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.
2. ALASKA AIRLINES
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.
3. AMERICAN AIRLINES
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).
4. UNITED AIRLINES
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 jetblue.com. 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.
BONUS TIP: EARN MORE REWARDS BY USING AN AIRLINE CREDIT CARD
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.