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Opinion Running the gantlet of frequent flyer plans

We all dream of flying in first class, glass of prosecco in hand, away from the screaming children and armrest battles. But for most, that doesn’t happen very often — if ever. Frequent flyer programs can help, landing travelers who spend a lot of time in the air free drinks and snacks, the occasional upgrade, and miles to redeem for flights.

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But negotiating the world of airline rewards can be onerous. Ever-changing rules, low reward-flight availability, and depreciating or disappearing flight charts can make it tricky to get the most of these programs. Here’s a basic rundown of some of the more popular ones, and what you can expect from them.

General Tips

Even if you’re not sure you’re going to be flying a lot with a particular airline, I recommend signing up for an airline-specific frequent flyer program. You never know what future travel may hold, and every mile counts: American Airlines, for example, offers one-way flights within the United States for as few as 7,500 miles — an amount that can be earned within just a couple of trips.

If you’re positive you won’t be flying with an airline again, shift your focus to airline alliances. Taking a flight on Finnair and not likely to head back to Finland? Consider crediting those miles to another carrier in the Oneworld airline alliance, like American Airlines. But you ultimately may want to put your focus on just one or two programs. Before you do, consider where you live and where you’ll be traveling. Alaska Airlines may not be a great fit for East Coasters; JetBlue and Southwest, two beloved low-cost carriers, won’t help too much if you frequently travel to Europe.

Delta

Delta, one of the three U.S. legacy carriers and a member of the SkyTeam global alliance, regularly appears near the top of “Best U.S. Airlines” surveys. Its frequent flyer program, SkyMiles, allows basic members to earn a base level of five miles per dollar spent on Delta flights, which increases as flyers travel and spend more with Delta, moving up their four-tiered elite Medallion membership system.

The lowest level, Silver status, is available to flyers who log 25,000 qualifying miles (or 30 Delta segments flown) as well as earn $3,000 worth of qualifying dollars. Qualifying miles are determined by miles flown and what class you fly; qualifying dollars are pegged to how much money you spend on flights. Silver status is within reach for semi-serious travelers — a cross-country trip every other month should do the trick — and comes with some decent benefits, including a free checked bag (for you and up to eight traveling companions) and complimentary access to preferred seating. Silver flyers can get upgraded to first class, too, but as the lowest ranking elite members, it doesn’t happen often.

Diamond Medallion, the highest tier, lavishes some impressive benefits onto its members, including 11 miles per dollar spent, more frequent upgrades and a gift that Delta calls a Choice Benefit, which could include 25,000 bonus miles, the ability to gift Gold status to a friend or family member or a $200 Tiffany’s gift card (you’re allowed to choose one Choice Benefit when reaching the penultimate Platinum status, and one at Diamond Medallion). It won’t come cheap, though — Delta has set the bar higher than other U.S. airlines to qualify as one of its top flyers, requiring 125,000 qualifying miles and $15,000 qualifying dollars. Don’t plan on attaining this unless you’re truly a sky warrior.

Flyers I’ve spoken to are generally pleased with Delta’s product. But as for the SkyMiles program itself, that’s another story. Delta is known for having unexpectedly devalued its SkyMiles multiple times over the last few years, frustrating some loyal travelers. It’s also somewhat notorious for not publishing an award chart (something both United Airlines and American Airlines do), which does little to curtail the impression of opaqueness.

American Airlines

American Airlines is a founding member of the Oneworld alliance. Its AAdvantage program has four elite status tiers, three of which include the word platinum: Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum. Like Delta, American requires its flyers to earn 25,000 qualifying miles and 3,000 qualifying dollars to earn its lowest elite status tier. Gold members can enjoy the occasional upgrade (again, don’t count on it), a free checked bag and, like Delta, a 40 percent bonus on miles earned (seven per dollar spent instead of five).

Executive Platinum members have a slightly lower earning threshold compared to Delta Diamond Medallion members: They must earn 100,000 qualifying miles and 12,000 qualifying dollars to achieve top status. In return, they’ll receive four systemwide upgrades, three free checked bags and priority boarding.

Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members also receive automatically requested upgrades on all domestic flights — the two lower tiers, in an odd quirk of the American Airlines system, have to use 500-mile upgrade certificates on flights over 500 miles in length (for example, you’d need to use five to go from Los Angeles to New York). Four certificates are earned per 12,500 qualifying miles flown.

