Frequent flyer 101

Frequent flyer miles? Are they worth anything? Maybe you’d enrolled in a few loyalty programs already and haven’t got a dime back, not to mention a free flight. So… why bother?

If you think like this, then you’re not alone. In fact, there are many people, who fly often and for many years, but they haven’t seen any extra benefits because of it. That’s exactly the problem, that we are solving with our Milefy API.

We wrote this guide for you to learn how to fly smarter and allow your users to do the same with the data we provide. Reading it might be your first step to join the elite club of travel-hackers, so let’s get started.

Am I flying too seldom?

It’s a myth, that you need to fly every month to accumulate enough miles for award flights and other benefits. It all depends on the frequent flyer program of your choice, its rules and flights, that you take, but the rule of thumb is, that with just 3-4 flights a year you can think about yourself as a frequent flyer, who’s entitled to certain perks. That’s true, especially if you’re traveling long distances or with your family, because some programs allow you to collect miles in one shared account along with your spouse and children.

What if I buy always the cheapest flight?

Cheapest fare, it’s not always the best choice, because it usually comes with many restrictions. It might be anything from lack of checked-in baggage, through no-cancellation policy to arrival airport located far from your actual destination. Besides that, you may sometimes realize, that cheapest fare doesn’t earn you any miles or earns very few.

There’s over 300 million frequent flyer members willing to pay 5-7% more for fares earning more miles.

Obviously every traveler tries to find the right balance between the fare price and flight quality in terms of schedule, flexibility and mileage earnings.

It’s extremely easy now to compare the price and the schedule of any flight in a typical search website, but that’s not the case with fare ancillaries like seat selection or frequent flyer benefits. Information about them is often missing and can only be found only on airline’s own websites. That’s exactly what we’re trying to change, providing frequent flyer miles information for any fare, so you as a traveler could make smart, informed choices.

But why miles are so important to us?

Because we know, that it’s a very common scenario when for a few extra dollars spent, you can earn thousands of miles more compared to the cheapest flight. It’s simply worth to spend a bit more on the fare itself.

Example of a flight search engine with mileage earnings information included in the results.

So how do I earn miles?

The basic rule is simple: the more loyal you are to the particular airline, the more miles you can accumulate and use later for rewards. The sole purpose of the frequent flyer programs existence is to encourage you to be a loyal customer. So obviously if you’re always going for the cheapest flight, most likely you will fly with random carriers and you won’t be able to see any benefits.

I can’t fly always the same airline!

Fortunately, you don’t need to fly always the same airline to earn miles to the frequent flyer program of your choice. Even the largest airline companies don’t have a route network dense enough to prevent an average traveler from flying with other carriers.

Instead of limiting passengers’ choice, the airlines decided to sign partnership agreements with each other. Some of these partnerships evolved further into airline alliances. Both partnerships and alliances allow the traveler to fly with one airline and earn miles to another airline’s frequent flyer program.

For example, you can fly with Turkish Airlines and earn miles to your Lufthansa Miles & More membership, because both Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa belong to the same alliance — Star Alliance. Or you can fly with Etihad and earn miles to your ANA Mileage Club membership, because these two airlines signed special partnership agreement.

What’s the best frequent flyer program for me?

There is no universal answer to this question. You need to choose a program on your own, but there are a few factors you should consider if you want to optimize your future mileage earnings and other benefits.

1. Route network

On which routes do you usually travel? From which airports? Which airlines operate on these routes?

It will be easier for you to find appropriate flight if you enroll in the program, that belongs to the airline you fly most of the time. Also, even though you may earn miles flying with partner airlines, such earnings will usually be lower, than if you had flown with the program’s host airline.

2. Alliances and partnerships

It’s usually better to pick frequent flyer program of an airline, that belongs to one of three major alliances or at least has many partner airlines. Otherwise, you may have difficulties to earn any miles on less common routes or redeem your miles for a good flight.

A common practice among frequent flyers is to use two or even three frequent flyer programs, each belonging to a different alliance. You can use as many programs as you wish, as long as you don’t try to earn miles from one flight to more than one program. They key to success is however to focus on one or two programs and stay loyal to them.

