Maximising the benefits of frequent-flyer schemes

"Ladies and gentlemen, we don't have enough food for everyone, so we are offering the choice of a turkey sandwich or 500 frequent-flyer miles."

No, not the scene in one of Sainsbury's cafes on a busy Saturday; this was the in-flight announcement on a recent - and completely full - Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Denver. Confirmation, if any were needed, that these days frequent-flyer miles are an important way of keeping the passengers happy.

Frequent-flyer programmes began in America, and the idea was taken up by British Airways in the mid-1970s. Initially, BA was content with formalising bonuses for commercially important passengers with its Executive Club, for which passengers paid a fee.

Gradually, though, European airlines developed reward systems based on distance and class flown. As the manager of one programme said, "It was like a domino-effect. Other people had frequent-flyer schemes, so we all had to have-them".

All the airlines are convinced there are benefits for them in running such schemes; they believe that loyalty schemes of this type increase the overall number of passengers travelling and tie people into a particular airline and its services. Virgin Atlantic talks of a sense of ownership among its members and identification with the company. A scheme's membership list helps an airline to build up a detailed database, and so tailor the service they provide. If, for example, you have disclosed in a questionnaire that you like skiing, you could expect to be presented with a ski magazine as you are settling into your seat; perhaps more likely, though, is that you will be targeted by direct mailshots for skiing holidays.

For anyone who travels even a modest amount, frequent-flyer schemes provide an opportunity to get something for nothing. Assuming you are going to spend a bit on air travel, car hire, or a night in a hotel, you are well on your way to a free flight. But as with any form of investment, there are ways of maximising your assets, whether you are a holiday flyer or long-haul business traveller.

First, choose your scheme carefully. The advice from the airlines is join the scheme of the carrier you use most. I suggest you join several, but choose them carefully. All the airlines have reciprocal arrangements with their partners, so you should only join one scheme in a group. For example, SAS and Lufthansa are partners. So if you are a member of the SAS scheme, and then you fly Lufthansa, you will earn points on your SAS account simply by showing your membership card; there is no need to join the Lufthansa scheme. In fact it is counter-productive to join both as, in effect, you dilute your investment.

The annual Carlson Wagonlit business travel survey shows the British Airways Executive Club to be the favourite of four out of five UK business travellers. Flights are graded to earn you points towards silver and gold membership, which in turn brings separate benefits such as use of the special lounges with silver, free insurance with gold. But the way in which you earn frequent-flyer miles involves a rather complicated tie- in with Air Miles, which is a British Airways company, but operates as an independent loyalty scheme. BA doesn't see the collecting of miles as the main point of the Executive Club. Indeed, the scheme is easily the least tolerant of reduced fares. If you travel on a discount ticket you get no frequent-flyer miles at all. Whereas most airlines allow you some miles simply because you got on the plane, if you have anything less than a fully-flexible ticket you earn nothing on BA. In fact, you could more profitably spend the weekend at Sainsbury's. There are signs that BA's policy is spreading, with United planning to thin out rewards for discount fares.

The emphasis on customer service to reward loyalty is certainly the main objective in many schemes, particularly in America, where the big rewards, in terms of preferred seating, automatic upgrades, or early boarding, as well as free miles, are given to a small group of serious flyers: Gold Elite on Continental, Advantage Gold on American, or Delta's Flying Colonels. The airlines will try hard to keep these high-yield passengers.

For a really frequent flyer, amassing points of miles which contribute towards free flights can be a mixed blessing. What could be nicer than a free ticket to Australia? Well, if you have spent most of the year flying around the world, possibly a weekend at home. Here, alternative benefits such as Virgin Freeway's luxury UK holidays or Air Miles' cinema tickets can be tempting.

Should travel prove too much of an addiction, then be warned that even unpopular routes may not be easily available. I have just tried to book a ticket to Greenland using SAS frequent-flyer miles. This, in theory, is a textbook example of how to maximise the benefits of free tickets, by choosing a route where discounted fares are never available. When I expressed disbelief that the flights were already full every day between early July and the end of August, I was told that they were simply not open to those travelling free. But with some perseverance, I found a seat to Sondre Stromford.

Too complicated to be worth the effort? Well, a friend of mine recently took a return flight from New York to Washington. He earned points in both directions. It was his eighth flight of the month, so he got a bonus. The plane was late in both directions, which earned him two more bonuses. By the end of the day he had enough for a free flight across the US.

By the way, you don't earn frequent-flyer miles on flights which you paid for with frequent-flyer miles. Well, officially you don't. But sometimes the people on the check-in desks aren't as vigilant as they might be.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Marketing Executive - B2B - OTE £25,000

£17000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity to join this new...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £21000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Recruitment Genius: Business Control Manager

£36000 - £44000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Encouraging more businesses to ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower