6 Best Airline Loyalty Programs

By Daniel Bortz
January 12, 2022
airport waiting area Big windows plane leaving
We’ve done all the homework to deliver the unique features and benefits offered by each of the major U.S. carriers’ frequent flyer programs. In short: Get ready to fly more for less money.

One of the easiest ways to score free flights is to take advantage of an airline’s frequent flyer program. Indeed, roughly 7 percent of flights are paid for with points or miles, according to a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. But not all frequent flyer programs are created equal—and comparing these programs can be tricky for everyday travelers.

All major U.S. airlines offer loyalty programs. Some programs let you rack up miles, while others programs let you accumulate “points” that you can redeem for things like discounted flights, seat upgrades, access to private airport lounges, and other cool perks.

Frequent flyer programs are free and easy to sign up for. And, don’t be fooled by the term “frequent flyer”—these programs can be beneficial even for occasional travelers.

So, what loyalty programs have the richest rewards? Here are the six best programs among U.S.-based airlines, including some benefits that make each program unique in its own way.



Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles program is unique in that allows members to rack up miles that never expire. (JetBlue Airways is the only other major airline with a frequent flier program where miles don’t expire because of inactivity.) Members earn 5 to 11 miles per dollar spent, depending on elite status, and can earn additional miles from hotel stays, car rentals, and dining.

One caveat: most airlines publish an awards chart that shows the number of points or miles needed for a given flight. Delta doesn’t. So, you’ll have to search for the flight you want to see how many reward miles are required to redeem a seat on that flight.



With flights to more than 900 destinations worldwide, Alaska Airlines offers top-notch rewards through its Mileage Plan program. Members earn one mile for every mile flown on Alaska (even on the lowest fare), and fliers earn elite status at just 20,000 miles; elites get two free checked bags, priority check-in and boarding, and preferred seating.

The drawbacks: blackout dates apply when booking flights with rewards, and miles expire after two years of inactivity.



Launched in 1981, AAdvantage from American Airlines is the largest loyalty program, with a reported membership of more than 100 million. The airline operates more than 3,500 flights a day within the U.S., and flies to nearly 1,000 destinations worldwide. Members earn 5 to 11 miles per dollar spent, and 0.5 to 3 qualifying miles per mile flown, based on fare class; they can also earn miles from select hotel stays, car rentals, and dining.

The AAdvantage program isn’t perfect though. The program is revenue-based, meaning miles are awarded based on dollars spent rather than number of miles flown. And mileage credit is forfeited after 18 months of inactivity. (The airline allows you to pay to reactivate your mileage credit, but reactivation fees can be high depending on how many miles have expired).



With 4,500 daily flights to more than 300 cities across five continents, United is among the largest airlines in the world—and has one of the best loyalty programs. Members of its MileagePlus program earn 5 to 11 miles per dollar spent, and 1 to 3 miles per mile flown, based on fare class. Transparency is also a plus, since the airline publishes a flight award chart that shows you the maximum number of miles you’ll need for a given flight.

There are two noticeable flaws though: the number of seats available on United for award travel is limited, and miles expire after 18 months of inactivity.



Easy points redemption, generous earnings, and zero blackout dates make Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program a winner. Members earn six to 12 points per dollar spent, based on fare class, and can accrue additional points through hotel stays, car rentals, dining, and shopping. While values vary, Rapid Rewards points can be redeemed at an average of 1 cent apiece, according to a Nerdwallet analysis. And travelers that fly 100 qualifying one-way flights, or accumulate 110,000 Rapid Rewards points, get a coveted Companion Pass, good for free flights for a travel companion.

The worst aspect of the Rapid Rewards program? Points can only be redeemed for Southwest flights; many other frequent flyer programs let you redeem rewards for flights on other airlines.



Points never expire and there are no blackout dates on JetBlue’s solid TrueBlue rewards program. Members earn 3 points per dollar spent and 6 points per every dollar spent when booking a flight on Even better, points are worth, on average, a handsome 1.3 cents each, according to The Points Guy’s May 2018 Valuations report. Also, redemption is easy when you use the program’s Best Fair Finder calendar tool, which shows the cost in points for specific flights on any day of the month.

