Best Airline Frequent Flyer Programs

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The answer to, “What is the best frequent flyer program,” is both easy and tough. The short answer can be “it depends”, but we prefer, “It's the one that gets you where you want to go, when you want to go, at a price (in miles) you're happy to pay.”

Other factors go into deciding which program is best, most notably if you're a road warrior and spend 25k, 50k or 100k+ miles a year in the air. That much flying will earn you elite status and the benefits afforded may trump some of the attributes of a less than perfect rewards program. Long story short, there is never a one-size-fits-all program, but rather your travel habits and goals will dictate what is best for you.

With that said, we've looked at a few programs that we think are standouts and should be considered as programs you choose to deposit your miles.

Our Favorite Frequent Flyer Program

This is an easy one: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Alaska Airlines Aircraft

We like Alaska for a few reasons:

  1. Their Partners. While Alaska doesn't belong to a major airline alliance, such as SkyTeam, Star Alliance or oneworld®, they partner with airlines that are both members of these alliances and those that stand alone like themselves. Being able to earn and redeem miles across a wide variety of international partners opens up access to lots of opportunity for earning and redeeming miles
  2. Their Fees. If you need to cancel or change an award ticket and its more than 60 days before departure, you'll pay nothing. Other airlines will easily charge you $100+ for any changes or cancellations
  3. Earning with Credit Cards. Alaska has a personal (Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card) and business (Alaska Airlines Visa® Business Card) credit card to earn miles directly with Mileage Plan
  4. Earning & Transfers through partner programs. If you've got either the Marriott Bonvoy™ American Express® Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card, you'll earn Bonvoy points, but you can transfer them to Alaska at a 3:1 ratio — you'll also receive a bonus 5,000 miles for every 60,000 points you transfer

The downside to Alaska is that they're not a part of a major airline alliance. While they have an excellent partner network, airline alliances afford additional benefits and protections with travel disruptions. We wouldn't steer away from Alaska for this reason, but it is important to keep in mind.

Favorite Programs for Families

There are some standout programs for families that are perfect for a few key reasons.

Southwest Rapid Rewards

If you live in the Southwest city, in general, people love Southwest. Free checked bags, an optimized boarding process, and no crazy fees for canceling or changing a ticket. Many people will complain about the “cattle call” style boarding process, but it is likely the fastest one (thank you MythBusters).

While the program doesn't allow you to pool your earned points, Southwest is abundantly clear about what you'll pay in points versus cash for any flight. The number of points required is directly correlated to the cash price of the ticket, and while you won't receive champagne and a lie-flat seat with Southwest, you can still get great value out of their points.

Southwest Airlines 737
photo credit: airlines470 N401WN LAX via photopin (license)

Another great feature with Southwest Rapid Rewards is that if you book a ticket and the price drops, paid for either with cash or points, you'll receive a rebate of points or a voucher good for future travel with Southwest – just call them and ask. Pretty sweet if you ask us.

For racking up Southwest Rapid Rewards you can check out any of their credit cards including the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card or a Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card where you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to Southwest.

JetBlue TrueBlue

While JetBlue doesn't have the same customer-friendly policy with price changes and refunds, they are a powerhouse when it comes to earning rewards for a family with their Family Pooling. Perfect for a family that travels together as all of the points earned from a family get deposited into the “head of household” account, and you can then redeem for anyone from that pool when it comes time to cash in.

You'll never worry about errant points with JetBlue's program. Similar to Southwest's Rapid Rewards Program, the number of points you'll pay for a ticket is correlated to the cash price of that ticket.

JetBlue Aircraft Landing
photo credit: Dawlad Ast E190 N337JB aterrizando en FLL via photopin (license)

Either the JetBlue Card or the JetBlue Plus Card, or an Ultimate Rewards earning card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card will help you rack up additional JetBlue points the fastest.

Favorite Foreign Programs

These programs all work great even if you're not a native of the country of the program!

British Airways Avios

If you're a loyal American Airlines traveler, you might find some significant value with BA. Some things about BA that stand out:

  1. No close-in booking fees for last-minute awards. AA will charge you $75 if you need to book an award within 21 days of departure (waived possibly with high-level elite status). If the award space is available to BA, you can book it with Avios, and you won't pay that $75 fee
  2. Family Pooling. Much like JetBlue has done, BA allows a family to pool their earned miles to a single account. Again, never an errant mile laying around
  3. Lots of transfer partners. You can transfer SPG Points, Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards to British Airways Avios. These flexible currencies, provide a great value and with BA as a partner of all three, makes the program that much more valuable with the ease of getting points into an account.

