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6 Best Airline Loyalty Programs

By Daniel Bortz
June 4, 2019
airport waiting area Big windows plane leaving
Casfotoarda/Dreamstime
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.

1. DELTA

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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

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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

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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

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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.

5. SOUTHWEST

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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.

6. JETBLUE

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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.

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Travel Tips

Airport Layovers: Best Food & Fun While You Wait for Your Next Flight

Show of hands: How many of you actually enjoy spending time at the airport? We didn't think so. But that may changing. While airport "entertainment" once consisted of only bars and chain restaurants, today many airports offer a number of fun ways to chill while you’re waiting to fly out. Here’s how to get the most out of a layover the next time you fly from one of the five busiest U.S. airports. 1. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport With more than 100 million passengers visiting it in 2017, Atlanta’s international airport is the busiest airport in the world, according to Airports Council International. Flying with Fido? Check out the 1,000-square foot fenced-in dog park, which is part of the ground transportation center in Domestic Terminal South. It features flowers, grass, rocks, and benches—and has biodegradable waste bags for easy pet cleanup. History buffs should check out "A Walk Through Atlanta History." Located in the Transportation Mall between Concourses B and C, the multimedia installation uses video, audio, murals, and photographs to take you through key periods in Atlanta’s development. Have time to enjoy a fine dining meal? Hit up One Flew South in Concourse E. This critically acclaimed restaurant specializes in cuisine inspired by world travels, and it has a cocktail list that pays tribute to the flying boats (‘Floatplanes’) that carried wealthy passengers from Miami to Nassau and Havana so they could drink legally during the Prohibition era. Art lovers will enjoy the airport’s permanent exhibit, “Zimbabwe Sculpture: a Tradition in Stone,” which features 20 stone sculptures from the South African country. Find it in the transportation mall between concourses A and T. 2. Los Angeles International Airport Over 84 million people visited LAX in 2017. The second largest airport in the U.S., Los Angeles's main airport has an array of food and entertainment options for travelers. The size of three football fields, the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) serves as the "Rodeo Drive" of LAX. It boasts tons of shops, including Fred Segal, which sells trendy clothing, accessories, and grooming products, and Sunset Strip's famous bookstore Book Soup. The caveat: it's not connected to any other terminal, so to visit from another terminal you'll have to go through security again. Wine aficionados will enjoy Vino Volo, a wine bar that offers vintages from around the world and a food menu of locally sourced cheeses, smoked salmon rolls, and other light bites. Find it in the TBIT. Need to pick up a snack for your flight? Los Angeles’ Original Farmers Market has a store in Terminal 5 where you can choose from a broad selection of meals, snacks, wine, and coffee from local vendors. 3. Chicago O'Hare International Airport This is a major connecting airport for destinations in the Midwest. It’s also not a bad airport to be stuck in. Parents traveling with children should take them to the Kids on the Fly interactive play area, which features child-sized model airplanes and a control tower. Find it in Terminal 2. Enjoy the stunning display of 466 squiggly neon tubes above a moving walkway in "The Sky's the Limit,” a mile-long neon light sculpture that connects concourses B and C in Terminal 1. Don’t depart without stopping by one of the airport’s Garrett Popcorn shops, located in Terminals 2 and 3. Go for the Chicago staple’s Garrett Mix, a combination of handcrafted cheddar and caramel popcorn. 4. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Spanning more than 17,000 acres, the busiest airport in Texas is also the fourth most-visited airport in the country. In fact, because of its size, it has its own postal code. Find your happy place before you board a plane for a long trip by doing some pre-flight stretches in the free 24-hour yoga studio, tucked between Terminals B and D. View works from more than 30 local, national and international artists in the International Terminal D. Also, check out the sculpture garden just outside the Terminal D parking garage on the arrivals level. Let your kids burn off energy in Terminal B’s Junior Flyer Club, a 685 square-foot aviation themed play area. 5. Denver International Airport A hub for Frontier Airlines and United, this Colorado airport handled more than 61 million passengers in 2017. Eat like a local at the popular Colorado burger chain Smashburger in Concourse C, Elway’s steakhouse Concourse B, or Root Down, a veggie-centric restaurant in Concourse C that serves up tasty dishes like thai carrot curry and roasted beets with seed pesto and basil vinaigrette. Take in a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains at the west end of Terminal C. While you’re there, grab some reading material for your flight at Denver’s famous Tattered Cover Book Store outpost. Sip a glass of wine Lounge 5280 in Concourse B. Rated one of the best airport bars in the U.S., the establishment offers hand-picked wine selections from around the world and a beer list highlighting Colorado's craft brewers.