But, because TrueBlue only offers one elite membership status, there are no special perks for road warriors, and JetBlue flies to fewer destinations than larger U.S. airlines.


Every major U.S. airline has its own credit card that provides customers with opportunities to earn extra points, miles, or cash back for eligible purchases. So, if you do most of your flying on one airline, it generally pays to get that carrier’s self-branded credit card and swipe it when you can nab big rewards.


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Travel Tips

The TSA's Instagram Account Will Make Your Day (Really!)

With more than 771.5 million people passing through security checkpoints at our nation’s airports in 2017 and a summer travel season expected to be the busiest ever, the Transportation Security Administration more than has its hands full. After a record number of firearms were discovered in carry-on bags around the country last year, the TSA rolled out more stringent screening procedures in April, but that hasn’t stopped the clueless and the crafty alike from attempting to bring some truly inappropriate things on board. From swords and throwing stars to guns and grenades, the most jaw-dropping discoveries are documented on the administration’s Webby Award-winning Instagram account, an often hilarious (see: Darth Vader interacting with an explosives detection dog, posted for Star Wars Day on May the 4th, or a microwave full of weed, posted on 4/20), always enlightening feed run by TSA social media lead Bob Burns. “We're not in the entertainment business, but I'm allowed to be funny because that's what gets people to come back,” Burns says. “If you look at our posts, you'll notice the first half of it may be tongue-in-cheek, and then the second half is more straightforward policy and procedure.” Fans of the page have become accustomed to seeing weapons of all sorts in their timelines, from swords concealed in canes to stuffed animals smuggling knives to brass knuckles, live (and replica) grenades, and, of course, guns, guns, guns. Attempting to bring restricted items on your flight can result in hefty fines and even jail time, but those deterrents don't seem to have done much to stem the tide. Burns, who started as a security screener at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2002, has pretty much seen it all, but even his mind boggles at some of the items people have tried to sneak through. “I always tell myself I'm not going to be shocked by anything else, but sometimes you see things and you just don’t understand. For example, I'm looking at a picture right now of an umbrella that someone took the time to take a tube, put a pocket knife in it, and zip-tie it to the inside of an umbrella to try to sneak their knife through, when they could have just put it in a check bag or mailed it to themselves or whatever they had to do if they wanted to have it at their destination. The question that always goes through my mind is when I see these things is, ‘Why?’” The majority of the time, though, Burns is willing to give travelers the benefit of the doubt. “In a lot of cases, people aren't really thinking. Maybe this is the first time they’ve flown in 15 to 20 years, and they're not in tune with airport security,” he says. “They don’t have ill intent. Clearly if they knew it was going to hold them up or slow them down, they wouldn't pack it. I think in most cases, people just aren't aware of the procedures, which is one of the reasons we like to share a lot of this stuff.” We got the man behind the account to give us a quick rundown of some of his favorite posts; read on for his picks. 1. Unwieldy Weapons (@TSA/Instagram) Burns is particularly pleased with this post, once described by a friend as his opus. "I jam-packed three references in, including The Lord of The Rings, Led Zeppelin, and Monty Python. Humor and references aside, the post fit my formula of entertaining our followers, while also letting them know how to properly travel with swords." 2. Bears in the Air (@TSA/Instagram) Bear attack in mid-air? Your guess is as good as ours. "This one is a favorite of mine because of the hypothetical silliness of making a bear a passenger," Burns says. "And it’s always great when you can throw in a Yogi Bear reference." 3. Better Off Dead (@TSA/Instagram) A prop for a film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, this grizzled geezer is one of the strangest things Burns has seen come through security. "Apparently the guy had worked it out with the airline so he was able to take it on the plane. He pushed this rotting corpse up the the checkpoint in a wheelchair, and it was just the right size to fit through our X-ray machine, so we screened it and cleared it and off he went," Burns says. "The ridiculousness of seeing this movie-prop corpse being sent through the X-ray machine gets me every time."  4. Bullets and Bravado (@TSA/Instagram) "Anything that resembles an explosive or projectile—any type of military ordinance—is strictly prohibited in carry-on or checked bags, for the reason that we don't know if they're real or not when we first spot them," Burns says. While bullets are allowed in checked baggage, you can't bring them in the cabin in any way, shape, or form. "I’m sure this is part of a costume or some kind of art project, but I’m not sure why it would be packed in a carry-on bag," he says.  5. Seeing Stars (@TSA/Instagram) Throwing stars, like other weapons, can only be transported in the cargo hold—even specially designed ones. "It’s a lightning-bolt shuriken! I had fun with this one by making up a story that the writing was the international symbol of loneliness, assuming the owner is too nerdy to have a girlfriend," Burns laughs. "It’s all in fun."  6. Medical Marvels (@TSA/Instagram) This ode to the Skywalker patriarch went up on May the 4th, and it's one that makes Burns justifiably proud. "I was able to use Star Wars Day as a vehicle to provide very important messaging 'masked' behind a silly post about Darth Vader’s helmet,” he says.   7. Penguins on Parade  (@TSA/Instagram) No, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you—that really is a pair of tiny aquatic birds waddling through security. "In San Antonio, because of SeaWorld, they travel with their penguins, Pete and Penny, from time to time," Burns says, "and they're trained to walk through the metal detectors." Why is this post a favorite, you may ask? Um, "because penguins," he says. (The "obviously" is implied.) And the people agree: At 53,000-some likes and counting, it's the account's most popular photo to date. We were saddened to learn of the death of Bob Burns on October 19, 2018, and we extend our sympathy to his friends and family.

