If you book your vacations through a travel engine, you might not always fly with the same airline. The carrier you end up with often boils down to the one offering the lowest fare. Although you might be saving money in the short-term this way, you’ll be missing out on some valuable perks in the long run.
Most major airlines offer frequent flyer programs that give rewards currency – points or miles – which you can use for free flights, better seats, special treatment and other benefits. If you travel somewhat regularly, airline loyalty programs are definitely worth the time and effort. But before you sign up for one, know that they’re not all created equal.
See the best hotel loyalty programs here.
Don’t travel too often? If you don’t think you’ll collect enough rewards to be worth anything, don’t forget that Points.com can help you out. The site acts as a middleman that lets you buy, sell and exchange your loyalty program points/miles. And it’s free to join. Learn more at Points.com.
Finding The Right Airline Rewards Program
The best frequent flyer program for your friend might not be the right one for you. Why? Because it depends on a few personal factors, including:
- Where you live
- Where you want to fly to
- How often you fly
Apart from that, you’ll also want to take a close look at what exactly the program offers, like:
- Is it easy to earn miles? Collect your miles quickly, and you’ll be well on your way towards a free flight.
- What is each mile worth? The more valuable the miles, the more worthwhile the program. You’ll want to shoot for at least $0.01 per mile, on average.
- Are miles easy to redeem? Go for a program that lets you cash in your miles easily. And watch out for those blackout dates, if any.
- How fast can you earn elite status? Know what it takes to unlock valuable VIP benefits.
Now that you know what to look for, let’s get started!
The Top 5 Airline Loyalty Programs
Without further ado, here are my top five frequent flyer programs of the year:
Although Alaska Airlines doesn’t belong to any of the big airline alliances – Oneworld, SkyTeam or Star Alliance – it has strategic partnerships with 15+ carriers, including American Airlines, Emirates and Singapore Airlines. That translates into more than 900 destinations worldwide, making the Alaska Airlines loyalty program great for both domestic and international travel.
Mileage Plan also allows one stopover on one-way award flights, which means you can travel to two different places for the price of one ticket.
|Hubs||Anchorage (AL), Los Angeles (CA), Portland (OR), San Francisco (CA), Seattle (WA)|
|Base earning rate||1 mile for every mile flown with Alaska or any partner airline.|
|Best use for miles||Flights with Alaska or a partner airline. Starting at 5,000 miles.|
|Average mile value||$0.018 / mile|
|Elite status||20,000 miles on Alaska Airlines and partner flights within a calendar year.|
|Drawbacks||Miles expire after 2 years of inactivity, blackout dates|
Delta Air Lines – SkyMiles
This loyalty program shines when it comes to customer experience. As a Medallion elite status member, Delta goes the extra mile – pun intended – to make you feel like a VIP.
You can use SkyMiles for travel with Delta’s 20+ partner airlines. There are no blackout dates for Delta award flights, and your SkyMiles will never expire.
|Hubs||Atlanta (GA), Detroit (MI), Los Angeles (CA), Minneapolis/St. Paul (MN), New York (NY, JFK and LaGuardia), Salt Lake City (UT), Seattle/Tacoma (WA)|
|Base earning rate||5 miles for every $1 spent on Delta and partner flights.|
|Best use for miles||Flights with Delta or a partner airline. Starting at 8,000 miles.|
|Average mile value||$0.012 / mile|
|Elite status||25,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles, $3,000 Medallion Qualifying Dollars or 30 Medallion Qualifying Segments, within a calendar year.|
|Drawbacks||No award chart|
*Visit delta.com for an updated list of partners
JetBlue Airways – TrueBlue
Known for affordable fares, JetBlue gives even better deals with its TrueBlue frequent flyer program. The carrier flies to the Caribbean, Central America and South America, so you’re not only limited to domestic travel. There are no blackout dates, and your points will never expire.
