Should I Join A Frequent Flyer Program, Even If I Don’t Fly A Lot?

Contributor: David Bernard

After much consideration as to what the topic of our first official post should be, the consensus was clear. We figured that it would be best to start with basic travel industry knowledge and work our way out from there. Over the next few weeks we will strive to provide you with important general knowledge, and then we hope to evolve into our more formal travel news and review settings.

For most travelers, elite status with an airline is just too far out of reach to obtain. Most numbers seem too high for any average person to fly, and therefore they often put it out of their heads almost immediately. What they don’t realize however, is just how much of a potential loss that can become. The reality actually is that frequent flyer programs are not as absurd as most people build them up to be. Believe it or not, you don’t even have to fly a single mile and you can still take advantage of its many rewards.




To start, let’s look at the competition here in the United States, where we are based. We have three “legacy” carriers: Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines. Each of these airlines has almost basically the same set-up for their frequent flyer programs, with only a few minor differences between them. Anyone can join each of these programs for free, and it usually takes just a few minutes online filling out the form. Once enrollment is complete, you’re welcome to start enjoying the benefits, and believe me there are more much than you probably thought!

For these airlines, there are two types of miles. The first is the “base mile” which is what you use to pay for free flights. Account holders can earn those miles in a rather large amount of ways, in addition to flying of course. This is the type of miles most non-frequent travelers will be interested in, so we’ll get more into that later. If that’s the only part of the program that you are interested in reading more about, then please skip the next several paragraphs and look for the section that starts to talk about base miles. But for those readers still interested in learning about the second type of mile, which can sometimes be just as important, please keep reading here. It’s called the “status qualifier mile” and this is what gives a person elite status with a particular airline. In order to achieve it, you have to fly a certain amount of miles or times with the airline in order to qualify, and like most elite programs there are different tier levels that you can work to obtain.

Delta Air Lines:



United Airlines:


American Airlines (New Platinum Pro Tier Starting January 1, 2017):


As you can probably see, the tiers are basically the same for each program.  Status qualifying miles are based on the actual amount of miles that a route flies (from airport to airport directly, as the actual air-routing is not used) and at the current time none of the big three airlines in the US have any more leverage over the other in terms of easiness for qualifying. Essentially this means that most travelers should pick their airline based on their personal flying habits and preferences. Consider your home airport and/or the destinations that you fly to frequently. Don’t forget to factor in their partner companies too. We’ll get more into partnerships and how you can use your miles across them in a future post.

So what makes these tiers valuable?

To put it simply, in the US market, elite status is what gets you complimentary upgrades to business class/first class. Other benefits include complimentary checked bags, complimentary preferred and extra legroom seat upgrades, VIP phone lines, mileage bonuses and much more. But we all know that everyone cares most about those lucrative upgrades, so let’s break them down below…

In today’s market there are two different types of upgrades usually. The first, and less special, is the extra legroom benefit. Depending on your tier level, you can get these benefits as early as the time of booking. For most people, this is not really all that special, but on longer flights it can still be pleasant, given its complementary status. Extra legroom sometimes can also be a nice added benefit when you’re sitting down for long hours in the air. Plus, on some airlines like Delta, passengers in that section receive free alcoholic beverages as well as upgraded complimentary snack selections.

So while it might not always be completely worth it to pay for the seat out right just because of a few bonus (and rather small) amenities, when it is given to the customer as a free option that makes the situation a little different. Let’s go more into everyone’s favorite upgrade though, the one to business class. Like the extra legroom seats, passengers will clear those upgrades based on their tier level. And example of the schedule for both extra legroom seats and first class can be seen below with Delta Air Lines:


As you can see, the more you fly the better your chances are of being upgraded in either category. Airlines only have limited seats available up front after all the other passengers have finished purchasing them and so being a higher tier can certainly be much more valuable. For example, if you were flying during a very busy time you can almost forget all of your chances of first class if you’re just simply a silver tier member (1st elite tier) as you’re probably so far down the list that there are more people in front of you than there are first class seats on the plane all together.

Sure elite status can be challenging, but if sitting up front for free is the endgame then this is how one would do it. It’s not a simple task, but it is certainly one that can be highly rewarding. Not to mention, you would have quite some stories to tell from all of the destinations too for sure! Of course 125,000 miles is a lot for most normal people, but if you’re still interested you can always start small and work your way up. Each year try to travel just a little bit more than you did the year before. Like a domino effect, you’ll pick up pace and before you know it the tiers become more easy to obtain.

Now for those readers who were just interested in learning more about the base miles component of the program, this is the section for you. Now the good thing about this particular type of mile is that you don’t have to fly in order to be able to earn them. There is actually an abundance of other ways to obtain them. Of course they can be earned by flying, and the three major carriers in the US now use a revenue-based system where you earn a rate of miles based on the amount you paid for the ticket. In addition to that however you can earn these same award miles through other activities like dining and online shopping.

To be honest, sometimes there are probably more ways to earn miles than one can keep up with. In addition to the normal programs, many partner companies often have promotions from time to time that also allow for the earning of award miles. For example, Hilton offers a ongoing “Double dip” promotion where guests can earn either double points or a combination of points and airline award miles. Most other hotel chains offer you the choice of one or the other, which also gives you the chance to compile your rewards into one account and accumulate rewards faster. Below is a small list of many of the most popular ways to earn miles, some of which might just surprise you:

  • Flying (of course)
  • Airline credit card
  • Hotel stays
  • Car rentals
  • Dining (at select restaurants)
  • Online shopping
  • Credit card points transfer (usually American Express)

… And many more possibilities that vary from airline to airline.

So by now, it should be very clear that a frequent flyer program has more to it than first met the eye. Sure each time you earn a small amount of miles it might seem like nothing, but if you combine it with all the other activities they begin to add up fast. In my first year of trying this I accumulated more than enough for a free domestic air ticket thanks to a combination of the dining programs (which happened to have two restaurants that I frequently eat at) as well as some online holiday shopping, and a small handful of flights.

Miles can be spent early or saved, the choice is yours. Awards start at a balance of just 15,000 miles round-trip for an economy class ticket (Although most awards around North America are more realistically 25,000 miles round-trip). Or you can choose to keep saving them and fly to a more exotic destination around the world. Either way, the moral of the story is that earning the miles can be free, if you don’t get caught up in paying more for other stuff just to earn them. If they’re free, then why not give it a chance? Essentially there’s nothing really to lose as the miles would just be wasted otherwise if you didn’t claim them.

Please post any questions or comments below! We’d be happy to address them if possible!


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