An explanation of Frequent Flyer Programs

A question that gets thrown around quite a bit between newbie frequent flyers is “which frequent flyer program is the best?”.

Many airlines these days are in Alliances, so you’ll only need three programs to cover many airlines. For example, there’s no need to sign up to the British Airways Executive Club and the American Airlines Aadvantage program.

Truth be told there’s no real right or wrong answer as to which one is the best overall. My general rule of thumb is to go for your local airline – hence why my main program is and always has been the British Airways Executive Club. Although when it comes to Star Alliance and SkyTeam, that’s where my theory goes out the window a little, due to both of those alliances not having any UK based airlines.

Back when I started flying on a regular basis, I signed up to the BAEC for my OneWorld travels, however I went through a good few Star Alliance programs – initially the Lufthansa Miles&More scheme as my personal second rule of thumb with what program to sign up for is to go for the airline you’re likely to fly with most. Despite the world of alliances meaning you will likely get miles with whatever airline you fly with in the alliance (usually), you will generally earn the most miles with the airline who’s program it is.

I quickly discovered that the Lufthansa Miles&More program wasn’t overly great when it came to redemptions however – a high amount of miles and taxes required meant it wasn’t great value. So around a year later I switched to the SAS scheme, which was fine. I managed to earn and redeem a decent amount of miles with them. Although I later discovered the world of status matching. Towards the end of 2015, I managed to get Turkish Airlines to match my British Airways Gold status for two years. I later managed to retain Star Alliance Gold for a further two years with Turkish, and I have been with this scheme ever since.

Finally, on to SkyTeam. My initial program was the KLM Flying Blue scheme, as once more, the UK doesn’t have a SkyTeam carrier. To be honest, this is my least flown alliance and other than a return to Amsterdam in 2012 I didn’t fly any airlines from that alliance until 2016. Why was I tempted back? Again, through a status match. Once more, I managed to leverage the top tier with Alitalia with my British Airways status. I used it a few times, but once the status lapsed I didn’t fly SkyTeam again. I have recently gained SkyTeam Elite status with Delta though, so will be taking a couple of SkyTeam flights in the near future.

Of course, just because your airline of choice isn’t in an alliance, doesn’t mean you cant earn with a number of their codeshare partners. The very first scheme I signed up for way back in 1997 was the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. To this day, they aren’t in an alliance however you can still earn miles to their scheme on a number of other airlines including Delta Airlines, SAS, Hawaiian among others. You can also spend Virgin Atlantic miles on the likes of Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and South African Airlines.

Another example of this is Emirates. Again, they’re not in any of the three alliances however due to their partnership with various other airlines including Air Mauritius, JetBlue and TAP you don’t have to be on an Emirates plane in order to earn Emirates miles. Spending wise is a similar story too – I’ve now managed to redeem Emirates miles for three EasyJet flights, and the added bonus there was that there was unusually no taxes to pay, so these flights were completely free.

There’s more to frequent flyer programs than just earning and spending miles however. Nearly all of them have certain tiers which offer certain perks the higher up the ladder you go. This is usually based on how many miles you fly – for British Airways, its a tier point based system, with the cheapest short haul economy fares earning you 5 tier points and a longest flight in First Class bagging you 360.

If you manage to achieve OneWorld Ruby status, which equals Bronze tier with British Airways, you can use business class check in with all other OneWorld airlines. Once you move up to Sapphire tier, you will gain access to Business Class lounges along with a couple of extra perks. Again, this is across the whole alliance. So even if you’ve signed up to the BA program, earned all your tier points through BA but just happen to be taking a one off flight with Qantas, you’ll enjoy the same privileges as if you were flying with British Airways. Further up the ladder is OneWorld Emerald which will grant you access to First Class check in and First Class lounges worldwide, regardless of which OneWorld airline you’re flying.

