Choosing a Program
So, you have decided you want to be a loyalty flyer. You want to earn tons of miles, and see far-off lands! You want to be upgraded to first class seats! You have champagne wishes and caviar dreams!
So what do you do? You sit down and type "earn airline miles" into your browser, and are bombarded with so much information, you decide instead to chuck the whole idea and resign yourself to a life of cattle-call seating on EconoAir to the same old destinations.
Don't give up quite yet! The first step in learning the loyalty hobby is at hand, and you've come to the right place.
To get started, I recommend you have the following items at hand:
A notepad (yes, I am serious about that)
A pen or pencil
An alternate email address (you can set one up through Gmail, Yahoo, or your internet service provider)
Extra handy: a second monitor, a tablet, or your phone so you can read the instructions on this site while flipping back and forth to another window for research
Step 1: Your Home Airport
If you fly regularly or live in a large city, you probably already know which airport is closest and most convenient for you. However, we're going to dig a little deeper and find a couple of alternates as well. So open a browser window and your favorite search engine. Look for airports near your address. Find the closest airport, plus two more that are within comfortable driving distance by your standards. If you aren't sure how large of an area that should be on the map, check out Free Map Tools for their amazingly useful Radius Around a Point tool. Once you've jotted down 2 - 4 airports, move on to step 2.
Step 2: Your Destinations
People typically have two types of travel that drive them to learn about the loyalty hobby: travel plans they need to make, like to visit family, and travel plans they dream to make, like Paris in springtime. So, start by thinking about those two types of travel. If Thanksgiving dinner means heading off to Boston, and visiting your sister means going back to Cali, write those destinations down. Now comes the fun part: the dream list. Write down at least 3 - 5 destinations that are on your life list (I prefer life list to bucket list, which sounds a bit too limiting for my taste). So, we have two lists on your paper now: close-to-home airports and destination airports.
By completing the airline exercise, you should have a better idea of which airlines or alliances are common between the airports you plan to travel between. Once you've determined a few airlines that are common between your chosen airports, you can start to narrow down the frequent flier program options, and choose one or two, preferably in different alliances, in which to start accruing miles.
View the loyalty portion of the airline website that you're interested in pursuing to get a better idea of how earning and redeeming work within the parameters of that particular program. My personal preference is for OneWorld Alliance member airlines, particularly American Airlines (AA), British Airways (BA) & Finnair (AY). If you read any online reviews of airline programs, you'll find a lot of people dislike OneWorld and AA in particular. Many people love Delta (DL) and SkyTeam. Delta is my secondary airline program, but in truth, it is far from my favorite airline on which to travel. However, this is based completely on personal preference. Research all the programs and determine if they work for the way you travel. When it comes right down to it, however, you should choose to accrue miles on an airline that you enjoy. If you find a particular airline has a generous program, but you don't like flying on that airline, you won't enjoy it more when you're flying for miles instead of dollars.
Step 3: Airport Codes and Airlines
Now that we have two lists, origin city options, and destinations, it's time to figure out what airlines they have in common so we can start narrowing down our choice of a loyalty program.
For each of the airports, use your browser to find out the following:
Airport Code (this can be found by using the search phrase "IATA Code _______" with the name of the city)
A list of airlines that service that airport (this information can be found by visiting the airport's website)
The alliance to which each airline you listed belongs
If the homepage of the airline's website doesn't show the alliance, you can find them here:
Most loyalty hobbyists will recommend diversifying your mileage programs to protect against devaluation. When airlines are sold, merge or change program tactics, the 200k miles you've been socking away can suddenly become far less valuable. Therefore having a primary program and a backup program can be beneficial. Once you have determined the primary and secondary programs you want to pursue, it's time to sign up for those programs. I recommend using a single email address for all your mileage-earning programs. This prevents time-sensitive offers from getting lost amongst other types of email.
Congratulations! You've made it through lesson one and are well on your way to the exciting experience of traveling via miles. You've signed up and for a couple of programs and are ready to get started earning some miles. So what are you waiting for? Head over to lesson two and let's get going!
Lesson In A Nutshell
Determine which airports you'll use most often
Find common airlines and alliances between your most used airports
Join multiple programs from the common airlines you found