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Groucho Marx once famously declared, "I would never want belong to any club that would have me as a member."
A humorous remark, but not one that applies when flying the world's airlines. In fact, it is strongly advised that no matter how rarely you fly, you make certain you've enrolled in a frequent flier club. Whether it takes you one year or three years, chances are high you could earn enough miles to get a free ticket.
There are three major airline alliances, all of them totally free to join. The benefits are considerable.
They offer a range of travel options and rewards beyond the reach of any individual airline - including an extensive global route network, covering over 960 destinations in 192 countries, and greatly enhanced benefits and privileges for members of each airline's frequent flyer programs. By being a member in one frequent flier airline in the alliance, you earn miles when flying any of the airlines.
There are three main alliances:
American Airlines, Finnair, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Aer Lingus, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Lan Chile, Lan Peru, Malev, TransOcean Airlines and Qantas.
Air Canada, British Midland, Span Air, Adria Airways, Lufthansa, Lot Air, Swiss, All Nippon, Air New Zealand, Austrian Air, Croatia Air, Asiana Air, South African, SAS, Singapore Air, Thai Air, Air Portugal, United Airlines, US Air, and Tyrolean Air
Air France, AeroMexico, Alitalia, Continental, Delta, Korean Air, KLM, Czech Air & Aeroflot.
So if you're a Continental frequent flier, you will earn full miles when flying on Delta Air, for example. Thus you only need enroll in one airline in each alliance. Moreover, many credit cards allow you to assign your purchases to a specific airline so the miles can be accumulated from whatever you purchase. We've had clients who have charged their car purchase on a credit card, racking up thousands of frequent flier miles.
NOTICE ONE airline missing from this exhaustive list? That's right, El Al.
For years, she's been battling to join one of the three alliances but has never succeeded. Whether it be simply a matter of anti-Semitism, or an economic issue, the bottom line is that El Al has never been invited to join.
El Al's frequent flier program is unique, though, in several ways. First it is the only airline that charges! Yes, El Al requires a one-time $15 registration fee. It seems a bit churlish, but I stopped trying to understand the logic long ago.
Second, El Al's other disadvantage is that points earned disappear after three years.
Third, El Al, in its infinite wisdom, doesn't credit you with the actual miles for each flight, but rather assigns you points. This makes it more challenging to track exactly what you earn. Ranging from 15 points to nearby destinations in the lowest economy class, up to 550 points when flying first-class to Los Angeles, the system is quite tricky to comprehend.
El Al does have its own alliance with AeroMexico, American Airlines, Qantas, South African and Delta, allowing you to earn points when flying on these airlines. Just as important, when flying El Al you can earn points on your American Airlines or Delta frequent flier number.
El Al also has code share agreements with seven other airlines that give you full credit, too. A code share agreement is very common in the airline industry. A flight is listed, for example, as an El Al flight but is actually operated by another airline.
Iberia, Swiss, Austrian Airlines, Lot Polish Airlines, Bulgarian Air, Brussels Air and Aerosvit all carry an El Al code share on flights to and from Israel. While the physical plane is not El Al, the frequent flier member earns full points.
This can cause problems, though, as too many clients are unaware and show up at an El Al counter only to be shunted to the "correct" airline.
One other important issue when flying a code shared flight: Make sure you order whatever special meals you may require. Just because it's listed as El Al, doesn't mean, for example, that the food will be kosher and that pre-seating and special requirements such as bassinets and wheelchairs cannot be pre-booked.
KEEP IN mind that trying to decipher which program is the best has perplexed the smartest of our customers.
Getting space on a free ticket can also be a challenging experience on all airlines.
El Al's programs offer one major benefit that many of the business clientele utilize: upgrades to business class. El Al is, in my humble opinion, the best airline to get an upgrade on. Very few points are required, and unlike other airlines, it can be done on the day of your flight.
Even though its "free" tickets now require you to pay for all the taxes, which to North American come to more than $250, it is still one of the best programs, easiest to get rewards with, and requiring the least amount of points compared to other airlines' miles requirements.
The drawback with El Al is when planning a round-the-world ticket. Common among leisure and business clientele, the ability to be able to fly to the Far East, then over to North America, before returning to Israel, cries out for a round-the-world ticket. With El Al's absence from the big three alliances, clients have no choice but to plan their route using one of those alliances.
So take the initiative and make sure before you embark on your journey to enroll. Remember to give your travel consultant the number. And always save those boarding passes; it's the only way to prove you actually flew.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments, e-mail him at