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

Essential Weekend Getaway Gear

There’s an art to packing for a short trip—there are the essentials, and then there are the non-essentials that bring an element of comfort and joy to the journey. For those travelers who rarely let a weekend pass without hitting the open road or taking to the skies, we found five things to help make the most of those quick two-day jaunts, from packing to transit to maximizing your time on the ground. The Bag (Courtesy Lo & Sons) First things first: Start with the proper equipment. This classic-looking cotton-canvas weekender is roomy enough to hold the necessities for a short trip and has multiple pockets to keep things organized, but its best features may very well be its modern touches: a sleeve that lets it slip over a suitcase handle for easy transport and a zippered compartment that keeps at least two pairs of shoes separate from the rest of your clothes. And the whole thing weighs less than 2 pounds, so it’s easy to sling it over your shoulder and go—even if it's packed to the brim. Catalina Deluxe Small in Teal Blue, $128, loandsons.com. The Multitasker (Courtesy The Bali Market) With luggage space at a premium, weekend warriors need accessories that do double-, triple-, or even quadruple-duty, and this lightweight, high-absorbency Turkish towel fits the bill. At 40”x70”, it’s large enough to be used as a beach towel (or as a bath towel, for that matter), but it takes up way less room than terry cloth. Woven from quick-drying cotton, this thin textile can also serve as a wrap, a scarf, or a throw for a chilly plane, train, or bus ride, and it rolls up to practically nothing. That's a win-win-win-win. Perfect Classic Turkish Towel in Grey, $36, thebalimarket.us. The Wet One (Amy Lundeen) Wring every last drop out of a warm-weather weekend: Pack a stash bag for a wet bathing suit (and Turkish towel!), and never forgo that final swim again. This one has a beachy, tropical print and a vinyl-coated, waterproof interior, and it’s big enough to hold the sunscreen, too. Tropical Palm Extra Large Cosmetic Bag, $28, needleandoak.com. The Sleep Aid (Courtesy Bucky) If you need pitch-black darkness to get a solid eight hours of Zs, an eye mask is a must-pack accessory. Sure, you could go with that flimsy freebie you've been using since your last long-haul flight, but this silky polka-dot number is a playful alternative. With contoured foam eye cups that let you blink without messing up your makeup or putting undue pressure on your lids, it'll keep you snoozing, even if you're stuck in coach. Bucky 40 Blinks Sleep Mask, $13, amazon.com. The Soundtrack (Courtesy Bose) What’s a vacation without the tunes? This waterproof, drop-proof Bluetooth speaker clocks in at just under 4"x4" and weighs less than a pound, offering huge, bass-heavy sound in a tiny, silicone-rubber-wrapped package. With six hours of battery life, a tear-resistant strap for hands-free portability, and an app that can control the volume, pair another speaker, and switch between music libraries in various devices, it'll help get the party started wherever you are. SoundLink Micro Bluetooth speaker, $100, bose.com.

