Frequent Flier Programs 101

What are Air miles /Frequent Flier Programs?

Frequent flier programs are a type of reward program run by nearly all airlines to incentivise customers to fly on their airlines more often. Air miles is the technical unit of measurement used by the airlines to measure the reward points.

Nearly all airlines in the world have some form of frequent flier programs, although numerous, recent low-cost airlines are the exception to such cases. Further, with recent collaboration taking place between airlines, there are currently three major alliances which dominate the frequent flier space: Star Alliance which includes United Airlines, Air India, Lufthansa amongst many others, SkyTeam which includes Delta Airlines, KLM, Air France among others, and OneWorld which includes British Airways, Cathay Pacific, American Airlines among others.

How do Frequent Flier Programs work?

Airlines

Airlines benefit from the Frequent Flier programs by incentivizing customers to travel more frequently. This is specially targeted towards the corporate employees who have the option of choosing their flights without much impact on cost. Since flight tickets have become such a commoditised thing where a consumer has the option of flying 10+ airlines from A to B with not a lot of time differences, such frequent flier programs often become a tipping point. A consumer may choose to fly one particular airline only to rack up some additional miles.

Consumers

Consumers tend to perceive Frequent Flier programs as an incentive for providing continued business to an airline. Typically, most Frequent Flier programs provide the following benefits:

Collect Airmiles & redeem for free flights/upgrades in the future (Redeem your flights, pay just tax and take your next flight. Alternatively, get that upgrade to business class for a long leg international journey)

Free upgrades on existing flights (Imagine walking up to board your flight, only to find out you have been upgraded to Business Class based on your status, despite booking economy tickets)

Priority boarding & baggage claims (You will be that person who boards the plane first and the person who can leave the airport first since your bags come earlier)

Lounge access (Relax, rejuvenate whilst waiting for your flight in the comfort of a lounge instead of the general airport area)

What is the Catch?

Similar to all other “amazing programs” by any corporations, Frequent Flier programs also come with more than one catch.

Firstly, the very notion of Airmiles is that one Airmile is equal to one mile of flight. Historically, that has been the case, however, airlines typically have the option to always devalue their miles. Most frequent flier programs now have devalued their Air miles such that they typically have a standard conversion chart depending on the continents/regions.

Secondly, one would assume that you can get a lot of Airmiles by flying a lot more frequently with one airline. But for most normal people (aka no consultants), the number of flights in a year are typically around a maximum of 15-20 flights. Further, the Frequent Flier programs are set up in such a way that one can’t earn a lot of miles while flying. It takes on average about 20 round trips to earn enough miles to take a round trip for the same destination. That is quite a lot. Frequent flights do upgrade your membership status, however, they aren’t very helpful with the Air miles.

Hack to tackle Frequent Flier Programs

As mentioned above, frequent flights do not allow you to earn sufficient Air miles to get free flights. However, they do help in getting those free upgrades from Economy to Business class.

The first question comes on which Frequent Flier Program to choose. I would recommend signing up for all but using the one which suits you the best. In India, the options range from Flying Returns (Air India), Club Vistara (Vistara), Spice Club (Spicejet), Big (Air Asia), or Intermiles (formerly Jet Privilege, now independent). It all boils down to which city you are located, which flights are you taking more often, and more importantly, what do you want to redeem those miles for. For International travel, Spicejet & Air India would be good, whereas others work better for domestic travel.

The question all comes down to “How to earn those Airmiles for free flights”. This is exactly where this article will provide the most value. There are two smarter ways to earn more miles:

Combine multiple reward programs into one

This is the often simple, yet most overlooked step in maximizing the benefits of Frequent Flier programs. When a person travels, they typically need to do three things: Book a flight, rent a car, find a place to stay. Airlines typically allow fliers to earn miles from flying, they have also collaborated with rental car companies & hotel chains to earn some extra miles. That is one additional way to earn some bonus Airmiles when you are traveling.

Get an Airline/travel credit card

This is the single most beneficial part of Frequent Flier programs. Airlines have once again collaborated with banks to release credit cards which allow users to earn Air miles instead of credit card reward points or even convert their credit card points into Air miles at very favourable terms.

The best example of such a case would be using an airline credit card to book a flight ticket. So during this one activity, the person would be earning miles for flying as well as spending the money to buy that ticket too.

PS. Please note that I do not encourage reckless spending on a credit card just to earn Air miles. Please ensure usage limited to the debt you can afford to take. Always pay your credit card in full, else you are already paying to collect Air miles and this defeats the purpose altogether.

Making Things Easy

I understand for the most of us that Airmiles & Frequent Flier programs are considered quite daunting. However, if you practice just a little bit of discipline, you can start getting benefits quite early. Some simple tips are the following:

Next time you get a free credit card from your bank, check how you can earn money while using the credit card. What are the reward options, how can you convert them into Airmiles? You needn’t take a paid card for the airline to earn miles, a lot of credit cards have this option always.

Next time you want to shop from Amazon, log in using a frequent flier account ( I know Intermiles has this option right now). You can shop at Amazon, Flipkart just like normal, except since you logged in via your Frequent Flier you will gain some extra points/miles. The cherry on the top would be using a credit card to further earn more miles. Isn’t this what compounding is all about?

Next time you have an option to choose between two airlines for about the same cost and same time, take the one with which you have a frequent flier status. Stick to one airline/alliance and you can start accumulating plenty miles.

If you think you will never be able to earn enough miles for flight tickets, you can still redeem those miles for hotel stays and even merchandise from Amazon.

The above steps aren’t very tough to start but they just need a conscience effort from our end to make things work for ourselves.

Personal Experience

All of this article was written from my own experiences. I used to be a Jet Privilege (now known as Intermiles) member from 2015 to 2018. I collected 100,000 Airmiles over that time, out of which just 20,000 were from the 100+ flights. For the rest, I was using the HDFC Diners Club Premium and the Jet Airways American Express cards.

Moreover, I spent Rs. 8000 for a round trip from Delhi to Paris & Amsterdam – Delhi by using my Airmiles. I have also been upgraded multiple times during the domestic sector while I also got a chance to enjoy the Business Class due to another free upgrade from Amsterdam to Delhi.

These cards were used for paying everything I bought. However, at the same time, these cards were always paid in full at the end of the month. Please note that I do not encourage credit card debt of any sort. One needs to be smart to learn that Credit Card companies function on the assumption that the average user will pay interest on their credit card, hence they offer all the other amazing perks. You need to be smarter to make sure that you are utilising those benefits to the fullest whilst maintaining that you are not paying exorbitant interest rates to gain some additional reward points.

Written by Heerak Thakar

Heerak is a mechanical engineer, currently working in the US and an avid traveller. Follow him on instagram @heerakthakar and his photography page @ht_pixelated

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