frequent fyer

Most people will tell you that loyalty doesn’t mean much these days when it comes to the airline industry; I agree. But you can’t discount those points and miles programs offhand, because in the end, making simple adjustments to your spending behaviour – paired with a bit of advance travel planning – can result in almost-free flights. (You’ve got to pay those taxes and fuel surcharges, remember?)

Yes, dealing with the airlines’ myriad of fees, blackout dates, and tormenting call centres certainly can get the best of anyone, but take a deep breath, because those free-ish flights are worth it!

3 Things to Keep in Mind

Before diving into details, I want to step back and talk about a few basic principles when it comes to earning and using frequent flyer miles. No matter what part of the country you live in, or which airline you choose to frequent, follow these three simple rules:

  • Marry an airline (alliance): As you know, it takes a lot of miles these days to get a free ticket, so you want to give all of your business to one airline and their partners so you rack up points faster. That includes both airline and retail partners.
  • Don’t use miles for cheap flights: You want to save miles for expensive flights, like business class to New York, not for a Sydney/Melbourne short hop. Always, always check the flight, and if it’s cheap, you’re better off paying.
  • Plan as far ahead as you can: A couple of years ago, I booked an LA to Auckland business class ticket for the day after Christmas, and had no trouble doing so even though that’s a popular route and very busy time. Why? I got my flights in March. That’s a long lead time, but if you want to skirt seat availability problems, plan well ahead – 3 months is a minimum, 6-9 months is ideal.

Looking at Popular Programs

While air service is great in Australia, there isn’t as much of a choice of airlines as you would get in, say, America or Europe. That’s partly due to geography – many flights are considered long-haul, and some cities don’t really have an alternate airport nearby.

That being said, you can easily break down the popular programs into four groups:

  • OneWorld Alliance carriers, which include Qantas, Jetstar, and Cathay Pacific and several other carriers
  • Star Alliance carriers, which include Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and many other carriers
  • Virgin, which includes not only other Virgin Airlines around the world but other airline partners
  • Emirates, which has a handful of strategic partners

Knowing these groupings can help you decide which airline alliance to “marry”. If I was forced to choose, I’d narrow it down to three best options:

Qantas Frequent Flyer

For the sheer number of mileage-earning opportunities for Australian residents, Qantas/Jetstar is a clear winner. There are so many retail outlets that you can actually use – not expensive perfumes and magazines, but supermarkets and department stores, and these items can quickly add up. Adding to the fact that you can earn miles on less pricey domestic flights, then splurge with miles on your transpacific jaunts, makes Qantas Frequent Flyer the top mileage program for Australians in my book. The only downsides are the initial membership fee (waived if you open your account when applying for certain cards including the Nab Qantas Rewards card), and the fact that reward seat availability is reported to be quite limited, so definitely plan ahead if you plan to redeem points with Qantas.

Click here for Qantas Frequent Flyer credit cards.

Singapore Airlines (Star Alliance)

For frequent international travellers, Star Alliance’s massive flight network is very appealing. One trick that many don’t notice is that the mileage requirements on Star Alliance flights are generally lower than on the airline’s own network, so for example, you could earn Air New Zealand miles and then fly using less miles on United, or vice versa. Because the Star Alliance is so huge, you really can go anywhere on points – be sure to pick just one airline and always put your miles into that one spot. Most Star Alliance airlines have good credit card offers as well.

Click here for Singapore Airlines credit cards.

Virgin Australia

If you like Virgin’s style and on board flair, their new international rewards program is a real winner. Virgin has fabulous on board service, but it wasn’t until last month (March 2012) that their international rewards programs were linked, so you can earn and redeem points on Virgin Blue, Virgin America, and Virgin Atlantic – as well as their partners – all on a single rewards account. This is a massive improvement and if you like the Virgin ethos, then definitely consider Virgin’s Velocity Awards, which also includes other great partner airlines like Delta, Hawaiian, Singapore and Air New Zealand.

Click here for Virgin Australia credit cards.

And the Winner is?

It’s hard to choose; personally, I love the Star Alliance for good reward availability and extensive network. Virgin’s on board service and their top-notch partners make it a neck-and-neck tie up. But, overall, you can’t beat all the retail partners that Qantas has amassed – you can earn free flights without even having to fly!

Breaking it Down

As they say, the devil is in the details. Here are some more detailed specifics on several of the airline reward programs mentioned here.

Qantas

Virgin Australia

Emirates

Singapore Airlines

Cathay Pacific

Program Name

Qantas Frequent Flyer

Velocity Frequent Flyer

Emirates Skywards

KrisFlyer

Asiamiles

Alliances for Earning Miles?

Includes a number of airline partners such as British Airways, Jetstar, Cathay Pacific, and OneWorld Alliance Airlines.

Non-travel partners include thousands of regional retail establishments, including Safeway and Woolworths.

Includes all Virgin airlines internationally but several partner airlines, as well as other retail products and services, like Virgin Mobile.

Includes most major hotel brands, as well as a handful of airline partners and other retail outlets.

Includes mileage earning potential on any Star Alliance airline, as well as a few specific retail and lifestyle product partners.

Includes all OneWorld Alliance airlines, as well as regional partners such as Jetstar and Qantas.

Alliances for Spending Miles?

Includes partner airlines such as Jetstar and any OneWorld Alliance Airlines, though on partners, availability can be limited.

Allows you to redeem miles not only on all Virgin airlines internationally but also several partner airlines.

Can redeem miles on Emirates and six partner airlines.

Includes redemption on any Star Alliance carrier, though some restrictions apply.

Includes rewards on DragonAir as well as other Star Alliance carriers.

Example of Points Required for: SYD-NYC; SYD-LHR; SYD-HKG (Economy Class)

128,000

128,000

60,000

62,500

62,500

28,900

120,000

90,000

105,000

75,000

70,000

30,000

55,000

70,000

25,000

Good to Know

Has a one-time signup fee of A$82.50.

No blackout dates on award seats.

Keep in mind most itineraries require a stop in Dubai.

Many of the retail partners are more upmarket.

Careful to note your airfare class – some booking codes are not eligible for miles.

Image: shootingjaydred

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