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The First Step To Mastering Frequent Flyer Miles

If you read the blogs out there about frequent-flyer loyalty programs — the ones written by people who have successfully mastered round-the-world trips for a total of $10 or cashed in thousands of coupons from boxes of pudding to ensure free first-class upgrades for life — you might start to think the people doing so are just a tad insane. Or at least unachievable. But for professionals whose business travel needs have suddenly ramped up and who are looking for a way to become “that flyer” who gets upgrades, lounge access, and priority service, it’s really not that tough.

The first step in the process, no matter what, is to pick “your” airline — and unfortunately, it probably won’t be a “fun” one. This should be beyond obvious, but it’s shocking how many business travelers don’t fly the same airline regularly enough to build status, or don’t utilize an airline alliance when they travel internationally.

Though they’re routinely derided in the press and social media, the legacy carriers — American, Delta, United — are the best ones for frequent fliers. The quirkier, more “fun” airlines unfortunately don’t add up in terms of the rewards you reap if you fly them often. JetBlue has a great brand, it’s great for vacationers, and its Terminal 5 in NYC is one of the best on the East Coast, but it doesn’t measure up in terms of a loyalty program and perks related to it; Virgin America’s points program is finally compatible with the other Virgin airlines and it has some of the best airline lounges out there, but unless the vast majority of your travel is between New York and London you may be disappointed, seeing as Virgin in general doesn’t have a terribly big route map for earning and redeeming miles.

A couple of things you should be considering during this process:

  • Where are its hubs? Is there one near you, and is it relatively easy to take nonstop flights to the places you travel the most for work?

  • What are its partner airlines? Is it part of the Star Alliance, OneWorld, or SkyTeam alliances? Figure out what set of routes and destinations look the best (not to mention quality of airlines — many American travelers say they fly United solely so that their miles can be used internationally on Lufthansa). Be careful to note the fact that many “partnerships” outside of the formal alliances tend to be looser and less advantageous for a frequent flyer, like that miles earned may not count toward elite flying status.

  • What are the benefits of the airline’s credit card? Having one (and using it) is a massive enhancement to your life as a frequent flyer, because earning more miles means you can cash them in for upgrades to first class in addition to vacation flights.

    If your company has a “preferred” airline but you aren’t necessarily obliged to fly it (you may be surprised if you ask your company’s travel department), do the math and figure out whether it’s ideal for you based on the above factors.

    And when in doubt, FlyerTalk. This relatively low-tech but very searchable web forum is full of all the obsessive frequent flyers that you probably think you don’t have the time to turn into. Which is great, because they’ve done the dirty work for you — chances are, someone else has had the same question you have, and the solution is probably somewhere there.

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