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Choosing a Business Airline Rewards Program

We researched small business rewards programs from American, Delta, and United to help you figure out the best choice for your company.

How far will you go to to collect some extra miles on your Airline Rewards program?

While some of us are willing to take longer flights or fly out at inopportune times in order to accrue some extra points during personal travel, this same flexibility rarely follows us into the business travel world. But that doesn’t mean that a rewards program isn’t beneficial for business travel. In fact, specific rewards programs for corporate travel can even help both business travelers and their employers save money, while also improving the overall travel experience.

The trick is to make sure you pick the program that best fits your needs and business travel behavior. Corporate travel reward programs are all fairly similar, but there are a few key differentiators that can help you find the best option for you and your company.

What should you look for in a good airline rewards program?

  • A network of airlines vs. individual airlines

The reward potential dramatically increases when you focus your efforts on an airline alliance, instead of collecting a few miles here and there with a variety of airlines. You want to be able to accrue points in one place while still taking advantage of a wider range of flight options.

How do you do this? Stick to one airline alliance. There are three main alliances — Oneworld, StarAlliance, and SkyTeam. Each of these include one of the three legacy US airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines, respectively, as well as several other popular options. When you stick to a loyalty program that includes an entire network of airlines, you have a greater opportunity to collect and redeem points.

  • A corporate credit card

Most airlines will offer credit cards. The challenge is finding one that best suits your company. When scoping out the options, make sure to pay attention to the details. Know the specific perks of the card you’re considering — What percentage do you get back on travel purchases? What about other expenses?

It is also important to consider the scope of potential rewards. Are points only redeemable as miles? Or can they be used for other perks like free baggage check, in-flight discounts, and status boosts? Again, your choice should be informed by your company’s business travel needs and preferences.

Timing is also important when it comes to choosing an airline credit card. Read up on the different introductory offers. Many credit card reward programs offer increased percentages back, free baggage check, and other opportunities to earn more points in the first few months of having the card. Align opening your new card with when you’ll be making bigger purchases, like moving or planning a large trip.

  • Work-life balance

No, we don’t mean unlimited PTO. But many airline business reward programs will also allow travelers to double dip and collect points through their personal account while traveling for business. Make sure your personal airline rewards program matches up with the airline or network your company uses.

Best airline rewards programs for business travel?

Determining which company qualifies as the best airline for business travel will highly depend on your company’s business travel frequency, as well as your common destinations. Here’s an outline of airline reward programs directed at small to medium sized businesses from the top 3 legacy airlines in the US — American Airlines, Delta, and United. Each program offers the ability to earn and redeem points on a variety of airlines.

American Airlines Business Extra

This program includes travel on American Airlines and partner airlines, including American Eagle, British Airways, Finnair, Japan Airlines, or Quantas. In order to be eligible for the program your company must have at least two travelers and your organization can’t have another rewards agreement with American or its partners.

How do you earn points? The rules in this program are pretty straightforward — travelers earn two points for every $10 spent. And your employees can continue to earn AAdvantage miles on their personal account. Individual travelers will earn miles, while member companies will accrue points. This program also offers the opportunity to get an American Airlines Business Extra version of the American Express Corporate card so that you can continue to earn points through other purchases. If you use this card for travel frequently, individual cardholders can receive up to $1,000 in flight discounts each year.

Points can be redeemed as a flight awards, upgrade awards, or club and status awards. American Airlines has an award chart specific to redeeming Business Extra points, which articulates how many points each perk costs. For example, to upgrade on an American operated flight within North America, Hawaii, or the Caribbean, a one-segment upgrade will cost you 650 points. For longer international flights, upgrades range from 1,200 to 3,100 points. Points can also be redeemed to boost your status. To get AAdvantage Gold Status, it’ll cost you 3,200 points. And while you’re on the road, points can be exchanged for day passes to the Admirals Club (300 points), or even a yearly subscription (3,300 points).

Delta SkyBonus

The Delta SkyBonus program has qualifications that do require a specific amount of corporate travel per year, but if you’re spending the money anyway, then the rewards will add up. In order to be eligible, your company must spend a minimum of $5,000 on flights each year. And you must have at least five separate employees completing eligible travel per year. That’s, at most, $1,000 of annual travel costs per traveling employee. With SkyBonus, you also have the opportunity to earn points on several airlines, like Delta, Aeromexico, Air France, KLM, and Alitalia.

The point system that SkyBonus uses is a bit more complex. Points are earned depending on their fare class, and whether or not the flight is in or out of one of Delta’s biggest hubs. These include Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis - St. Paul, and Salt Lake City. At most, companies can earn 30 points per dollar for non-refundable fares that don’t go to or from one of the five hubs. Earning potential drops to 1 point per dollar for discounted flights to or from a hub. Essentially, companies that will benefit most are those that do not fly in and out of one of Delta’s main airports and that frequently buy non-refundable or premium fare flights.

The SkyBonus award chart outlines options for “standard” and “enhanced” flights. For example, a standard-economy class award for flights within the US and Canada (excluding Hawaii) is 90,000 points, but if you want a first class ticket for the same flight it will cost you 250,000 points. As a SkyBonus member, you can also redeem points for coupons for in flight perks, Sky Club passes or annual memberships, and status boosts.

This program offers higher possible point accrual, but the rewards are also costly.

United PerksPlus

United’s partner airlines include United Express, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Swiss Airlines, and All Nippon Airways. In order to be eligible for the PerksPlus program, your company must have at least five verifiable employees, and you can’t be enrolled in any other discount program with United.

The points program is similar to Delta’s. Points are awarded based on fare type, fare class and whether or not your flight is traveling to or from a hub. United hubs that indicate lower point earnings are Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles, and Tokyo-Narita. There are three different buckets of fare classes for customers in the United States and Canada — premium fares, typical business fares, and highly discounted fares. Potential points range from one point per dollar for highly discounted fares that are to or from a hub, to six points per dollar for fully refundable or premium-class tickets that are not to or from one of United’s major airports.

United’s award chart outlines flight award options, but the number of points required for flights depends on availability. A round-trip economy-class award flight in the US (excluding Hawaii), Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America could be 40,000 if there is a lot of availability, or it could cost you 180,000 points during peak season. Non-flight award options include increasing your status with points. Again, this option has smaller, but longer term, benefits.

Choosing the right program

This is not an exhaustive list of corporate travel rewards programs. If none of these three sound like they’d fit the bill for your organization, have no fear. There are plenty of other options out there to sift through.

If all of this information feels overwhelming, there are three questions that are most important to consider before choosing a program:

  1. How many employees travel per year?
  2. How much do you spend on corporate travel annually?
  3. Where do your employees most often travel to and from?

The answers to these three questions will have the greatest impact on your decision. If you don’t spend much on travel yet, going with a program that offers a flat earnings rate, like American, might be the best bet. But, if your employees travel frequently (and prefer premium-class tickets), you’re more likely to see an ROI with a program like SkyBonus or PerksPlus. Picking a corporate travel rewards program can be a difficult feat, but can ultimately offer a lot of savings in return.

How does your corporate travel policy stack up?

Posted by

Kathleen Burns
better corporate travel starts here.