Here is a list of the major airline alliances:

Star Alliance
It has 27 members, including: Air Canada, Air India, Air China, ANA, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines and others.
It has 13 members, including: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia Airlines, Japan Airlines, Qantas and others.
Sky Team
It has 20 members, including: Aeroflot, Areomexico, Air France, Alitalia, Delta Air Lines, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Korean Air and others.
3. Other factors

There are many frequent flyer program rankings available online, which take under account a lot of different factors. It’s worth to read them if you need some extra help choosing the best program for yourself. You should pay special attention to:

Cost of award flights
What is the cost of award flight on the route, that you’re interested in? How about the cost of cabin upgrade on such route? Answering these questions may help you to estimate the value of one mile in a particular frequent flyer program. Many experts do the same to judge which program membership is the most profitable one. Usually one mile is estimated to be worth anywhere from 0.5 to 2 cents USD depending on the program.
Total cost of redemption
It’s common, that you can redeem your mileage earnings for a flight, but you still need to pay taxes and other fees for this ticket. That can cost you sometimes even hundreds of dollars, even though you should receive a free flight. It’s better to check the rules of your program to avoid costly surprises in the future.
Miles expiration
In most of the programs your miles will expire at some point in the future. Usually it happens after a period of 2-3 years. Sometimes miles expire only due to inactivity on your account (you didn’t earn any miles for a certain period), but sometimes it happens inevitably and you can’t prevent expiration by taking an extra flight. Finally, there are just a few programs, in which miles never expire, for example Delta Skymiles.
Status tier thresholds
In some programs you can qualify to first elite status tier relatively easily, even just after taking a single flight. In other programs you need to take many long-haul flights to achieve the same result. Also benefits you’re entitled to differ from program to program. In some cases, first status tier (usually named Silver) might not bring you any tangible benefits, whereas in others you may be offered priority check-in or extra legroom out of charge.
Redemption options
Imagine you’ve managed to accumulate a large number of miles. Now what? How can you spend them? Can you use them only to purchase flights or you can use them for online shopping too? Or maybe you can get a discount on your next hotel stay or even transfer your earnings to the different loyalty program? The more options you have, the more efficient may be your spending.
Distance vs price-based
Most of frequent flyer programs is distance-based. That means: the longer the flight, the more miles you earn. There is however another way airlines calculate mileage earnings — based on the ticket price. Currently, more and more programs shift from a distance-based logic to the price-based. Most of frequent flyer experts claim, that distance-based programs are more profitable for an average traveler. Price-based frequent flyer programs include however largest American airlines such as: Delta and United.

How do I know how many miles will I earn?

At the beginning the idea was easy — you’ve flown 2,500 nautical miles and you earned 2,500 miles to your frequent flyer account. But things got increasingly complicated with different fares airlines started to offer, introduction of airline partnerships and sophisticated rules governing frequent flyer programs nowadays.

Currently to know the number of miles you will earn, you need to either use special calculator on an airline website or in case there is no such, read lengthy documents with terms and conditions. Even this might not be enough in case of special offers or lack of key information on the travel agency website. You can always call the airline support, wait a few minutes in a queue to get the information you need, but how convenient is that?

An example of mileage calculator for Lufthansa Miles & More

How complex is that?

Mileage earning rules often take under account multiple factors. To name just a few of them: geographical conditions such as country of departure or stopover airport, date of ticket purchase, booking class of a ticket, airline(s) involved, including marketing and operating airline, traveler’s status tier in his frequent flyer program and many others.

There are some savvy frequent flyers, that managed to learn these rules by heart, but how about regular mortals like you and me? They can benefit from data provided by Milefy API.

How does that work in the reality? Look at the screenshot from our Milefy API demo:

Mileage earnings displayed on the flight results for traveler’s frequent flyer program memberships added to his account (Luthansa Miles & More and Korean Air SKYPASS).

Ok, got it, how do I become Gold member now?

Some savvy frequent flyers value reaching high elite status tier in their frequent flyer program more, than just collecting more and more miles. It’s because high status tier entitles them to many permanent benefits like free lounge access or an option to select a better seat almost every time they fly. Even if you’re solely focused on getting award flights, it’s worth for you know how you can make your travel more comfortable with higher status tier.

Typical status tiers

Both number of status tiers and their names vary from program to program. That’s the example of status tier hierarchy in the United MileagePlus program:

  1. Member
  2. Premier Silver
  3. Premier Gold
  4. Premier Platinum
  5. Premier 1K

List of status tiers available in KLM/Air France Flying Blue program.

How to qualify?