If you book directly on JetBlue.com, you’ll receive bonus points as well as baggage allowance.
|Hubs||Boston (MA), Fort Lauderdale (FL), Long Beach (CA), New York (NY, JFK), Orlando (FL), San Juan (PR)|
|Base earning rate||3 points per $1 spent on JetBlue flights.|
|JetBlue.com earning rates||Blue Fare: 6x points|
Blue Plus Fare: 7x points
Blue Flex Fare: 8x points
Mint Fare: 6x points
|Best use for points||Flights with JetBlue or Hawaiian Airlines.|
|Average point value||$0.013 / point|
|Elite status||15,000 points, or 30 segments + 12,000 points, within a calendar year.|
|Drawbacks||Cannot book award flights with all partner airlines|
Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
The best thing about Southwest Rapid Rewards – hands down – is the ability to earn a Companion Pass. This perk is essentially a buy one, get one free ticket (taxes and fees of around $10 not included). As you’d expect, getting your hands on one isn’t easy. You’d need to collect 110,000 Rapid Rewards points or fly 100 Southwest segments, in one calendar year. Even then, it’s the only carrier with a BOGO deal this sweet.
As a Rapid Rewards member, you’ll also get to check two bags for free. There are no blackout dates and no change or cancellation fees.
|Hubs||Atlanta (GA), Baltimore (MD), Chicago (IL, Midway), Dallas (TX, Love), Houston (TX, Hobby), Las Vegas (NV), Los Angeles (CA), Oakland (CA), Orlando (FL), Phoenix (AZ, Sky Harbor)|
|Base earning rate||Wanna Get Away Fare: 6x points|
Anytime Fare: 10x points
Business Select Fare: 12x points
|Best use for points||Flights with Southwest.|
|Average point value||$0.015 / point|
|Elite status||35,000 qualifying points, or 25 segments, within a calendar year.|
|Drawbacks||Miles expire after 2 years of inactivity, limited international network|
United Airlines – MileagePlus
The United Airlines loyalty program will get you the best access with over 1,100 destinations around the world if you include its Star Alliance network. Chances are, MileagePlus will get you to wherever you want to go. And the kicker? United Airlines charges reasonable taxes and fees.
When you book a roundtrip award flight, United lets you add one free connecting flight between the two cities. Coined “the Excursionist Perk,” this feature allows you to visit two destinations for the price of one.
There are also serious perks to reaching elite status. Read here to learn more about the worth of United Premier elite status.
|Hubs||Chicago (IL), Denver (CO), Houston (TX), Los Angeles (CA), Nwark (NJ), San Francisco (CA), Washington, D.C.|
|Base earning rate||5 miles for every $1 spent on United flights.|
|Best use for miles||Flights with United Airlines or a Star Alliance partner. Starting at 5,000 miles.|
|Average mile value||$0.014 / mile|
|Elite status||25,000 premier qualifying miles, or 30 premier qualifying segments + $3,000 spent on United flights, within a calendar year.|
|Drawbacks||Miles expire after 18 months of inactivity, $100 last-minute booking fee, $75 change fee, $200 cancellation fee|
|Air China||Air India||Air New Zealand|
|ANA||Asiana Airlines||Austrian Airlines|
|Avianca||Brussels Airlines||Copa Airlines|
|Croatia Airlines||EgyptAir||Ethiopian Airlines|
|EVA Air||LOT Polish Airlines||Lufthansa|
|SAS||Shenzhen Airlines||Singapore Airlines|
|South African Airways||Swiss International Airways||Air Portugal|
|Thai Airways International||Turkish Airlines|
Other worldwide partners include:
|Azul Brazilian Airlines||Boutique Air||Cape Air|
|Olympic Air||Silver Airways||Vistara|
Tips & Tricks
Frequent flyer programs hold a lot of value, especially if you know how to take advantage of all their little nuances. To get the most bang for your buck, follow my tips and tricks below.
Getting an airline credit card can put you on the fast track to a free flight. Not only will you earn additional miles for your purchases, but you’ll also often get thousands of bonus miles as a welcome offer. Some cards might even throw in free checked bags, priority boarding and other airline-specific perks.
Sure, earning miles is great. But elite status is where you’ll really feel appreciated for your loyalty. Depending on the program, membership could get you bonus miles, free checked bags, complimentary upgrades, priority check-in, lounge access, inflight freebies and more. Making it even more worthwhile to continue flying with your favorite carrier.
There are plenty of airline loyalty programs out there, but they’re very different from one another. Take the time to do some research and find the one (or more) that fits your location and lifestyle best. A frequent flyer program is pretty much worthless to you if it doesn’t go where you want to.