Top 10 U.S. frequent flyer programs for the business traveller

By Grace Nasri
July 6, 2011

By Grace Nasri at FindTheBest

As the global economy picks up, business travellers are finding themselves boarding ever more flights to global hubs. Signing up with a frequent flyer program which awards redeemable points for miles travelled can mean trading in business miles for vacation miles, or an upgrade from Economy to First.

When deciding on a frequent flyer program, most travellers choose plans passively – signing up for whichever schemes are associated with the airlines they most often travel with. But there are five major factors which frequent flyers should consider to obtain the best deal:

Award Calendars and Blackout Dates
Most programs highlight the awards and benefits associated with racking up miles on their airlines. Hidden in the fine print, however, is the fact that unless a traveller has attained elite status, or is willing to spend more miles than advertised for a particular trip, their travel dates of choice will likely be blacked out. So, while an airline might offer a round-trip ticket for only 15,000 miles, travellers will likely have to spend 5,000 or 10,000 additional miles to be able to fly during high-season dates.

Award Options
Most frequent flyer programs also offer miles/points for car rental or hotel perks, with some programs offering more extensive options including: class upgrades; tickets to shows/events; club/lounge access; dining benefits; gift cards; vacation packages; or the option to transfer miles or points to a third party.

Elite Membership Benefits
The potential perks don’t end there. Many programs offer elite membership benefits which include bonus miles, regional class upgrades, companion class upgrades and free airport club/lounge access for priority check-in, priority boarding, priority screening and free checked baggage.

Hidden Fees
While frequent flyer programs do offer these perks in return for loyalty, it’s important to be aware of any hidden fees. Most of these programs cost a set fee to redeem; even after a dozen business trips and tens of thousands of accrued miles, don’t be surprised to receive a service fee when cashing points or miles for an award.

Expired Points for Inactive Accounts
Finally, while the majority of these programs claim that accrued miles do not expire, the reality is that most require travellers’ accounts to stay active to be able to claim awards for their loyalty. Many programs are quick to close accounts if it has been inactive after a certain period of time, though some offer extended periods in which you can pay a fee to reactive any expired miles.

According to FindTheBest’s Expert Rating, which is a weighted average of various frequent flyer program ratings, the top 10 rated frequent flyer programs are:

1. Continental Airlines, OnePass

Expert Rating: 4.78/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 18 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Class Upgrades, Flights, Gift-Giving Options, Hotels, Magazines, Online Auctions, Other Gifts/Gadgets, Rental Cars

Major Airline Partners: Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Emirates, Hawaiian Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Spanair, Swiss International Airlines, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic


2. Alaska Airlines, Mileage Plan

Expert Rating: 4.68/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 24 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Class Upgrades, Flights, Gift-Giving Options

Major Airline Partners: Air France, Air Pacific, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Era Alaska, Icelandair, Kenmore Air, KLM, Korean Air, LAN, PenAir, Qantas


3. Hawaiian Airlines, HawaiianMiles

Expert Rating: 4.53/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 18 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Class Upgrades, Flights, Gift-Giving Options, Hotels, Rental Cars

Major Airline Partners: Continental, Delta, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic


4. Frontier Airlines, EarlyReturns

Expert Rating: 4.32/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 24 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Flights, Gift-Giving Options Hotels, Magazines, Rental Cars

Major Airline Partners: No major partners


5. American Airlines, AAdvantage

Expert Rating: 4.15/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 18 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Class Upgrades, Club/Lounge Membership, Flights, Gift-Giving Options, Hotels, Magazines, Other Gifts/Gadgets, Rental Cars, Vacation Packages

Major Airline Partners: Air Pacific, Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, JetBlue, LAN, Airlines, Malev Hungarian Airlines, Mexicana, Qantas Airways, Royal, Jordanian Airlines, S7 Airlines


