Not Loyal Yet? Our Guide to Becoming a Frequent Flyer

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Few of us will compile 10 million frequent flyer miles like George Clooney's ruthless but dashing corporate downsizer in Up in the Air. And frankly, 100 percent free tickets and upgrades are increasingly difficult to obtain. But the programs won't be grounded, because trillions of miles have gone unredeemed, and airlines generate billions of dollars from brand cross-promotions on anything from accommodations to "affinity" credit cards (today over half of mileage points are earned without flying). But how to select the right rewards program?They're more similar than not. The minimum mileage level redemption for a roundtrip is almost uniformly 25,000 (or its points equivalent). All programs offer "elite" status benefits to their most loyal customers. Larger "legacy" airlines partner or codeshare with international carriers, where you can also earn, and often redeem, miles (though most sneakily manage award availability).

But not all mileage clubs are equal. Read the fine print, which changes constantly: what routes will double-to-quadruple miles when; mileage expiration policy; airline alliances; redemption guidelines, including surcharges; blackout dates, seating limitations, and other loopholes; elite status perks; awards for non-travel activities. Consider bonus offers: free miles for signing up, booking on the airline website, taking product surveys like AOL's. Evaluate the strategic brand promotions offering miles/points (hotels-whose own loyalty programs like Hilton HHonors and Marriott Rewards accrue both miles and free nights, restaurants, car rentals, affinity credit/debit cards, shops, phone companies, DVD rentals, even utilities and mortgage lenders). Just ask famed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who earned 15 million miles by purchasing a Canaletto painting with his credit card for $15 million!

AirTran A+ Rewards
While the major legacy carrier programs boast more members (and similarities), smaller, more regional, carriers compensate through innovation. AirTran's generous program is gaining in popularity and prestige among mileage maniacs. Each one-way AirTran or Frontier flight equals one credit. You need eight points for a one-way coach ticket, 16 points for a one-way business class ticket, 4 points to upgrade a paid coach ticket, and 100 points for an annual companion pass. Co-branded partners include a Visa Signature, Hertz, SkyMall, various wireless services, and GPX trades at points.com. Since most AirTran flights are short-haul, the 16 points for a roundtrip freebie translates into as few as 9,600 miles flying (paid biz class nets a 50 percent bonus). It's rocketing in the Freddies (the frequent-flyer world's Oscars), ranking third-best "Americas" program and website.

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air Mileage Plan
This smaller airline looms large for business and global travelers: codeshare partners include OneWorld members American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN, and Qantas; SkyTeam members Air France, KLM and Delta. Higher-tiered MVP and MVP Gold elite members receive increased travel benefits such as bonus mileage; priority boarding, seating, and airport lounge access; easier upgrades; even face-to-face executive meetings. Companions also receive this benefit, and members are given four complimentary upgrade certificates for guests annually. Partners include several car rentals (50 miles per day), Rewards Network restaurants, co-branded Bank of America cards (Diners Club also nets miles), 500 miles per stay at hotel chains from budget to luxury, realtors like Coldwell Banker, GCI telecommunications (bonus for enrolling or renewing on the airline website), and everything else from regional gas stations to groceries. It's a multiple Freddie winner for Program of the Year, Best Member Communications, Best Website (clean user-friendly design), annually takes Best Elite Level, and placed second in the Best Award Redemption, Customer Service, and Frequent Flyer Program categories.

American's AAdvantage
The first major frequent flyer program (debuting May 1981) remains the largest, with nearly 50 million members. American's partner list encompasses over 1,500 companies in the retail, financial, and service sectors: Dell to Direct TV, Lending Tree to Liberty Mutual, Netflix to Neiman Marcus. Activating your Blackberry smartly earns thousands of miles, as does subscribing to T-Mobile HotSpot Wi-Fi access. That's in addition to the usual hotel, car rental, and restaurant suspects, as well as fellow oneworld alliance airlines. American helped pioneer the industry's one-stop-shopping cross-selling trend, positioning themselves as travel portals: book entire trips online with American Airlines Cruises or Marriott Vacation Club (bonus miles and convenience). AAdvantage members earn 500 bonus miles for hotels reserved on aa.com-but if you belong to a top-rated hotel loyalty program like Hilton HHonors, IHG Priority Club, or Marriott Rewards, you get the same price, bonus miles, and hotel points. American's also an industry leader in rewarding charitable donations, with miles for dollars contributed to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and USO care packages. American even matches elite membership on other airlines if you meet certain requirements, and nabbed the 2009 Freddie Best Bonus Promotion for its double elite-qualifying miles offer, enabling quicker elite ascension and including special deals for existing elite-level members.

