If you’re in the air often, you know flying can be a trying necessity of travel — often punctuated by crying children, cramped legroom and other not-so-luxurious aspects of airplane culture. However, you can sweeten the deal somewhat by making the most of your hours in flight. Let’s explore the best airline perks and rewards available so your time aloft can be put to work.
The first thing most people think of when they consider “travel payback” is rewards programs, which can offer anything from free future air travel to various other perks in return for your time spent in their seats. The usefulness of rewards programs tends to be subjective, however, based on your style of travel. Determine where you travel and how often, then consider the following:
- Number of daily flights the airline offers and where it flies: An airline that doesn’t fly to your favorite destinations is useless.
- When do you wish to fly? Many travelers like to use their points or rewards during popular holiday periods. Frankly, this can be a crapshoot — but if you’re willing to wait to book one to two weeks before the holiday, airlines tend to release extra award seats then.
- Ease of earning a free flight: How many different ways can you earn points? Flights, hotel stays, general charges on your credit card?
- Ease of using your points: What are the blackout dates? How long before points expire? Can you combine points with cash for flights? Are the rules for point usage confusing?
- General quality of the airline: It goes without saying, but some airlines’ customer service just can’t get off the ground. Is it worth it to fly an airline you personally dislike, even if the perks are good?
A Few Tips to Speed Up Rewards
When accumulating awards points, the one thing everyone wants to do is figure out how to accelerate the process. Consider the following:
- Fly multiple legs: Forgoing direct flights is a bit of a drag, but if you have the time, you’ll accumulate more points for each leg of your journey than if you flew nonstop.
- Beg your company to upgrade you: Flying business or first class will earn you more miles by far. Tell your boss you deserve it, right?
- Research reward credit cards: Some are airline-specific, and some just offer generic point rewards that can be applied to many things (shopping, etc.). Cards like American Express offer simple, generic programs that link to travel with points earned per dollar spent. Or try Southwest’s Rapid Rewards Visa, which partners with companies such as Hertz and Hyatt. If you travel internationally, consider a card geared toward that, such as British Airways’ Visa Signature. It offers perks like no foreign transaction fees and plenty of international reward flight options.
- Link your rewards programs: A hotel chain-related credit card with high reward gain for property stays, such as the Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx, allows you to redirect hotel and car rewards toward your flights.
Loyalty Programs: Good, Better, Best
It’s worth it to compare airline-specific perks programs when determining which carrier you’d like to give your loyalty (and dollars) to. Most of the major airline loyalty programs offer the basic perks: free preferred seating, free checked bags (the number you can check free varies, however) and priority check-in/security/boarding.
But if you’re looking for something more, here are a few extra perks to add to your arsenal:
- Delta SkyMiles: No same-day change fee at 50,000 miles.
- United Mileage Plus: Discounted same-day change fee.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards: Free drink coupons and free Wi-Fi on 50 flights per year.
- JetBlue True Blue: No change fees or cancellation fees for both you and your companions.
- Alaska Mileage Plan: Free premium drinks and movies, and no change fee.
- Hawaiian HawaiianMiles: Free unlimited TV and lounge access.
Layovers elicit a universal ugh. But layovers in an airport lounge with free cocktails, food, Wi-Fi and TV make those boring hours go by much faster. Wondering how to score access? We’ve got the goods on how to get in.
- Attain premier status: This is for those who fly one airline exclusively, as many of the major carriers offer lounge access for frequent flying members.
- Put your credit card to work: Airline rewards credit cards, as well as some of the basics (such as AmEx Platinum), offer reduced-cost or free day passes. Check to see if it’s included in the annual fee — and if the annual fee makes sense for your budget. If the fee is too high for your personal comfort, say nay.
- Beg, borrow or swap: Believe it or not, you can swap day passes on travel forums or purchase them at low prices on eBay or Craigslist.
Which lounges are the best?
Look for unique features, such as:
- The children’s play area at the AA Admirals Club in Los Angeles (Terminal 4)
- The multi-level space with private showers at the United Club in Houston (Terminal E)
- The high-tech entertainment zone and a la carte meals at NYC/JFK’s Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse (Terminal 4)
While we can’t do anything about the seat recliner in front of you or the armrest hog in the middle seat, we hope our tips have given you a blueprint on how to navigate the most lucrative payback for flying the friendly skies. Bon voyage!
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Prices and Cash Back percentages are subject to change.