Travel hacking is a series of behaviors and strategies that allow you to fund future travel using benefits from current travel. The concept can be nebulous, and executing it tedious, but an easy way to get in on travel hacking is joining an airline loyalty program. When you plan the airline loyalty game effectively, you can earn free travel (and other perks) for merely flying the same airline frequently. Here is a round-up of the best airline rewards program in the U.S., as well as a short note about foreign ones worth joining.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Even after its recent acquisition of Virgin America, Alaska Airlines is far from the largest airline in the U.S., with an operational that primarily focuses on the east and west coasts (plus, of course, Alaska). However, there are some significant advantages to joining Alaska Airlines' MileagePlan, including the following:
- Whether flying Alaska or its long list of partners, Alaska is one of few remaining airlines that allow you to earn miles based on miles flown, rather than on how much you pay for your ticket.
- Although Alaska is a domestic airline, you can redeem MileagePlan points for travel on international airlines, including Emirates, Japan Airlines, and Singapore Airlines.
- If you achieve elite status (MVP, MVP Gold, or MVP Gold 75k) with Alaska, your earnings on every flight are multiplied, especially when you fly first or business class.
- Alaska Airlines issues co-branded credit cards through Bank of America, which makes it easy to earn miles even when you don't fly.
While you don't need to fly Alaska frequently to reap the rewards of being a MileagePlan member, elite flyers certainly enjoy the best in-flight experience on the airline (which, for whats it's worth, consistently places near the top of consumer satisfaction surveys).
American Airlines AAdvantage
American Airlines' AAdvantage program is one of the most popular rewards programs in the U.S., in no small part because of American being the largest airline in the world. Here are some reasons to consider joining AAdvantage:
- Whether you open an AAdvantage co-branded credit card account (currently available both through Barclays and Citi) or achieve AAdvantage elite status, you can enjoy VIP treatment on the ground and in-flight, including free checked bags.
- AAdvantage miles are valuable not only for travel on American Airlines but on award-winning international airlines like Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways.
- You can earn AAdvantage miles even when you don't fly, including through the AAdvantage dining and shopping portals.
Love fancy hotel stays? Well, if you achieve AAdvantage elite status of Gold or higher, you can now enjoy reciprocal benefits within the World of Hyatt program.
Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
Among serious miles and points hackers, Delta SkyMiles (the program and the points currency) is near the bottom of the pack, at least when it comes to earning and redeeming them on Delta itself. However, there are some ways to make SkyMiles work for you:
- Sign-up bonuses from co-branded Delta and American Express credit cards are among the most generous in the industry, with the ability to earn 70,000 points (or more) only by opening an account and meeting minimum spend requirements.
- Partner award rates on Delta Air Lines are excellent, whether you fly China Airlines or Korean Air in Asia, or use SkyMiles to fly Virgin Atlantic to the U.K. and Europe.
- SkyMiles elite "Medallion" flyers earn miles at higher rates than ordinary passengers. Delta commensurately rewards those who fly more often.
- Delta SkyMiles is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, which means you can use the program to book award travel even if you never plan to fly Delta.
Of course, regardless of what you think of SkyMiles, Delta regularly earns accolades for its onboard experience, which is more than many of the other U.S. airlines on this list can say.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
On the surface, Southwest Rapid Rewards can seem less attractive than other airline rewards programs on this list, if only because its main uses are domestic rather than international. However, there are some major advantages to becoming a Rapid Rewards member:
- Although no longer codified in program rules as such, Rapid Rewards flyers can generally earn one free round trip for every eight paid trips.
- Rapid Rewards prices awards dynamically, which means that customers who book early or take advantage of promotions can fly for pennies on the dollar.
- Elite tiers such as A-List and A-List preferred are comparatively easier to achieve than on other airlines. If you fly 100 qualifying segments in a year, you even earn a Companion Pass, which allows one person of your choice to accompany you free on all flights throughout the next year
Another great thing about flying Southwest? Southwest has no change fees (although you will have to pay a fare difference is there is one) and doesn't charge fees for checked bags, which makes it an anomaly among 21st-century US airlines.