Continental OnePass
Members benefit from the Star Alliance, including United and US Airways on the home front (global carriers range from Air China to Lufthansa). Expanding domestic reward horizons maximizes chances to grab stingily allotted award seats, as opposed to redeeming even more miles with an unrestricted ticket or, gasp, paying. Higher fare class tickets earn up to 150 percent (or 1.5 points) toward elite qualifying miles, and Saturday-night stays are no longer required for reward travel. Purchasing tickets on Continental.com with any co-branded MasterCard nets 500 miles, while obtaining Continental's MasterCard (which carries its own benefits like President Club passes and discount vouchers) awards up to 25,000. You can also trade miles via GPX on points.com, transfer American Express Membership Rewards points (often for a redemption bonus), and boost your tally by staying with various hotel partners, book cruises online, rent cars, earn bonus miles at retail partners from Gap to Godiva, Office Max to Omaha Steaks, Target to TurboTax, and Wal-mart to Williams-Sonoma. It ranked third in several 2009 Freddie categories, signaling a major comeback: Member Communication, Award Redemption, and Program of the Year.

Delta Sky Miles
Delta consolidated Northwest WorldPerks accounts without mileage loss. While some routes were eliminated, the larger network makes earning miles easier, though its SkyTeam alliance is best for international travelers. Still, Delta won its first global-category Freddie: Best Elite Program. Delta permits elite "Medallion" members to rollover qualifying miles and offers unlimited free upgrades from any published fare, even award travel. Current offers include a 10-40 percent bonus for American Express Membership Rewards points transfers, triple miles for SkyMiles Cruises bookings, and frequent bonuses from SkyMiles mall partners (over 500 participating merchants) and on transfers to family and friends' SkyMiles accounts. In a growing trend, Delta presents four annual Online Auctions: your bid miles are the ticket to unique experiences, exclusive merchandise, and VIP event access. However, Delta's mileage expiration policy is one of the majors' worst (no activity in either 2 years or 12 consecutive months deletes your account); its new three-tier redemption policy likely means burning more miles on trips.

JetBlue TrueBlue
It's more how much you spend than how much you fly, since points are computed according to fares. You earn 6 points per dollar booking online (8 when purchasing flights with your branded JetBlue AmEx) and 100 points per Even-More-Legroom seat. Take 10 one-way long-haul flights in any 12-month period, gain 10,000 "Go Long" points. Exponential "Go Big" bonuses accrue after reaching specific thresholds (500 for 3,000 points; 1,000 for 6,000; 2,000 for 9,000, and so on). Blue goes (and earns) green if you transfer to Energy Plus, and human travelers earn 300 points for every JetPaws (pet travel) fee. TrueBlue exemplifies the trend of penalty-free one-way award travel, with flights starting at just 5,000 points. Points required vary depending on destination, day of the week, season, and advance booking window; longer-haul roundtrip redemption usually "costs" 15,000 miles (60 percent that of typical legacy lines). Unfortunately, booking flights and branded card transactions are the primary ways to earn credits: TrueBlue has few partners, including airlines (though Hertz offers double points, and increased options are promised). Points don't expire-just fly or use your card once every 12 consecutive months. There's no elite tier or services, but blackout dates and limited seat availability are banished.

