Airlines – The best frequent flyer programs for not-so-frequent flyers

If you live in California, Oregon, or Washington but are not an especially frequent flyer it still pays to be enrolled in two airline mileage programs to capture the benefit of the trips you do take.

Membership in more than these two mileage programs means that you are scattering your miles among too many programs so you’ll probably never earn a free ticket and the miles will ultimately expire.

The two airline programs I suggest people belong to are Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and United Airlines Mileage Plus.

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Why these two airline loyalty programs?

First off, they have very extensive service up and down the Pacific Coast as well as (in United’s case) throughout the United States and beyond. If your travel is mostly within our region or elsewhere domestically then these carriers are well equipped to serve you by themselves.

But equally important, is that each of these mileage programs has many other airlines as partners. That means even an infrequent flyer can usually find an airline linked to Alaska or United with service to a traveler’s destination of choice.

Because Alaska and United are fierce competitors with each other on the west coast it means that there is little overlap between the airlines that participate in each carrier’s mileage program except for (soon) Continental Airlines.

For example, in Alaska’s program are American Airlines, Delta/Northwest, Continental, plus some heavy hitter foreign carriers including British Airways, Air France/KLM, and Qantas. Click here for a complete list of its airline partners.

United is part of the Star Alliance so flights on any of this grouping’s carriers earn mileage for you in United’s program, as well as some other airlines not affiliated with the Star Alliance. Among the domestic airlines in Mileage Plan are US Airways and Hawaiian Airlines, plus Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, and Air Canada among many other international airlines. Here’s a complete list of United’s co-conspirators.

Whether your destination is Seattle or Sarasota, New York or Nairobi, among the airlines that can feed miles into either the Alaska Airlines or United Airlines program there’s almost bound to be one with the ability to fly you there.

In some cases, too, miles flown on one of the partner carriers may qualify you for elevated status in the mileage program of the airline to which you belong. (For example, miles flown on American, Air France/KLM, or Delta/Northwest count toward elite status in Alaska’s Mileage Plan.)

Now there is one big exception to this rule and it’s called Southwest. Southwest only plays in its own sandbox so if you are a frequent traveler on Southwest you should belong to their Rapid Rewards program, whether or not you belong to any other airline loyalty program.

But for the not-so-frequent Southwest flyer be aware that you need to earn 16 credits (a one-way flight is one credit) within 24 months in their Rapid Rewards program to get a free ticket otherwise those credits are lost. If you’re not expecting to travel that much – at least travel that could be conveniently scheduled exclusively on Southwest – then you should look into using Alaska (or its sister carrier Horizon Air) or United, or one of their playmates and funnel the mileage accordingly.

Two further notes about Alaska Airlines. They are adding flights from Oakland to Hawaii (Maui and Kona) in November. Their VISA card (which I’ve had for years) comes with an annual $50 (+ tax/fees) companion certificate good when the first passenger buys any round-trip fare including internet discounts. It applies to all Alaska/Horizon destinations including Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico and the east coast. Even with the card’s annual fee this is a great deal when you use it for long trips. If you can’t use the certificate, you can let friends take advantage of it provided you make the reservation and use your VISA card to pay for it.

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1 Response to Airlines – The best frequent flyer programs for not-so-frequent flyers

  1. An update for Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program:

    It has changed this year to a revenue based system instead of credits and now expiration of points is based on (in)activity, not the date the points/credits were earned.

    With the frequent flyer programs that expire based on (in)activity, dining program partners and credit cards are good ways to keep activity in your account.

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