How does getting a free flight, free upgrade to business class, free air lounge access, priority check in or discounts for hotel accommodation and rental cars sounds to you?

Whether you are flying frequently or just once in awhile, you can work towards earning those freebies joining one of the many existing airline loyalty programmes.


How do airline loyalty programmes work

Simply put, an airline loyalty card works in exactly the same way other loyalty schemes work, from your local grocery store to bookstores or coffee shops where you get a price discount or a free coffee once you have collected enough points.

Signing up to an airline loyalty programme, you gain points (or miles) with every flight.

Typically, the longer your flight the more points you will earn. For example, a flight from London to Paris will only get you a few points. A flight from Frankfurt to Singapore will get you significant more points.

Recently, some airlines have slightly tweaked this by linking points to the price of your ticket. Thus, the more you pay for your flight, the more points you will earn. In general, this means you are still likely to earn more points for longer flights as a long-haul ticket often costs more. However, not always. You might be able to score a flight from London to New York at a real bargain. In this case, however, you might earn less points compared to a pricier flight from London to Frankfurt.

In addition, many programmes also allow you to gain points with other typically travel-related activities, for example when you stay in an associated hotel, rent a car or shop at the airport and other partnering shops.

Once you have reached an required amount of points you can use those to get upgrades, access to airport lounges, free shopping … whatever a specific programme offers you in exchange for your points.


How to join an airline loyalty programme

Most airline loyalty programmes are free to join, even before your first flight with that specific airline.


What can you gain from an airline loyalty programme

For most travellers, being able to earn free flights is perhaps the main reason to join an airline loyalty programme.

However, there are several other benefits that can make travelling with a particular airline loyalty alliance quite interesting. Albeit for many of the other benefits you need to reach a requested flyer status.

Typical benefits most loyalty programmes offer to a various degree and depending on your specific frequent flyer status (more on this later) include:

  • Upgrades
  • Access to airport lounges
  • Hotel or rental car discounts
  • Priority check in
  • Additional baggage allowance


How to find the best airline loyalty programme for you

As mentioned earlier, nearly all airlines are part of a loyalty programme – and most are free to join.

So why should you chose a particular programme since you could sign up to various?

There is actually no reason why you could not be a member of various airline loyalty programmes.

But let’s be honest, not all of us are flying that much during a year that we can earn enough miles to earn free flights or qualify for special status with different airline programmes.

That’s because, the points you will earn are not valid forever. Whilst how long they will stay valid differs according to the specific programme, on average they will expire on average two years after having been earned. An exception to the rule only exists with some airlines if you have reached a special status.


Which programme is the best for you depends on a couple of important considerations.


First of all, in most cases your choice will be made by where you live. Because unless you are a (digital) nomad, living out of a suitcase and hopping constantly on the next plane, you will normally  start your journey at the place where you live.

For example, if you live in Italy then Alitalia will likely offer the highest number of connections to destinations in Italy and abroad. Similarly, if you live in the UK, than joining the loyalty programme of British Airways would be a logical choice as it would again give you the highest number of connections elsewhere.

Where you want to go could also have a certain impact. For example, if you are travelling often for business and in this case you are mostly going to the same location, the main airline at your arrival airport might actually offer better conditions than the one at your departure airport. So let’s say you are frequently flying from Frankfurt to New York whilst other travels (even private ones) are more limited. So instead to join the Lufthansa loyalty programme, you might be better off with an American based airline.


What other airlines are involved in the same programme

One of the great things when joining an airline loyalty programme is that you will normally get rewards and can use your points also with other airlines, if that airline is part of an airline alliance.

This is actually the case with most programmes. They will typically include multiple airlines cooperating with each other on a significant level, for example offering code sharing. It’s great because it will considerably increase the number of connections available to you within your loyalty programme.

You only need to join one airline in an alliance partnership to be eligible to earn and spend your points also with the others in the same partnership. That said, there might be some limitations when it comes to claiming points or spending them with a different airline in the alliance than the one you have originally signed up with.