The general rule is: to qualify to particular status tier you need to reach a certain threshold of status miles within a given time frame. Usually you have an entire calendar year to achieve this goal. For example, if you have Lufthansa Miles & More membership and you’ve accumulated 35,000 status miles within 2017 year, then you automatically obtain Frequent Traveler status tier for the next year — 2018.

What are these status miles?

There are two groups of mile types serving two different purposes:

  1. Miles, that you can redeem for awards such as free flights,
  2. Miles, that count towards your elite status tier.

Different types of miles used in Miles & More program. From top to bottom: award miles, status miles, status segments and status points. In Miles & More there are no status dollars.

The first group is what most of people typically think of, when refering to collecting miles. Usually these miles are called award miles, but some people use also the term redeemable miles. The name may differ across different frequent flyer programs, but their purpose, as a redeemable currency, remains the same. Award miles can be earned not only by flying, but also when buying products or services from frequent flyer program partners. This can be anything from hotel nights through car rentals to even online groceries.

The second group of mile types can only be earned by flying. Here is the list of all of them:

Status miles
Status miles are the most common type in this group and exist in almost every frequent flyer program. They are based on flown distance. They are also known as EQM.
Status segments
Status segments were introduced for loyal passengers, that were flying on short distances and due to that couldn’t accumulate enough status miles to reach higher status tiers. In contrast with status miles, status segments aren’t based on the distance, but on segments flown (one takeoff and landing pair). In other words a round trip flight from Paris to Dublin through London would typically earn a traveler 4 status segments (2 segments each way). Status segments are also called EQS.
Status points
Some programs introduced yet another way of achieving elite status tiers with status points. Their earning rules are independent from status miles and status segments. Status points are also called EQP.
Status dollars
Status dollars aren’t based on flown distance nor segments, but actual fare price. Some programs introduced them to encourage passengers to buy more expensive tickets. Status dollars are also called EQD.

Usually you need to reach certain threshold measured in the number of miles of a one, particular type to qualify to the next status tier, for example you need to accumulate 50,000 status miles to become Gold member.

There are some programs, however, that have more complex set of conditions for status tier qualification. For example, you may be required to collect both: X number of status segments and Y number of status miles or fly at least N times using particular airline. Milefy API supports all such scenarios, allowing you to visually display progress towards next status tier in an easy way.

Example of status tier re-qualification with progress bar of required 500,000 status miles in the Korean Air SKYPASS program. Re-qualification means, that after a year of being a particular status tier holder, the traveler can re-qualify to the same status tier at preferential conditions, other than for travelers, who haven’t reached this tier before.

How can I benefit from an elite status tier?

In short words the higher the status tier you hold, the more benefits you’re entitled to. These allow you to travel faster and more comfortable. Common status benefits include:

  • Lounge access,
  • Priority check-in,
  • Fast-track security,
  • Extra baggage allowance,
  • Preferred seating.

See full list of status benefits in the Milefy API documentation. Since the rules governing whether you’re entitled to certain benefit or not depend on many factors such as route you’re flying, existence of certain airline partnerships and your status tier, we provide this information as a part of Milefy API. This way you can see detailed information about every status benefit type, that is applicable to particular flight leg or segment.

List of icons, that illustrate status benefits for a traveler with Miles & More program and Senator status tier. On this particular flight, the traveler is entitled to take up to 3 pieces of extra baggage among other perks.

What can I redeem my miles for?

You can redeem your award miles for anything, that your program allows you to. Usually you can use your miles to purchase flights, cabin upgrades and other products or services from your program’s partners.

Award flights

Some frequent flyer programs have special flight search tools, that allow you to book your award flight online on your own. Others require you to call the airline and inquiry about the cost in award miles and ticket availability.

Cabin upgrades

You can also redeem miles for cabin upgrade, for example, instead of just buying a ticket in the Economy cabin, you can use your miles for an upgrade and fly in the Business cabin instead.

It’s difficult however, for an average traveler to get the information about which fare is eligible for an upgrade (many are not) and what’s the cost in award miles for it. We solved this problem in Milefy API, which you can use to get all this information per every flight leg or segment in any itinerary.

An example of cabin upgrade: 40,000 award miles for an upgrade to Business on a flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai.

Note, however, that our API provides only information about eligibility of cabin upgrade, not availability. Passenger always should call the airline and confirm, that there is a free space in the target cabin.

Ready for more?

Check our section for developers to learn more about common use cases and Milefy API integration.