Travel Tips

8 Ways Travelers Waste Money

Sure, vacation is supposed to be your time to relax, to recharge your batteries. But there’s a big difference between going with the flow and allowing yourself to be ripped off simply because you’re not paying attention. From your choice of restaurant to the kind of bank card you carry, the way you pack your bags, and your willingness to do a little bit of homework before leaving home, here are some of the most common ways you may be wasting money when you travel - and, most importantly, how not to waste money next time. 1. EATING LIKE A TOURIST We would never suggest that every well-trod touristy restaurant serves sub-par, overpriced meals. But we will say that eating at the most obvious open-air establishment in, say, an Italian piazza or the eatery with the biggest neon sign in Times Square may increase your chances of paying top dollar for food you probably could have made better at home. The reason is good old supply and demand: The public spaces that attract the biggest crowds are often the most expensive places to open a restaurant, and the temptation to cut corners when you sense your clientele can't tell the difference is, well, y'know... Do this instead: Use guidebooks, local tourism boards, reliable travel media (yup, that’s us), and word of mouth to find authentic joints that cook local favorites with good quality ingredients. We’re also fond of our parent company Lonely Planet’s inspiring @LonelyPlanetFood account on Instagram, delivering a world of great food suggestions each day. 2. PAYING FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES If you don’t check with your bank or credit card company before heading overseas, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise: Foreign transaction fees whenever you use your U.S.-based card to make a purchase. And while 3 percent, a common transaction fee, may not sound like a lot while you’re living it up on vacation, it can sure add up by the time you get your next bank statement. Do this instead: Before you travel anywhere (even domestically), it’s a good idea to stop by the local branch of your bank and tell them where you’re headed. You’ll not only learn about foreign transaction fees (and how to avoid them), but also any concerns the bank may have about your using the card in your travel destination. If you plan to use a credit card overseas, make sure to get one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. 3. GETTING A BAD EXCHANGE RATE One of the biggest money-wasting mistakes travelers make is waiting to exchange dollars for foreign currency until they arrive at the airport or at their destination. Airport kiosks, hotel desks, street vendors, and shops make extra money by charging an undesirable rate of exchange. Do this instead: Before you leave the U.S., research exchange rates online and obtain currency from your bank or a currency exchange. If you don’t already have a debit card from your bank, get one so that you can withdraw cash from most foreign ATMs at a favorable exchange rate. (And remember that some destinations, including Cuba, do not honor U.S.-based bank or credit cards at all and you’ll have to arrive with cash.) 4. CHECKING TOO MUCH BAGGAGE This one’s an easy one to brush off a few weeks or even a few days before your trip: You’ll “pack light,” you swear. But in the heat of the moment, especially if you’ll be away from home for a week or more, it becomes easy to pack a rolling suitcase so that it exceeds the weight limit, incurring extra fees, or to decide that although your airline allows you one or two complementary checked bags (of course, not all airlines do), you’re going to have to check just one more. Do this instead: Truly “packing light” means carefully considering what you’ll really need on your trip, and taking into account the possibility of doing laundry while you’re away. (I personally had a super-convenient