Check out some of the sweet spots in British Airways program.

Korean Air SKYPASS

A partner of Delta, Korean fly to 11 destinations in the US, but it is their program which is fantastic. They're the best program to use for flights to Hawaii. They've recently added capabilities to their website to complete many online bookings. The rates they charge are fantastic, and they have friendly change and cancellation policies.

We've put together 10 reasons you should consider Korean's SKYPASS program along with some of the sweet spots in the SKYPASS program

The biggest drawback to Korean is when it comes time to redeem miles, you can only redeem for family members, and you'll be required to show proof of relationship. No big deal, but something to keep in mind. Korean is a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy, so if you need to build up a balance, you can do it by transferring points from Marriott earning credit cards.

EgyptAir Plus

This is a new one to us — Sam just covered it yesterday. Perhaps the most lucrative benefit of this program is that it supports family pooling of miles, but the pooling is of both redeemable and elite qualifying miles. So, one person could earn elite status through the help of trips taken by other family members. Then, when traveling together, many of the benefits extend to additional family members!

EgyptAir is a member of Star Alliance which means you can redeem your miles across any airline in the alliance, which includes United, Air Canada, Lufthansa and Air New Zealand. Better yet, the redemption rates are pretty favorable — if you're looking to splurge on Lufthansa First Class, it'll only cost you 70,000 miles one-way from the JFK to Frankfurt. Sure you'll have to cover almost $500 in taxes/fees, but it pales in comparison to the 110,000 miles United would charge you for the same flight.

Summary

You'll notice American, Delta and United didn't make the list. Sure, we know the programs, but depending on how you redeem, you could find much better value in one of their partner programs.

There truly is no one program that is perfect for everyone, but you should always look into the details of a program to see what potential value can be had. What's your favorite frequent flyer program and why? We all have a favorite airline, but what about the frequent flyer program itself?

Best Airline Frequent Flyer Programs
4.8 (96.67%) 18 votes
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Comments

  • It is very difficult for me to choose a favorite frequent flyer program after they have all devalued their programs over the past few years.

  • Domestic: Southwest b/c it’s easy to get credit card reward bonuses, and they fly right to where I need to go to visit family.

    American b/c it’s also easy to get credit card reward bonuses. I even qualify to get the business version of the credit card. And they fly right to the Dominican Republic area that I may want to retire to.

  • The_Bouncer says:

    Alaska is a great program, but it has major drawbacks for those who don’t live in North America. As a European resident, about the only thing I can use it for is transatlantic redemption. That said, how else can I get from Zurich to Calfornia for 20k miles?

    I would say AAdvantage is my favourite program overall. They have good Y-class redemption availability to most parts of the world from Europe, and generally very low fees.

    Avios are also good for short hops like US domestic or European RFS, but hopeless for anything long haul. I tend to burn them down before using other miles if I can get anything halfway decent.

  • Karen Klein says:

    I earn miles with different airlines, however, I still find that it’s best for me to stick with my Chase points. They book a TON of options using their points and I still call earn miles on American, for instance. I looked at British Airways before for redeeming a ticket from the US to London and the fees seemed much more than if I would book with American. Have you seen a difference in taxes and fees if you book with a non-US carrier compared to a US carrier? Plus, if I use British Airways miles on an American flt they would probably have to have the lowest available and if I have to change something at the last minute then it might be difficult to get a seat. There are always good and bad points of any loyalty program :o( But Chase Ultimate Rewards seem to cover me the best.

  • Personally I prefer British Avios for AA flights – having 5 members in the household (1 travelling a lot, 1 jet-setter and 3 less frequent travelers) I can combine them in household account and use much simpler than in AA

  • I’m working on my Alaska miles card options now. Thanks!

  • I like Southwest. Free bags, no blackout days or flights. You can book reward travel even if there is only one seat left on the phone. Plus their miles don’t expire for 2 years.

  • We recently got the Starwood card and we love to travel. Good to know we can transfer them to Alaskan airlines but not sure how useful it will be. I agree Ed…. So many programs have devalued their programs.

  • Brandon Rabbitt says:

    I feel like the only decent award program out there are Alaska’s and maybe life miles from avianca.

  • I think it also depends on which part of the world you live in and which major airport you live near. Because we may not be able to take advantage of the top frequent flyer program because of where we live. But assuming all things are equal, I think this is a pretty good list!

