters is how much value you get from your frequent flyer program. For example, if your preferred airport is only serviced by American – you may value your AAdvantage miles much more than any others. Or if you love the ability to build in stopovers into trips your British Airways miles may be extremely valuable – whereas someone who only flies to Europe may despise British Airways’ high fees on trips to/from that continent.

Overall, I feel that all programs have value for specific awards, but I actually took time this past weekend to rank each program on a several different metrics to see which one I find most valuable. My model is probably flawed and I expect and encourage people to disagree! That’s the great thing about miles and points- we can all value them differently and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what other people think.

I probably could have over-engineered this exercise, but decided instead to keep it pretty simple. I scored the most popular frequent flyer programs (not taking into account fixed value programs like Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue because each of their points have set values) and scored either 1-10 for the most important categories and 1-5 for a couple less important categories.

1) Ease in accruing: How easy it is to earn miles. Does the loyalty program runs lots of lucrative promotions? Are there lots of hotel and car partners? Can you transfer points from Amex, Chase or Starwood at good ratios?
2) Low level award availability for domestic flights. Is it easy to redeem for domestic awards on the program’s airline (non-partners)?
3) Low level award availability for international flights. Is it easy to redeem for international awards on the program’s airline (non-partners)?
4) Partner award availability – not only alliance partners, but does the program team up with a lot of good non-alliance partners?
5) Award levels – do they have good value awards? Do they offer off-peak or promo pricing?
6) Award flexibility – can you book one ways for half the price of roundtrip? Can you put awards on hold? Can you build in stopovers, route around the world, build in open-jaws, etc?
7) Taxes and fees – do you get hit with outrageous fees when redeeming awards? Last minute booking fees? Phone booking fees, etc.
8 ) Does the program make it easy and lucrative to redeem for upgrades? (1-5 scale)
9) Can you book awards easily through the airlines website? If not, do their phone reps make it easy? (1-5 scale)

Ease in accruing Low Level Award Availability Domestic Low Level Award Availability Intl Partner Award Availability Award Levels, Incl offpeak Award Flexibility (One ways, stopovers) Taxes/Fees Upgrades Website Total
American 7 9 7 7 9 5 8 4.5 3 59.5
Continental/UA 7 8 6 9 8 9 10 3 4.5 64.5
Delta 10 4 4 8 5 7 7 2.5 3 50.5
US Airways 9 9 6 9 10 7 6 3.5 3 62.5
Aeroplan 8 7 8 9 6 9 6 3 4.5 60.5
British Airways 7 9 10 7 7 10 3 5 3.5 61.5

 The results:
1) Continental/United: 64.5
2) US Airways: 62.5
3) British Airways: 61.5
4) Aeroplan 60.5
5) American 59.5
6) Delta 50.5

I could probably go back and keep tweaking my individual rankings, but I think I’m pretty satisfied with the overall results. I wrote down some of the positives and negatives for each program – feel free to add your thoughts as well.

Aside: many of you are probably wondering why I am loyal to Delta when their program is clearly not as strong as the others. I sometimes wonder the same, but to me, there’s more to an airline than just the redeemable miles. The reason I fly Delta as my main carrier is 1) Elite program – I get almost 100% domestic upgrades on the cheapest fares 2) I find their planes and flight attendants to be generally top notch (in comparison to other US carriers 3) WiFi – as a full-time blogger being connected is my business. Almost every single Delta plane, including regional jets, has WiFi 4) I can still get huge value from their miles, especially since I live in a Skyteam gateway city and I know all the tricks to get low level awards. 5) I accrue hundreds of thousands of miles in other programs from my credit card spend/bonuses, so I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket with Delta. If I can’t use my Skymiles for a trip, I simply dip into my stashes of other miles/points.

Program summaries:
Positive- SPG transfer partner, one way awards, good domestic award availability, low copays on mileage upgrades , offpeak awards to Europe/Latin America
Negative- Poor routing rules – no stopovers. Expensive pricing of multi-partner awards, Oneworld the smallest alliance, only shows AA availability

Positive- Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, robust online booking engine, one-way awards, flexible rules on roundtrip tickets including stopovers, open jaws and multiple partners, low fees, strong Star Alliance network
Negative- SPG transfer of only 2:1, high mileage upgrade co-pays, lackluster international availability on CO/UA metal, history of blocking Star Alliance awards – it seems to have gotten a lot better, but could return at any time

Positive- Amex and SPG transfer partner, TONS of mileage promos, Skyteam availability is generally very good, flexible routing rules, low fees on tickets leaving from anywhere but Europe, no last minute ticketing fees, no mileage expiration
Negative- 3 award tiers which can severely inflate awards, no one-ways, no offpeak awards, huge fees on awards that originate in Europe, high fare classes needed for upgrades, awful website, no international first class awards

US Airways
Positive- SPG transfer partner. Good domestic award availability, strong Star Alliance network, flexible routing rules (around the world with stopovers), lots of ways to get miles like 100% bonuses and lucrative Grand Slam promotion, offpeak awards – including business class
Negative- No one-way awards, awful website that only has US availability, expensive fees on awards

Air Canada
Positive- Amex, SPG transfer partner. Strong Star Alliance network, super flexible routing rules (2 stopovers and around the world routing)
Negative- Recently inflated award levels, high fees on Air Canada flights, one way awards are not 1/2 the price of roundtrip

British Airways
Positive- Amex and SPG transfer partner. Great award chart for partner awards, unlimited en-route stopovers, one-way awards, low fees on US/South American awards, incredible value in upgrades – 25,000 miles roundtrip for Premium Economy to Business
Negative- Impending program devaluation November 16, 2011. HUGE fees on European awards and Asia/Australia awards can also be very expensive. Buggy website and limited phone hours and tired phone reps

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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