A while back, I wrote a post about the advantages of signing up for airline credit cards, and it left many of my readers asking another question: Forget about the credit cards… “is signing up for frequent flyer programs worth it?”
If you are someone who only flies once or twice a year, you might be thinking that these programs offer no benefit to you and aren’t worth your time. After all, will you ever even earn enough miles to redeem for a flight?
What Is a Frequent Flyer Program?
Frequent Flyer programs go by a lot of different names. Some people may be more familiar with the term “sky miles” and others may just know them as a flight rewards program. These names are all synonymous. Some airlines may brand a certain name – like Delta SkyMiles, for example – the premise is the same across the board.
By flying with an airline, you earn points that are later redeemable for future travel. The concept is always the same, but each airline adds its own nuances to its own frequent flyer program.
Why Should You Join a Frequent Flyer Program?
There are a lot of reasons to join a frequent flyer program. Firstly, it’s free! Joining an airline’s frequent flyer program takes about 5 minutes and can even be done at the moment of booking. By taking that 5 minutes to sign up for the airline’s sky miles program, you immediately earn miles for your purchase. If you’re going to fly anyway, why not earn a few sky miles in the process?
If you join one and wind up never using the miles, you didn’t lose anything. However, if you join one today and fly a few times a year for the next few years, you might have enough miles to buy yourself a flight, or at least an upgrade. All that for just 5 minutes of your time!
How Do Airline Miles Work?
Airline miles are actually very straightforward. Generally speaking, there are only two things you need to worry about – earning airline miles and spending airline miles. Earning them is the easy part. Whenever you book a flight on a specific airline, there will be a box you can fill in asking for your frequent flyer number. If you type in your number before you buy your flight, your miles will automatically be credited to your account.
It’s worth noting that some airlines also will award airline miles to you retroactively, meaning if you sign up for an account with them they may credit you for previous flights you have been on. There are usually limitations to this – like you might not be able to claim miles for your flight 3 years ago – but it is always worth trying!
Now, how do you spend airline miles?
Buying flights with miles is actually extremely straightforward. When you are on an airline’s website, you will usually see three different options when you are inputting your desired flight information: shop with cash, shop with miles and shop with cash + miles. The words may vary, but the idea is the same across airlines, and it’s pretty easy to figure out.
Another thing to know is that when you buy a flight with miles, you will always pay a small fee on top of the mileage price to cover certain taxes that the airline has to pass on to you. For example, a flight might cost 7,000 miles + $6. All else equal, that’s not too bad!
Do Airline Miles Expire?
Technically, yes. Airline miles can expire. However, they usually will not. Some airlines – like Sun Country Airlines, for example – assign an expiration date to the miles that you earn. So, if you earn miles tomorrow, they might expire three years from tomorrow. This kind of system is pretty rare, though, and you don’t need to worry about this with most major airlines.
The only way a customer’s miles disappear with these airlines is if they close their frequent flyer account. As long as you don’t actively withdraw from Delta SkyMiles, for example, you will never lose your miles. This is definitely the majority of major airlines, and some of the best budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit also fall into this category. If you are curious about or skeptical of budget airlines, check out my post with all you need to know about flying on budget airlines.
Some airlines will wipe your mile balance after a certain number of inactive months on the account. If you don’t fly for 18 or 24 months, you might lose your mileage balance. As long as you fly once per year, you have nothing to worry about. This is definitely a minority of airlines, but there are some notable ones that follow this system.
The most notable airline that falls into this group is American Airlines, which wipes your mileage balance after 18 months of inactivity.
Which Airline Has the Best Frequent Flyer Program?
There really isn’t a right answer to this question. The programs themselves tend to be very similar with very few fundamental differences. Objectively, it is very hard to pick a single frequent flyer program and say that it beats out the rest. However, certain programs will be more beneficial for certain people! While I advise signing up for a frequent flyer account with every airline you fly on, it does make sense to try to fly on the same airline as much as possible.
If you live near a certain airline’s hub, odds are you have access to a great network of affordable flights. In this case, you would absolutely want to be signed up for their program, and if you read my post on airline-affiliated credit cards, you might want to consider applying for their credit card, too.
If you live in Atlanta, Minneapolis, or Salt Lake City, you should be Delta all the way. If you live in Miami, San Diego, Philadelphia, Charlotte, or Detroit, go American or go home. If you live in a place like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, you’re in luck. Just sign up for them all!
On that note, if you haven’t read my post with tips on finding cheap flights, I highly advise checking it out. Some of the tips I detailed can save you hundreds to thousands of dollars on airfare!
Thanks for reading my post on frequent flyer programs! Hopefully, this post answered the question “Is signing up for frequent flyer programs worth it?” If you think I missed something, or you have any questions let me know by dropping a comment below!