and affordable laundry experience at the Ventura Beach Marriott’s excellent laundry room last July, which allowed me and my family to pack light for a three-week trip and stay within Southwest’s two-bags-per-passenger complementary checking policy. Also consider mailing some clothing and souvenirs back home instead of trying to cram them into your already-groaning bags. 5. RACKING UP CREDIT CARD DEBT We mentioned above that traveling with a credit card is a smart choice - you’re prepared for unexpected expenses, and you can confidently make hotel and transportation reservations. But that doesn’t mean you should use your credit card to pay for a vacation (or a souvenir, or a meal, for that matter) you won’t be able to pay off with a month or so once you get home. Some credit card rates, not to mention penalties and late fees, can mean paying double for your dream trip over time. Do this instead: It’s simple to say it, harder to do it: If you wouldn’t borrow money from a friend or relative for your trip, don’t borrow it from a credit card company. 6. MISUNDERSTANDING TRAVEL INSURANCE There are two ways of misunderstanding travel insurance: One is to assume you don’t need it, the other is to assume you do. It’s way more nuanced than that. Misunderstandings of this kind can lead to travelers handing over tons of money unnecessarily to car rental companies and tour operators for insurance they already have thanks to their debit or credit card or auto or home insurance policies. On the other hand, misunderstanding travel insurance can also lead to travelers being stuck in a medical emergency in which they unexpectedly have to hand over hundreds or even thousands of dollars because they did not obtain an appropriate medical insurance policy for travel overseas. Do this instead: Learn what kinds of insurance your bank card or credit card covers, and review what your auto, home, and health insurance policies cover when you’re traveling. Chances are, this will reduce the amount you have to pay to car rental companies, and it will clarify whether you need something like medical evacuation travel insurance, which can save you a bundle in the event of a health crisis. 7. MISSING OUT ON DISCOUNTED ADMISSION Most major cities will have a handful of must-see museums, some guided tours, restaurants you’ve been looking forward to trying, etc., and every one of those experiences is going to cost you something, of course. If you're a savvy traveler, it’s easy to turn up your nose at passes and discounts that require a fee - the more experienced you are, the more you may assume that offers like that are just another rip-off. Think again. Do this instead: Programs like CityPASS and similar offers in Europe may seem pricey, but if you spend some time comparing the discounts offered at the attractions you most want to visit against the price of the pass, you may discover that ponying up for the pass may actually save you big in the long run. 8. BOOKING HOTEL & AIRFARE TOO SOON "Booking a vacation is a well-researched, steely-eyed, analytical affair," said no passionate traveler ever. We know it's all about dreams, aspirations, and a bit of denial. You want booking to be easy, and especially when you find a decent hotel rate or airfare on a trip you’re really looking forward to, it’s easy to convince yourself to hit that “purchase” button. But we've seen over and over again, and now more than ever, that sticking with the tried-and-true domestic U.S. travel booking sites can mean you’re overlooking potential savings elsewhere. Do this instead: Repeat after us: Take a deep breath and shop around. Sure, use Expedia, Kayak, and others sites to start your research. But branch out to Skyscanner, Hopper, and others to see what else is out there. Be flexible: Being open to a range of departure and return dates, a range of airports, a range of hotels and neighborhoods, can yield big savings.