Travel Tips

How to Have a Tick-Free Summer

Long sleeved shirts, long pants, hats, sprays, frequent body checks, and full-on inspections of kids before bedtime. Is that the summer you’ve been looking forward to? Unfortunately, the risk of tick bites - which can lead to Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI) - has made those rather un-festive rituals a necessity in much of the U.S., where ticks are especially active during the warm months between April and September. But a new government study, published in 2018 in the Journal of Medical Entomology, suggests that insecticide-treated clothing may be one of the most effective tick-fighting tools out there. In lab tests, clothing treated with permethrin (interestingly, a synthetic compound similar to the insect-repelling compounds found in chrysanthemums) was shown to cause ticks to fall off the clothing or make the ticks unable to bite the person wearing the treated clothing. Permethrin is found in tick-repelling sprays, creams, and shampoos, but the new study underscores that permethrin-treated clothing is effective at all stages of a tick’s life, causing the ticks to fall off “vertical” clothing such as pants and, after a few minutes, rendering the ticks unable to move normally or bite. Further, the amount of permethrin used in insecticide-treated clothing is quite low, and that the compound is “poorly absorbed” through the skin of the wearer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If you plan to spend the next few months hiking, camping, gardening, or other activities that most of us simply refer to as “summer stuff,” follow these important steps from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/ticks): KNOW YOUR RISK You’ll find ticks (or, more precisely, ticks will find you) in grassy, brush, and wooded areas, including parkland, forests, and even your own backyard, garden, or tall grass. Avoid high grass and “leaf litter,” and walk near the center of trails rather than near brush and grass beside the trail. TREAT CLOTHING AND GEAR Purchase permethrin-treated clothing such as the clothing tested in the recent government study mentioned above (rei.com is always a good place to start shopping for outdoor gear), or spray clothing, boots, and camping gear with .5% permethrin, which will hold up through several washings, then require retreating. USE INSECT REPELLENT Look for compounds such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone. Important: Don’t use insect repellent on babies younger than two months old and do not use oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol on children under three years old. CHECK YOUR CLOTHING AFTER TIME OUTSIDE Check your clothing for ticks, remove any ticks you find, or tumble dry clothing on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill ticks. (If you wash clothing that may be infested with ticks, use hot water.) SHOWER Well, this is always a good idea after a summer hike, but your risk of contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite can be reduced by showering within two hours of coming indoors from a tick-infested area. DO A BODY CHECK Use a hand-held or full-length mirror to check your body for ticks, including under your arms, in and around your ears, inside your belly button, the back of your knees, in and around your hair, between your legs, and around your waist. While checking for ticks is serious business, it doesn’t have to be done alone and it doesn’t have to be a total drag. For inspiration, check out Brad Paisley’s hit song (and upbeat public service announcement) “Ticks.”For travel inspiration, know-how, deals, and more, sign up for Budget Travel's free e-newsletter.

