A Traveler’s Guide to the Best Frequent Flyer Programs

Considerations should be given when selecting an airline loyalty program, according to WalletHub’s rankings of top 10 programs comparing 21 key metrics with regard to light, average and frequent flyer budgets.

These factors include the value and ease of claiming rewards, booking award flights, and what elite members can enjoy onboard.

1. Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan stands out as one of the premier frequent flyer programs, thanks to generous earning rates and benefits such as free stopovers on award tickets. Plus, Alaska offers lower fees than most airlines and publishes an award chart displaying how many miles are needed per flight (domestic flights start at 5,000). Mileage Plan members can also earn additional rewards by crediting partner flights into their account; doing this allows them to accumulate both redeemable miles as well as elite qualifying miles depending on fare class and route.

Alaska Air’s economy fares are significantly less costly than many other airlines and passengers can enjoy complimentary snacks, beverages, pre-boarding and pre-flight lounge access. Alaska also provides premium class service that provides more legroom, inflight entertainment tablets and free beverages; Alaska recently unveiled their Mediterranean tapas picnic pack that caters to vegan, kosher and gluten-free diets.

Mileage Plan members of Alaska can redeemed their miles for flights to over 900 destinations worldwide, making Alaska’s award prices often cheaper than those offered by competing airlines; Alaska doesn’t charge high redemption rates when booking travel to Southeast Asia or Africa and its booking fees to China are also reasonable.

Bank of America offers two cobranded credit cards with Delta that feature attractive sign-up bonuses and annual companion fare offers, in addition to offering value on inflight entertainment such as onboard Wi-Fi and seat outlets. Furthermore, their fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft are equipped with satellite-to-ground connectivity – faster than traditional inflight WiFi – that is free for Mileage Plan members as well as on demand menus and texting capabilities during flight.

2. Delta

Like most airlines, Delta provides travelers with multiple ways to earn and redeem miles with its SkyMiles program, which also features elite benefits. Unfortunately, reaching elite status with Delta can be challenging due to flying and spending requirements; more recently however, they have made it more challenging for frequent flyers to reach Silver Medallion status, their entry-level elite tier.

Frequent travelers will likely have difficulty meeting the flight and spend requirements for Medallion status with Delta without taking advantage of cobranded credit cards with bonus earn rates. Elite status with Delta can bring several perks including priority boarding, complimentary upgrades and fee waivers; Platinum and Diamond members receive complimentary luggage tags along with discounts when purchasing Delta Vacations as well as accessing Instacart Express delivery of groceries from local stores.

American has a similar loyalty program to AAdvantage, though its elite benefits aren’t quite as generous. Top-tier elite members earn Loyalty Points more quickly than general non-elites and enjoy wider award redemption options with partner airlines; additionally, Executive Platinum members of AAdvantage receive 11 Loyalty Points per dollar spent with American and its partners–making for an excellent return on spend according to TPG valuations.

AAdvantage stands out from competing programs by not expiring your miles; giving you freedom to save them up for larger awards when the price is right rather than feeling pressured to use them quickly before they’re all gone.

3. United

United is one of the world’s premier airlines, boasting an expansive route network and extensive list of airline partners. United’s MileagePlus program not only offers free flights but also rewards its elite members with premium cabin upgrades and car rentals as redemption options; as an added perk they may use an unlimited number of award miles toward domestic or international first class travel if applicable. As with any frequent flyer program, determining whether United is right for your depends heavily on personal factors such as your home airport and targeted destinations.

United’s co-branded credit cards offer benefits like complimentary checked bags and priority boarding, in addition to elite status qualification and redemption benefits. However, United lags behind in earning and redeeming miles.

Prior to selecting a credit card and redeeming rewards, it’s crucial that you understand the value of each frequent flyer program. At NerdWallet, we value United MileagePlus miles at 1.2 cents each, meaning it would be possible to break even on award redemptions by booking flights that cost $480 with either cash or United miles.

But whether United is truly the ideal frequent flyer program depends on both your travel habits and what other programs can offer. If you make regular international flights, Delta Air Lines might be more appropriate due to their extensive international network and SkyTeam partners providing access to more destinations than United can alone. In addition, Delta provides its elite members with day-of-travel perks such as upgrades and airport lounge access as well as miles that don’t expire as quickly compared with the major US airline loyalty programs.

4. American Airlines

American Airlines, one of the world’s iconic airlines, boasts an expansive global flight network both domestically and abroad. A member of Oneworld airline alliance, your miles can be used towards award travel on other partner airlines too! American recently upgraded their AAdvantage program by including dynamic award pricing as well as revamping how members earn and redeem miles.

When it comes to optimizing the value of your miles, it is essential to explore all available redemption options. American Airlines stands out among airlines by offering superior premium-cabin products; in partnership with world-class airlines for international first and business class flights; plus it also provides elite members with priority boarding and free baggage allowance.

The AAdvantage program offers several avenues for earning and redeeming points, with the most valuable prize being free flights and upgrades. Small businesses can earn Business Extra points which can then be redeemed for flights with American or British Airways transatlantic services as well as guaranteed upgrades up to one class higher on domestic routes and confirmed upgrades up to any higher class regardless of when booking the ticket. AAdvantage Business Extra provides free domestic upgrade space on eligible domestic routes and confirmed upgrades regardless of when or how early booking occurs.

American Airlines may have some drawbacks for frequent flyers, however. One is its less generous AAdvantage Elite status levels than Delta SkyMiles; nonetheless, AAdvantage still offers several benefits worth considering for certain travelers; such as 11x Loyalty Points per dollar spent and two systemwide upgrades, six Admirals Club passes or travel credits depending on membership level tier.

5. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines stands out as an industry pioneer by offering two free checked bags to all travelers, earning it a strong fan base thanks to its competitive fares and low incidence of lost bags. Furthermore, their Rapid Rewards program stands out as being among the most generous on offer, enabling members to accumulate and redeem points towards travel worldwide.

Southwest offers an extremely generous companion pass that entitles its holders to take along one travel partner on free flights (minus taxes and fees) on any Southwest flight. To qualify for this pass, members must complete 100 one-way qualifying flights or earn 135,000 Rapid Rewards qualifying points within any calendar year, or achieve three elite tiers with benefits like priority check-in/boarding/change and standby services.

Rapid Rewards points never expire, enabling Southwest customers to use them towards any fare on its schedule as well as at more than 70,000 hotels around the world. Southwest prides itself on an employee-first culture with no record of involuntary layoffs or furloughs over many years.

But while many of the airline’s benefits may be highly desirable, there can be drawbacks for some travellers. Lack of first class perks and seat assignments is often an issue for them; reliability ratings could also be an issue; before choosing your frequent flyer program it’s essential that you know yourself and what priorities are most important in your travel style.