New To Airline Miles? Start With These Two Programs!

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Every month, I run a meetup of travel hackers in San Francisco. One of the most common questions that comes up is: “What programs should I credit my flights to?”

Here’s a simple answer that will cover almost all domestic flying. There are two programs (and a nice-to-have third and fourth) that you should focus all of your attention.

Alaska and Singapore.

What do they have in common? One is a regional airline named after a big state with a lot of tundra. The other is a ultra-lux carrier based out of tiny equatorial micro-nation. How can they be combined into a very solid travel hacking strategy?

Here’s why this works:

1) Credit ALL American, Delta, Aeromexico and Alaska flights to Alaska.

Credit all American, Delta, Alaska and Aeromexico flights to Alaska
Credit all American, Delta, Alaska and Aeromexico flights to Alaska

Alaska has a very valuable mileage currency and great partners. Having status on Alaska gets you decent benefits on both American and Delta (like preferred seating, a free bag on AA and a possible, rare domestic upgrade on Delta) and AA and Alaska both credit 100% of miles flown to Alaska in all fare classes. Delta credits only 25-100% of miles flown to Alaska, but this generally better than crediting Delta flights to Delta, unless you’re on very expensive tickets. There are a few cases where you could credit slightly more to other programs (minimum 50% to Virgin Atlantic) but Alaska is generally an easier program to use. Similarly, Aeromexico nets out the same on accrual (though Alaska credits E-class tickets at full mileage), but Alaska’s program generally has more valuable partners.

Alaska also has a great credit card – 25,000 miles with no minimum spend and has great customer service and award cancellation policies.

Moreover, compared to American and Delta, Alaska has the least risk of devaluation or changes in their program in the coming year or two. This means those miles will retain their value longer than if you credited to other programs.

Lastly, Alaska is the only way to redeem easily for Emirates Business and First Class – and they fly nearly everywhere, with a shower and bar onboard. Alaska also cherrypicks the best of Skyteam and OneWorld, with partners like Korean, Cathay, Qantas, LAN, Air France/KLM and British Airways.

2) Completing the symmetry, credit ALL United, Virgin America, Air Canada and Jetblue flights to Singapore Airlines Krisflyer Program (SQ)

Credit all United, Jetblue, Virgin America and Air Canada (and most Star Alliance flights) to Singapore
Credit all United, Jetblue, Virgin America and Air Canada (and most Star Alliance flights) to Singapore

 

To keep things simple, it’s useful to remember than Singapore partners with not only United (a star alliance partner), but both Jetblue and Virgin America. Jetblue has a fairly worthless program, so stash any credit in a more worthwhile program like Singapore.

Virgin America has some good niche redemptions with their own program, particularly on the other Virgin Group carriers, but for truly aspirational value, Singapore is a good place to park those miles too.

Air Canada has slightly better accrual (25% vs 20%) for the lowest fare classes, but the rest generally do better on Singapore.

Lastly, there’s United – great partners hobbled by revenue-based earning and a lackluster award chart. In almost every case, Singapore dominates United’s chart with the same Star Alliance partners!

Singapore has great customer service agents (they’ve literally told me they’d call me back to price a complicated award and they did). They also have low booking, change and cancellation fees. United charges hundreds of dollars. Singapore charges $20 or $30 to change or redeposit awards. They are low enough to speculatively book awards.

Even domestically, it’s cheaper to fly in domestic first on United using Singapore (20,000 each way) instead of United’s own miles (25,000 miles each way). Similarly, it’s cheaper to get to Asia or Europe on Singapore’s own flights than United’s.

Now some people will object that Singapore has fuel surcharges, but they are some of the lowest in Star Alliance. Others will object that it doesn’t have a US-based credit card, but Singapore is a transfer partner of Chase, SPG, Citi and AMEX, so it’s a great place to consolidate miles.