American is fairly aggressive about trying to bring flyers into its program, offering status challenge opportunities, in which you must fly a given amount within a three-month period, opportunities to purchase status and even just bestowing free status to certain members of its program.

United Airlines

United, the final of the three legacy carriers, is a member of the Star Alliance program, the world’s largest, with 28 airlines flying to over 1,300 destinations. Members of its MileagePlus program can climb up the four-tiered status ladder from Silver, at the bottom, up to 1K at the top. Three thousand qualifying dollars and 25,000 qualifying miles are required to reach Silver; like American, 12,000 qualifying dollars and 100,000 qualifying miles are needed to reach top status.

Silver status, at the bottom, has a few modest benefits, including access to Economy Plus seats at check-in, a free checked bag and better access to Saver awards (those requiring fewer miles) on United award flights. At the 1K level, flyers can expect more frequent upgrades, waived fees to book or change award travel, and 11 miles per dollar spent.

There are a few nice benefits that come with Gold status, achieved after hitting 6,000 qualifying dollars and 50,000 qualifying miles. One is that it automatically confers Star Alliance Gold status — usable across all applicable airlines and lounges in the network. You get access to lounges overseas, priority check-in and boarding, and occasionally even fast-tracked security lines. There are also crossover benefits with certain travel-related partners: Holders of Gold status can receive elite status with Hertz and Marriott, for example.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines was once somewhat niche: A favorite of those who lived on the West Coast and in Alaska. Now that it has acquired Virgin America, though, it has a fleet large enough that it demands to be included in any conversation about elite status. It’s also a favorite of many travelers; thepointsguy.com named its frequent flyer program the best in the country.

Upon looking at the details of its program, Mileage Plan, it’s easy to see why: Attaining status is exceedingly simpler and more streamlined. Unlike the three legacy carriers, Alaska confers miles and status by actual mileage flown and has not (yet) become revenue-based. That means if you fly 5,000 miles, you earn 5,000 miles (on other carriers you may earn a fraction of that, depending on what you paid for the ticket).

Mileage Plan has just three tiers, instead of four: MVP, MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K. Earning MVP status requires 20,000 miles; MVP Gold 75K requires (you guessed it) 75,000 miles. Top status holders will receive a 125 percent bonus on the miles they fly, as well as 50,000 bonus miles for qualifying. Distributing award miles by actual mileage will allow most midlevel, nonbusiness-class flyers to rack up miles more quickly than with revenue-based airlines.

The downside? The network isn’t as comprehensive as the three legacy carriers. But if your travel is mostly confined to the western half of the United States, as well as coast-to-coast trips, Alaska could very well make sense for you.

Low-Cost Carriers

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines both deserve some attention, despite not having traditional tier-based elite status programs (and in Southwest’s case, only a single class). JetBlue has a fiercely loyal traveler base, which is attracted to perks like its generous seat pitch, free snacks and free Wi-Fi.

Its elite status program, Mosaic, only has one level — you either have it or you don’t. It’s attained by flying 30 segments and earning 12,000 flight points, or just earning 15,000 flight points. Calculating flight points is a bit complicated — it depends on what fare you purchase, but it can vary between three and eight points per dollar spent. Mosaic members will enjoy perks like waived fees, free booze on board and two free checked bags, but won’t get free upgrades to Mint, JetBlue’s premium cabin.

Southwest Airlines is another crowd favorite, known for its focus on customer service and lettered boarding system. And while Southwest is a low-cost carrier, sometimes servicing the second- or third- largest airports in a region, it’s maintained certain perks while other airlines have slashed theirs: Southwest still allows two free checked bags and doesn’t charge fees to change your flight.

Its frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards, is simple enough: you earn six points per dollar for the cheapest fares, up to 12 points for its Business Select fares. Racking up 35,000 points or 25 flight segments confers A-list status, which provides a 25 percent points bonus and priority boarding.

The Companion Pass, attained by earning 110,000 points or flying 100 segments, is one of the best deals currently available in the flying world. Once earned, it’s valid for the rest of the year, plus the entire following year. The holder is allowed to fly a designated companion along with him or her for free, anytime, anywhere Southwest flies. Companions even fly free when the pass holder books a flight with points. The best part? Points earned with any of Southwest’s credit cards, including sign-up bonuses, count toward those 110,000 qualifying points.

Southwest may not be the most luxurious ride in the sky — there are no premium seats on its planes — but isn’t free better than fancy?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

LUCAS PETERSON © 2018 The New York Times

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