Whilst all airline programmes work in a similar way, there are nevertheless differences in the type of rewards offered, or how much points you will need to earn before you become eligible for a preferred flyer status.


How quickly you can redeem points and reach a preferred frequent flyer status

You do not need a minimum number of flights or to reach as certain amount you have to spend before joining an airline loyalty programme. But you will need a minimum number of points to claim your first rewards or being given a preferred flyer status.

Therefore, the points request on your card might be another point to consider. If you are flying less frequently, joining a programme that does require less points for a free flight is likely more desirable to you (provided you also can also cover your desired connections).


Why it is desirable to reach a frequent flyer status

Now here’s the thing. Whilst you can earn points to get free flights regardless of your status (you only need to be signed-up to a programme), several of the other bonuses are only available once you reach at least the minimum frequent flyer status.

In particular, priority check in regardless of your ticket class (yes, also when you are flying economy), additional baggage allowance, free access to airport lounges and in some cases priority on the waiting list or guaranteed booking (even in case a flight is already fully booked) will in almost all cases require a preferred status.

The required minimum points to be promoted to a special flyer status varies between the different programmes. However, most will require between 25,000 to 35,000 collected points or alternatively 30 flights (where one way already accounts for one flight, thus your return flight will be already your second flight).

Another benefit of being a frequent flyer is that this might earn you more points per flight as several airlines automatically reward a higher points score once you have reached frequent flyer level.

You might also be able to retain your points for an unlimited time with several airlines when you are a frequent flyer. Thus instead of losing points that you haven’t claimed after a certain time, as long as you retain your frequent flyer status you don’t have to fear your points are becoming invalid.


What are the main airline loyalty programmes – and what do they offer

There are quite a few airline loyalty programmes so it is worthwhile you check with the airlines you are most likely to fly with.

However, below are some of the major loyalty programmes (in terms of alliances or reach of connections) which might be a likely good fit for most travellers.

Please note, where alliance partners are mentioned the list is not exhaustive.

Miles and More (alliance: Star Alliance)

Airline: Lufthansa

Major alliance airline partners: Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Brussels Airlines, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, SAS, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, TAP Portugal, Turkish Airlines, United

Miles and More is one of the loyalty programmes including the highest number of alliance partner airlines. Thus you can earn and spend your miles on many different airlines which gives you a great reach.

However, not all partner airlines qualify when it comes to earning miles or add flight segments to your card. The latter can sometimes be more important especially if you fly mainly in Europe and do not earn a lot of miles with each flight. However, with enough segments to your card this will nevertheless get you to the silver level.

Miles and More also partners with more than 300,000 hotels worldwide where you can earn premium miles.

To become eligible for the lowest frequent flyer level, you need 35,000 miles or 30 flight segments (which include one take-off and one landing, thus in total you need 15 flights or less if a flight actually includes several legs) in a calendar year.

Sky Miles (alliance: SkyTeam)

Airline: Delta

Major alliance airline partners: Air France / KLM, Alitalia, Aeroflot Russian Airlines, AirEuropa, China Airlines, Kenya Airlines, Korean Air

Minimum frequent flyer status requirement: 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments per calendar year (plus a minimum spend of $ 3,000 for US residents)

A great advantage of Sky Miles is that your earned miles will not expire, thus even when flying very little, you can keep collecting miles over a long period and then use them for a free flight after several years.


Airline: Emirates

Minimum frequent flyer status requirement: 25,000 miles in a calendar year

Although Emirates is one of the few airlines not part of an official airline alliance partnership, the airline nevertheless has a large number of partners, including other airlines, where you can earn and spend points. Plus the airline covers a large number of routes, giving you a lot of opportunities where in the world to fly with them.

In addition, your points will be valid for three years, which is a longer period most other airlines will offer.

