American Airlines introduced the AAdvantage Travel Awards program, the first of the frequent flyer programs, in 1981 and the games began. There is an entire forum board dedicated to making the most of each of the different travel programs (www.flytertalk.com). The programs are simple on the surface and more complicated the deeper you dig into the policies.
Should you join a program? Absolutely, it does not cost you anything and the potential rewards can be worth it. Do not be naïve about the fact that the airline, hotel chain or rental car service is tracking you via this program. The goal is to learn your travel patterns and improve their bottom line. Yes, loyalty is part of the equation, but it is not the only reason.
Which program? Examine your travel patterns and join the ones you will use the most. If in doubt, join the program. To get the most out of these programs you do need to stay loyal to a few providers. The more you spread your loyalty around, the longer it takes to accumulate the miles/points necessary to reap any rewards.
I have cashed in points for lots of trips, upgrades, free hotel rooms and rental cars over the years. My personal “best?” Easy, a trip to Nairobi, Kenya flying International First Class on American Airlines and Business Class on British Airways. When I priced out the itinerary it was worth about $12,000. I had about 250,000 miles built up in the account and used most of them for that trip – well worth it!
These days we fly Delta Air Lines almost exclusively as they serve our destinations better than the other options. Most of our redemptions these days are for “tamer” trips, but the ability to fly home from Anchorage on the red-eye in First Class last winter with Melissa was mileage well spent. Hilton Hotels is the lodging chain we use the most and Hertz is where we usually rent – the Hertz Gold Service is hard to beat. We “work” these programs, watching for bonus miles/point offerings and try to be smart about cashing in points.
The days of hording miles to use for the big trip are fading as the travel companies continue to devalue the points. We keep a bank of points but are not afraid to use them for a trip or upgrade that meets our needs. If you are willing to use your miles in the off-season, your miles will generally go farther. We try to not use points or miles when we can cheaply purchase the ticket or room, but there is no rule when it is right for you to use them. Taking a trip that you wouldn’t, or couldn’t do paying cash for it is probably a good use.