BEST AIR­LINE RE­WARD PRO­GRAMS IN THE U.S.A

Frequent Flyer Destinations - - VOYAGER - BY ARAM GE­SAR

The loy­alty pro­grams of the six big­gest U.S.-based air­lines have got­ten ma­jor over­hauls in the last few years. Here is how to earn or buy miles to achieve elite sta­tus faster.

ALASKA AIR­LINES MILEAGE PLAN

Part­ners: 18

Min­i­mum Elite Sta­tus Re­quire­ments: Fly 20,000 qual­i­fy­ing miles or 30 seg­ments

Voted the best in the US by the read­ers of US News, Alaska Air­lines Mileage Plan caters to fly­ers who fre­quent var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions in Alaska, West Coast cities (like Seat­tle and Portland) and ma­jor trans­porta­tion hubs (like At­lanta and New York City). By join­ing the Alaska Air­lines Mileage Plan, you can start earn­ing miles on ev­ery Alaska Air­lines flight you take, as well as on all Vir­gin Amer­ica flights and el­i­gi­ble flights on Alaska Air­lines’ 18 part­ner air­lines, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can Air­lines, Emi­rates and Bri­tish Air­ways.

You can also earn miles by mak­ing ev­ery­day pur­chases with the Alaska Air­lines Visa Sig­na­ture Card or by stay­ing with 10 par­tic­i­pat­ing ho­tel part­ners, in­clud­ing Hil­ton, Best Western and Mar­riott. The miles you earn can be used to­ward free flights on Alaska Air­lines and other par­tic­i­pat­ing car­ri­ers.

DELTA SKYMILES

Part­ners: 26

Min­i­mum Elite Sta­tus Re­quire­ments: Fly 25,000 qual­i­fy­ing miles or 30 seg­ments and spend $3,000

The Delta SkyMiles pro­gram is con­ve­nient for fre­quent fly­ers based in United States cities like At­lanta, Detroit, Los An­ge­les, Min­neapo­lis and Seat­tle, and for pas­sen­gers who of­ten travel to and from New York City. Delta Air Lines op­er­ates more than 15,000 flights each day to 335 des­ti­na­tions across more than 60 coun­tries. By be­com­ing a SkyMiles mem­ber, you’ll earn miles based on the amount you pay for your flight with Delta, Delta Con­nec­tion or Delta Shut­tle; you can also earn miles for fly­ing with any of Delta’s mul­ti­ple part­ner air­lines, in­clud­ing KLM, Air France and Vir­gin At­lantic, among oth­ers. Those miles can be re­deemed for free air travel on any par­tic­i­pat­ing air­line or cashed in for cabin up­grades, unique ex­pe­ri­ences or items for sale at the SkyMiles Mar­ket­place. When you fly with Delta, you will also earn Medal­lion Qual­i­fi­ca­tion Miles, which will help you gain ac­cess to a va­ri­ety of perks through the Delta SkyMiles Medal­lion elite mem­ber­ship pro­gram. (Medal­lion-level mem­bers can rack up miles at par­tic­i­pat­ing Star­wood Ho­tels through the Cross­over Re­wards pro­gram.) You can also earn miles on ev­ery­day pur­chases if you’ve signed up for a Delta SkyMiles credit card by Amer­i­can Ex­press.

JETBLUE TRUEBLUE

Part­ners: 7

Min­i­mum Elite Sta­tus Re­quire­ments: Fly 30 seg­ments and 12,000 or 15,000 points within a year

The JetBlue TrueBlue pro­gram best serves trav­el­ers based in East Coast cities (like Bos­ton, New York City, and Fort Laud­erdale and Or­lando, Florida) who pri­mar­ily fly do­mes­ti­cally and to the Caribbean. Mem­bers earn points for ev­ery dol­lar spent on JetBlue

flights and JetBlue Va­ca­tions pack­ages. You can also earn points on flights booked with seven part­ner air­lines, as well as on ho­tel stays, car rentals and pur­chases with re­tail part­ners like Ama­zon and 1800Flow­ers.com. Earn even more points by stay­ing con­nected on so­cial me­dia and by mak­ing pur­chases with one of the JetBlue credit cards from MasterCard. You can use those points to cover the cost of fu­ture air travel on JetBlue or Hawai­ian Air­lines, as well as the cost of JetBlue Va­ca­tions pack­ages. Loy­alty pro­gram mem­bers also have the op­tion to use points to bid on ex­pe­ri­ences, such as sport­ing events and trip pack­ages (like a fam­ily trip to Dis­ney­land), along with mem­o­ra­bilia.