6. United Airlines, Mileage Plus

Expert Rating: 4.11/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 18 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Class Upgrades, Club/Lounge Membership, Dining Benefits, Flights, Gift-Giving Options, Hotels, Magazines, Other Gifts/Gadgets, Rental Cars

Major Airline Partners: Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Emirates, Hawaiian Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Spanair, Swiss International Airlines, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic


7. Delta Airlines, SkyMiles

Expert Rating: 3.18/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: Miles do not expire

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Class Upgrades, Club/Lounge Membership, Flights, Gift-Giving Options, Hotels, Magazines, Other Gifts/Gadgets, Rental Cars, Shows and Theater

Major Airline Partners: Aeroflot Russian Airlines, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, Alaska Airlines, Alitalia, Avianca, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Czech Airlines, GOL, Hawaiian Airlines, Jet Airways, Kenya Airways, Kingfisher Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, TAROM, V Australia, Vietnam Airlines


8. Southwest Airlines, Rapid Rewards

Expert Rating: 3.15/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 24 months

Award Options Offered: Flights, Gift Cards, Hotels, Rental Cars, Vacation Packages

Major Airline Partners: No major partners


9. US Airways, Dividend Miles

Expert Rating: 2.83/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 15 months

Award Options Offered: Charity Donations, Flights, Gift-Giving Options, Magazines

Major Airline Partners: Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Emirates, Hawaiian Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Spanair, Swiss International Airlines, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic


10. JetBlue Airways, TrueBlue

Expert Rating: 1.53/5 stars

Miles Expiration Length: 12 months

Award Options Offered: Flights, Hotels, Rental Cars

Major Airline Partners: Aer Lingus, Cape Air, Lufthansa, South African Airways

(Grace Nasri is Managing Editor of FindTheBest. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

Comments

Thanks, the data is so complicated to figure out when you’re out there searching, so many sights which seem to vary every time you hit refresh. At least someone has done the work and now I have a list to work off of.

Posted by tommysb | Report as abusive
 

This information would have been helpful a few years ago, but unfortunately, the information presented is severely outdated! For example, the #1 program run by Continetal announced a week or so ago they it was going away Dec 31, 2011 and was merging with your #6 ranked United. This was all over the news and blogs prior to July 6th, so was really surprised to see them broken out seperately. Any chance we could send this back for a rework so we can see not only what the real #1 ranked program is, but where the new United Mileage Plus program ranks.

Posted by FirstClass | Report as abusive
 

As presented, it’s a useless rating system with no explanation of methodology (what’s important to me might not be important to you), no discussion of actual award availability, and, oddly, no mention that One Pass will shortly be merged with Mileage Plus with significant changes in the program.

Posted by rothsteg | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for the comments; comments like these ensure that FindTheBest’s information is updated and accurate. The Frequent Flyer Programs comparison is regularly updated. We are aware of the United-Continental merger, but the merger won’t be official until the end of December, as such the information in the article is currently accurate.

According to the Continental site: “Mileage Plus will be the loyalty program for the new United in 2012. The OnePass program will formally end on December 31, 2011, followed by a wind-down period during the first quarter of 2012.”

Once the merger is finalized, I’d be happy to update the list.

As for the methodology question, the Frequent Flyer Programs comparison allows users to look at the programs in two different ways: 1) Analyze the raw data based on what criteria is important to the reader, or 2) Get a sense of the overall quality of the program by looking at the Expert Rating—which takes into account the raw numbers as well as more intangible things like award availability.

Posted by gracenasri | Report as abusive
 

A comment on the changes upcoming to United as well – they are changing their status so that the lowest level Premier (Silver) gets only one free bag, at 50 lbs, while all other levels receive 3 bags at 70lbs. I’ve tried to find out how to get this changed, but so far to no avail. This should put them ranked lower than Delta, which gives all members at least 2 bags at 70lbs. The only advantage to a Premier status now is easier access to the Plus seating.

Posted by Gaozhen | Report as abusive
 

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