Joining frequent flyer programs is free. So, do you sign up for on ANY / ALL airlines’ frequent flyer programs? The short answer is No. The long answer is well, there is a hack for this. It starts with something called the Airline Alliances.
An airline alliance is an agreement between two or more airlines to cooperate at an operational level. While forming an alliance has its business benefits, they are beneficial to travelers too. The benefits are:
Lower prices. You as the traveller benefit because of reduced operational costs. These operational costs include manning check-in counters, the baggage handling, security etc. So when these overheads are shared, it will result in lower operational costs for the carriers, which in turn are passed on to the customers especially if you are a frequent flyer.
Better mileage rewards. You can earn FFP miles when you travel on different airlines of the alliance. e.g. you are a frequent flyer member of an airline which is part of the alliance. Now, when you travel with another airline of that alliance, you just present your FFP card / number during the booking and check-in so that you earn miles for that segment too.
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Airport lounges. These too are shared with alliance members and hence you can benefit by being a member of one of the carriers which is part of that alliance.
Better Schedules. Since multiple airlines are members of the alliance, you have the flexibility in choosing from more number of departure times to the destination.
More destinations. Sometimes, your airline may not fly to a destination. But, because it is part of the alliance, you benefit from its FFP in terms of earning and redemption.
Round-the-world (RTW) tickets. I have covered this separately. Suffice to say that alliances enable travelers to fly over the world for a relatively low price.
The three largest passenger airline alliances are Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld. The Star Alliance network is the leading global airline network, with the highest number of member airlines, daily flights and destinations flown to. It was established in 1997 and since has over 28 member airlines including some 5-Star airlines like All Nippon Airways (ANA), Asiana Airlines and Singapore Airlines and other popular airlines like Lufthansa, Swiss, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines and United. Oneworld is the second alliance with member airlines like British Airways, Cathay Pacific (5-Star), Malaysia Airlines (5-Star), Qantas and Qatar Airways (5-Star) among others. Skyteam has the least number of airline members, most of which are not popular choice amongst travelers.
With so many choices, it may become more confusing to select which alliance to be part of. For us in India, our choice of airline frequent flyer program should be as follows – You should choose at least one frequent flyer program EACH of airlines from India, East Asia and Middle East / Europe & US. The logic is simple – you need an East Asian airline (Singapore / Cathay etc.) to fly to the Far-East and even Australia and New Zealand. You can also consider flying to the United States on one of these carriers. Middle Eastern airlines (Emirates / Etihad / Qatar etc.) have relatively newer aircrafts, better service and surprisingly reasonable ticket prices – in fact I won’t be wrong in saying that most of the time, your ticket to Europe and the US will be cheapest on these airlines. Perhaps being oil-rich has its benefits for others too. You may need FFP membership for the European airlines (British Airways / Turkish Airlines / Lufthansa / Swiss) and US (United / American) if you fly frequently to these regions and you need non-stop flights from India to your destination. The alternative of flying Middle Eastern airlines to US or Europe is not too bad even if they make a stop at their hub airport. e.g. Etihad Airways will make a stop at Abu Dhabi, Emirates at Dubai etc.
You must not forget our Indian airlines. The best frequent flyer programs in India are Jet Privilege from Jet Airways and Flying Returns from Air India. While Jet Airways is not part of any alliance (it has partnered with Etihad, which has its benefits), Air India is scheduled to join Star Alliance sometime in the second half of 2014.
So, if you decide to go with Star Alliance, my pick would be:
• Singapore Airlines (Krisflyer)
• Turkish Airlines (Smiles & Miles)
• Lufthansa (Miles & More)
If you decide to go with OneWorld, I would prefer:
• Qatar Airlines
• Cathay Pacific
In addition to these, I also recommend joining Jet Airways (JetPrivilege) and Etihad Airways (Etihad Guest).