  • I wish Alaska Airlines would partner up with some Star Alliance partners.
    They got Oneworld and SkyTeam partners but for some reason zero Star Alliance partners…

  • United used to be great for us as we were able to collect miles on long trips to Asia and use them on expensive trips to Europe. Not anymore.

  • The only problem with egypt air is an extremely bad record of recent incidents on flights too/from egypt albeit not on egypt air.

  • Like southwest most. Free cancellation and change on flight and two luaggages is unbeatable. Also easy to get points from Chase Southwest credit cards.

  • Fred Wallace says:

    With mileage devaluation by domestic airlines (UA, AA, Delta), I’m more than convinced you are better off with “cash back” credit cards unless you are retired and can fly in “off months.” (I.e. Non summer and non school vacations).

    • Even before devaluation, I’ve found CCs require less points/miles – for example United would have cost me 33,000 miles, but Wells Fargo only required 17,000 points from Dever to LA, plus CCs can be redeemed on different airlines, an important consideration when many airlines were going bankrupt a few years ago.

      • It all depends on your travel goals. You’ll note for economy many times the rewards programs you have that are “cash-back style”, like your Wells Fargo Rewards, will do better for you with economy. But for business/first class you’ll do better with other programs

  • Overall I agree Alaska is the best. But, I am ignoring them all this year and emphasizing bank points. I have been frustrated too often when trying to utilize frequent flyer miles and not being able to find availability.

  • I really have to start flying Alaska. I dig TrueBlue and RR though.

  • Alaska followed by United. thank you,

  • Southwest is my favorite by far. Companion pass and insanely low point flights to Cabo and Vegas.

  • The key as well is to diversify, different programs for different redemptions.

  • Unfortunately it’s true, they have all devalued their programs. I think though that American is better than Delta. AA doesn’t charge you to change an award ticket as long as you keep same itinerary – dates can be changed with no charge.

  • Wow- super helpful. When flying on united, aa, or delta can you earn miles on these airlines instead?

  • British Airways Avios are great, just as long as you don’t spend them on long-haul British Airways flights!

  • For the non-US programs you have to also consider if there are any minimum flight requirements if you want to get status in the airline program. For example British Airways requires 4 BA (or Iberia) coded flights to get Oneworld sapphire or above. This is a little trickier from the US. If of course status isn’t important then this is irrelevant.

  • Eliot Caplan says:

    Let’s talk about Alaska Airlines and how they do not computerize their luggage bar codes applied so they cannot track your bags if lost. Such as mine and my wife’s on our 25th anniversary to Hawaii when they decide to take their baggage handling private so their handlers who were losing their jobs STOLE our bags!
    Maybe the best FF program but the worst airline to fly!

  • ADAM PARSONS says:

    Each FF programme has its advantages and disadvantages, the best ones are when they are part of the better alliance out there.

  • Is there one complete way I can transfer all my miles to one place and then use on any airline

  • Alaska seems to be the way to go. Now I just need to find some good flights!

  • American and for that matter British are junk programs if you want to book flights from US to Europe. Here is a recent example:
    I wnated to book 2 round-trip tickets from Washington DC (any of the 3 major airports) to BUH.
    Going through AA and their Europe partner carrier BA:
    105,000 miles AND $1499
    Kayak price: $1178 (Air France)
    You do the math. British is the most overrated, total junk program due to their so called fuel surcharges. To even name British as one of the best programs removes any credibility from your analysis. You didn’t even mention the fuel surcharges. Unless you fly CONUS you are paying a lot more than straight up cash price. What a crock.

  • The big 3 legacy airline programs have all been “enhanced” away to crap. Good to see there are still good alternatives.

  • Dipti Agarwal says:

    Miles devaluation is a given.. but I have realised overall British Airways is a great program.. their short haul redemptions are freaking cool.. American Airlines also has a good program, compared to the other US airlines..

  • There’s no simple answer to this question as the best program for someone will depend on so many different factors that it’s practically impossible to convey them all. My advice would be to DISLOYAL to all airlines and hotel chains rather than putting all the eggs into one busket because of all the recent devaluations and program changes

  • Wish there were more us airlines in the article.

  • I absolutely agree w/this article on every point made. I am definitely never going to argue that the “best” program is the one a the time which meets one’s travel needs. When that happens, at that moment, then that is the best one. For sure, it can all feel fickle sometimes.

  • Bertrand Say says:

    Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific Airways get my vote.

    • What is it about these frequent flyer programs that you like best? I’m particularly interested in your interest in Cathay Pacific. As airlines they’re great, but what about their FF programs?