Its a similar story with Star Alliance, although its worth noting they only have three tiers as opposed to the four of OneWorld. With Turkish Airlines, once you hit 25,000 status miles you’ll be awarded with Star Alliance Silver. This is a little different to the OneWorld scheme – almost a hybrid of OneWorld Ruby and Sapphire, where you’ll generally get lounge access to your airlines own lounges but not any other airlines in the alliance. With 40,000 Turkish Airlines status miles, you’ll be awarded Star Alliance gold which is comparable to OneWorld Sapphire – you’ll get lounge access when flying any Star Alliance flight, regardless of which class you’re flying in and you will get fast track security at a lot of airports. Despite being a member of the Turkish Airlines program, I managed to maintain my Star Alliance Gold status with them by flying with Singapore Airlines between Stockholm and Sydney, along with a number of European flights. Truth be told, the majority of times I’ve flown with Turkish Airlines is when I’ve been redeeming miles. Whilst it is possible to redeem them on any Star Alliance carrier, the process isn’t exactly straight forward. This is where the BA program has the major advantage as you’re able to do it all online.

Finally on to SkyTeam. As mentioned above, this is the alliance I have the least experience with so I’ll likely be more brief with this particular one. Although the basic theory is the same. You can earn miles in the SkyTeam program of your choice from any of the 19 airlines and like Star Alliance, there are three tiers of membership. With SkyTeam Elite status, much like the other two alliances you’ll get business class check in but not too much else. By reaching SkyTeam Elite Plus, that’s when you’ll gain lounge access, fast track security etc.

If your chosen airline isn’t a member of the three alliances, then the only perks you will likely get are with the airline you have your FFP with. With the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, again there are three tiers. The entry level Red tier, the next step up Silver tier, which offers similar benefits to OneWorld Ruby and then the top tier, Gold which offers similar benefits to OneWorld Sapphire, Star Alliance Gold and SkyTeam Elite Plus. The downside however is that the majority of the benefits are limited to when youre flying with Virgin Atlantic – although you do get access to a limited number of lounges when flying with a select few of their partner airlines. I’ve used Virgin Atlantic as an example here, however it should be noted that each airline will have its own arrangements and benefits regarding its own frequent flyer program.

Hopefully I’ve managed to make things clearer whilst trying not to waffle too much in this article!

Below is a table of which airlines are in which alliance – meaning you’ll only need to sign up to one of these airlines frequent flyer programs in order to collect, spend and get the benefits with all the other airlines in the same alliance.

American Airlines
AdriaAeroflot
British AirwaysAegean
Aerolineas Argentinas
Cathay PacificAir CanadaAeroMexico
FinnairAir ChinaAir Europa
Iberia Air IndiaAir France
Japan AirlinesAir New ZealandAlitalia
LATAMANAChina Airlines
Malaysia AirlinesAsiana AirlinesChina Eastern
QantasAustrianCzech Airlines
Qatar AirwaysAviancaDelta
Royal JordanianBrussels AirlinesGaruda Indonesia
S7 AirlinesCopa AirlinesKenya Airways
SriLankan AirlinesCroatia AirlinesKLM
EgyptAirKorean Air
EthiopianMEA
EVA AirSaudia
LOT PolishTarom
LufthansaVietnam Airlines
SASXiamen Air
Shenzhen Airlines
Singapore Airlines
South African Airways
Swiss
TAP Portugal
Thai
Turkish Airlines
United

2 thoughts on “An explanation of Frequent Flyer Programs”

  1. For Star, I’ve found the Aegean scheme best for me, despite the recent devaluation. Mainly, the miles don’t expire for 3 years, and can be kept alive with any account activity – unlike most other Star schemes like Lufthansa, where miles had a hard expiry.

    1. Yeah, Aegean is widely regarded as one of the better Star schemes… but like most they don’t (or at least didn’t) give anything on the lowest Lufthansa fares, which SAS did. In fairness, TK don’t give anything on most of LH’s fare classes – I’ve even flown with them in business and been awarded nothing before, but then no other program would initially give me a status match. So as I said, there’s no real right or wrong answer as to which is the best.

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