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

5 Carry-On Backpacks for Every Kind of Trip

As professional travelers, we put in lots of hours on the road, and with that much time on our hands, we get to know our gear pretty well. The little quirks that don’t seem like a big deal up front can become full-blown annoyances after a week of travel, and likewise, the nerdy details that might not merit more than a shrug at first glance can easily become an obsession once we realize how handy they can be in practice. We put another round of carry-on backpacks through their paces to find our favorites—all of which will fit in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you on most jets, and cost less than $200. 1. For the Weekend Road Trip (Courtesy Topo Designs) Topo Designs makes some of our favorite accessory bags and Dopp kits, so it’s not surprising they make one of our favorite backpacks too—the brand’s bags and accessories are designed to work together as part of a modular system, and the 30-liter Travel Bag is no exception. Pack bags, Topo’s answer to packing cubes, cost a little extra, but they nest inside for a tidy fit, and the Dopp kit does too—no cramming necessary. (If you need more room, clip a smaller bag onto the outside of the pack, or go for the 40-liter version.) But enough about the accessories—the backpack itself earns rave reviews. It has organizational pockets galore: On the front, a large zippered compartment with two internal zippered mesh pockets, plus another section with two open pockets for snacks and chargers and a deep zippered one as well. The main compartment holds three or four outfits, with two big mesh pockets for additional storage. At the back of the pack, there’s a padded laptop compartment, and an external pass-through sleeve to stack the bag on top of your rolling suitcase; it also comes with a removable crossbody strap, so the shoulder and hip straps tuck away if you choose to use it. The zippers even have security loops to protect against sticky fingers, and the stiff nylon material is water-repellant in addition to being practically tear-proof. All in all, our number-one pick.Travel Bag - 30L, $189; topodesigns.com. SHOP CARD HERE 2. For the Urban Excursion (Courtesy Knack Inc.) Launched in late 2018 by a team of former Tumi execs, Knack makes a good case for ditching the luggage and carrying just a single backpack. With a slim profile, clean lines, and crisp suiting-inspired fabric, the expandable Knack Pack displays the attention to detail you’d expect from a contingent of industry pros. Unexpanded, the medium version holds just 17 liters; expanded, that capacity nearly doubles. The packing compartment unzips to lay flat, holding a few days’ worth of clothes with compression straps to lock it all down, with a zippered mesh pocket covering the facing side. One of its savvier highlights is the built-in sunglasses case, lined with fleece and conveniently placed at the top of the pack, but other travel-minded touches include a rain flap that covers the expansion zipper; a zip-away side pocket that hides a water bottle; and padded shoulder straps, reinforced with sternum straps, that tuck into the back panel. Two minor complaints: There isn’t a side handle, and the front pocket is a bit of a head-scratcher, a triangular flap that folds down to reveal pen loops, one strangely shallow pocket, and a row of small slots big enough to hold business cards...and not much else. But for a nice-looking bag with a deceptively generous capacity, we'll allow it.Medium Expandable Knack Pack, $175; knackbags.com. 3. For the Long Haul (Courtesy Rick Steves' Europe) This convertible carry-on from Rick Steves' Europe came on our radar by way of a reader's comment—and we have to say, it was a solid suggestion. At about 40 liters, it’s the roomiest of the bunch (and at 3 pounds, the heaviest too), a no-frills pack that excels in its simplicity. The main compartment is nearly suitcase-size, with compression straps, an elasticized pocket running the length of the lid, two loose mesh bags for laundry or smalls, and a document pouch that clips into place so important papers are always within reach. On the front, there are three pockets of varying sizes: a square one for a cardigan or a neck pillow, a small one for glasses, lip balm, and the like, and a really deep one for magazines, tablets, tech gear, and more. The pack can expand a couple of inches if need be, but beware of overstuffing if you want to use it as a carry-on. Though there isn’t a dedicated compartment for a laptop, the side pocket will accommodate one, albeit without any cushioning; additional features include a mesh water-bottle sleeve, handles on the top and side, outer compression straps, and shoulder and waist straps that tuck away as needed. This is the most old-school model we tried—those shoulder straps are only slightly padded, and the floppy nylon fabric gives it the feel of a classic gym bag—and while we tend to prefer more structure and more organizational components, you won't find many travel packs this size at a comparable cost. Convertible Carry-On, $100; ricksteves.com. 4. For the Outdoorsy Overnight (Courtesy Mammut) If outdoor adventures are on the agenda—with some work on the side—try Mammut’s Seon Transporter X. In something of a reverse mullet, it's business in the back—think: a padded, fleece-lined section for a laptop, tablet, paperwork, and reading materials, plus two orange-zippered mesh compartments and pockets for pens—and a party in the front, with a main compartment housing a ventilated, zippered section for hiking boots, with space leftover for toiletries and a change of clothes or two. (Though the bag technically has a 26-liter capacity, it's definitely for those who travel light—that shoe compartment claims quite a bit of real estate.) As for access points, the big pocket at the front is basically the height and width of the pack itself, with a zippered mesh pocket inside, and the small compartment at the bag's top is good for valuables, with two fleecy open pockets and yet another zippered mesh one. Smart elements include well-padded, ergonomic shoulder straps, top and side handles for ease of carry, and big looped zippers that pull without a hitch, all under the cover of a sturdy, weather-repellent material, in a camouflage print that makes it stand out from the crowd. Seon Transporter X, $190; mammut.com. 5. For a Few Days Away (Courtesy Solo New York) With a spacious main compartment that opens like a suitcase, incorporating a built-in bag for shoes or laundry and four small stash pockets (two mesh and two solid nylon) in the lining around its frame, Solo New York’s 22.6-liter All-Star provides the capacity of a duffel—minus the duffel’s tendency to turn into a black hole, thanks to its organizational touches. On the front, a zippered pocket holds the necessities you'll want to reach on the fly, like sunglasses, tickets, and chargers. The front is padded to protect the laptop section, which also has a sleeve that fits a tablet, so you’ll only have to dig through one pocket for your electronics when you hit the security scanners. Two side handles and one on top make for easy stowing on planes or trains, and the cushy straps tuck away when they're not in use. (It also comes with a long shoulder strap, in case you get tired of hauling it around on your back.) As a whole, the pack is lightweight and inexpensive—in fact, the lightest, least expensive one we tried. At this price point, and considering its five-year limited warranty, it’s a great option for a short trip. All-Star Backpack Duffel, $87; solo-ny.com.

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