I've got a reader question that I wrote a response to, and after writing a long response, I decided it might be appropriate for everyone. Bakersfield Ramin writes...
So I'm in Dallas now, and i fly back to Los Angeles every 2-3 weeks, and I figured that American Airlines flies out a lot from DFW - so I'd use them. I signed up w/ their Citibank card for the miles. They gave me about 40,000 miles for spending 2k in the first 6 months and 1 mile for every dollar I spend. i saw that you use United a lot. i really hate American AIrlines, but i figured id get more benefits than if i were to use Virgin America. What's your suggestion to get miles and upgrade benefits for future use? Or should I be sticking w/ United over American Airlines also w/ using hotels and rental cars?
Thanks for e-mailing, Bakersfield Ramin!
You mentioned that your priorities were earning miles and upgrades. If you want either of those, it was wise to avoid Virgin America. While I find their Main Cabin in-flight experience to be the best in the country, their frequent flier program is pretty poor.
In general, if you want to earn great rewards, you should be sticking with legacy carriers. How do you feel about having to make connections and how much flexibility do you have with your travel time? If you hate connections, then you really should be sticking with American Airlines. They have far more non-stop flights to Los Angeles than United, or any other carrier for that matter, has. Furthermore, since you fly to Los Angeles at least monthly, that means you will fly at least 30,000 miles in a year. With that much flying, you'll already make their AAdvantage Gold status level, which will give you a mileage bonus on all flights of 25%. If you can actually fly a bit more and get up to 50,000 flown miles on American Airlines in a single year, that will give you AAdvantage Platinum status. You will get 100% bonus on all miles flown. For example, DFW-LAX-DFW is 2470 miles. With the Platinum status level, you'll actually earn 4940 miles. Great deal! Furthermore, you are ELIGIBLE for upgrades using 500 miler "sticker" upgrades. I write the word "eligible" because on a hot route like DFW-LAX, typically only top-tier elites get upgraded, but I'm sure you'll get a few complimentary upgrades here and there.
If you don't mind changing planes, United Airlines could be a decent option for you as well. United only has 3 non-stops daily from DFW to LAX, though, and they are all small regional jets. If you're okay with stopping in Chicago or Denver, you'll actually earn a considerably larger amount of miles than if you were to just fly non-stop on the way home. Unfortunately, United's elite mileage bonuses aren't as generous as American's. Flying 50,000 miles on United would get you a good Elite status level, but you will only earn a 50% mileage bonus, as opposed to American's 100% bonus.
I think it probably makes the most sense for you to fly American, even if you're not a huge fan of their planes. I think the most important thing is that once you pick a carrier, stay loyal to it. If you fly a few flights on Virgin, a few flights on United, and a few on American, you won't have enough miles in any account for anything good. So while some readers may disagree with my American Airlines recommendation, I don't think any will disagree that you should stick to a single carrier.
You mentioned that you got the American Airlines credit card and that you were curious about hotel / rental cars as well.
I can help you kill the credit card / hotel birds with one stone. I suggest that you get the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. Starwood points are typically considered to be the most valuable points out there because not only can you redeem points for hotels, but you can also transfer them to airlines for other awards. And lucky for you, American Airlines is a transfer partner of SPG. It gets better. Not only are they a transfer partner, but for every 20,000 miles you transfer, Starwood will kick in a bonus amount of 5,000 miles. Earning SPG points with the credit card will help you save up for a great hotel stay, but if you need more American Airlines miles, you can just transfer your SPG points into your American Airlines account. I wouldn't cancel your American Airlines credit card. Make sure you spend enough to get the 40,000 bonus points, and it might make sense to consider using that card when you book flights on American Airlines, but I would put your regular credit card spend on the SPG Amex card.
As for rental cars, others might disagree with me, but I find the rewards they give to be pretty meager. Furthermore, car rentals typically aren't that expensive. I credit all of my car rentals to Airlines frequent flier programs, and I suggest that you credit your car rentals to American Airlines. You won't get that many miles per rental, but you'll get some… and they'll help you build up your bank of miles. If you're going on a vacation, just priceline the car. That's what I do.
So if you were to take my advice, you would be a mid-tier Elite flier on American Airlines, earning quite a bit of miles via your flying activity. You would be putting your purchases on the SPG American Express card, not only building up a bank of valuable SPG points for great hotel stays, but also giving you the option of transferring them right back into American Airlines (or any other carrier partner).
Hopefully that helps! Happy flying!