Travel Tips

7 Foolproof Tips to Beat Jet Lag

Our story about how to sleep well on a plane, featuring advice from Roy Raymann, PhD, resident sleep expert at SleepScore Labs ( and the former “Sleep Czar” of Apple, got a very enthusiastic response. We were inspired to get back in touch with Raymann to cover even more sleep-related travel topics. Here, how to beat jet lag, adjust to time zones both near and far, learn to relax and rest in a new environment, and the latest on the role smartphone and tablet screens can play in sleep. 1. IT TAKES ONE DAY TO ADJUST TO ONE HOUR OF A TIME ZONE SHIFT Raymann offers one basic rule of thumb that will serve you no matter how far you’re traveling and for how long. “It will take you one day to adjust to one hour of a time zone shift.” That adjustment can occur before you take off, or you can make it part of your visit to your destination. 2. HOW TO ADJUST TO A NEW TIME ZONE BEFORE YOU FLY If you are flying a relatively short distance and your destination is, say, a three-hour time difference from where you live or work, Raymann suggests that you start adapting to the new time zone a few days before you fly. “For a destination with a difference of three hours, just start three days before, and adjust your daily activities (go to bed, wake up, workout, meals, etc.) to link up to the new time zone by one hour every single day,” Rayman says. “Note that for long time zone leaps you might partially adjust prior to the trip, so you actually shorten the jet lag at the place of destination.” 3. FOR SHORT TRIPS, CONSIDER STAYING ON YOUR HOME SCHEDULE If your trip is just for two or three days and for rest and relaxation (as opposed to a business trip), and in a relatively nearby time zone, Raymann suggests, “You might actually not want to adjust at all, and stay on the ‘departure city’ clock for your daily activities.” 4. FLYING EAST IS HARDER THAN FLYING WEST “Not all types of jet lag are equal,” notes Raymann. “Eastward (such as flying from California to Florida) is harder to adjust to than a flight in the opposite direction. The body finds its easier to adapt to longer day as compared to short days, and when flying eastwards you cut your day short.” Sure, there’s not much you can do about which direction you have to fly, but knowing that flying east will be more challenging than flying west can help you prepare and recover. 5. SMARTPHONE AND TABLETS CAN INTERFERE WITH SLEEP What parents like me refer to as “screen time” can have a serious effect on your ability to sleep. First of all, they may prevent you from the necessary winding down required before sleep. “Certain emails, games, and online video content might cause stress, worries, and tension,” says. Raymann. In addition, notifications in the middle of the night can wake you up just as you’re learning to adjust to a new time zone. “Use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ setting on your device to make sure you get undisturbed hours of sleep,” advises Raymann. Finally, the light emitted by smartphones and tablets can affect your biological clock. “Screens contain a lot of blue light,” notes Raymann, “which directly affects your biological clock. Minimize your screen’s brightness, and use a night mode such as iOS Night Shift [which Raymann helped to develop when he was Apple’s ‘Sleep Czar’] to filter out blue light wavelengths.” 6. SET UP YOUR HOTEL ROOM TO MAXIMIZE SLEEP Adjusting to a new sleeping environment is a real thing: New city, maybe a new country, different pillow, room temperature, all of these factors can challenge your ability to get some shuteye in a hotel. “Try to mimic your own bedroom as much as possible,” suggests Raymann. “Some people even travel with their personal pillow. The rule of thumb is that a bedroom should be quiet, dark and cool, and your bed should be supportive and comfortable.” When you wake up in your new location, open the windows or step outside for a morning walk. “Getting some daylight A.S.A.P. tells your biological clock that the new day has started.” 7. HERE’S WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE TO SLEEP AT THE AIRPORT It’s not high on any traveler’s bucket list, but sometimes catching some zzz’s at the airport during a long layover or unexpected delay is a necessity. Raymann has the solution. “Use earplugs or noise cancellation headphones, a sleep mask to ensure it is dark, and, if possible, a thin blanket or a wrap. And since you don’t want to worry about your belongings, store them in baggage lockers while you try to get some sleep.”

