7 of the best frequent flier programs
If I were to tell someone living in Paris that they should consider earning frequent flier miles with Alaska Airlines, they’d likely give me a puzzled look.
Similarly, if I suggested to a Los Angeles resident who flies only occasionally that they ought to look at a Colombian/Salvadorean air miles program, they’d probably think I was trying to be funny.
But in these days of international airline alliances and globalized frequent flier programs, some of the best deals lay hidden in programs from distant lands, run by airlines you may never fly.
It pays to do a bit of research.
A number of years ago, a growing interest in frequent flier miles approached obsession as I figured out ways to amass more and more of them and turn them into free round-the-world first class tickets.
As the list of friends and family who relied upon me for mileage advice grew, I made a short documentary about people much more advanced at the frequent flier game than me, which opened my eyes to even more possibilities.
After several years of pursuing miles and points, I've earned roughly three and a half million of them and spent almost as many.
More on CNN: The best ways to earn and burn frequent flier miles
Important things to keep in mind
Most airlines within a global alliance (oneworld, Star Alliance, Skyteam) have their own distinct mileage program rules, sometimes with very different rates for earning and burning miles on the same set of airlines.
This means that getting the maximum value for your miles depends on where you bank them. Many people overlook this.
Even if you’re flying one particular airline often enough to get elite status (and the upgrades and priority treatment that come with it), it’s a good idea to pick a couple of secondary programs.
Which program is best for you will depend on a number of factors, so it’s difficult to give broad recommendations.
For travelers who don’t know where to start, here are seven of the better air mileage programs.
More on CNN: Frequent flier miles: The cult of the obsessed
Aegean Miles & Bonus: For quick elite status
Aegean is a Greek airline, that's part of the Star Alliance.
The beauty of its program is that passengers get Star Alliance Silver status (the first elite tier) after only 4,000 miles, and Star Gold status (the highest elite tier) after 20,000 miles.Most airlines require 25,000 and 50,000 respectively before fliers achieve those levels.
If you’re looking for a fast track to special treatment on Star Alliance airlines, a Miles & Bonus membership may be just the thing.
Alaska Airlines mileage plan: Flexibility for non-loyal fliers
Alaska Airlines might seem a poor option at first -- it’s relatively small, serving mostly the western United States, and it’s not even a member of a global airline alliance.
But that last fact is actually its great strength, because Alaska has instead hooked up with a diverse group of partners. This means it can be great for travelers who don’t do most of their flying on one airline.
Its partners include American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Airlines and Emirates.
So, for example, if in a given year you fly a smattering of flights on Delta, a few flights on American and a couple of long-hauls on Emirates, none of which partner with each other, rather than earn a handful of miles in each of those programs, you can pool them all with Alaska, and be able to redeem those miles faster.
And when it comes time to use the miles, there are some great deals, such as Cathay Pacific from the United States to South Africa via Hong Kong for 140,000 miles round-trip in first class.
American Airlines AAdvantage: Overall quality
It’s straightforward, earning lots of miles is easy and redemption rates are generally good -- a solid choice for banking miles from oneworld alliance flights.
If you fly 100,000 miles a year in the program and attain American’s top level Executive Platinum status, it’s quite possibly the best top-tier level in the United States.
Avianca TACA Lifemiles: For travelers who don’t earn many miles but still want to play the game
When Colombian/Salvadorean Avianca TACA joined the Star Alliance recently, I wasn't particularly anxious to rush and check out the frequent flier program.
But Gary Leff’s blog View from the Wing tipped me off to an exciting opportunity to purchase miles for discounted business or first-class tickets -- no flying required.
Avianca TACA Lifemiles has been offering a 100-percent bonus on purchased miles, which yields a cost per mile of US1.5 cents. Better is that if you've banked at least 40 percent of the miles required for an award ticket, you can use a “cash and points” option to buy the remaining miles you need for travel at an even cheaper rate -- at 1.275 cents apiece.
For a sense of how the math works out, let’s say you want a North America to Europe ticket in business class, which costs 100,000 miles round-trip. Assuming you find award seats available and the airline's 100-percent bonus on purchased miles promotion is in effect, you can buy the first 40,000 miles for a total of US$600.
Then, armed with your 40,000 miles, you could buy the remaining 60,000 necessary miles, which at 1.275 cents each comes out to $765.
That’s a grand total of US$1,365 for a round-trip, business-class ticket from, say, San Francisco to Paris. You might easily pay more for economy if you simply bought the ticket.
Avianca also offers one-way tickets at half the cost of a round-trip, and most partner flights can be booked online.
Note that the 100-percent bonus is usually available only to those who own an account before the promotion is announced, so I’d advise that you get yourself a Lifemiles account now, and wait for the next promotion to be announced.
British Airways Executive Club: Cheap short-haul redemptions
When British Airways changed its redemption chart and made longer flights and those requiring connections more expensive to redeem miles for, shorter flights became much cheaper.
When I want to use miles on routes under 2,500 miles, BA's Executive Club is where I look first.
Highlights include Tokyo-Hong Kong for 20,000 miles round-trip (in economy), while very short flights, such as Los Angeles-Phoenix, run 4,500 miles each way.
BA imposes heavy fuel surcharges on its own aircraft and on most partners, but if you stick to flights within the Americas (on partners such as American and South America’s LAN), you can generally avoid these charges.
United Airlines MileagePlus: Easy booking of award flights
United Airlines' MileagePlus is a good all-purpose Star Alliance program.
Lack of fuel surcharges on partner flights is one great aspect, as is the possibility of routing via Europe, with a stop, on a North America to Asia trip (or vice versa).
But my favorite thing about United is the excellent website that shows most Star Alliance partner flights when I'm searching for award tickets online.
Many airlines have a hard time showing partner flights, so a phone call is required to book most awards. With United, unpredictable phone interactions can mostly be avoided.
More on CNN: Why fly Delta?
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer: Access to Singapore first and business class
Singapore Airlines' service is legendary, and for many (including myself) the carrier's premium cabins are the holy grail of mileage redemption.
Unfortunately, SIA doesn't offer many of those seats to its Star Alliance partners.
That’s where Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer program comes in -- recently the airline has started opening up a reasonable number of first- and business-class award seats to its own members. Rates for redemption are about on par with major U.S. programs.
Either way, if your goal is to fly Singapore Airlines at the pointy end of the aircraft, it’s worth it.
Singapore is a points transfer partner with American Express in a number of countries, which makes topping up your account easy.
You don’t even have to fly to Singapore. The airline flies a number of routes outside its home airport, such as San Francisco-Hong Kong, Los Angeles-Tokyo, Houston-Moscow, New York-Frankfurt and Barcelona-São Paulo.
More on CNN: And the world's best airline for 2012 is ...