Many people ask me a variety of the question: should I focus my earning on one airline program, or should I try to earn miles in all programs?

Let’s divide mileage accrual into two categories:

  1. Miles earned from flying on paid tickets. (Butt-in-seat miles)
  2. Miles earned from other sources. (Mainly credit card miles but also other promos, dining programs, opening brokerage accounts, and more.)

There is a different best strategy for mile accrual of each type that depends on your flying and spending habits.

What’s your best play? Diversify or concentrate?

Miles Earned from Flying Paid Tickets

How to credit your miles flied from paid tickets depends on whether you are going for status with an airline. The exact nuances of whether to go for status with one or more airlines are beyond the scope of this post, but generally if you can reach the 50k mile elite level, go for it. Otherwise don’t worry so much about status.

If you aren’t going for status, you should buy tickets for the most convenient and cheapest itineraries without regard to miles accumulation. This will entail some diversification of what types of miles you’ll earn.

Then you should credit all the miles from these paid flights to as few loyalty programs as possible. This entails some concentration of miles earning.

The way to credit miles to as few programs as possible is to know an airline’s partners and credit the miles to each airline’s US-based partner. Most of the world’s major airlines–outside of a few in the Middle East and some low-cost carriers in the US–are in one of three alliances.

If you fly United or a Star Alliance carrier, credit the miles to United. If you fly American or a oneworld partner, credit the miles to American. If you fly Delta or a SkyTeam member, credit the miles to Delta.

Flying paid tickets is not the time to spread your miles thin by crediting the miles to the operating carrier. Often people come to me with a few thousand miles in Miles & More (Lufthansa), Flying Blue (Air France), and LAN when they should have credited those to their American partners and had more easily used miles.

If you mostly fly domestically, you can credit the miles to even fewer partners. Delta and American are both partners with Alaska Airlines, so you can credit United and US Airways flights to United and American and Delta flights to Alaska.

If you are going for status, then that means your strategy will be to credit all of your miles to the same airline account. Among other benefits, you’ll earn redeemable miles at a faster rate. For instance, elites on United who have flown 50k miles in a calendar year earn a 50% bonus on miles flown!

Miles Earned from Other Sources

Whether you should concentrate or diversify your credit card and other miles earning again depends. If you spend little, don’t want to be very involved with miles collecting, or have a specific expensive goal in mind, concentrate miles earning on one or two programs. If you spend a lot and want to get the most value, diversify your miles collecting.

The Case for Concentrating

People often request a credit card consultation from me who spend only $1,000 per month on credit cards and want to take a trip to Europe with miles. They need to concentrate on one program to make that trip happen.

The modern credit card landscape is filled with great rewards cards, but they often have minimum spending requirements of $5,000 in three months. Someone who spends so little on credit cards (and who is unwilling to take advantage of ways to spend more on cards) isn’t going to be able to open multiple great rewards cards. Instead a low spender has to focus on one program and put all his spending and miles earning into that program.

For instance, a small spender could get the United card from a Chase bank branch with up to 55k bonus miles and need to spend $1,000 per month for only five months to get enough miles (60k) for a roundtrip to Europe.

The Case for Diversifying

If you are a big spender who wants to maximize that spending you have to (and should want to) diversify. You have to diversify because the best return on spending comes from opening rewards credit cards, and most programs only have one or two associated cards. You should want to diversify because it will allow you to travel anywhere in the world with the most efficient miles, and diversifying will be a hedge against negative changes to the programs you’re involved with.

Having 200k miles in each of five programs–say United, American, US Airways, Delta, and British Airways–is better for most people than having a million miles in one program, say United.

Each program has different strengths, so you want miles in each major program if your travel goals involve going to many different places. Furthermore each program devalues its program at different times and to different degrees, so you want your miles spread out. If you only have one million United miles and nothing else, you are in a lot of trouble if United goes to revenue-based redemptions or something equally catastrophic.

My Strategy

I fly very few paid flights, all of them domestic, because I have tons of miles I’ve earned that I use for international premium flights. When purchasing domestic tickets, I prioritize schedule and price, making me a diversifier. Then I credit the miles to United, American, Delta, Southwest, Virgin America, or JetBlue as appropriate.

(I did earn Silver–25k miles–status on United last year, but it was kind of by accident, and I don’t expect to earn airline status again soon.)

For credit cards and promotions, I diversify my earnings. My Award Wallet shows 23 accounts. One of the most recent additions was a Lufthansa Miles & More account that I opened to get the Lufthansa Miles & More MasterCard when the sign up bonus was 50k miles. The sign up bonus got me to look into the program, I saw that there was great value, and I added another program in which I am now earning miles.

Recap

Whether you should diversify your miles or concentrate on one program depends is really two questions: how should you earn your butt-in-seat miles and how should you earn your credit card and other promotional miles.

Within those categories, the answer depends on your spending, flying, goals, and more.