Travel Tips

10 Apps You Need For Your Next Trip

If you sometimes feel as if your smartphone is becoming your travel BFF, you’re not alone. Consider that nearly half of all travelers have used a mobile device to plan or book a trip, a 2016 global survey from Apteligent found. Mobile apps have also enabled travelers to find hotel deals, dine with locals, and even overcome jet lag. Ready to load up your smartphone for your next trip? These 10 apps will address many of your most pressing travel needs. (And we assume you’ve already heeded our suggestion to download our parent company Lonely Planet’s indispensable inspiration and planning apps Trips and Guides.) 1. NETFLIX: Binge your favorite TV show while you're in the air Missed the latest season of Stranger Things? Catch up on your flight using the Netflix app’s “download” feature, which lets subscribers watch select TV shows and movies on phones and tablets without an Internet connection. To see if the series or movie you want is available for download, you can search the title you want and look for the download icon (the arrow pointing downward to a horizontal line). Not looking for anything in particular? The Netflix app also features an “Available for Download” menu that displays all downloadable content in one place. One caveat: Netflix says that downloading and streaming consume similar amounts of data, so you may want to use a wireless connection, rather than a cellular one, while downloading. Available on iPhone and Android. 2. 7 MINUTE WORKOUT: Squeeze in a quick morning workout To stay in shape on your trip, use the 7 Minute Workout app from Johnson & Johnson. Designed by Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the company’s Human Performance Institute, the app offers more than 20 pre-set workouts that vary in intensity and duration, and can be customized to fit your fitness level. Also, the app talks you through proper form, and recommends different workout programs as your endurance increases. Available on iPhone and Android. 3. EATWITH: Break bread with locals Want an authentic dining experience while you’re traveling? Eatwith can connect you with locals in more than 130 countries for truly immersive cuisine. From dinner parties to food tours to cooking classes, the app has a variety of culinary events that let you wine and dine with hosts at your destination. The app lets you search for food experiences by price range. It also enables you to filter based on dietary restrictions such as vegetarian, vegan, and Kosher meals. Available on iPhone and Android. 4. NEARIFY: Find live music, comedy, film screenings, and other entertainment on the go One way to discover cool events near you is by using Nearify. The app uses your location to show you happenings like concerts and festivals to cooking classes and sports games. Offered in New York City, London, Boston, Mumbai and hundreds of other cities around the world, Nearify will also send you a personalized list of events at the location of your choice based on your preferences and tastes. Available on iPhone and Android. 5. ROOMIER TRAVEL: Nab sweet hotel room deals from people who can't use theirs Plenty of apps let people book hotel reservations at discounts—HotelTonight, One:Night, and HotelQuickly are a few of them. But Roomer Travel lets travelers score special rates by buying non-refundable rooms from other consumers. The app lets you search for deals based on your destination and travel dates. In addition, the folks at Roomer will automatically double check to make sure your reservation is transferred to your name. Available on iPhone and Android. 6. LOUNGEBUDDY: Escape noisy, overcrowded airport terminals Good news: you don’t need to have an elite status or first-class ticket to access those coveted airport lounges. With LoungeBuddy, members can kill time in more than 280 airport lounges across the globe. Passes start at $25, but the app also lets you gain complimentary access based on credit cards or frequent flyer programs you belong to, so you can make the most of your loyalty rewards. You can even filter by lounge amenities such alcoholic drinks, showers, or kids’ play rooms. Available on iPhone. 7. ROME2RIO: Get around without wasting time or stressing out To maximize your vacation time, use Rome2rio. This app will get you from point A to point B fast and easy. Just enter the town, address or landmark you’re going to and Rome2rio will display flight, train, bus, ferry, and driving options with estimated travel times and fares. A nice bonus: the app will also show you cool things to do when you get to your destination. Available on iPhone and Android. 8. DUOLINGO: Talk like a local Learn how to speak like a native with duolingo. This app shows you how to enrich your vocabulary by offering bite-sized lessons in Spanish, French, German, and more than a dozen other languages. To stay engaged, you’ll play games where you earn points for correct answers. And, unlike a lot of other language apps, duolingo is free. Available on iPhone and Android. 9. SOLOTRAVELLER: Find like-minded individuals Hitting the road alone? Find travel buddies using SoloTraveller. The app lets you make new friends during your trip by connecting you with other solo travelers in your city in real time. It also helps you save money by pairing you people to share taxis, tours, or other travel expenses. You can find a travel mate nearby by searching for people based on age, gender, and interests. Available on iPhone and Android. 10. JET LAG ROOSTER: Beat jet lag Adjusting to a new time zone can zap your energy at the beginning of your trip. One solution is Jet Lag Rooster. The app provides a personalized, hour-by-hour plan to help you overcome jet lag. After you enter your flight details and sleep pattern information, the app will create a customized guide suggesting the best times for bright light exposure (e.g., sunlight) and melatonin to help your body clock adjust. Available on Android.