Lastly, if you do a lot of flying on United, if you credit flights to Singapore, you can gain Star Gold Status (mid-tier on most Star Alliance carriers), which will give you access to United Clubs while traveling domestically and StarGold labeled lounges abroad (hosted by Lufthansa, Thai, Singapore, Turkish etc). You will lose the ability to select Economy Plus, but it may be a worthwhile tradeoff if you aren’t worried about legroom (and you can always buy up on longer flights). United complimentary upgrades are nothing to aspire to. Stick with Singapore.

So between those two programs, you’ll cover almost all North American flights you’ll ever take, and be crediting to two programs that give you a great array of redemption options.

More importantly it’s simple and easy to keep track of you miles. Two programs for 95% of your travel needs.

So what about those two other nice-to-have third and fourth programs?

If you want to get slightly more advanced, you should check out British Airways Avios. Since the number of miles required are based on the distance of each flight segment you redeem for, it can come in handle when region-based programs do not. Want to fly from Europe to Africa? expensive on most programs, cheap on BA. West Coast to Hawaii? Avios are your friend.

BA is great for short economy redemptions, especially if it’s between two countries near each other that airlines define as in separate regions (like Spain and Morocco or Peru and Chile), so you can save a lot of miles by switching to a distance-based program.

They also have a Chase-branded credit that typically has 50,000 mile signup bonus. That can be worth up to 11 short haul flights under 650 miles (11*4500 = 49,500 miles). You can also transfer Chase, AMEX and Starwood points to top off your account.

Lastly, Southwest has a decent revenue-based program, and there are a lot of die-hard fans out there. So I include it as a fourth program to consider if you fly and redeem a lot domestically. Their route network hits a lot of cities that the mainline carriers do not and can be a great option if you regularly visit family or need to reach smaller cities.

Conclusion

So remember this simple beginner strategy on the way to becoming an expert travel hacker: Alaska and Singapore, with a dash of British Airways and Southwest. This will cover where to credit all of your domestic flights and wide variety of international partners.

More importantly, it keeps things simple, so you can focus more time on learning the nuances of other programs and credit cards to add to your strategy.

Have any other tips for people getting started? Comment below!

Comments

  1. Mike Friedman says

    Alaska may be the best program in the entire industry. I agree with you 100% on that one.

    The only issue I have with Singapore is that the miles expire after three years, with only one 6-12 month extension (for a fee) available. As long as you use your miles, that’s fine, but you can’t keep them going just by having activity.

    • Eric Boromisa says

      Yes, you’re right (you sent me rushing to my account to see if I was anywhere close to that). They do expire, but three years is a long time. I suppose if you fly very infrequently or are saving up for a round-the-world award, you may be at risk of losing them, but given most people redeem for domestic economy and they can be used on UA or VX, it’s probably a policy in the middle ground compared to other programs out there (like Spirit at 90 days!).

      I do wonder if people are more at risk using programs with 18 month expiration policies and not bothering to “tickle” them, but I suppose that this is why we have tools like award wallet.

  2. Bob Illiamson says

    I am new at this mileage thing , but have taken a job where I am fly three out of four weeks. My go to airline is Alaska, second is delta.

    What is not clear to me is how to “credit to” Alaska form my delta account.

    Any advice would be appreciated,
    Bob

    • Eric Boromisa says

      Sure! When you’re booking a ticket on Delta.com, you should be able to specify which frequent flyer program and number you’d like to credit the miles to (make sure you’re logged out of your Delta Skymiles account, or it will prepopulate your Delta number instead). This will ensure the flight credits to Alaska instead of Delta. You can also change the frequent flyer number of existing bookings on the “My Trips – Manage an Existing Trip” tab on the Delta homepage.

      Eric

    • Eric Boromisa says

      No. Sadly once miles are in an airline account, it’s very very rare that you can transfer them to another airline account. But you can redeem from one account for travel operated by a partner airline (so you could use DL or AA miles on an Alaska flight)

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