  • Andrea Pearman says:

    Great blog! This IS helpful information as many of us “ffs” believe our old tried-and-true airlines are STILL offering us the best program BUT this post sent me to more research. Thank you!!!

  • Absolutely don’t join British Airways Avios if you plan to travel to Europe from the US. I had 150,000 miles in 2010, booked tickets for the family and they wanted $2400 in “fees” which was some kind of carbon tax for any North American flight that goes through Great Britain–and they virtually all do. The policy hasn’t changed since then but once BA bought Iberia I was able to transfer the miles to Iberia and we are taking our trip in June (7 years later).

  • Advice for those trying to move miles from BA Avios to Iberia Avios. You have to have the Iberia account open for 90 days I believe before transferring and you have to have some activity (points/miles) in the Iberia account. I tried finding a way to get free points/miles into Iberia but it was impossible. I bit the bullet and bought the minimum miles/points for $50. Not that big a deal since I was able to move all my points/miles and reserve a trip for 3 and saved about $1500 in fees BA wanted to charge.

  • I love Southwest! We have the companion pass and use it quite often. Just wish that we had more direct flights out of my city!

  • William Blankenship says:

    Diversification is the key. Great to have multiple programs for better routing , depending if I’m flying from Europe or Asia

  • amzsinger@gmail.com says:

    With status on American, it is hard to use another carrier, even when other programs have better programs. To try to diversify a bit, I have started to use the Chase Sapphire Preferred charge card rather than the AA charge card. So far I am very pleased with this! Any other suggestions are welcomed!!

  • Great overview of the different programs!

  • Roman R (New York, 100k+ miles/year). says:

    Thr advice is helpful but to a varying degree based on factors that were omitted: location, travel patterns, frequency, and what a traveler values. DELTA has not earned a spot in the opinion but is the program I chose after comparing several available at that time. It’s like a marriage once you make the choice. And it takes two hands to clap. I committed and applied for Delta Reserve Amex. Ever since then it has been a very happy marriage: unlimited SkyLounge access, my fiancé gets Diamond priority when we fly together, automatic Comfort+ seats but often in domestic/Caribbean first class. We flew to Beijing and Rio in first class using free upgrades issued by Delta (they just doubled the number of free upgrades for 2018 year!). We can each check in 3 bags for free on every flight, when something unexpected comes up, Diamond desk is fantastic – penalties and change fees either don’t apply or may be waived – just ask! I often use “pay-with-miles” for most of the ticket and use credit card to round up AND these flights earn full MQMs towards next year’s status (their fine print is confusing but in practice I refceived 100% MQMs for flights booked with miles so long as at least some small amount ($5 if you like) is also paid with credit card!). DELTA has one of the best on-board products (fast wifi, power, etc) and most flights out of NYC, they are the only or the best carrier serving my favorite vacation destinations (BTM, SVO, GIG, SXM), so how in my case could I be possibly even half as happy a traveler if I used KoreanAir for my Delta flights?

    • Roman thanks for sharing your view here — just proves that there are a TON of factors that go into making a decision on the best programs out there. A couple of things to keep in mind just to clarify your points. You can’t redeem SkyMiles for first-class on any international flight. Delta doesn’t allow it, only business class. And the free upgrade certificates hasn’t doubled in 2018, not sure where you’re seeing that.

      As for pay with miles, you don’t need to pay any amount with a credit card to earn MQMs, you’ll earn them on any flight that you pay with miles. It is a GREAT perk!

      As an elite with Delta, the scenario completely changes if you were to use Korean Air’s SKYPASS program, but look at the sweet spots and the 10 reasons we like Korean for perhaps some things that might give you an idea or two.

      • Roman R (New York, 100k+ miles/year). says:

        Delta sent an alert to Diamonds earlier this week saying that beginning 2018 there will be three choice benefits for making a Diamond, instead of current two. Along with it, Diamonds will be allowed to choose multiple of the same benefit (i.e. More free International business elite/First upgrade certificates!). As for Business Elite with lie flat beds v first – which one is better? Perhaps it depends on a carrier. Thx for clarification of the confusing fine print on “pay-with-miles” and earning MQMs – even better now! And you know, none of have yet to mention the reliability of service, complimentary close-in or same-day changes and opportunity to arbitrage the value of the miles/points in fixed-price programs v 1:1 point/cents redemptions! Undoubtedly, there are more valuable considerations. I would recommend making a table or a list of all possible perks (including Southwest and others free or discounted companion certificates, some of which can be earned by transferring hotel points) and then highlighting the points you wish to explore more in depth in your article. This would earn you additional audience and respect for being the go-to place for all, beginners and million milers! Thank you!

