Joining a Frequent Flyer Program

A jet airplane flying in the airBack in 2008, I joined my first frequent flier program. Despite having traveled around the world for close to two years, I never saw the value in signing up for one – I’d always been more concerned with price than brand loyalty, so I switched networks and carriers all the time. The lowest price always won.

Another reason I had never signed up before? All my favorite carriers are spread out over different alliances. Japan Airlines (JAL) is on the Oneworld network, while Singapore is on Star Alliance. Emirates Airline, the carrier that makes me salivate the most, isn’t on any of these networks.

Yet back in 2008 I realized that as I was going to fly around the world more, blogging as I went, it was probably a good idea to join an airline alliance – racking up miles, earning upgrades, and getting lounge access was probably a good idea for someone who was going to be in an airport every few weeks.

Over the years, I’ve been a member of all the alliances and my opinion about these programs has changed since I first wrote about them in 2008. Last year, I wrote about why people should not be members of frequent flier programs. Sure, you should always sign up for the program to get the points, but if you aren’t flying enough to hit elite flier status, then you should base your decisions on price. Go with the lowest price and when you do get miles, exchange them for a free flight.

But if you do think you are going to fly enough to make it worth it, you should totally join a frequent flier program. The lowest tiers in the program, while not great, usually start at 20,000 flown miles.

You can read a lot of opinions on which program to join. Some people will say to join them all, others will tell you to join the ones with your favorite carriers, and others believe you should join the one with the major airline in your home town. I’m of the last opinion. The right alliance to join is the one on which you will most likely earn elite status.

This year I switched from Oneworld to Star Alliance. I did so because I was supposed to move to Europe and the major airline out of Stockholm is SAS, a Star Alliance member. But now that I’ve moved back to the States? I’ve switched back to American, a Oneworld carrier, because they have a hub at JFK and I like them better than United, who is part of Star Alliance.

I strongly recommend that if you are going to be traveling a lot, you stick to one alliance and earn elite flier status. Your status will last 14 months, so even if you don’t fly a lot the following year, you can still reap the benefits for a little while longer.

Because there is nothing like seeing the line for security check-in and realizing you can whiz right on past it or sit in a comfortable lounge with free drinks to make the flying experience infinitely times better.

  1. christine gilbert

    Hi Matt,

    I’m with American, (my work flies with them alot) and they do suck. They’ve stranded me 2X at a diverted airport because of engine trouble and stuck me on a bus to my destination.

    I didn’t know you could sign up with OneWorld directly, I should look into that… good tip!

  2. backpakker

    Im with a local frequent flier group ..not yet in an international flier group..maybe I should travel abroad more often..

  3. Debo Hobo

    I agree I am more concerned about quality and price not brand loyalty because the airlines are not loyal to me the consumer.

  4. AmyEmilia

    Matt, you might want to consider SkyTeam Alliance. Here is the link: .

    I fly Continental all the time for work and pleasure, and believe that of the big airlines, they are the best. They treat frequent fliers with respect and offer nice perks like actual food, and automatic upgrades on domestic flights according to your status etc. The SkyTeam Alliance has lots of partners including Emirates and KLM.

    I am loyal to the Continental brand as much as possible since they do take care of me. Most of the time, their domestic flights are the same or maybe 5 dollars more. International can be all over the place as I’m sure you know!


  5. AmyEmilia

    I forgot to mention – I’ve paid personally for a President’s Club membership for years now, and it is a great investment in sanity and peace. Usually there are also simple snacks like cheese and crackers, apples, toast and english muffins in the morning. And free wifi. I pay about $250 a year but get it all back (and more) on the food and wifi.

  6. Talia Clare

    I can’t help but think that you are missing out on some MAJOR, MAJOR bonus miles. I am an avid mileage hog, and I have to say, having accounts with the airlines directly always nets me TWICE the miles as going with one major program or a credit card program. I say this because with the appropriate credit card, you get miles for every $ you spend when shopping and booking flights. But, if you have that airlines mileage program, you get all those same points AGAIN. Plus, you get extra bonus points when shopping in grocery stores or at gas stations. Then, you get better deals on flights.

    For example, my favorite airline mileage program is United. They have the “Online Mall” where you can get up to 10 points per $1 for shopping there with ANY credit card. You also get points for registering and using a grocery “Club” card like Pavilions/Safeway/Vons, and the same for Dining. Then, I also use the Citibank Flex Points card when purchasing, so I get an additional 10 Points per dollar just for grocery shopping. To top it off, in the off season, I can book a flight for as little as 13K miles…it’s 25K miles any other time, or through Citibank. So, I accumulate the miles and the free trips faster just because I have their mileage program directly.

    Lastly, although I openly admit to never having heard of these mileage programs (and thus WILL be checking them out), many of the airlines let you swap miles between carriers just for being one of their people. So, I share my miles between accounts without signing up for a bigger mileage company.

    • NomadicMatt

      You sure can and I do! However, if you don’t fly a lot, it’s better to stick to one alliance for maximum rewards.

  7. George

    Really I believe for most people Star Alliance is the best option, worldwide. Also I agree that buying a club membership is a great thing. My US Airways Membership gets me into United/Continental Clubs, even when I am not flying a Star Alliance airline and when I am, they get you into lounges worldwide. Its nice to have a shower, free drinks and a nice bite to eat. It should be noted that anyone with status with an American based airline club, can not use the airline clubs domestically, thus the club memberships are a good deal. If not I would concider a forign clubs such as BMI to get Star Gold status to use in the USA

  8. George

    Also, I should mention the best club for miles I have found is US Airways that has many big promotions through the year where you can make 100,000+ miles and even buy more at 50% discount.

  9. Marla Johnson

    I will NEVER fly American Airlines again! The flight attendants are very rude. Not just once but all of the 7 or 8 times I have flown with them. The last time was the straw that broke the traveler’s back. They gave everyone frozen turkey sandwiches. Not just cold but frozen solid. I could have broken the window open with it or used it as a weapon! When the very nice Indian lady sitting next to me alerted the attendant of the frozen turkey weapons, the attendant simply replied, ” this is not a dining experience, this is a transport.” and walked off leaving everyone feeling like cattle off to the abattoir!
    Never again AA!

  10. Even if you don’t earn the full rewards I would advocate signing up for an alliance or two. You never know when you might have to take a flight at short notice so you can earn extra miles.

    Also being part of an airline frequent flyer program means you are on their mailing list = an opportunity to be notified of special offers.

    As someone flying most months for the last 14 years I would suggest focusing on a few, small number of airlines (1 or 2) per Alliance and accumulate your points with the partner airlines. This maximises your chances of earning that free flight. You’ll also move up the tiers quicker to get quicker check-in, boarding and lounge access. I’ve also received a few complimentary upgrades purely down to my frequent flyer status.

  11. Jaz Thomas

    Which programme would you recommend for someone based in Europe looking to travel Australasia in the upcoming months?

      • stella

        Two questions, related to travel …

        My family and I planning to travel in July from Orlando, FL to London. Which airline do you recommend and which city/ airport should we arrive in London?
        Thanks for your advise.

  12. Patrick

    Hi Matt,

    Which airline or alliance will you suggest for a person who is based out of India and who travels a lot to North America.

    Thanks in advance

  13. Jay

    This frequent flyer info seems to be overwhelmingly conditional. These lounge perks and business upgrades I’m not interested in either as I wouldn’t normally be purchasing them. I’m American (Boston as well) but have been traveling Australasia for two years now with a different company each country. Not having a conventional home base and hardly paying for anything that’s not taxes or air fares makes things tricky as well. Is simply searching for the cheapest flight still in my best interest or is there a program out there I should commit to that fits this life style ?

Leave a Comment