As I write about at great length, and CAR might say painful detail, in my mileage running blog Cruising Altitude, airlines go out of their way to compete for frequent travelers’ loyalty, sometimes to their passengers’ great benefit. These frequent travelers attain ‘status’ with their chosen airline(s) depending on how many miles, or flights they fly in a year, and in many cases also based on how much they spend.
Nearly every airline, hotel chain, and car rental agency in the world has a loyalty program of some kind. They are all free to join, and the benefits range from minimal, to extremely lucrative.
Clearly, this is a large topic that we can’t possibly cover in one post. However, I wanted to highlight a few ways loyalty programs can benefit the whole family, as well as some tips based on your travel style.
This is the most obvious benefit of frequent traveler programs. If you collect enough miles or points, you can redeem them for free flights, hotel nights, car rentals, etc. However, for most families, unless you have a high mileage earner in the household, it may be hard to collect enough miles to fly the family for free. If you’re in this category, there’s a few other options to consider:
-Book with a mix of miles and cash. If you’re traveling with family, consider booking one or more of the tickets with miles, and the others with cash. This cuts down on the amount of both miles and cash the trip requires, and you can call the airline after booking to link the itineraries so they show up together in the airline’s system. Also think about booking the trip as two one way flights, using miles for one direction. I’ve used this trick many times to redeem miles for the most expensive portion of the trip.
-Use your miles for other freebees. Many miles and points can be redeemed for things other than tickets, often at amounts much less than an airline ticket would cost. Check out portals like American Airlines’ Hotel Booking Site, where you can find free hotel nights for as little as 10-12k miles, or even less if you have high status with the airline. If you have some credit card points stacking up, American Express’s Membership Rewards, or Chase’s Ultimate Rewards. Credit card points in general are particularly flexible. I’ve used them in the past for everything from free flights, to Crate & Barrel gift cards.
Upgrades & Better Seats
This is another big perk of having at least one person in your family paying attention to their elite status. It’s even more important to us now that we have Baby Flyer that we have the most comfortable seats possible. Most airline programs allow elites to secure upgrades, or upgraded seats in economy, for a companion or other people on the same reservation as well.
With airlines now routinely charging from $20 up to $100 one way per person to pick a comfortable economy seat, elite status that makes these free is a big benefit. As a family we save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars yearly by not having to pay these fees.
Free Checked Baggage & Shorter Security Lines
Checking baggage was something we almost never did, pre-Baby Flyer. We were known to take 10 day trips, all packed in a carry-on. Sadly, with the extra gear and clothes needed to travel as a family, we generally have to check a bag or two. Thankfully, our family elite status keeps the extra fees away. Here again, we probably save hundreds a year with this benefit.
Elite status also gives you access to ‘priority’ TSA screening lanes, which can save you time, as well as early boarding. For more information on TSA issues, see our Resources page.
Other Fringe Benefits
Depending on the airline, there are many other benefits to being an elite member of their loyalty program. Special phone lines that skip the long wait times, fees waived for phone ticketing, more availability for award tickets, and partnerships with hotel chains, to name a few.
To learn more about particular programs, see the links to some of the major airlines:
Loyalty programs can be complicated, especially with the many recent changes that the airlines and hotels have put into place. If you want to know more about how to get the most out of your miles, or just more about the programs, we’d love to help. Send us a message, or check out Altitude Consulting for more info.