With all the recent news surrounding airline mergers, program devaluations, and changes in credit card travel benefits, newbie or not, it can be tough finding an airline to be loyal to these days. A few days ago, reader Chananya, reached out with this very question.
There are many things to consider when choosing a dedicated airline, and I hope this post will serve as a helpful guide to those just getting started, and even for veterans looking to reevaluate where they are sending their business.
#1 Location, Location, Location: The most important question (and easiest to answer, hopefully), you’ll have to ask yourself is, “where am I located?” The answer to this question ultimately will have tremendous weight on your decision. Where you are based out of opens (and closes) many doors when choosing a preferred carrier – and for the most part, you want your travel experience to be as seamless as possible, right? Those who live close by to big International gateway cities (New York and Los Angeles, for example) will always have more options over someone who lives close to a smaller regional airport (such as Columbia, SC). Bigger cities generally mean more competition (fare wars are fun for all) and more flights going in and out each day, period.
In my case, I am in NJ, so EWR is my home airport (a United hub). I naturally gravitated towards United (well, Continental at first) because of the airline’s domination, and connecting almost anywhere in is easy. Also, since United is such a prominent airline at EWR, offering hundreds of flights daily, the flight prices are generally very competitive and attractive (even more so when they price match other airlines to compete for business). If you were Dallas-based I’d recommend considering American Airlines (hub). Atlanta flyers tend to gravitate towards Delta (whether they like it or not) because of their huge presence there.
#2 What is Important To You? Once you’ve figured out your location logistics, ask yourself what is important to you when it comes down to the flying experience. Do you pack a lot when you travel? Like free snacks? Wifi? If so, consider choosing an airline that offers all of those perks in one shot (such as Southwest). Do you like first class upgrades? If so, then you might want to stick with a program that gives complimentary upgrades to its elite members.
I personally travel very lightly, with a carry-on only, so checking bags is not important to me. Instead, I enjoy loyalty programs that offer valuable mileage bonuses, a large global reach, and a shot at first-class upgrades for a more comfortable flight experience.
#3 Will a Credit Card Enhance My Travel Experience? The good thing about having an airline’s co-branded credit card is that it offers a lot of low-level elite benefits to cardholders for a low annual fee (usually waived the first year). Aside from earning valuable airline miles with each purchase (in addition to a generous sign-up bonus), most cards offer perks such as a free-checked bag, priority boarding, and even lounge passes.
Some co-branded airline credit cards to consider that offer these perks are: the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card, The US Airways Premier World MasterCard®, and the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World MasterCard. I personally have 3 out of 4 of the cards listed above (can you guess which ones?).
#4 What Loyalty Program Offers the Best Value? If you’re new to exploring points, miles, and award travel, think about what you most value in terms of a loyalty program and its respective elite benefits (upgrades, lay flat seats, alliance partnership, etc). Of course, the word “value” varies greatly from one person to another. I think United and American Airlines both have extremely valuable award miles because they are flexible, and you can use them on dozens of partner airlines.
On the other hand, Delta miles are often referred to as “SkyPesos” because their redemption opportunities are “not as good” as other programs as most people say. For people who only tend to fly domestically and can make good use of the companion pass with Southwest, then your best bet is the Southwest Rapid Rewards program.
It also pays to get familiar the “nooks and crannies” of each program. For example, the free-domestic stopover that the AAdvantage program allows proves to be of great value if you live in an international gateway city. Similarly, the free-one way on international round trip award redemptions with United MileagePlus miles is also a valuable perk. Try to figure out which program appeals to you most.
What did you or are you planning to consider when it comes down to choosing your preferred airline? Is there anything you’d like to add? Would love to hear about how your relationship with your loyalty program started!