AAdvantage (alliance Oneworld)

Airline: American Airlines

Major alliance airline partners: British Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathy Pacific, Qatar Airways, Qantas, Iberia, Finnair, Malaysia Airlines

You will need a minimum of 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments per calendar year as well as $3,000 minimum annual spend to be elevated to frequent flyer status.

In addition to partnering airlines in the alliance, when you are enrolled in the AAdvantage programme directly, there are many other airlines partnering with American where you can earn and spend your points.


How to make the best of your earned airline points?

I’ve already set out the many different rewards you might be able to claim, from free flights, free upgrades, priority check in, and so on.

However, one thing to keep in mind, there is never something than a free thing.

A free flight means you need to cash in your points. In addition, you will still have to pay taxes since these are not part of the actual ticket price and the airline has to transfer these to local authorities (however, some airlines might allow you to cash in additional point to cover taxes too).

Airlines will also regulate when and what you can redeem a free flight or upgrade.

Typically, there will be a general ‘price list’ telling you how many points you will need to cash in for a short-distance or long-distance flight, and what difference in needed points there is whether you want to fly economy, business or first class.

That does not mean, however, that you can book all excising flights based on points even if you have enough points to cover the desired ticket. Instead, there might be only a few eligible seats blocked on a particular flight to be offered in exchange for points. Some flights might even be totally closed for cashing in points (for example, during peak season when the airline knows specific routes will be in high demand thus reaching high capacity, these flights will be available for normal purchases only.

The same goes for upgrades. Upgrades to higher classes are also not available on all tickets. In particular the lowest paying tickets or discount offers are often not eligible for upgrades even if you have the points to do so. Thus if you plan to upgrade on a particular flight, make sure you buy a ticket that is eligible. And keep in mind, even than upgrade will only be possible if your desired class is not already fully booked. As many airlines do not allow you to upgrade in advance and you can therefore only ask for this at the gate upon departure you might find this not being possible.

Therefore you need to plan how to use your points quite carefully to make sure you actually get the most out of them. Or even worse, not to loose points because the flight you wanted to spend them on is not available and you might not be able to save them long enough afterwards for a different flight because they might expire before you can actually take your next flight.


Here are some important factors to look at if you want  to make the most of your points:

In addition to regular pricing of points tickets (as set out below), most airlines  will regularly make special offers available to loyalty card holders.

For example, you will be able to buy specific tickets for a reduced number of points, get discounts at specific hotels or rental car companies or partnering shops. These offers are typically valid only for a short time (i.e. you can book them only for two weeks) and you will have to travel during a given time period.

If you are flexible to travel at short notice (i.e. over the next two to three months) you might score some great deals, including long-distance flights at only a fraction of the points you would regularly need for the same destination.

What type of ticket you are going to spend your points on can also be quite important.

As already mentioned, taxes are not included when you purchase a ticket with points. So you have either to spend additional points to cover taxes to (if possible at all, not all airlines offer this option) or you will have to pay them separately.

This is quite important as taxes in many cases can actually be higher compared to the ticket price. However, taxes from and to a specific location will not vary significantly compared to your ticket price.

For example, a short-distance flight around Europe might cost you less than €150 and taxes are likely to be even higher than the actual ticket price. So you might have to pay less than €60 for the ticket put over €80 in taxes. However, your will have to cash in 25,000 miles for the ticket only.

Meanwhile the actual ticket price for an economy flight from Frankfurt to New York can vary between € 160.00 to € 620.00, taxes in both cases will be around € 430.00. In addition, the same flight in business will cost you around €1.400 for the ticket only whilst taxes will amount to around €550.

Now assuming to get the ticket using your points, you will have to cash in 50,000 points for the economy ticket and 75,000 points for the business flight – and paying taxes separately – it becomes apparent that you should aim to use your points on pricier tickets, ideally for long-distance business flights.


Are you already part of an airline loyalty programme? I’d be curious to learn more about your experiences.