Southwest Rapid Rewards
Many discount carriers emulate this program model, introduced in 1987, but changes apparently are afoot to compete with the full-service big boys, while retaining its celebrated user-friendliness. Perennial Freddie winner for Best Overall Award (recognizing top flexibility and value), Southwest has attained Best Award Redemption (ease of getting rewards) every year since the category's 1998 introduction. Members cite helpful, straightforward, up-to-date information (frequent Freddies for Best Communications and Best Website, with consistent top-three nods for Best Customer Service). Just 16 credits (eight roundtrips) earned within 24 consecutive months (otherwise you lose prior credits) gain a free flight; 32 (less on BusinessSelect fares) merit A-List status, including priority boarding and increased priority check-in/security lines. Though retail options are virtually nonexistent, partners (with frequent bonuses) include branded Visa, six rental car companies, several hotel chains, and a dining program. This is ideal for the carrier's core consumers, including short-haul business travelers and families, but as domestic-only Southwest lacks airlines partners, exotic experience-seekers won't benefit.

United Mileage Plus
United really rewards its frequenters (Premier level starts at 25,000 elite qualifying miles-or 30 annual segments, benefiting short-haul biz travelers), with priority check-in/boarding and leg-roomier Economy Plus seating, sans surcharge. Premier passengers net a 25 percent mileage bonus, Premier Execs and 1Ks a 100 percent bonus. They receive credit for each mile flown, with a minimum of 500 miles even on shorter segments (many airlines only offer 50 percent of flight miles on discounted and Web-fare tickets). In Spring 2010, United rolls out its "Unlimited Domestic Upgrade" program, automatically requesting space-available upgrades for all elites and a companion for travel within the continental U.S. plus Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean (top-tier still receive two complimentary confirmed quarterly regional upgrades). Elites will also be added to new Star Alliance partner Continental's upgrade list, and can request available premium seating from booking through check-in. However, United admits to occasional Starnet Blocking/Filtering-rendering already scarce seats on international partner flights virtually nonexistent for complex economic reasons. Conversely, there are no blackout dates and United frequently mounts limited-time promotions: Reduced Awards include booking restricted coach Hawaii tickets for 20 percent fewer miles, while Dining Program double miles means 10 miles per dollar spent, including tax and tip (you typically earn five miles per dollar after 12 qualifying transactions).

US Airways Dividend Miles
Since Dividend Miles was initiated before US Airways morphed into a discounter, it compares favorably to full-service programs, with Star Alliance membership and more than 100 mile-earning partners, including four MasterCards (business and consumers) and Visa debit card. Frequent promotions include the current retro online 1,500-mile booking bonus, and making holiday shopping even more hassle-free, as merchants offer more virtual mall miles (up to 250 percent per dollar at more than 20 participants, from Bose to Barnes & Noble). Unlike other discounters, most US Airways flights feature two-cabin service; elite members and a companion receive unlimited space-available upgrades on continental U.S. flights (instant when purchasing full-fare economy tickets), as well as free checked bags, bonus miles, "Choice seat" booking and priority standby (fee waived), lounge discounts, and more. However, you pay for the right to upgrade on international flights (another growing trend). The wild card-for the entire industry-is the new four-tier award levels based on season, day of week, and arbitrary allocations, which in most cases will burn more miles. Instead of saver (always few available seats) and standard redemptions, choose from "off peak" (below current Saver levels and available on some international routes), "low," "medium," and "high" everywhere (the latter level's transatlantic business class tickets cost a stratospheric 350,000 miles).

Virgin America Elevate
Elevate was created from scratch, incorporating the best elements of existing loyalty programs, as well as untraditional perks. As with TrueBlue you earn cold hard credits based on what you spend (5 points per dollar plus occasional bonuses), while points needed for award flights depend on the fare (average points "cost" is roughly 50 times the monetary value of the lowest-priced available seat). This transparently direct reward-market price correlation contrasts with an otherwise murky, complex system. Reward flights start as low as 2,100 points, and are completely unrestricted with no blackout dates or capacity controls. Virgin America has a co-branded credit card plus several hotel, car rental, and (soon) retail partners. No airlines, not even sister Virgin companies, are partners, which limits appeal for global gadabouts. And points expire after just 18 months of inactivity with no meter-reset provision.
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