SOUTH­WEST RAPID RE­WARDS

Part­ners: 0

Min­i­mum Elite Sta­tus Re­quire­ments: Fly 35,000 qual­i­fy­ing points or 25 seg­ments

The South­west Rapid Re­wards pro­gram is most ben­e­fi­cial for bud­get-minded trav­el­ers based in the United States who fre­quently fly to ma­jor cities around the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean. South­west of­fers more than 3,900 flights a day to more than 100 des­ti­na­tions. By be­com­ing a South­west Rapid Re­wards mem­ber, you’ll earn points for ev­ery dol­lar spent on South­west flights and with the air­line’s ho­tel, car rental and re­tail part­ners. If you have one of the South­west Rapid Re­wards credit cards from Chase Visa, you can earn ad­di­tional points on South­west Air­lines and part­ner pur­chases and by mak­ing ev­ery­day pur­chases. You can use your Rapid Re­wards points to pay for the cost of air travel on any South­west flight, and if you are a South­west credit card holder, you can also use points to cover the cost of ho­tel stays, cruises, car rentals, and gift cards.

UNITED MILEAGEPLUS

Part­ners: 39

Min­i­mum Elite Sta­tus Re­quire­ments: Fly 25,000 qual­i­fy­ing miles or 30 seg­ments and spend $3,000

The United MileagePlus pro­gram is best for trav­el­ers based in ma­jor Amer­i­can cities and those who travel to des­ti­na­tions in Europe,

Latin Amer­ica, and Asia. When you be­come a MileagePlus mem­ber, you can earn and use miles on United and its 35-plus air­line part­ners like Sin­ga­pore Air­lines, ANA and Copa Air­lines, many of which are part of the Star Al­liance net­work. As a MileagePlus mem­ber, you’ll ac­crue Premier Qual­i­fy­ing Miles (PQMs), Premier Qual­i­fy­ing Seg­ments (PQSs) and Premier Qual­i­fy­ing Dol­lars (PQDs) each time you fly. Earn enough PQMs or PQSs and you’ll reach Premier sta­tus – MileagePlus mem­ber­ship lev­els for which you’ll re­ceive ex­tra ben­e­fits. Ad­di­tion­ally, you can earn miles on qual­i­fy­ing cruise va­ca­tions, car rentals, and train fares, as well as on shop­ping, din­ing, and other ser­vices. And since United part­ners with ma­jor ho­tel brands, in­clud­ing Mar­riott, Hil­ton, and IHG, you can earn re­wards when you stay at prop­er­ties world­wide. You may also re­deem miles for flights, ho­tel stays, cruises, mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions, des­ti­na­tion ex­pe­ri­ences (think: sport­ing events and the­ater per­for­mances) and more. Choose to use one of four United MileagePlus credit cards from Chase Visa and you’ll earn miles on flights and ev­ery­day pur­chases.

WHEN BUY­ING FRE­QUENT FLYER MILES MAKES SENSE

Pur­chas­ing fre­quent-flier miles for air travel doesn’t al­ways make sense; it all de­pends on your travel needs. Is it for a free ticket, or an up­grade, or to reach a higher elite level?

Pur­chas­ing a large num­ber of miles to buy an air­line ticket usu­ally re­sults in the ticket hav­ing a higher cost than if it were pur­chased out­right. Oc­ca­sion­ally, though, buy­ing miles can save trav­el­ers money. If the trav­eler is only a few miles away from a free ticket or from a free up­grade, for in­stance, pur­chas­ing the miles to make up the dif­fer­ence can be cheaper than pay­ing full price. Ad­di­tional miles can be bought through the air­lines, es­pe­cially when they have bonus op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Let’s as­sume Amer­i­can Air­lines is of­fer­ing a 50% bonus op­por­tu­nity un­til the end of the month. If you buy 60,000 AAd­van­tage miles, you get an ad­di­tional 30,000-mile bonus. The cost? $1650.

Worth it? De­pends on how you spend the miles. Let’s say you were con­tem­plat­ing a business class trip from New York JFK to Tokyo Haneda on Amer­i­can’s non­stop, trav­el­ing out­bound March 4, re­turn­ing on March 13. A business/first fare on Amer­i­can would cost $5136 round-trip.

But with your $1650 mileage pur­chase, you get al­most all of the 100,000 AAd­van­tage miles you’d need to ob­tain that ticket, af­ter pay­ing $42 in taxes.

So yes, I’d say it’s worth buy­ing the miles in such a sce­nario (I’m as­sum­ing you al­ready have 10,000 miles in your ac­count).

Short an­swer, yes, if you fly in business or first class, buy the miles. How­ever, if you do most of your travel in econ­omy class, then skip this sort of of­fer. It’s just not worth it.

If you fly econ­omy or econ­omy plus, I sug­gest you use miles and buy ad­di­tional miles and use them for up­grad­ing to business or first class.

As for reach­ing a higher elite level, air­lines do not let you buy miles for that pur­pose, but some al­low you to pur­chase booster miles when you are buy­ing a ticket.

As a rule of thumb, only buy miles if you have im­me­di­ate need for them, since they can de­value over time. Also con­firm be­fore­hand that an award ticket is avail­able for your cho­sen flight. You do not want to end up pay­ing for miles you can’t use. Pur­chased miles are of­ten non-re­fund­able, and most air­lines limit the num­ber you can buy each year, usu­ally 60,000 or 100,000 miles.

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