JetBlue True Blue
JetBlue has expanded rapidly since its founding 20 years ago when it was primarily a boutique airline that served niche destinations out of Boston and New York. As the airline has grown, so too has its True Blue loyalty program, and many benefits therein:
- Like Alaska Airlines, JetBlue partners with an eclectic range of international airlines, including Ireland's Aer Lingus and South African Airways.
- JetBlue has partnered with non-airline companies such as Lyft, Avis, and Amazon to allow you to earn miles even when you're not flying.
- You can also earn miles using JetBlue's co-branded credit cards, or by transferring miles in from American Express Membership Rewards.
- True Blue members (especially "Mosaic" elite passengers) enjoy enhanced experiences on the ground and in the air when flying JetBlue and its partners.
Another reason to consider joining True Blue? JetBlue now offers Mint, a business class product with lie-flat beds and dining on-demand, on transcontinental flights between the east and west coasts. Being a member (or, better, having elite status) in the True Blue program could potentially allow you to upgrade to this exclusive cabin the next time you fly trans-con.
In spite of its vast size, United Airlines is arguably still suffering aftershocks from its 2010 merger with Continental, which have manifested themselves in sensational PR disasters (among other smaller snafus). However, even if you can't imagine flying United's planes anytime soon, there are still benefits to joining MileagePlus:
- United's MileagePlus award search engine is probably the most reliable way to research award availability on Star Alliance airlines, and also offers competitive rates on many routes, particularly between Australia and Southeast Asia.
- MileagePlus elite members (and holders of co-branded Chase credit cards) can avoid United's infamous fees, including checked bag fees and award ticket change fees.
- Being a MileagePlus elite members gets you priority check-in and boarding, and can even increase your likelihood of getting upgraded.
- MileagePlus members, elite or otherwise, have less chance of being booted off a flight than other unfortunate passengers.
Like those within American AAdvantage, elite MileagePlus customers enjoy reciprocal benefits with another company. Specifically, MileagePlus Premier Gold members (and higher) will automatically earn elite status with Hertz car rental and Bonvoy, the loyalty program of Marriott hotels.
Foreign Airline Reward Programs
As you can see, it's easy to earn and redeem frequent flyer miles within rewards programs, even if you never fly the airline that owns the program. With this in mind, here are some of the most advantageous foreign frequent flyer programs to join:
- AirFrance-KLM Flying Blue: The good news? Since this airline is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, you can earn Flying Blue points by flying Delta. The better news? Redemption rates are much more reasonable than those for SkyMiles, especially factoring in Flying Blue's monthly award promotions.
- Avianca LifeMiles: Did you know that you can purchase frequent flyer miles outright? You can, and Avianca LifeMiles are some of the cheapest, with promotional rates of less than $0.02 per mile. Given the airline's current award chart, this often translates into long haul, business- and first-class flying for literally pennies on the dollar, compared to what you'd pay in cash.
- British Airways Executive Club: Like AirFrance-KLM vis-a-vis Delta, British Airways is in the same alliance (Oneworld) as American, which means you can credit American flights to the Executive Club to earn Avios. British Airways' award chart has several sweet spots since its redemptions are based on distance, rather than the somewhat nebulous formula U.S. airlines use. These include domestic flights within the U.S. and Japan, as well as short-haul international flights in Asia and Europe.
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer: One of the best ways to maximize the benefits of airline reward programs is to transfer credit card points (i.e., American Express Membership Rewards and Chase UltimateRewards) into them. Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer is a transfer partner for all four major credit cards (Citi and Marriott Bonvoy, in addition to AMEX and Chase), which makes it easy to take advantage of the airline's excellent award redemptions, which are valid both on its Star Alliance partners, as well as onboard its award-winning flights.
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club: Virgin Atlantic's brand-new Airbus A350 aircraft will feature one of the most modern on-board products between the U.S. and U.K., but you can still reap the benefits of membership in the Flying Club, even if London is not in your travel plans. Like Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic is transfer partners with several credit cards, which makes it easy to earn points. Like British Airways Executive Club, Flying Club has many sweet spots in its award chart—namely, rock-bottom prices on flights to Japan via ANA, and cheaper award rates for Delta Airlines flights than Delta itself.