Travel

A closer look at cashing in frequent-flier miles

Air Transportation IndustryTravelVirgin Group, Ltd.JetBlue AirwaysAir France-KLM

Frequent-flier miles are both a boon (to the vacationer who scores the award ticket) and a bane (to the person who has the miles but can't seem to score the ticket). That's where the commonality ends. Each program is different, with its own elite designations for very frequent fliers. Here's a comparison of seven plans for U.S.-based carriers. These are mileage plans (as opposed to points) unless otherwise noted.

Alaska

Pros: No fee to use miles to upgrade from coach; Alaska's MVP, MVP Gold and Gold 75K also receive a bundle of special elite benefits on Delta through a marketing alliance.

Cons: $15 for tickets booked by phone (waived for MVP Gold and 75K members)

Info: http://www.alaskaair.com

American AAdvantage

Pros: AA.com's flexible date calendar makes MileSAAver awards easier to find; award reservations can be held for five days if booked 15-330 days prior to departure. Elite members pay no fee for last-minute awards.

Cons: One-way mileage upgrades often require co-pays; fees apply to phone bookings ($20) or for departures in less than 20 days ($50-$100).

Info: http://www.aa.com

Delta SkyMiles

Pros: Flexible awards let you fly coach one way and biz or first on the return. Elite members can roll over Medallion or Elite Qualification Miles into the next year. Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion members can expect several new benefits on select Alliance Partner airlines, including Air France, KLM, Alitalia and Alaska.

Cons: $25 to book with an agent (waived for Gold, Platinum and Diamond members)

Info: http://www.delta.com/skymiles

JetBlue TrueBlue

Pros: Award flights (points program) start at 5,000 points (short-haul flights), members earn three to six points per dollar for flights; points can be used for any seat on any JetBlue-operated flight.

Cons: $15 to book by phone

Info: trueblue.jetblue.com

Southwest Rapid Rewards

Pros: Points program effective Tuesday. Points are based on ticket price. Business select fares earn 12 points per dollar. Anytime fares earn 10 points per dollar. Wanna Get Away fares earn 6 points per dollar.

Cons: Wanna Get Away fare fliers might find it takes longer to earn a free ticket.

Info: http://www.southwest.com

United Mileage Plus

Pros: Members can earn miles on United, Star Alliance and partner airlines and redeem miles for United, Continental and Star Alliance flights; miles can be earned and used with more than 100 leading brands/partners.

Cons: $25-$30 to book with an agent

Info: http://www.united.com

Virgin America Elevate

Pros: Points program. Awards begin at 2,500 points (which can be earned in four round trips). Elevate program is linked for reciprocal earning on V Australia, Virgin Blue and Virgin Atlantic.

Cons: $20 to book by phone

Info: http://www.virginamerica.com

Source: Airlines and airline websites

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