  • alaska was better before they changed redemption on partners

  • Kevin Davis says:

    Very difficult for me to pick, but at top would be Alaska, and at the bottom would be Spirit.

  • I feel that expiration is the bad part about the different programs.

  • Mileage Plan is very good, but unfortunately, Alaska doesn’t have a true nationwide presence. Sadly, I don’t live anywhere near one of their hubs. So, AAdvantage it is for me.

  • Alaska is my least favorite, it is not part of an alliance. Limited sign-up bonus on credit cards and limited network of flights from which to choose. Not enough opportunities to earn and redeem rewards, especially with their recent devaluation.

  • To me it comes down to the basic question of which airline do you prefer to fly. I love jetblue, thus i try to pad my trueblue account as much as possible.

  • For me I focus all on AS or AA and that pretty much covers most of my flights

  • EgyptAir is an interesting discovery. I flew them a lot many years ago, and I wonder about the hassle of dealing with their customer service to book award travel and managing the account in general. Hopefully they’ve gotten better over the years!

  • After reading this blog I think the best programme is Alaska.
    I have just the 10000 miles for being a member of Virgin Elevate.
    Anyway better starting from 10000 than from 0!

  • Very interesting! I will be looking into these for sure!

  • Southwest with the companion pass is the most attractive program out there

  • There needs go be an edit above. Citi TY points do NOT transfer to BA Avios

  • I’ll be using the Chase UR >> Korean Air >> Delta to get to Hawaii the next time the wife and I go there. Hopefully there is availability on Delta from the west coast to OGG because I’ve heard that Delta availability is miserable to find, so it’s time to test that theory!

  • Southwest please integrate with awardwallet! What are you trying to hide or protect?

  • Lori O'Connor says:

    Great article – I have SW and AA and now I am looking into the chase saphire – I also have the chase freedom but I think I’ll focus on my SW- great for my family.

  • Great piece Howie. I feel fortunate to be out of SEA, and couldn’t agree more that AS has a great program.

  • Alaska’s lack of a PQD requirement and straightforward mileage accrual (and actual value even with lowest level status) has made it my new carrier of choice after losing United status.

  • Howie,
    Returning to your previous post about selling miles and getting cash – how is that done? And can it ever be a cost-effective way to use miles – can you get more than a cent per mile? Thanks!

    • There really isn’t a supported mechanism to do that. Your best bet would be points.com, however, you’ll receive a poor value at best from your miles. Perhaps use your miles for friends/family and ask them to help with some bill that you have?

  • amzsinger@gmail.com says:

    Appreciate all these responses, but I still think it makes most sense to collect points in Chase Ultimate Rewards. They are convertible to so many different programs. Pick and choose as you need them!!

    • Exactly, there is no on-size-fits-all here. For us, it’s UR , followed by AA miles earned from Aviator cards that not only continually offer quarterly spending bonuses & an annual bonus as well, for paying the AF, grandfathered in from the days of the US airways-branded cards.

  • A key factor for choosing a frequent flyer program for a Asia-based traveller would be the flexibility to transfer credit points to it

  • Really a nice article. MARK.
    The problem with Southwest and Jetblue is their partnership networks. Way too limited.

  • About Chase Ultimate Rewards, does anyone know what airline programs they can convert to?

  • Alaska hands down, should be getting better with the addition of Virgin America. more places, Nice new Boeing Aircraft on Alaska (Airbus on Virgin).

  • The best frequent flyer programs vary depending on where and the class of travel you prefer the most.

    Some would argue WN is one of the best frequent flier programs.

  • James Jelleher and Vic Pizzitola says:

    Living in Arizona, the Southwest Rapid Rewards program is perfect. We take advantage of different points offers every couple of years and then earn companion pass status and our kids fly free! Thanks for all the pointers on choosing the best points offers! Thanks award Wallet!

  • Southwest Companion Pass is the best deal out there.

  • In my opionion an important feature of a frequent flyer program is how easy is the miles redeemption.
    For instance the British Airways Avios is perfect, in fact with this program you can book online also partners award tickets.
    I don’t know how Egyptair works.

  • Fred Achard says:

    agreed with comments that AA miles are not valuable. I have a AA citicard + fly AA from time but very rarely was I able to redeem miles for travel. Transatlantic fare are charged so much taxes.

    • It really depends on your destination and your flexibility. Honestly, AA miles are still great, but it is a challenge with transatlantic award availability because oftentimes BA is the only one offering space, which means high taxes.

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