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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

Getting Maximum Mileage from Air Miles

Illustration for TIME by Ben Morris.

Air miles are boring. Trying to understand what you're entitled to from which airline in an era of alliances, partnerships and code-sharing is about as much fun as sitting down to do your taxes. Airline groupings may have improved life for frequent travelers. But the rules and regulations that govern mileage programs are mystifying—and guaranteed to leave you 5,000 points short of that free ticket to Tahiti.

When the alliances—Star Alliance (including United, Singapore, All Nippon and Thai), Oneworld (with American, Cathay and British Airways) and the newly established SkyTeam (Air France, Delta and Korean Air)—first divvied up the sky among themselves, "seamless travel" was the big selling point. The marketing harped on the idea that flying within an alliance would be like using one big airline: passengers and baggage would transfer effortlessly, multi-leg trips would be simple to book and earning and burning mileage would be easy. But when it comes to the last goal, gaps between member airlines are still wide enough for plenty of miles to fall through.

Even if you have the diligence to fly only with members of a single alliance, you won't necessarily rack up thousands upon thousands of miles. If you've joined through one airline, for example, you will often receive only partial credit for flights on its partners' planes. For the most part, alliances haven't coordinated their rules so that you simply earn the same miles for the same flights and burn the same amount to land a free ticket. An alliance is not a merger, so airlines look after their own bottom lines first. So before you start country-hopping with one of these sky cartels, beware of a few common restrictions.

Getting Maximum Mileage from Air Miles
Air miles are boring. Trying to understand what you're entitled to from which airline in an era of alliances, partnerships and code-sharing is about as much fun as sitting down to do your taxes

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With the two largest groupings, Star Alliance and Oneworld, the most straightforward snags are those that limit the miles you can earn on partners. Thai's Royal Orchid Plus does not credit miles on Air Canada's domestic flights, for example, and gives you only 70% credit for miles flown on Ansett's discounted economy fares. Similarly, Singapore credits only 70% for miles flown on All Nippon Airways in economy class and nothing for certain discount tickets. American AAdvantage and British Airways members can't earn miles on each other's flights between Europe and the Americas (due to antitrust issues). Qantas credits only 70% for miles flown with U.S. economy fares.

Airlines confuse the issue further when it comes to obtaining Elite status within their mileage programs. Business and first-class travelers can often earn double or triple the miles for each journey. But on United and Thai, for instance, these miles do not bring the flyer any closer to privileged ranks. Requirements for attaining that vary greatly from one program to the next. A United Mileage Plus member who flies 50,000 miles a year can qualify for Premier Executive status, earn double the miles on subsequent flights and gain Star Alliance Gold status. A Lufthansa Miles & More member who flies the same amount is a mere Frequent Traveler, earns no bonus and qualifies only for Star Alliance Silver status, losing out on perks like extra luggage and check-in priority. Korean Air's Morning Calm members need to fly 50,000 miles to become SkyTeam Elite members, while their Delta brethren earn the same privileges with just 30,000.

So, while it's a lot of work, choosing the right airline program to accrue miles with can make a big difference. If you start to feel frustrated, just remember: all mileage programs may not be created equal, but all mileage members are equally confused.

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