"Ok, so I decided I don't want to rock with coach seats and views of the parking garage anymore... Now what?"
If that was your first question, congratulations!
We are going to first decide what we want out of our hard work, then we're going to figure out which airline is the right one for you, all things considered.
There are two primary reasons people want to accrue miles:
Let's break down the pros and cons of each:
Free Domestic Flights
-Easier to accrue
-Easier to book
-Quicker return on your spend
-Hedge against point/mile inflation (this really does exist I promise)
-They're generally going to be in coach (which is universally recognized as not that tight)
-Award space is becoming increasingly rare
-Airlines are raising prices on their own metal
The Details: This is probably the most popular use of miles, and for good reason. Continually saving $200-$300 on free flights is awesome. There's nothing wrong with it. If you don't travel often, or just aren't a big fan of foreign countries, this will be the best route for you.
-You'll feel like royalty
-Makes travel actually fun
-Highest return on your spending
-Requires more thought
-Requires traveling to other countries
-Requires more time
The Details: This is my preferred payoff. Again, it's not for everyone's schedule or taste. This will be your highest payoff as you generally can get $2,000-$10,000 tickets with your miles. Airlines are increasing their premium cabin offerings and it really can be a special experience.
Which Airline Program is Right for You?
First of all, you should sign up immediately for all major airline loyalty programs. It's all free. Don't get caught with your pants around your ankles and miss out on miles for a last minute flight someone else booked for you!
Don't be this guy
"Legacy Carriers" are the big three airlines
American Airlines Aadvantage
As the worlds largest airline, AA generally has a nonstop flight from wherever you are to wherever you're going. Because of their size, they're able to be surprisingly competitive with fares. If you live in an AA hub (whatup DFW) it's hard to find better flights at better prices. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
They once had the best Frequent Flyer program, but after several devaluations and rule changes, nothing sets AA apart from the others anymore.
They repeatedly drill you for any fee they can, charging for changes/cancellations and charging to put miles back into your account if you need to cancel your flight even if you break your ankle playing basketball and don't want to crutch around New York City two weeks after surgery even though you can show them a doctor's note. This may or may not have happened to me.
But, like the rich friend no one likes, I put up with it because it's still probably the best option.
Despite the downgrades, there are still a few things to like.
Their first class/business class product is being updated and improved, their Admirals Club Lounge Network is closing in on the finish line of a massive and expensive upgrade. Their route network is unmatched. Their partner airlines are pretty solid even though they made most of their partner flights more expensive. So, if you accrue AA miles, you can use them to book both domestic flights and aspirational awards on partner airlines.
Associated Credit Cards: Citi AA Executive Card, Citi AA Platinum Select, Citi Prestige, Citi Premier
Delta Airlines Skymiles
Delta is playing catch up with American and has very devoted followers. They have a very solid route network of their own with a stronghold on a couple of big markets like Atlanta. Their new Delta One product is being very well-received and will be a big impact player in the international market, where they already have a strong presence overseas with a much better economy product than AA. They have a couple of strong partnerships like Air France that can get you to Europe for cheap.
At this point, all three legacy carriers (AA/Delta/United) have virtually the same Frequent Flyer programs, so you will get more or less the same value from each.
If you live in a Delta hub it's a great option to rack up miles towards international travel, and a great option for paid international travel to multiply those miles even faster.
They also get bonus points for launching the only all-suite business class cabin in the near future.
"Alternative Carriers" are not low-cost carriers, but not the big three. Think more regional-based with limited networks
Virgin America Elevate
Unfortunately, most of you probably don't live within Virgin's network. If you do, congrats. It's awesome. Free live TV on every seatback, a much sexier check-in and boarding gate, better mood-lighting, and the ability to chat and send drinks to other seats just in case you're catching eyes from the hottie in 8D.
Virgin's route network is just so damn small. To get non-stops you really have to live in LA, San Fran, Dallas or New York.
There's also really no continuity between Virgin America's Elevate program and Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club which is always confusing to me. It doesn't help that Alaska Airlines purchased Virgin and will undoubtedly wreck that brand because that's what happens in airline mergers. Things always get worse. Always.
It's hard to fly Virgin enough to make it worthwhile, but their fares are great and the experience is always nice.
Think of JetBlue as Virgin's Northeast counterpart. Limited route network (but expanding!) and adored by its flyers. Free live TV, more gourmet snacks than the legacy carriers, and what's increasingly being hailed as the best domestic transcontinental business class offering with JetBlue Mint Class.
If you primarily travel in the northeast, JetBlue is a hell of an option with some great credit cards as well to improve your experience. I wish I was able to fly JetBlue more.
Associated Credit Cards: Barclaycard JetBlue Card, JetBlue Plus, JetBlue Business
"LCCs" are discount carriers that usually do not have the same benefits/premium cabin offerings as the big guys
Southwest Rapid Rewards
I know it probably seems odd that Southwest would be in this group, but it is classified as an LCC. And at that, the only LCC you should consider.
SW is a great option for people who just want an easy, flexible outlet for their points/miles. It's by far the friendliest airline to travelers with no change fees, no baggage fees, and overall simplicity.
Your downside is you never have a first class opportunity and extremely limited (but expanding) international offerings.
On the positive side, if you can earn the Companion Pass it can be extremely lucrative for free flights.
Associated Credit Cards: Chase SW Rapid Rewards Plus Card, Rapid Rewards Premier Card
Spirit Worst Airline Ever Program
Don't. Seriously. Ever.
I'm not kidding. It's not worth it.
DO NOT EVER FLY SPIRIT.
So now that you've got the ins and outs of each loyalty program you can decide which program you want to start working towards.
In the next few days we'll develop a credit card strategy to match your airline of choice. Until then, do some research on nonstop flights in your market. Remember, when it comes to this game do not underestimate simplicity.
Thanks for reading, and tell your friends. Don't forget to follow on Twitter/Insta @MileageMayhem.