Have you ever signed up to an airline’s frequent flyer scheme? These loyalty cards promise bounties for cranking up the miles, but do the promised free flights actually exist?
For George Clooney in Up in the Air, the purpose of being in an airline loyalty scheme was to reach 10 million frequent flyer miles. It was the status of passing the 10 million mark that motivated his character in the 2009 film, but most frequent flyers might be after more concrete rewards – such as a free flight.
And frequent flyer schemes do hold out the prospect of turning all the hours spent in the air, perhaps on business, into a completely free flight, possibly going somewhere purely for fun. For the airlines themselves, they offer the chance of achieving what all businesses want – customers returning again and again rather than drifting off to competitors.
But can these free flights really be achieved or is it a myth that can tie the customer into an airline while the freebie becomes an impossible to reach pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
How to get that free flight
Which? Travel research found that although the free flight can be achieved in theory, it’s anything but easy.
For a start, most schemes allow you to use accrued points to pay only for the cost of the flight – excluding all taxes and charges. As the taxes and charges make up a big proportion of the total cost you could still be paying a large amount – which our research found could be as much as £493 for a return London-Sydney flight.
Some airlines do let you use your points to pay for the whole flight including taxes and charges, but this is limited to certain flights and routes – so although the free flight may exist, it may not be where you want to go.
So how do you work out which is the best scheme to get closest to that sought-after free flight?
Which airline loyalty card is best?
Inevitably, there’s no easy answer. Many of the schemes we looked at appeared unnecessarily complex and used many variables to calculate how many points were earned and needed.
Distance flown is just one variable. Others include the class of cabin, with the more expensive classes earning more points. Different airlines award different points for the same route. Some don’t give any points for heavily reduced fares, while others offer reduced amounts of points.
There’s also the question of the airlines that partner with your chosen carrier. You may actually get a better deal if you spend points with a partner airline rather than the one running your scheme. You should also watch your points’ expiry date – some schemes require you to spend points within two or three years, others may allow you to keep them valid if you pay a fee.
So have you had any experience with airline loyalty cards – have you ever achieved the fabled free flight? Maybe you’ve even beaten George Clooney’s 10 million miles…