Which Airline Frequent Flier Programme Is the World’s Best?

Luggage tags for United Airlines Mileage Plus airline loyalty porogram.

Is United Airlines' MileagePlus really the world's best airline loyalty programme?

Consumer Information

MileagePlus? Sky Miles? Marco Polo?  Which airline frequent flier programme is the world's best?It really depends on a lot of factors – such as who took the survey or what data was taken into consideration. 

I was surprised to learn that the United Airlines MileagePlus loyalty programme was ranked the number one frequent flier programme by readers of Global Traveler, a publication targeted at business travelers and luxury travelers that fly frequently.

I’ve joined several airline loyalty programmes over the years, and I've had varying degrees of success with them.

I HAVE actually been able to harvest airline tickets from a couple of the programmese!  A good example is Cathay Pacific Airways' Marco Polo Club, which has enabled me to make three complimentary trips from my home in Hong Kong to Bali, a four and one-half hour flight.

This has been made possible because I hold a Citibank PremierMiles credit card, and I charge as much on it as possible. It is amazing how quickly the miles add up.

I have also managed to book a flight on Singapore Airlines by way of United's Mileage Plus programme although I still haven't made the trip yet.

But many of the loyalty programmes have lain dormant as I flew the respective airlines only once, never to fly them again.

Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragon Cathay Airways are members of Marco Polo and Asia Miles.frequent flyer programmes.

Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragon Cathay Airways are members of Marco Polo and Asia Miles.frequent flyer programmes.

One of the many things that I have learned about such programmes is that you often have to book tickets VERY far in advance. Another is that you usually have to be VERY flexible.

I've sometimes booked flights a full year in advance. And I don't expect to travel during peak travel periods.

I’ve only been active in two of my frequent flier are programmes in recent years, and one of them is MileagePlus.

What surprises me about the high ranking of MileagePlus is that I have found its web page very difficult to negotiate. I have a great deal of difficulty locating the information I desire.

As my miles were about to expire a few months back, I rushed to book a flight and endless searches yielded no available seats on  any of the routes United flies to from Hong Kong.

I even tried searching flights nearly a year in advance and still could come up with anything.

US$25 Penalty

I finally decided to see if I could book a flight on partner airline Singapore Airlines instead. While I WAS able to find available seats on the Hong Kong – Singapore route, I was not able to successfully book a flight on line.

After several failed attempts, I picked up the phone and booked my flight. Then I was slapped with a US$25 charge for booking my ticket by phone rather than on line.

Are the sites poorly planned, or do they do this on purpose so as to discourage passengers from cashing in the flights they have rightfully earned?

And please note that I use the term "cash in". Some airlines act as though they are giving you something for nothing.

Actually, there is a cash value to the miles you accumulate. You pay for them as a part of the purchase charge when you buy things – whether it is directly, when buying an airline ticket, or indirectly, when making a purchase using a credit card linked to a frequent flier programme.

Cathay Pacific Airbus A-330-300 taxis on the tarmac of Hong Kong International Airport.

Cathay Pacific Airbus A-330-300 taxis on the tarmac of Hong Kong International Airport.

What I have learned over the years is that surveys of magazine readers such as this one conducted by Global Traveler often tell you as much about the readers of the magazine that publishes the survey as they do about the questions that were asked.

For example, readers of Travel + Leisure have often ranked Bangkok as the world's best city. But I've never seen the Big Mango make even the top 10 list in other surveys.

So I have a couple of questions of my own. Do the readers of Global Traveler really fly globally or do they travel mostly within the United States?

If they fly primarily within the United States, that might explain a few things. For example, I can't help but wonder if it has as much to do with WHERE the airlines fly as it does with the quality of the airlines' loyalty programmes.

I am based in Hong Kong, and I have found MileagePlus much less user friendly than the only other loyalty programme I am active in: Asia Miles/Marco Polo.

Cashing in Frequent Flier Miles

As I previously mentioned, I don't find the website user friendly. I find the website difficult to negotiate.

Not only that, the way the number of miles is calculated to cash in flights simply doesn’t make sense!

As with most of the frequent flier programmes I am familiar with, Asia Miles calculates the number of  miles needed based on distance, and that seems logical.

The amounts increase in 5,000 mile increments.

MileagePlus, however, divides the world into geographical zones, and the way countries are grouped often does NOT make  sense.

For example, why are Hong Kong and Macau placed in one geographical zone and mainland China and Taiwan in another geographical zone?

They are all part of Greater China, and they are all geographically close to one another.

Geographically Challenged?

I live in Hong Kong, which is included in South Asia along with Macau, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and a few other countries.

Yet China and Taiwan are included in North Asia, along with Mongolia and South Korea.

I don’t know where the people that set up this programme studied geography, but Hong Kong and Macau should certainly be included in the same region as China and Taiwan.

As a result of this ridiculous alignment, to cash in a trip from Hong Kong to Taipei, which are 504 miles or 811 kilometres apart, I would need to accumulate the same number of miles that would be required to fly from Hong Kong to Seoul, which is 1,301 miles , or 2,095 kilometres,  away!

Likewise, I could fly all the way to from Hong Kong to Dhaka, Bangladesh (1,496 miles or 2,407 kilometres) for the same number of miles as I would need to fly from Hong Kong to Hanoi (541 miles or 811 kilometres).

Alaska Airlines jetliner taking off from Seattle International Airport.

Alaska Airlines is based at Seattle/Tacoma International Airport.

I decided to do some on-line research to determine if other periodicals or websites had conducted similar surveys. If so, I wanted to know what the results would be.

The first comparison to show up was published by U.S. News and World Report, and the results were quite different from those in the Global Traveler survey.

MileagePlus came in sixth place with a score of 3.57 out of a possible five points.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan topped the list, followed by, jetBlue True Blue, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Delta SkyMiles, and Virgin America Elevate – in that order.

American Airlines AAdvantage came in seventh, followed by HawaiianMiles, Frontier EarlyReturns, and Free Spirit, which rounded out the top 10.

Availability of Seats

Neither the  U.S. News and World Report survey nor the Switchfly Award Availability Survey, whose results were published in the Wall Street Journal, polled readers.

Instead, they ranked airlines based on an objective analysis of key data.

In thSwitchfly survey, loyalty programmes were ranked according to a very interesting criterion: the availability of seats.

I mean this DOES make sense! What IS the use of accumulating enough miles to fly somewhere if there aren’t any available seats to be cashed in?

According to this analysis, Southwest (2), jetBlue (4), Alaska (16), United (17), Delta (18), and American (23) are the top performing U.S. airlines included in the 25 airline list, which included airlines from all over the world.

American Airlines Embraer 175 first class seats

First class seats aboard an American Airlines Embraer 175.

Using a different set of criteria, Cheapism comes up with yet a different list, ranking American Airlines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines as “best”, followed by Southwest Airliness, Delta Air Lines, jetBlue Airways, and Virgin America as “good”.

Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Spirit Airlines are all ranked as “think twice”.

One important criterion to pay careful attention according to this website is how quickly miles expire.

Miles expire after 18 months of inactivity on most frequent flier programmes including the following U.S. carriers: American, United, Virgin America, Frontier, and Hawaiian.

Alaska and Southwest are more generous, allowing for two full years of inactivity before miles expire.

But check out Spirit: miles accumulated on this no-frills carrier expire after a measly three months!

Korean Air  Boeing 747-8 at Seoul Incheon International Airport.

Korean Air Boeing 747-8 at Seoul Incheon International Airport.

One of the things I like about the loyalty programmes of Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, which I haven’t flown on in years, is that their miles never expire.

The same applies to only two major U.S. carriers: Delta Air Lines and jetBlue Airways.

But Delta’s programme has one hitch that would put it at the bottom of my user-friendly web page list. Its website no longer publishes charts.

You’ve got to input specific dates to find out how many miles are needed to get from point A to point B.

This seems to be a trend, and I hate it. At the initial stage of doing something – whether it is booking a hotel room or an airline ticket or a concert ticket – I just want a rough idea of how much it is going to cost.

This would be like going to a restaurant and having to input a specific time or day to find out how much a dish would cost.

When it comes to discretionary travel, my decision on where I want to fly is often determined by what my options are.

If I've accumulated 20,000 miles, I might fly to Bangkok. If I've got 35,000 miles, I might fly to Bali. If I've got 75,000 miles, I might fly on Premier Economy to the United States.

All-Nippon Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

All-Nippon Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner being loaded before take off.

There's another issue that needs to be taken into consideration when comparing loyalty programmes: fees.

If you make changes before your departure, will you be penalized? If so, how much? What about making changes on your way home?

On a trip to Bali a few years ago, I learned shortly after my arrival that I was scheduled to depart four days before the island's biggest holiday, Silent Day, or the Balinese New Year.

I checked with the airline and discovered that for a US$25 service charge, I could postpone my return flight to Hong Kong by a few days.

That seemed reasonable, so I changed my ticket. What I didn't know was that I would be overstaying my visa by one day, which led to some very annoying complications and an added expense at the airport on my way home.

Had I known, I could have applied for an extension of my visa beforehand. Oh, well. Live and learn.

There are so many variables to consider when you travel that it really DOES boggle the mind. When it comes to frequent flier or airline loyalty programmes, however, one thing is clear: there is no such thing as one size fits all.


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